· By Julia Boase
Strategies that won’t help your children eat (at school or at home)
Recently I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by child psychologist Dr Justin Coulson. A lot of his presentation was dedicated to strategies that don’t help manage your child’s behaviour (forcing them to apologise to their siblings, sending them to time out to think about what they’ve done, being notable memories of the night). Most of the time we go to these strategies because we don’t have anything else in our tool box and/or it is what was modelled to us. As I sat there I thought - yes this is exactly the same when it comes to feeding kids.
In the 20 yrs that I’ve spent working as a paediatric dietitian I hear the same old strategies being used by parents that are desperate to get their kids to eat. And I know why they use them - they don’t have anything else in their parenting tool box, it’s what their parents did or perhaps it gets them a short term win but looses out in the long term. So here’s a list of what doesn’t work when it comes to getting your kids to eat and some strategies you can try instead.
- Forcing them to eat - either a certain amount or the whole meal
You’ve watched your child declare that they don’t like it and now they’re pushing the food around their plate and whining for something else. Two thoughts cross your mind - if they just ate a a little bit I think they’d realise they like it, or they can’t eat nothing for dinner, and you start to get worried about their lack of nutrition. Your answer - “You have to eat 3 (more) bites before you can leave the table”.
Why this doesn’t work: You’ve overruled your child’s appetite. When you force your child to eat something they don’t want to, you generally make their experience of that food unpleasant. It doesn’t make them any more likely to want to eat that food on that next occasion that they see it, meaning you’re going to be right back here next time you serve it. Asking your chid to eat a certain amount, also overrides their natural ability to eat to regulate their appetite. Only your child can know how hungry they are ( no matter how much you think you might know better). Even if your child is hungry, hunger alone, is often not enough for them to overcome their distaste or fear of the food.
What to do instead? Stick to the division responsibility when it comes to feeding. Your job as the parent is to decide the what, when and where of eating, and your chid’s job is to decide whether to eat it and how much. Also ensure that every meal (or lunch box) includes some preferred items (this might be plate of fruit, a side of bread, sweet corn - you get the idea). This means there’s always a ‘safe” food they can fill up on while they are learning to eat the other foods.
So much time goes into preparing that dinner or lunch box doesn’t it? Ahhh the frustration of just watching your kid refuse to eat (yet again) and the worry about whether they’re getting enough nutrition. This is where you pull out the big guns - “ If you eat your dinner you can have a bowl of ice cream”. And it works right? Well not really….
This strategy can get you some short term wins and you might get a few bites of dinner BUT….it makes it no more likely that your child will enjoy this food next time you serve it. You’ve also overridden their natural appetite regulation and you’ve given them the message that “this food is so unappealing I have to offer you a sweet treat to get you to eat it”. This elevates the “treat” to being the desirable food that they are then driven to what more of, and downgrades the other food to being “hard work, not nice and unappealing”.
What to do instead - Offer dessert regularly whether your child has eaten their main meal or not. Stick to a predictable schedule if this helps you, eg serve dessert Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
It can be hard work keeping younger kids at the table, especially if they’re not that into the meal in the first place. Pulling out an iPad or turning on their favourite tv show can really help. BUT - have you ever been to the movies and realised you’ve run out of popcorn without even realising you’d been eating it? Well this is what it’s like for kids when they watch tv at the dinner table. They become so engrossed in the show that eating becomes “mindless”. You may get some short term wins here, as they eat without really thinking about it, but it means you’ll be stuck in the pattern of always needing to use distraction to get your child to eat. Longer term this strategy really overrides your child’s natural inbuilt ability to regulate their appetite. We want children engaged in the meal and listening to their bodes so they know how hungry or full they are, and feeling fulfilled at the end of it. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of that popcorn without realising you haven’t enjoyed the experience of eating it - it makes you want to go and buy another box just so you can properly enjoy it. Don’t let this be your kids.
What to do instead - Eat together as a family and use this time for connection. Word games can be a handy way to keep your child at the table and engaged without them becoming mindlessly distracted. For example depending on the age of your kids, go around and ask them to name as many countries, capital cities, African animals (you get the idea) as they can. For kids that are really reluctant to come to the table, using a timer (which you increase slowly as they become better at sitting with you) can be helpful.
4. Eating in a certain order
I hear this one pop up in schools a lot. Well meaning careers or teachers request that the child eats the “healthy” items from their lunch box first then the other items. There’s so much to unpack here from how do we decide what’s “healthy” and what’s “unhealthy” (eg a black bean brownie - it’s made from balckbeans with plenty of nutrition, but it also has sugar and fat - so how would someone else rate that?), to inadvertently elevating the “less healthy” items to be even more desirable, to overriding your child’s natural ability to regulate their appetite. I’m not a fan at all.
What to do instead - Parents should pack a lunch box with a combination of food that suits their child and the child decides what and how much they consume in the order they chose. Over the course of they day, week or month even, children are likely to consume all the nutrition they need and don’t need their food intake micromanaged.
5. Praising your child for eating…
Did this one surprise you? When you see your child do a good job of eating something new or eating more than they ever have, it feels natural to recognise and reward that right?
The problem with positive reinforcement like this is that it tends to make your child feel they are an actor in a performance, and puts a lot of pressure on them. They want Mum and Dad to be happy with them, they want that positive feedback, but they also don’t want to disappoint you. If they feel they can’t live up to your standards and elicit that level of praise every time they eat, it can make them feel like they don’t want to try in the first place.
What to do instead: It’s best to remain completely neutral about food and never comment on how much was or wasn’t eaten. Too much positive reinforcement over the quantity your child has eaten can also lead them to ignore their appetite and try to eat to please Mum and Dad. This goes for the lunch box too - don’t put pressure on them to eat the whole thing everyday.
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