If you were to zoom out and picture your child eating a meal in 10 years, what is it that you want them to be good at?
I know, a weird question. Maybe you’re simply focused on getting them to eat the food you made for dinner tonight, or to just stop being so obsessed with sugar. I get that. But, in order to address that short-term goal, we have to think about what our long-term goal is.
For me, I want my kids to be adventurous and competent eaters. This means that they have a skillset to try new foods when they’re ready, trust in their bodies to know when to eat and when to stop, understanding of what foods they love and what foods help them feel their best, and to have a positive relationship toward their bodies, regardless of size or weight. Those are big goals. They require a foundation to be set now.
Where do we start?
There are a lot of nuances that go into raising a child who is an adventurous eater. So much depends on the child’s age, circumstances, access to food, and other factors. But, here are some general tips to give you a starting point and some things to ponder.
- Focus on what you can control.
- Get perspective.
- Model it.
Focus on what you can control
The very core of raising a child who actually wants to try new foods instead of one who is forced to do so is to stick to the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. This approach and framework to feeding was developed and researched by dietitian Ellyn Satter.
Focus on your job in feeding, which is to provide the food. Depending on your child’s age, you may also take responsibility of deciding when meals and snacks are offered and establishing a routine as such (the exception being a newborn or baby who feeds on demand), and the location or environment of where food is offered. It is NOT your job to get your child to eat the food. Your child gets to decide if they will eat what is offered and how much they will eat of what is offered.
What does this mean? Focus on your job, not theirs. Instead of spending all of your energy at the meal nagging them to just take one bite, eat 5 bites before they can be excused or bribing them to clean their plate before dessert, focus on how you can thrive doing your part. You can only control what is your responsibility. So, focus on that!
Offer meals that are balanced with the nutrients the family needs to feel full and satisfied. Take into account foods your child typically eats and include them as a safe part of the meal. Make it fun and offer ways to learn about and explore a food together if the child isn’t ready to taste it. When you get to the table, you’ve done your job. Try to relax and ditch the pressure. You provided the meal, time and place. You’re good now! Doing this consistently over time allows your child to start to thrive in their responsibilities too.
Okay, maybe you already do that. You try to stick to your job but more often than not your child eats one part of the meal and is really resistent to trying anything new. You’ve got a picky eater and it’s frustrating to feel like you can’t do anything about it. The good news is you can! There are many ways that you can help your child learn to like new foods, but that’s a post for another day.
What I really want you to know is that we have to have some perspective at the table if our goal is to raise adventurous eaters. It can take many children 20+ exposures before they are ready to try a new food, it’s a win when you offer that food, even if initially rejected. That’s perspective.
Did your child eat a few bites and declare that they’re full? Allowing them to learn to self-regulate and refraining from pressuring them to eat more is allowing them to learn what it feels like to respond to their own unique hunger and fullness cues, a skill that we desperately want them to have as they grow. So, that’s perspective! Knowing you helped them practice a crucial skill at dinner instead of feeling like a failure that they didn’t eat everything on their plate.
Feel like they’re obsessed with sugar? Offering sweet foods regularly can help them practice navigating a world where sugar exists, and you get to help guide them on how to talk and think about sugar as well as how to enjoy it to feel good. That’s perspective! Instead of feeling guilty for offering a cookie, chalk it up as a win for teaching them to have a healthy relationship with ALL foods.
Perhaps the most important of all. The way that you feed yourself, talk to yourself, talk about body sizes, talk about food- it all matters when it comes to your child. I can’t tell you how many women I have talked to who tell me that their moms were constantly on a diet or constantly talking about foods being ‘bad’ or ‘good’ when they grew up. Guess what? Those women went on to hate their bodies and constantly pursue the goal of shrinking it in restrictive ways. It starts with you and YOUR relationship with food. So, do an audit. Ask yourself these questions and if you answer yes, it may be time to explore what food freedom would look like for you, in order to model that for your kids.
- “I have a list of foods I think of as ‘good’ and a list that I think of as ‘bad’”
- “I feel like I would be happier if I were thinner”
- “There are certain foods I can’t keep in the house or I’ll have no control and eat it all”
- “I often eat different foods than what I serve my kids at a meal”
I can’t publish this post without telling you that I get it. My oldest son is picky at times. I’ve been at the table nagging him, “Theo, just TRY IT.” I’ve totally asked him to eat more after he tells me he is full. We’re human, no one will do this perfectly, especially when for many of us it is completely contrary to how we were raised. But, every time I slip up and pressure him, I’m humbled.
It never works, and it never makes him excited about the food he tries or excited to try a new food in the future. It’s a band-aid at best and it still leaves the mealtime tone hostile and stressful. I’m right here with you, trying my best and recognizing the power in the words we say and actions we take when it comes to food.
I’d love to hear what tip sticks out to you the most, or what one thing you want to start focusing on at meals with your kids. Tell me in the comments!