Although it may seem that our children's eating habits are born out of their personality, we as parents have a significant hand in creating and shaping those habits, whether we realize it or not. These are five common mealtime mistakes even the most well-intentioned parents make.
Using food as a reward or punishment
When children are reprimanded for not eating healthy foods or forced to eat them, they begin to associate that food (and sometimes eating in general) with punishment and a negative experience. After this negative feedback, they are much less likely to accept the food on their own. Some may even begin to intentionally reject foods to receive attention, even if that attention is negative.
Conversely, offering junk foods or sweets in an attempt to bribe good behavior may be a short-term solution for a grocery store meltdown, but one that if practiced frequently, interferes with our children learning to develop healthy eating habits for the long-term. We want to teach our children that treats are acceptable in moderation and a normal part of eating.
Choose an alternative currency for punishment and reward, especially if you are already experiencing eating challenges with your little one.
Reacting when a food is rejected
Children, especially young children, are inherently picky about foods. They gobble things down one day, and detest them the next. Take comfort in knowing this is a perfectly normal behavior that is part of your child's development, and one that we must condition ourselves not to give a reaction- good or bad. Take the struggle out of eating. Offer the food and stay neutral whether they choose to eat it or not.
Sneaking healthy foods
We've all done it, or at least thought about doing it; throwing some spinach into our kiddo's breakfast smoothie or hiding black beans in the brownies. While your children may be receiving the nutrition from these foods, it is not serving the bigger picture. They are not learning to eat healthy foods, but rather may learn to distrust you if they discover the sneak. Instead, encourage them to be adventurous with new and foreign ingredients and let them decide which veggie they would like to try in their smoothie, and if they are not ready for it, let them know that's okay too.
Catering to your child's "likes"
A common scenario many of my clients describe: "I made the healthiest meal and he wouldn't touch it. All he wants to eat is hot dogs and macaroni and cheese." Back to our responsibilities, we as parents are responsible for WHAT food is provided. Your children have the choice WHETHER they want to eat the food and HOW MUCH of it.
Many parents fear that they are being cruel, so they surrender by preparing other food options. This leaves the child in control of the WHAT. Humans have a biological need to eat. Your kiddos will not starve. Admittedly, it might be a couple of grumpy days at the dinner table, but continually acquiescing to their demand for unhealthy foods reinforces their ability to choose them.
Forcing foods or pushing quantity
The beautiful thing about babies is that they are born with a natural ability to regulate the quantity of food they eat. They know when they are hungry. They know when they are full. They know when they like something and when they don't. We want them to continue to obey these biological cues as they grow. We can do this by trusting and listening to their instincts and allowing them to tell us when they are done or when they want more.
Keep in mind, none of these points are strategies that work overnight. Raising healthy eaters takes an entire childhood, with good days, bad days, mistakes and successes and it's all okay. Be gentle with yourself and your kids. You're doing a good job!
While this list was our don'ts, our next post up will be packed with my do's for raising healthy eaters. As always, I'd love to hear any personal experiences and stories you'd like to share. Thanks for reading!