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