From the moment our children reach out, grab our food and eat it we start to worry about whether they’re eating too much or too little – somehow they can never be eating just the right amount.
The thing is, as they get older, you realise that no matter how well they ate till they turned one, how much they spurned all food as toddlers, how much they rejected vegetables as a pre-schooler, that suddenly they just start to eat and follow what the family does, no fuss, they just eat their meals, have a few healthy snacks and it all works out in the end.
The problems we introduce to children
So long as they have only healthy food on offer – plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (and frozen veg too), meat, protein, dairy and so on, and that sweets and treats and fruit juices are given in moderation and neither an every day thing nor banned substances, children will eat when hungry and not eat when not hungry. Unless of course food is turned into a battleground.
How do we turn nourishment into a battleground?
Badgering your child to eat when they aren’t hungry can make them assert their independence by refusing to eat – after all, as the saying goes, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
Read more: Tips and tricks for fussy eaters
I’m not suggesting you let them then demand food at bed time because they’re now hungry – supper time is supper time after all, but that pushing them to override their sense of satiety probably doesn’t do them many favours in life. Perhaps the child had a full breakfast and lunch and two healthy snacks during the day and just isn’t that hungry come supper time.
Of course, if they didn’t eat all day, a bit of gentle prodding to eat won’t go amiss, but then also look at whether they might be off colour or coming down with something – nobody likes to eat when they’re sick, it’s normal behaviour even for adults.
Children also grow in spurts, and when they’re about to have a growth spurt they eat you out of house and home, you just can’t keep up, but in between, it can feel like they haven’t had a morsel pass their lips in weeks – perhaps their need for food isn’t as intense at those times. If they haven’t been plowing through junk food and food hasn’t become a control issue, then if they are hungry, they will eat and if not hungry, they won’t. Pushing isn’t going to help.
A few tricks I’ve learnt over the years
Babies don’t seem to want to eat anything they haven’t seen mom eat, so they seem happy to pick from mom’s plate, a great way of introducing solids is to let baby sit on your lap and eat with the family.
Toddlers have tiny little tummies and frequent small meals work far better than three large meals. A bowl on the lounge table that is nearly constantly replenished with one type of healthy food at a time often works very well. Watch carefully as they nibble though, choking is a real and terrifying risk. Toddlers can struggle to sit down for very long to eat a meal, so a very small snack frequently can get around this and they can sit for this short time. As they get older, they’ll manage to sit with the family for meals.
Read more: 3 healthy fruity snacks
Everyone needs to have a few sips of water while eating, denying anything to drink in case it fills up the tummy is cruel – nobody can swallow their food with a dry mouth. This goes for babies and children too. That said, some juicy fruit helps quench thirst somewhat too.
Pre-schoolers are still fairly picky eaters and a child who usually eats their vegetables without a fuss, who gets scolded on the one day they won’t, will dig their heels in and stop being such a good veggie eater rather soon.
Nobody likes to eat while constantly being told “sit down, eat your food, stop talking, eat your food, eat, I’m going to take your plate away if you don’t eat”. Meals are about learning table manners, taking part in conversation and being part of the family too.
If you set a good example around food, from around 10 or 11 or a little older, your children will be following it without comment. Likewise with a bad example.
How have you coped with teaching healthy eating habits to your children? Send us your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.