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

  • adriana

    How do I get my 11 month old off puree? I make all his food and he eats a wide variety of fruits and veggies,lentils, beans, chicken and beef BUT it all has to be pureed! He makes no attempt to feed himself and just plays with the food but does not put it in his mouth. Developmentally he is ahead of the game. He started walking at 10 months, he says “mama”, “papa”, “si” if asked a question that requires a response(si=spanish for yes)”ba ba”=bye bye. He waves and claps, etc…My husband’s grandmother says it took his dad close to 18 months to start feeding himself so maybe it’s a genetic trait but I am not willing to deprive him of essential nutrition if he wont feed himself or accept thicker textures.

  • Calyr Elf

    I would have thought the top feeding mistake parents make is the “You must eat everything on your plate” rule. This rule is responsible for more fat kids than anything else, IMHO.

    • Lina

      It’s there! She said the baby gets to regulate the “how much!”…

    • Elisabeth

      Yes, it is there, but Calyr, I totally agree. I was brought up with that “starving children in *pick your third world nation*” mantra. I feel guilty if I go to a buffet and take a portion of something and leave some on my plate because I do not like it and have the option to go back for something I like better, etc. I feel like I am wasting food if I leave half a dessert because my stomach feels full, or eat only the filling out of a flour tortilla taco because I cannot eat gluten (health concerns, not a weightloss thing). The idea of eating whatever I have served for myself definitely has led to some weight issues for me – both too much and too little at various points of my life. An unhealthy relationship with food can be started in many ways, but being punished for not eating enough is a big one. (and before anyone says anything, my parents were not monsters or even bad parents – they were both raised in large families where not having enough was common … so of course, cleaning your plate was what they grew up with.)

  • Love this!!!! As a speech pathologist and feeding specialist, I really appreciate the reference to the DOR method, and the overall tone of this piece! Love that the author’s writing is so realistic, honest, clear and concise!! Great tips!!

  • always skeptical

    Adriana- In my parenting opinion- I would stop offering purees. Your little one will eat if he wants to. Looking at the article above talking about letting your child eat what they feel they need- rather than feeling pressure to make them eat an amount you specify their tummies can handle. Food before 1 is just for one is the Baby Led Weaning philosophy that I found helpful. Breastmilk or formula should be the primary source of nutrition prior to 1 year of age. Anything else is a bonus! Just my two cents.

  • Jessi

    You missed not teaching kids to cook or involving them in planning and shopping for meals.

  • Mary

    If one is offering only healthy, nutritious snacks to begin with, why exactly is #6 needed.

    • Mary

      Grazing and over eating only happen when one is not eating nutritious foods.enforcing a rigid structure around feeding is a BAD idea in my book at any age and has been proven detrimental to IQ in babies. IMO structure is not what is needed. It is not the WHENit is the WHAT.

      • Mary,

        Thanks for your comment. As I dietitian who has worked with many adults over the years I can say that people can still overeat nutritious foods. It’s very important to feed whole, nutritious foods but how one feeds themselves and their children is just as important.

        We do not recommend rigid schedules but instead a flexible and rhythmic eating routine. Kids feel more secure around food when they know what to expect. We explain all the different ways parent can do this in the book.

  • Leah

    This is how I fed my daughter! Mainly because it was the way I and my brothers were raised an it seemed natural. My daughters first food was avocado. She still loves it. Other favorites are artichokes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cauliflower, black eyed peas, broccoli, etc. she drinks only milk and water. I limit sweets and, although she asks for dessert often, she knows that it is not an every night thing. I try to serve fruit with dinner and that generally gets the sweet cravings satisfied. I feel fortunate to have such a good eater. And I have sympathy for the many parents I meet who do what so many parents do, and take “the easy way out” of Mac and cheese, fish sticks and hot dogs, etc. Typically they end up struggling when they decide its time to “eat like a big kid”. Their children are simply following the diet they were raised on.

  • Elisabeth

    My son became incredibly picky around age 3 1/2. He is now almost 6 and has just started to be willing to eat veggies and fruits again (other than pureed things like applesauce and spaghetti sauce, tomato soups) … what turned the tables for us was getting his adenoids removed. Turns out that along with causing stuffy nose and ear infections, they caused apnea and an inability to breath through his nose when he was awake as well. So chewing a crunchy veggie caused him to gag and choke because he couldn’t breath and chew at the same time. I noticed that he would eat bites of crackers or chips as well – even though those things dissolve much more easily in the mouth.

  • Marcy Braun, RD

    Nicely done…research-based, yet practical tips. I’m a big Ellyn Satter fan, as well.

  • Anouk

    Love this article, although I feel stuck…
    My 2,5 year old is and has always been a picky eater.
    She still breastfeeds morning, nap and going to bed. Eats some things but far from a variety of foods. I love cooking and have always offered her what was on our table to have her eat nothing and nurse way more and be very difficult. It was so frustrating that I am now catering and only provide foods I know she will eat and am stuck in that cycle. She eats cereal (so I get her organic bran flakes, organic cheerios, etc), bread, rice, pasta (I cook the fiber rich pasta and all sorts of raviolis/tortellini in chicken broth)I mix in some cream and cheese as she now refuses tomato sauce, yogurt, any kind of nuts (so I offer those for snacks), granola bars (I buy the Annies berry ones only), organic fruit pouches(abricot/banana/peach), roasted chickpeas, corn, peas, blueberries, raspberries, frozen berries mixes and milk. If I’m lucky, she’ll eat a bite of chicken. I offer new fruits once in a while but that’s it. How do I get out of this? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a lot.

  • Wow, I really love this post. I learned a lot from it. This is very inspiring. I really like that you mentioned “Don’t give up on feeding your teen until he is officialy out of the house, he has a lot to learn about nutrition as he prepares for adulthood. I have mixed emotion reading this, I really missed my childhood days. Thanks for sharing this. I was moved.

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  • A

    #4 really hits home for me. We had succumbed to bribing and negotiating so much and mealtime was so stressful! We are still a work in progress but my main focus is to take out the emotions involved. I have been trying to let my 4 yr old take the lead on how much and what to eat, but I worry because he is so skinny! Fighting the good fight :)

  • Kim

    I’m encouraged by this post.
    I have a picky eater (7 year old). I offer healthy stuff, he balks. I felt like I was doing something wrong, and that’s what I expected to discover in this article. – the mistakes I’m making.
    Guess we’re on track more than I thought. Huh. Who knew?

  • 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.

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