Chasing your child with food, using electronics to distract your child to eat, playing games like airplane to get your child to eat more–if you’re the parent of a picky eater, these tactics may sound familiar.
Rena Rosenthal, a registered dietitian in Sunnybrook’s neonatal intensive care unit, works with families to provide strategies to encourage happy feeding. A happy feeder is comfortable with eating and able to enjoy food and mealtimes.
“Parents who have had a premature baby are often concerned about weight gain for their infants and children, sometimes to the point where food, and eating enough of it, becomes a huge issue,” says Rena, adding that this can also be an issue for families who haven’t had a baby in the NICU. “There are a number of steps parents can take with the goal of making meal and snack times much less stressful.”
The ultimate goal is to have your child accept new foods, and also be in tune with their body to know when they are hungry and when they are full.
It’s normal for children in their toddler years (and beyond!) to be finicky eaters. The good news? There’s a lot you can do a lot to ensure your child is ready for a lifetime of enjoying food and mealtimes.
Here are Rena’s tips for families with children from age six months right through to the teen years:
- Meals are partnerships: Everyone has a role to play in the partnership, with parents deciding what, when and where to feed and children deciding whether and how much to eat. This approach sets up kids, and their parents, for success. Children learn how to enjoy a variety of foods and parents learn to respect their kids’ hunger cues.
- Meals = teamwork: Include your children in planning and preparing family meals. How much your child can do will of course depend on their age. For young children, sprinkling cheese on dishes or helping distribute taco shells to each member of the family is a fun role. Involving your children in menu and meal planning is a good idea too.
- Schedule meals and snacks: Make a schedule and routine and stick to it. This means no grazing between meals, and all meals and snacks should be eaten together with your child either in a high chair or seated around the table.
- “But she didn’t eat anything…”: What if your kid doesn’t eat much, or anything? Don’t panic, advises Rena. Children balance themselves by eating more at one meal and less at another. Focus less on what your child is eating and more on how they feel and behave at meal times. Your child should be offered the same food as the rest of the family. Do not prepare different foods for them.
- Learn to trust your child’s cues: Respect that your child will learn to know when they are hungry and when they are full. Meal times are over once your child seems disinterested in eating or starts to misbehave (for example, throwing food). They can leave the table and play quietly while the rest of the family finishes eating.
- Encourage family mealtimes: Come together over food and share stories about your day. It’s also an opportunity for your kids to see you trying new foods, meaning they’re more likely to try new foods as well.
- Minimize distractions: Put away all technology, turn off the TV and separate mealtimes from playtime. Toys, as well as technology like phones or tablets, should not be brought to the table during mealtimes.
- Embrace messiness: Let your child self-feed, even if they’re using their hands. Allow your child to feel in control when it comes to food and eating.
- Don’t play games: Avoid entertaining or playing games to get your children to eat more. Don’t praise your child for eating or show disapproval when they don’t eat. Rena suggests no pressuring, bribing or sneaking food into your child’s mouth.
- Be patient: Learning how to be a happy feeder takes time and patience. The more you practice with your children, the more comfortable they will feel about making their own decisions surrounding food.
Having a child who is a picky eater can be stressful. Remember there are constructive steps parents can take to shape their children’s view of food to ensure they become happy feeders.
If you’re concerned your child isn’t growing as they should be, or you and/or your child is feeling very anxious about meal times and feeding, be sure to make an appointment with your paediatrician or family doctor.