Guest Post: Top 10 Feeding Mistakes Parents Make

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This is a guest post from Maryann Jacobsen and Jill Castle, authors of Fearless Feeding.

Fearless Feeding bookAs child and family nutrition experts, and co-authors of the new book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, we help parents learn what to expect in terms of feeding children based on child development. For example, every parent of a baby should know they are in the honeymoon phase of feeding, a time when baby is open to almost any food, making it an important time to introduce variety before kids get more picky around two years of age. In most cases, selective eating at this time is normal as growth slows and cognitive changes occur.

To show you how this information translates to everyday feeding practices, here are 10 common mistakes parents make at each stage of development (including adulthood!):

Infant & Young Toddler (6 – 24 months)

1) Keep on Puree too Long: Babies have a steep learning curve when it comes to eating during the first two years.  Around eight months, most are developmentally ready to pick up small pieces of food and self-feed.  Parents often keep baby on puree too long because they either don’t know this, or they like the control they have with spoon-feeding (and don’t like mess!).  Yet self-feeding aids children’s self- regulation of food and increases the variety they are able to eat.  So give children the opportunity to self-feed early in the game and allow them to learn at their own pace.

2) Don’t Bring Baby to the Family Table: Babies learn to eat by watching others.  Yet it’s not uncommon for babies to be fed separate meals all by their lonesome.  This often translates to little ones getting the same food over and over, instead of a larger variety.  It’s important for parents to know that between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, children are the most open to new food.  Serve them the regular meals you’ll want them to eat later — sandwiches, omelets and stir fries — and eat together as often as you can.

Toddler & Preschooler (2 -5 years)

3) Filling Little Bellies: As babies turn into toddlers things change quickly — language blooms, growth slows and children become more susceptible to environmental cues around food.  Parents often make the mistake of giving into requests for juice, milk and snack foods, which fill up little bellies (the size of a fist) so they don’t eat well at mealtime.  To avoid this mistake, feed on a structure at a designated place (3 meals and 2 -3 snacks) every 2-3 hours.  Keep milk to about 2 cups and juice to only 4-6 ounces per day, with meals.  Keep water the drink of choice between meals.

4) Get Off Track with Picky Eating: In toddlerhood, children become skeptical of new food and previously accepted items (especially veggies).  Most parents don’t understand that picky eating is a normal part of development and they may begin to bribe children with dessert, insist they eat a certain amount, or cater and only provide foods they know their child will eat.  All of these things make picky eating worse and negatively affect self-regulation.  We recommend the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility where parents decide the what, when and where of feeding and children decide the whether and how much of eating.  It melts away the battles, keeps eating enjoyable for all, and makes children feel more confident with eating.

School Age (6 – 12 years)

5) Banning Bad Foods: Your child will see all sorts of “bad foods” as he enters the broader world of school and community. When children don’t have access to treats or other nutrition-poor items they may become over-sensitized to them when they go out in the world. Having moderate exposure to sweets, for example, in the home allows your child to balance them in the real world. Don’t make foods “off limits,” rather have them as special treats for special occasions or manage them in a way that creates moderate exposure.

6) No Boundaries in the Kitchen: If the kitchen is open all day and night, your child will not understand that eating happens on a structure, with intervals between meals and snacks for other activities. He may also graze, overeat and lose his sense of appetite regulation. Create a boundary between meals and snacks by stating, “The kitchen is closed until dinner. It’ll be open again at 6 pm,” for example. Be sure to make meals and snacks nourishing and satisfying!

Teens (13-18 years)

7) Letting Go of the Feeding Job too Early: One of the hallmarks of adolescence is an increasing independence, and this may occur with food. Sometimes, parents relinquish the job of feeding to embrace this newfound freedom. Unfortunately, teens can miss the mark on healthy choices and food balance in this situation. Don’t give up on feeding your teen until he is officially out of the house—he has a lot to learn about nutrition as he prepares for adulthood.

8) Avoiding Conversation About Tough Topics: Topics like problematic eating—too much or too little or the wrong types of food—can be uncomfortable for parents to address. The problem is teens often address problematic eating with problematic solutions, such as dieting, fasting, or avoiding important food groups. So don’t be afraid to talk with your teen about your concerns. You can open conversation with “I noticed you’re hungry all the time. Is this something I could help you with?” or “I see that you’re unhappy with your weight—how can I help you?” Your teen may not open up at first, but if you are loving and understanding, with repeated attempts, she likely will.


