What Too Many Parents Do Wrong About Their Kids’ Nutrition

By Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN

Are you flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to feeding your kids? Pleading with your child at the dinner table, leaving meals to the last minute, and living with that unsettled feeling that things aren’t as good as they could be?

For many parents in the feeding trenches it is a pressing question: Why is feeding my family so hard? If that applies to you, maybe you’re doing it all wrong. Ask yourself if you’re doing any of the following things:

You encourage your child to eat more
“Just take another bite, sweetie, then you can get down from the table.” With the best of intentions, parents try to get their kids to eat more. What they don’t realize is pushing for more food consumption can lead to weight problems. According to a 2007 study published in the magazine Appetite, 85 percent of parents tried to get their kindergarten children to eat more by using words of encouragement, or by exerting pressure. Parents managed 83 percent of the time to make their children eat more than they otherwise might have. Yes you guessed it, most kids were eating beyond their appetite.

My advice is, let your children stop eating as soon as they signal that they are full. Here’s how you can follow through.

You make your child polish off the baby bottle or formula jar
It’s hard to waste an ounce of formula or a spoonful of baby food. Some parents push those last swigs and spoons to mark a successful feeding. A 2009 article in Advances in Pediatrics noted that emptying the bottle and serving larger volumes of formula at feedings were associated with excess weight gain in the first six months of life. This is a vulnerable time, as growth is rapid and cells grow and change, possibly affecting the way energy is stored in the body and influencing obesity development.

Be careful to read baby’s feeding cues and respond appropriately. More on that here.

You entice with desserts and treats for eating well
Using food, particularly desserts, to reward children for their eating performance may have undesirable effects. We like to think enticing and rewarding help children develop good eating habits, but research tells us using sweets, in particular, shifts a child’s food preferences in the wrong direction. A 2007 review article on the influence of parents on eating behavior in children found that using food as reward increased preschool-age children’s preferences for those foods, having the unintended consequences of promoting food preferences for high calorie, unhealthy fare.

Don’t tie sweets and other tasty foods to what or how much your child eats. Balance sweets with more nutritional treats every day, and don’t make eating a condition for enjoying them.

You try to control offsite eating
Recently one mother asked me how to control what and how much her daughter ate at school. According to a 2011 study from Johns Hopkins University, parents have little influence over what their kids eat, especially as they grow older. In fact, the outside environment (school, church, peers, etc.) has more sway than parents do. Kids tend to want most what they can’t have, so tight control over food choices and quantities outside the home may have unwanted side effects like out-of-control eating, and choosing unhealthy items.

Create a home environment that is balanced with mostly nutritious foods, plus a little bit of “fun” food, and let your children be in charge of their eating.

You plate your child’s food
Plating food seems like a good idea. You can control what goes on the plate and how much is offered. But when children receive a plated meal (to which they haven’t had input), it may open Pandora’s box. “I don’t like this!” “I didn’t want that!” “I’m not eating it.” Servings may be too much for a child, leaving a partially eaten plate. In the end, neither the parent’s nor child’s expectations aren’t met. You know where that goes…

Let children serve themselves and have a say in what goes on their plate. Here’s how I suggest you tackle this one.

You talk too much about nutrition
Some parents do the nutrition education thing too early and too much. Hands-on learning about food – like cooking or otherwise helping in the kitchen – is most effective with school-age kids. Answering their questions as they come up is appropriate, but giving a lecture on heart disease etc. is not. Save the deep, hard-core nutrition lessons for the older teens (again, when they ask), and remember that many adults find nutrition science confusing.

Provide plenty of options for your child to be hands-on in the kitchen and to experiment with food. Answer nutrition questions as they come up.

You use non-human helpers
Parents are busier than ever and use feeding “helpers” like bottle holders, sippy cups, high chairs, pacifiers, and more. While these can make your life easier, they may take away from opportunities to connect with your child. Experts emphasize the importance of attachment as a developmental task of infancy. Researchers find that young children with insecure attachment to their caregivers may have difficulty regulating their food as well. And some of these “helpers” may not be such a good idea at all. More on that here.

Be the human influence you were meant to be and care for your child’s needs in a hands-on way.

You are too clean
Today’s parents love clean kids, in clean clothes, playing in a clean house. But when it comes to food and learning how to eat, little kids need the freedom to get down and dirty with food. Getting messy with food allows them to experience taste, texture, smell, and hand-to-mouth manipulation.

Let your baby or toddler learn about food with all his senses, even if it gets a bit messy.

You make an alternate meal or snack
Some parents make back-up meals for their family members. Catering to food requests or demands on a regular basis not only encourages picky eating; according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, kids miss out on nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, and dairy products.

Make one meal for the whole family. Here’s how to make this happen.

You let your child eat whatever because he’s thin, fit, healthy, athletic
“I’m not worried about what he eats because he’s on the skinny side,” or “She’s an athlete, so she can eat whatever she wants, she burns it all off!” While this may be true for some time, parents need to remember that children are developing flavor preferences and eating habits. Eating behaviors developed from early childhood on are hard to shake later when the body has stopped growing or exercise isn’t as frequent or intense.

Teach your child to eat for a lifetime with nutritious foods and a healthy food balance.

You allow adult tastes too early.
A sip of momma’s latte, daddy’s soda, or grandma’s ice cream – what’s the harm in a little taste for a baby or toddler? Humans are born with preferences for sweet and fat flavors. A liking of salt comes around six months. The more exposure from tastes, sips, or bites the young ones get, the stronger their preference for these flavors will be later on.

Hold off on sweets, fried, and salty foods until after the age of two, and then offer them only occasionally.

How did you do? Which of these do you need to work on, if any?

Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN is a childhood nutrition and feeding expert, and the co-author of “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.” A former pediatric nutrition practitioner, Jill currently shares her expertise through writing, blogging, consulting and public speaking. Visit her website at www.JillCastle.com, the blog at www.JusttheRightByte.com, and her book at www.fearlessfeeding.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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