Guest post by Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Like many moms, you were probably told how in love with your baby you’d be, and how exhausted those late nights and early mornings would make you feel, but I bet nobody ever told you how hard feeding your child could be.
Part of the problem is parents aren’t taught to expect common feeding challenges, which is the basis of my new book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. So let’s go through the challenging eating behaviors amongst children of all ages, why they occur and how best to handle them:
1. Throwing Food
Once baby has graduated from a liquid diet, they find themselves in a highchair with many bite-size pieces of food in front of them. Initially, they eat, scooping handfuls of food into their mouths, and later, pinching bits of food between their thumb and pointer finger, mastering the pincher grasp.
Then, they start to throw food off the tray. For many babies, throwing food is an exercise in learning. It’s one way baby’s brain is learning cause and effect. If I toss my cup, what noise will it make? If I throw my food, what will Mommy do? And Daddy?
Or, it can be a sign of being finished with eating. Like turning away from food, pushing it away, or shaking the head “no,” throwing food off the tray can be synonymous with “all done.”
To minimize throwing food, place small amounts of food on the tray. Serve more after amounts have been eaten. Ask baby if they want more, or are all done. Ditch the emotions such as anger, frustration, or even laughter about throwing food, and remind baby that food stays on the tray.
2. Picky Eating
Between ages two and five years, children enter the picky eating phase. Picky eating happens because children develop a sense of fear around unfamiliar food at this time, coupled with a growing independence and desire to do things on their own. Of course, not all children will go through this, but most will on some level.
How you respond is the critical key to whether this becomes a drawn-out cycle, or a normal developmental phase. Catering to a child’s eating preferences, pushing them to finish vegetables, or bribing them with a reward of dessert in exchange for finishing a meal all make the picky eating phase longer.
Your best reaction is no reaction. Keep the main goal of feeding a toddler in mind: food introduction and exposure. Let your child see a variety of food regularly and be able to smell it, touch it, lick it, taste it, chew it, spit it out or swallow it– all in the name of learning and being exposed to new foods. Offer familiar foods with new foods, let them serve themselves (or defer to their desired amounts), and stay on a schedule of meals and snacks so that they have an appetite at eating times.
Many parents of school-age kids are frustrated with the grazing that goes on in their household, complaining that the kitchen cupboards are open every hour, on the hour. Part of why grazing is an issue is because there isn’t enough structure in the home with food, and boundaries about when to eat may be missing.
When kids don’t have limits set in the kitchen, they can start to call the shots on when they eat—especially as they get older. On the other hand, when kids have a schedule of when they eat (meal and snack times), they tend to be satisfied after eating, and less likely to graze.
The key is to schedule meals at a routine time, and snacks in between. This will knock out hunger as a reason for grazing. After a structure is in place, if you still have a grazer, allow nutritious items that contribute to their health such as fruit, vegetables or low fat dairy items.
4. Body Image Concern
Sarah came home one day complaining about looking fat. Her mom never spoke about weight, so was taken aback. The truth is children and teens notice and compare their bodies to those around them, especially their friends. They may act on these concerns, dieting or becoming disordered in their eating to change their weight, body size or shape. This is certainly worrisome for parents.
What parents need to realize is this is part of normal development. What’s not normal is dieting or disordered eating.
When children make negative statements about their bodies, this is an open door for conversation. Children need to hear that they are beautiful, inside and out. They need to hear that they should take care of their body, as there are no replacement parts. And the best way to do this is to eat nutritious and satisfying food, and be active. Parents should also look at their own behaviors, making sure to be a good role model.
While challenging, these food behaviors are normal and easy to address.
For more about nutrition and feeding children of all ages, check out Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert, founder of Just the Right Byte and the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.