Developing Healthy Eating Behaviours for your Children

Allowing kids to make decisions about food, without them taking over..!

We want our children to develop independence and make good choices… as long as they eat the way we want them to!

We all know the importance of good nutrition for healthy growth, but feeding our kids can feel like hard work. Food is a battleground for many families and sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth arguing. We want to give them choice and respect their food preferences, but constant negotiation is exhausting.

The key to changing the situation seems counter-intuitive: less pressure, less fuss. No coercion, and certainly no force. I know this seems like frustrating advice when kids won’t even sit at the table or are refusing to eat food that you insist they taste or won’t take just ‘one more bite’, but research clearly shows that if children feel pressured to eat, they will tend to eat less and conversely, if children feel that food is scarce, they will try to eat more.

When parents focus solely on nutrition, kids are more likely to eat poorly. When families shift their emphasis to behaviours and developing habits, kids tend to eat better. If your family is battling over food, a few ground rules are vital.

What is your role as a parent?

Well known dietitian and child feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, has developed the ‘division of responsibility in feeding’ approach, which is considered the gold standard for feeding children. It is a broad approach that can be adapted to any family situation. The division of responsibility encourages parents to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and allows children to determine how much and whether to eat. It applies from infancy to adolescence. The only thing I would add is to encourage children to taste everything that is served, but I would stress that they don’t have to eat it – just taste it.

Of course, this raises the question about food likes and dislikes and how we get children to actually like these foods. Repeated exposure (or repeated practice) is the key. Continuing to offer small amounts of all family foods, including those which have previously been rejected, gives children exposure to a wide range of tastes and textures. The more exposure, the more likely they will learn to like these foods. If we drop foods off the menu as soon as they are rejected, we take away the opportunity for children to learn to like those foods.

healthy eating behaviour
Source: Ellyn Satter Institute

When you do your jobs with feeding, your child will do theirs with eating.

Your jobs with feeding are to . . .

  • Choose and prepare meals and snacks (ideally with children helping whenever possible)
  • Provide regular meals and snacks
  • Make eating times pleasant
  • Step-by-step show your child by example how to behave at family mealtimes
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes
  • Not let your child have food or drinks (except for water) between meal and snack times

Part of your feeding job is to trust your child to . . .

  • Eat the amount they need
  • Learn to eat the food you eat
  • Learn to behave well at mealtimes

Structured meals and sit-down snacks are the backbone of the division of responsibility in feeding

Most children are ready to join in with the meals-and-snacks routine of the family by the time they are 12 months old. After that, maintaining the structure of sit-down family meals and snacks throughout childhood and adolescence, and until they leave home, is important. Studies show that family meals are tremendously important. Families that have meals together eat better (including the adults). Children and teenagers who have family meals eat better, feel better about themselves, get along better with other people, and do better in school. In fact, it has been shown that family meals have more to do with raising healthy, happy children than family income.

Trust your child to eat

Beyond doing your part with structured, sit-down family meals and snacks, you don’t have to do anything to get it to happen. Just be there and enjoy your own food. Keep in mind that for young children, many foods are new and they are still learning about how they taste, feel, look, and smell. Like any other skill, such as reading or riding a bike, eating is a learnt behaviour which happens gradually and at their own pace. Children’s appetites vary and they may eat lots one day and seem to ‘live on air’ the next. They might devour a particular food one day, then refuse it the next. Stay calm! Don’t pressure your child in any way to eat certain amounts or types of food or try to get them to eat less than they want. Controlling tactics backfire. Instead relax, enjoy your own meal and teach your child to behave at mealtimes. Sooner or later (for some kids much later) they will eat almost everything you eat.

Think of your parental role as one of a coach

Similar to a sports coach who provides opportunity for skill development and practice, a parent’s role is to eat with their child and helping them learn eating skills. Don’t take your child’s food choices personally and try to minimise or even avoid creating food fights. That way, food never becomes a power struggle, but rather part of a routine, like brushing your teeth. If your child refuses to eat, take the food away without too much comment but do not replace it with a requested favourite, no matter how hard that feels. They’ll be hungrier at the next meal, which will work to your advantage.

So how much choice can we give them?

Allow your child to make decisions that don’t impact on the quality of the food provided. Rather than asking them ‘what’ they would like to eat (this is the parent’s job) give them a choice of two things. It’s less overwhelming and it means the parent is still determining ‘what’ is offered. For example, would they like…

  • “…triangle or square sandwiches?”
  • “…an apple or some grapes?”
  • “…strawberry or vanilla yoghurt?”
  • “…a sandwich or a wrap?”
  • “…a ham or a cheese sandwich?” 

That way, children can still feel that they are making a decision about food, but as parents we can obey the ‘Division of Responsibility’ for calmer mealtimes and healthier eating patterns.

If you are concerned about what your child is (or isn’t) eating or their growth, see your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian that specialises in infant and child nutrition.

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