Good nutrition is a basic building block for healthy bodies and brains.
Knowing this, many parents in the developed world worry about their child’s eating habits, starting with breastfeeding. The rates of eating disorders in children and teens have been climbing for the last several decades, and you probably realize how bad that is for kids’ long-term health.
Although there are solid health and bonding benefits to breastfeeding, babies can grow healthy and strong even if they’re not breastfed. What’s most important is that they’re surrounded by love, affection, and care, and given enough nourishing food to grow and thrive.
The best recommendation to parents worried about the breastfeeding vs. formula question is to relax and enjoy your child. Yes, nutrition matters, but it’s more important that you keep yourself calm so you can be warm and nurturing than that you feed your baby in any particular way.
That same principle applies to the food challenges you face as your baby gets older. In some families, the arguments about food begin as soon as the child begins to eat independently.
Your toddler might refuse food altogether, or eat only one or two things, meal after meal. They might play with their food or throw it. As they get older, the opposite problem can develop: They want to eat all the time and are not making healthy choices.
You are losing the war when they know you care more than they do. There is so little that kids can control, it’s no wonder some of them use food to manipulate their parents. If you’re bribing, threatening, rewarding, or punishing your child for food behavior, you are showing how important their eating is to you.
The same principle applies here as to the breastfeeding question: It’s more important to your child’s long-term development that you keep yourself calm, patient, and loving than that you ensure your child eats certain amounts of certain foods. You can control the available food choices, but you really can’t control what they eat.
Fourteen Ways to Let Your Child Win the Food War
The crafty secret of good nutrition long-term is to let your child win the food war, while doing your best to make sure most of their available options are healthy. Here are some ideas to make that happen:
1. Let it go. You can’t control what your child eats. Give them healthy food options. Be kind and relaxed at mealtimes, and let them decide how much to eat. If it’s mealtime and your child says they’re not hungry, tell them that’s okay. They don’t have to eat. They do have to join the family for mealtime, but they don’t have to eat.
2. Take your child grocery shopping. This can be a great multi-sensory brain-building experience if you approach it with patience and good humor. Discuss the food options, answer your child’s questions, and let them make as many choices as possible. Talk about which fruits look good today, which vegetables they might like to try, and let them choose a reasonably healthy treat or two. Talk about the smells, colors, textures, and appearance of the various options. Over time, they’ll look forward to shopping trips, as well as to helping create meals together with you.
3. Choose natural whole foods with no additives. If you want your child to grow as healthy and strong as possible in body and mind, do be stingy with fast food, processed food, and junk food. Save those for occasional use, but it’s best to avoid as much as possible soft drinks, added sugar, and chemicals.
4. Include your child in cooking and food preparation. Kids love to get their hands dirty and learn real-life skills. It is also much harder for them to resist food they’ve helped make. Be patient, though. Cooking will be slower and messier until your child masters the necessary skills.
5. Let your child make as many food and food-presentation choices as possible. Let them choose their own cutlery, tableware, whether or not they want to cut their own food or have you cut it, and in what shapes.
6. Have a few simple items on standby. When there is nothing your child wants on the menu for a given meal, let them choose among a few additional healthy options. Maybe whole grain bread or crackers, fruit, cheese, peanut butter, unsweetened yogurt, vegetables in bite-size pieces, humus, nuts.
7. Encourage your child to take a sniff of new foods. Serve a variety of foods to your family, but don’t force your child to try something new. Instead, ask them to sniff the new food. If they want to taste it, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Don’t push. You can do the same thing next time the family has that food. Eventually, the child will try it.
8. Eat together as often as possible, in as regular a schedule as possible. At mealtime, turn off all electronic devices, yours as well as your child’s. One of the best resiliency factors for a healthy adolescence is dependable family mealtimes in childhood. It can be an important touchstone for a child who is having trouble at school or with friends, knowing there will be something good to eat at the end of the day, and people who want to hear about their lives.
9. Make mealtime pleasant. Even if your child isn’t eating, they should sit at the table with the other family members, and be included in the conversation. Family mealtime is about so much more than just food. Eventually your child will see they can’t make you crazy by not eating, and will quietly pick up a fork. For hints on how to do this, see Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban.
10. Focus on appreciation. If your child whines or complains about the food, or having to sit while you’re eating, ask if they have anything they’re happy about. If they can’t think of anything, ask the other family members for suggestions. You can help too, pointing out your gratitude for good food to keep you healthy, for a loving family, for a safe place to live, and so much more. A rule at my house is that a child “owes me a wonderful” for every whiny complaint. My grandchildren now look at me with a small sideways grin when they complain, knowing what’s coming.
11. Don’t be the food police. Relax. Put away your badge and enjoy your own meal. One way to create eating problems is to pay too much attention to what your child eats and doesn’t.
12. Model healthy eating. One of the best ways to support good nutritional habits is to let your child see you having a healthy relationship with food. If you’re not happy with your own weight or food habits, don’t share your self-criticism with your child. You don’t want to encourage in your child the body-shaming and food guilt so prevalent in our culture.
13. Grow your own food. Even if you grow only one thing—peas, herbs, tomatoes—in a pot on a windowsill, it can help your child form a connection with real food, and begin to think about where it all comes from. Look for opportunities to show them where food comes from.
14. Make sure your child is getting their other needs met. Sometimes children (like adults) use food or food self-deprivation for solace, stimulation, or boredom-relief. If you’re worried your child is over-eating or under-eating for emotional reasons, consider how you can better meet those needs. Get professional help if the situation feels urgent.
Good nutrition matters. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best way to ensure your child eats well, and continues to eat well across their lifespan, is to let them decide when, what, and how much they’ll eat. Do provide healthy options—keep fast food, processed food, and junk food to a minimum—but otherwise back off. Let your child win the daily food war.