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Food fight!

How to nourish your child's appetite for healthy eats

How to nourish your child's appetite for healthy eats

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2010

"You won't know you don't like it until you try it."

"Just take one more bite of your peas."

"You can't have dessert until you finish your supper."

Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

With these types of power struggles and stand-offs between a parent and child, one of two things can happen: either the child unwillingly eats the food, or he or she completely refuses it, leaving the parent and the child distressed.

Parents want their children to grow up healthy. Unfortunately, the outcome of pressuring or restricting children to eat foods or certain amounts of food often leads to negative feelings about food and mealtimes.

Even from birth, children have the natural ability to regulate their appetites. Research shows that pressuring children to eat more than their bodies need can lead to a disruption in appetite control and weight issues in the future. In a world where people are bombarded with messages about obesity and body image, it's important for parents to trust that children will grow up to have the bodies that are right for them, provided that a healthy environment was encouraged. Healthy bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and children thrive when parents are supportive and nurturing of their development.

Many parents deal with childhood eating problems at some point in time. The good news is that most childhood eating problems can be prevented or solved by using a technique called "division of responsibility." This approach, supported by research and developed by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter, is intended to make feeding and eating a lot more pleasant.

Here's how it works:

The parent/caregiver is responsible for

  • What foods to offer a child
  • When to offer food
  • Where to serve food

The child is responsible for

  • How much he wants to eat
  • Which foods to eat from food that has been provided
  • Whether he eats at all during the meal

How to apply the division of responsibility with your children

Offer regular meals and snacks. It is recommended that parents offer children three meals and two to three snacks each day, spaced about two to three hours apart. This structure will allow children to get hungry, but not too hungry. If children are allowed to continually graze throughout the day, they likely will not be hungry at mealtimes. Boredom and thirst can often be confused with hunger. Save milk and juice for mealtimes and water can be offered to quench thirst between meals.

Accept that children's appetites vary from day to day and from year to year. Learning to experiment and enjoy new foods is a skill that will take time. Trust that your child will eat when she is hungry, even if it is not the amount you think she should eat. Showing approval or disapproval about what a child eats or does not eat will not benefit a child's eating habits. It is also normal for a child to really like a food one day and suddenly refuse it the next day.

Offer a variety of foods that are nutritious, colourful, flavourful and fun for children. Aim for meals with foods from at least three to four food groups from Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide (for example: a homemade bean burrito, coleslaw and milk) and snacks with foods from at least two to three food groups (for example: a parfait made with fruit, yogurt and cereal). Serve kids smaller portions - they will ask for more if they are still hungry. Does your child turn their nose up at a food? Try offering it again on a different day or prepared in a different way. It may take up to 15 to 20 times before a child learns to try and enjoy a food.

Avoid short-order cooking. Preparing a special meal for a child who refuses certain foods is not only time-consuming for the parent, but it can create picky eating habits. If your child doesn't eat much at mealtime, allow him to explore foods: at first he might just look at it, then he might taste it but refuse it, and one day he might finally eat it. Try offering at least one food that you know he will enjoy, in addition to new foods at meals (for example: if you know they like cheese, add a cheese sauce to a new food like broccoli). Does your child refuse food at a meal and then beg for food shortly after? If it is not a scheduled mealtime, let him know when the next meal or snack is coming. Providing a snack at a scheduled snack time is not rewarding them for refusing food at a meal. You are still following the division of responsibility by deciding when the child eats.

Create pleasant family meals. As often as possible, make it a priority to sit together for meals or snacks. Table manners like "please" and "thank you" and allowing children to set the table go a long way. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and get more of the vitamins and minerals that their bodies need. Eating together as a family creates a special family bond and is a great way to hear about each other's day. Television is distracting, so make it a point to turn it off during mealtimes.

Provide opportunities to prepare food. Both boys and girls can get involved in simple food preparation from an early age. Children feel proud when they have contributed to a meal and are more likely to try the food that they have created. They will also be learning a skill that they will need as adults. Growing a vegetable can be a great learning opportunity for children to learn about where food comes from. Children and teenagers can help with deciding what foods they want for the next day's meal.

Try role modelling. Practice what you preach, as kids often imitate their parents. Do you dislike certain vegetables? Chances are your kids will see that you don't like them and not eat them either. Eating with children teaches them that you value food and mealtime. Try to think of meal or snack time as "eating with your child", not just "feeding your child."

Last but not least, what about sweets? Try not to label foods as "good" or "bad," as all foods can be included in a healthy diet in moderation. Research shows that putting strict limits on these foods can cause children to overeat and fill up on them whenever they get the chance. On the other hand, parents are responsible for not making these foods available in unlimited quantities all the time because they are easy for a child to fill up on. So in fact, the phrase "You can't have dessert until you finish your supper" actually works in the opposite way one might think. If a child views a junk food as better than the dinner meal, chances are they will not truly learn to enjoy healthy foods.

These tips should help create a positive environment in which to nourish your child's appetite for healthy eating. But remember, if you are concerned about your child's growth or eating habits, contact a health professional.

Lana Kusmack is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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