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SALT LAKE CITY — As parents, two of our most basic responsibilities are feeding our children and making sure they get adequate sleep. Questions about how to do these two seemingly simple tasks as parents have boggled minds for centuries. How do you get your kids to sleep through the night? How do you get your kids to eat nutritiously without shame, guilt, bribery or tears?
Since I'm a nutrition professional (not a sleep expert), I'll attempt to give some direction for more successful and less stressful meal times. My purpose here is to provide some ideas to get you started (or keep you going) to help ensure you're doing the best you can with feeding your kids.
Here's why this really matters: If your kids are eating well-balanced, healthy meals, they will be happier and healthier. You will likely see improvements in your eating patterns as well. You will benefit from that because you'll be eating far more mindfully if you aren't constantly making multiple dinners and dealing with tantrums at the table. Your mental health will improve along with your physical health.
Responsibility and power
So, what's the secret to getting your kids to eat the food you prepare?
There's magic in these words: Give your kids the power to say no. Allow them to refuse the food you serve. Don't apply parental bribery or pressure; just give them factual, neutral permission to say no. And if they do say no, you need to allow them to either eventually change their mind and eat or, if they're really going to stick to their guns, you follow through and honor their autonomy.
In the feeding relationship, parents have some responsibilities, and so do kids. Parents are in charge of what is served and when the food is provided. Kids are in charge of if they eat and how much. This starts at birth and extends through high school with adjustments as necessary. This is known as the division of responsibility and is a powerful way to easily conceptualize parents' vs. children's roles in the feeding relationship.
Try it tonight. Serve your kids the meal you've planned. Sit down together as a family and when/if someone refuses to eat, say, "No problem. You don't have to eat it." And casually move on with eating your food. Don't praise for trying something new or pressure for refusing to eat. Just stay neutral.
In order for this to work, there have to be some ground rules. It's a reasonable idea to have some table rules and expectations to encourage kids to try their food in a safe, neutral environment. Here are a few ideas for table rules:
- Everyone sits at the table together until everyone is done.
- Be polite: You don't have to eat it, but you don't need to make a big deal about not liking it.
- Meals and snacks are at predictable times, allowing for hungry tummies when meals are planned and more willingness to try new things.
- Everyone helps out: Young kids can bring their plate to the sink when they're done and older kids can have progressively more responsibility to help.
As you're applying this in your family, don't be afraid to adopt other "strategies" for getting your kids to eat. There's no shame in making meal times fun, like turning food into bracelets, happy faces or rainbows to make food fun. Separating out foods on your kid's plate (deconstructing your meals) can help them feel more comfortable trying new things. Introducing one new food at a time can also be a helpful way to help avoid feeling overwhelmed with trying new foods. Involving your kids in the planning, shopping and cooking processes can also help them become more willing to branch out with new foods.
Even if your child has said they don't like a particular food, continue to offer it. It can sometimes take many, many exposures to the same food for a young one to be willing to try it. Don't give up because of one refusal! Also, eat together as often as possible. Setting an example of eating a wide variety of foods is a powerful teacher to your child.
So, as hard as it seems, give your child the chance to choose if they eat and how much. Be neutral about food, focusing on conversation and family bonding during the meal rather than fights about food. Stay consistent, don't give up and do your best!
Note: There are times when picky eating, refusing to eat or other problematic eating behaviors reach a point where professional help is needed. If you feel your child falls into this category, please notify your physician to get some individualized help. The recommendations in this article are intended to help give parents some food for thought on small things they might want to change, but there are cases where these behaviors move from average and normal to problematic and/or dangerous requiring professional attention.
Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in helping people heal their relationship with food. She is the mom to two lovely little girls and the wife to one amazing husband. Paige believes the mental side of food and nutrition is just as important as the physical side. She is the host of Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City, UT. Follow her on Facebook or Instagram for recipes and more food for thought!