Stress-Free Tips for Feeding Children
By: Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD
The daily process of navigating meal times can be exhausting, frustrating and draining. However, there are some things that may help make meal times more enjoyable for everyone, including parents and caretakers. I hope these tips below will help you establish more peaceful meal patterns:
- First, I would strongly encourage you to cultivate a positive environment at mealtimes. Set the expectation that no one will be disrespectful or derogatory about the food or what others choose to eat (or not eat). When someone complains about the meal or says how much they hate this or that, gently remind them of the expectation. If they try and don’t like some part of the meal, they can respectfully decline eating it. This tip in particular may decrease any feelings of resentment for how much time you’ve put into planning and preparing a meal.
- Preparing build-your-own style dinners is probably my biggest secret in feeding kids. If they have complete ownership of how much and what goes on their plate (of what you’ve decided is served), they’re less likely to complain. Some ideas include: build-your-own salad bar, baked potato bar, taco/burrito bar, build your own pasta, and Hawaiian haystacks.
- Include your kids in planning meals. This is a great way to educate about balanced meals and meal planning in general (someday they will have to do it on their own!). If your kids have picked a certain entree, side dish, or vegetable, they are much more likely to eat and enjoy it. It also helps them know you value their food preferences and input, which makes them more willing to value yours and their siblings’.
- Have them help you cook. You may not have time for this every night, but if they’ve helped with chopping or assembly—learning about ingredients as you use them—they’ll be more curious and open to trying what’s been prepared.
- Don’t expect them to like everything you prepare. Not all dinners will be winners, and they don’t need to be. Your job as a parent is to expose them to a wide variety of foods in a neutral, non contentious, environment. None of us like ALL foods, and neither will your kids. Give them space to explore and develop their own palate without taking it personally. In order to ensure they don’t go hungry, always serve something familiar at meals that you know they will eat.
- Don’t let them eat the same foods over and over. Your three-year-old may want to eat PB and J for every meal. However, it’s totally OK for you to say “that’s not on the menu”. YOU are in charge of what is served, not them. For breakfast and lunch you could give your kids a couple of options, which may include their favorite foods. For dinner however, I would recommend you all eat the same meal. In order to avoid picky eating or becoming a short-order cook, avoid the very slippery slope of serving the same foods multiple meals in a row.
- Remember that kids are kids and still developing tastes for different foods and textures. There are meals you may want to prepare, but know your kids would be uncomfortable eating them. You can respect that; it could just be too much to ask of them right now. You could make those meals for you to enjoy at breakfast or lunch, but when you all eat together, prepare something all can feel comfortable with. The objective is to create positive experiences with food for your kids.
- Ask them questions instead of telling them what to do. Things like “does your tummy feel full?” or “what could you add to that meal to make it more balanced?” or “what sounds satisfying for lunch?” will be far more effective than “stop eating, you’ve had enough” or “eat this instead” or “that’s not healthy”. The goal is to build competent eaters that can naturally self-moderate their food selections rather than to build super healthy eaters.
- Less overthinking. If you’re like the moms I know and love, it’s easy to do that. In order to make meal times enjoyable for you too, remember your kids are in charge of IF they eat and HOW MUCH they choose to eat. Let them have some space to learn about food and how to best meet their own needs. Feel free to guide and teach, but don’t feel like you need to control every food situation…that can make a parent crazy.