How we can encourage our children to become happy, healthy, adventurous eaters with a positive relationship with food and mealtimes
As parents, we often worry about how to make sure our children get the nutrition they need and often the sources such as the internet and social media can add to the confusion. If our children have difficulty around mealtimes, we are often told “don’t worry, they’ll grow out of it”, “kids won’t starve themselves” or “it’s just a phase”, which for some children is not true.
Feeding is one of the most complex developmental skills a child will learn requiring 26 muscles and many nerves to coordinate split second timing needed to safely swallow as well as the involvement of our body’s sensory systems along with our interactions with our environment, family and culture and the impact of our past experiences. And with this complexity, it’s no wonder, that some children have difficulty developing a positive relationship with food and mealtimes and become know as “picky” or “fussy” feeders.
In our fast paced world, that so often promotes fast food and convenience with meals on the go and food that is processed sacrificing nutrition for taste and shelf life, it’s easy to allow our children to over indulge in, or rely on, quick unhealthy options as we know our children will enjoy them, and actually eat them.
All children typically go through a “fussy” or “picky” stage of eating at some stage in their development and the timing is different for all children but usually by the age of around 18 months to 3 years, most children have had a phase of saying “no”. Around 2 years of age, our children want an increase in autonomy and independence and with this comes a fear of the unfamiliar and a desire for security and familiarity so children will push for “sameness” in many areas, including foods.
Food is one of the easiest things for children to control and it’s a way of testing boundaries and experimenting with how they can control their environment and caregivers. Fortunately, for most children, this stage doesn’t last too long and is not detrimental to their health, growth and wellbeing, however, for some children this stage can persist and become highly stressful for their family.
Difficulties with feeding is one of the top complaints of parents of young children and the prevalence of feeding difficulties is on the rise with approximately 25-40% of children reported to have difficulties with feeding, with that number rising to approximately 80% of children with developmental delays. Parents often turn to social media, the internet, or friends and family for answers and the suggestions provided are not always helpful or accurate which can lead to greater stress, frustration and parents feeling like they have “tried everything”.
So, in this fast paced “chicken nugget” world, how can we encourage our children to become happy, healthy, adventurous eaters with a positive relationship with food and mealtimes?
1. Family mealtimes
Taking the time out to sit and eat around the table as a family is a very powerful tool. Feeding is learned behaviour. As adults we have been doing it for years and we are experts, but our children are still learning and experiencing a range of new flavours, textures and experiences and family mealtimes provide a platform for learning and teaching healthy food behaviour and attitudes. 2-4 year old children are twice as likely to eat foods they see their parents eating.
Family mealtimes are an opportunity for socialisation, communication, celebration, relaxation, and physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment and they help provide a sense of family and culture. Research shows us that there is a positive relationship between family mealtimes and increased self esteem and school success along with being protective against disordered eating, destructive behaviours and poor mental health in adolescents.
2. Emotional environment
Feeding is based on relationships and trust for both the parent and the child. If parents are feeling stressed and anxious about mealtimes, our children will to. Keep mealtimes cam, happy, and as stress free as possible. Make mealtimes about spending quality time together, creating positive experiences and having fun with food.
3. Allowing autonomy
Children need a level of autonomy and control at mealtimes without being “controlling”. At mealtimes, parents and children have different responsibilities. As a parent, our role if to choose what our children eat, where they will eat it and when they will eat.
Our children are responsible for how much of the food they will eat and how much (Ellyn Satter, www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding
). When children are forced, coerced, or bribed to eat or try new foods, their ability to learn to enjoy food is hampered. When children are allowed increased autonomy, this will increase their willingness to explore new foods. As parents our job is to provide a safe space for children to explore and learn, and at mealtimes with food, it’s no different.
Having body stability at the table when eating allows us to focus on the food and eating without focusing on stabilising our body. In order for children to stabilise their bodies, they need to have their feet on a stable surface with their ankles, knees and hips all at 90 degrees. How often do we see our children kneeling, slumping, slouching, fidgeting or getting off their chair at mealtimes. Providing seating with a footrest that can help with body stability, can help reduce these issues.
Distractions often “help” our children to eat more in the same way that we are surprised how much popcorn we can eat at the movies, you look down, it’s all gone and you can barely remember eating it. Distractions at mealtimes prevent children from tuning in to eating and cause children to eat in an automated way. By removing distractions such as technology or toys at the table, we can allow our children to tune in to mealtimes and become an active part of the social environment and actively explore and enjoy foods.
Both routines within our mealtimes and routine meal offerings help to provide structure and reduce anxiety at the table. Being predictable supports children’s ability to be calm when approaching the table and reduce their need to control mealtimes by refusing foods. Routine food offerings, approximately every 2-3 hours throughout the day, without constant grazing or snacking between meals, allows our children to regulate their hunger and increase their feelings of security around foods.
Most importantly, mealtimes should be a social occasion that is enjoyable and pleasurable for everyone. If you are finding that your mealtimes are stressful, you dread putting food in front of your children, or you feel something is not right, get help early. Feeding issues take months, sometimes years, to evolve and early intervention can help prevent difficulties getting worse and set you on the path for helping your children become happy, healthy, adventurous eaters!
Centres at Kensington and Littlehampton, South Australia