9) Not Taking Care of Yourself: Parents are typically so focused on their kids’ activities and health needs, they often forget about themselves.  Yet research tells us that parents are powerful role models in terms of the health and well being of their children.  Even when they try to hide things like dieting, unbalanced eating, or disliking their body, kids catch on because they are intuitive creatures and they learn by watching.  So make sure you are included in the to-do list and model the same behaviors you want your child to emulate.

10) Not Planning Meals: When parents fail to plan weekly meals, it increases stress at the dinner time hour and inadvertently decreases variety.  Try planning meals on the weekend by looking at the schedule and deciding what’s best on certain days.  If you have a late sports practice one day, consider making something in the slow cooker so the meal is ready when you get home.  Or you can spend some time on the weekend making meals and freezing them for easy weekday dinners.  The key is to keep trying until you find a system that works for you and your family.

Please feel free to share your feeding tips with us in the comments below!

Maryann Jacobsen

Maryann Jacobsen

Jill Castle

Jill Castle

Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health blogger and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a family nutrition blog.  Jill Castle is a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert, writer, speaker and founder of Just the Right Byte, a child nutrition blog.  They combined their experience and passion about feeding kids to write the bible on child nutrition: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

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97 comments to Guest Post: Top 10 Feeding Mistakes Parents Make

  • All great points. This reassures me that we are doing the right things at home for our kids’ long term health and how they see food. Thanks for sharing!

  • Love everything about this list! I watched my friends three daughters beg for sushi, apples, etc., and made it a goal to have children like that (no begging for soda or candy!)! Now I do! A 4 yr., 2 yr., and a 6 month old. We try to make food joyful, healthy, and involve the children (but we set the boundaries). I truly believe we as parents set the tone for our children’s food practices and this list is a great guide.

  • Jen

    Doesn’t #6 contradict the idea that we should eat based on internal cues rather than external cues like time, etc.?

  • I so agree with #5!
    My Mom was one of those we were only allowed diet soda and very rarely. 1 box of sweet cereal once a month shared between my brother and myself.
    Candy was only for holidays and then hoarded by my Mom and doled out in small increments.
    Guess what….when I got to high school and drove myself to school, I bought and ate a ton of candy. I would eat candy and sugar gum until I made myself sick.
    When I had kids, yes we limited stuff but we also didn’t limit it like crazy. They still get treats and candy but my kids won’t do like I did…. their fav thing to grab at the store is a bagel from the bulk bagel section. And they are in control of their candy and ask before they have anything.

  • Amanda

    A lot of great points here, though I tend to disagree with number 5. I am devoted to feeding my family a gluten-free, organic, locally grown, mostly raw diet free of refined sugars and chemicals. I refuse to buy sodas, chips, candies or any other processed foods to give to my children on occasion simply because they exist in society and my children may come across a vending machine filled with garbage and be tempted to find out just what it is they haven’t been allowed to consume. Just as cigarettes exist in the real world, most parents (or at least, I would think) prohibit their children from smoking and being around second and 3rd hand smoke, and teach them why cigarettes aren’t good for them and the consequences they could have on their health, should they decide to try them in the future. My mother taught me and my siblings about the risk and consequences of cigarettes as young children and not one of 6 have ever been tempted to try a cigarette, my mom however did not teach me about the risks of drinking soda and eating a high gluten diet, mostly because she didn’t know better as long as I was still eating my fruits and veggies, etc. When I walk by a vending machine, my 2 year old says “yuck, that hurts my tummies!” I think we should prohibit our children from certain things, as long as they are being taught why it is they are not allowed to consume those products. When they become adults, if they decide they want to try chemical-laden “foods,” so be it, but I will be greatly comforted knowing that I kept there immune and digestive systems in the best shape possible, so their bodies are prepared to take all that stuff for what it really is: toxic waste. Teaching is key! :-)

    Unless that isn’t what you meant about prohibiting foods?

    • Amanda

      ETA: *had my mom taught me about the consequences of candies and processed foods as she had with smoking, I definitely wouldn’t have consumed them so much in my teens and early adulthood, if at all!
      *and my 2 year old says the foods in vending machines hurts his tummy (or would hurt his tummy) because I have taught him that consumption of those things will damage his system, but in a way that he could best understand at his age. :-)

  • Sylvie Ling

    My “feeding tip” is – stop calling it feeding and change your mentality to match.
    I ‘feed’ the dog, I don’t ‘feed’ my child.
    Maybe if yall stopped treating you children like animals to be controlled you’d have less ‘feeding’ problems.

  • Gretchen

    I am in the process of switching out the processed snacks (Goldfish, animal crackers, cheerios) in our church nursery for “real food”. Ages affected would be 6 mo – 3 years old. Do you have any advice and/or ideas on what I could swap these out for? Thank you so much for all your ideas and insight!

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