The steps below can help you to create a mealtime routine that is peaceful rather than combative. I’m starting with this post because it’s a little more “concrete” in terms of actionable steps to keep your little one in tune with her innate hunger and fullness signals. The sister post The Secret of Building a Healthy Food Relationship will cover more abstract concepts related to intuitive eating. There are two big things to keep in mind as you continue through this series. First, keep in mind that there is a difference between food resistance/rebellion and problem feeding. Problem feeding goes beyond “picky eating” and is typically the result of a sensory processing disorder or another medical condition. You may need to seek the help of a medical professional to address these issues. Secondly, the strategies listed here may be difficult or tricky to implement if your child has already developed food resistance/rebellion, is overweight, is underweight, is in her teen years, or shows signs of disordered eating. This model can be modified to address those situations, but you may need a little guidance for those specific situations.
•Pay attention to and honor your child’s innate abilities. You can start creating a good mealtime dynamic even before solid introduction. In infancy, your child will let you know when she’s hungry and will stop feeding when she’s full. Respecting this ability rather than trying to implement a feeding schedule can set the stage for your ability to trust your child as she grows and will let your child know that her hunger and fullness signals can be trusted.
•Start from the onset of solids. Check out my post on Baby Lead Weaning. Starting when your pediatrician gives you the ok, introduce lots of foods and show your child that she’s in control of what, when, and how much she consumes.
•Control the introduction of “play food”. You don’t necessarily have to offer “play food” (less nutritionally dense foods) to younger children. This typically happens naturally as they visit relatives, go out to eat, and enjoy birthday celebrations. As long as your child can safely consume the offered “play food” — it’s developmentally appropriate and there are no allergy issues — let her try it! Don’t push her to eat it if she’s not interested or doesn’t enjoy it, but don’t forbid her from trying it either.
•Have discussions about different kinds of foods early on. You can start food conversations early on so that you can create a firm foundation of the food values that are important to your family before your child gets exposed to outside messages. You can start by teaching your little that there are “nutritious foods” and “play foods”. Nutritious foods are important because they help us have energy, grow strong, prevent sickness, and feed our brains. Play foods exist to taste yummy and be fun to eat. Just like school and vacation are both important for us (and fun) so are nutritious foods and play foods. Everybody needs a balance of both. Your job is to provide meals that include nutritious foods because you want your family to be strong and feel good.
•Provide water to drink. Fruit juices or other sugary beverages can confuse hunger signals, so offering water is a good way to stay hydrated and encourage healthy eating. Pop over to my post about hydration for some tips for increasing water intake.
•Keep nutritious snacks available and easy to access. You want to encourage your little one to eat to satiety when she’s hungry, so if she’s hungry between meals, teach her to tell a grownup that she’s hungry or keep nutritious snack options that she likes where she can get to them easily. Offering healthy fats, fruits, or veggies as snacks help to keep her full longer with no blood sugar issues.
•Pack lunches that allow your child to make decisions. Provide plenty of nutrient dense options and a play option, too. This will increase the likelihood of your child eating the lunch that your packed rather than throwing it away or trading. As with all other meals, let her know that you’ve given her options for a balanced meal that will nourish her and keep her strong. She can decide what parts of the lunch and how much of them she’d like to eat. Another option is to let her pack her own lunch. A lot of parents make color coding systems for each macronutrient and have their littles pick one of each to compose a balanced lunch. You can also talk with your child about the option to purchase an extra item from the lunch line or pick days that she’d like to buy a school lunch. It’s likely that school lunches will be a little different than the foods that you usually serve at home. This is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how these meals make her feel.
•Most importantly…create an awesome dynamic at the dinner table. Provide balanced meals that include appropriate ratios of all macros. Occasionally you can also offer “play food” along with “nutritious food”. Eat at the table as a family whenever possible. Try to have conversations that do not revolve around food and eating. Allow your child to decide how much of which item she wants. Keep in mind that if she goes heavy on “play foods” or carbs at a meal, it’s ok! Over the course of a few days or a week, if you consider everything she consumes, it’ll balance out and be appropriate. Don’t open up the discussion to bargaining by saying things like, “If you eat three bites of spinach, you can have a cookie.” Finally, make sure that you consistently communicate that your job as the parent is to serve a single, balanced meal that will help your family stay nourished. Even if one family member doesn’t like the entire meal, there will be other items on the table to pick from. Individual family members are in charge of deciding what and how much of specific items they will eat, and no one else at the table will be monitoring that.
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The views expressed in this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition and should not be substituted for medical or nutritional advice.