I’m a pediatric nutritionist with long experience, and I wish you’d stop talking so much about food and nutrition with your kids.
That sounds crazy, I know. Food and nutrition are absolutely pivotal for your kids’ brains, behavior, growth, mood, learning… everything. No wonder then that food, recipes, and nutrition talk are all over the internet and mom blogger universe. From how to make killer bento lunches to keto for kids (mistake, BTW, unless under certain circumstances), everyone has something to say.
The good thing about this is that we are all woke now on the importance of what we eat, where food comes from, and how we grow it, whether it’s chickens, chocolate, or chard. We really are what we eat. We eat, and we turn the food into us – hair, bones, teeth, mood, and all. Period. That’s pretty much it (though a lot can go wrong along that path.. fixing that for kids is pretty much what I do).
But… there is a HUGE downside, and it’s bad for kids. It creates undue anxiety, stress, and overwhelm for kids, young ones and teens alike. It really stresses moms out too. I run into this often in my clinical practice, and I can tell you that it has gotten worse as our (justified!) enthusiasm for whole, healthy foods has exploded in the last 10-15 years. You’ll want to avoid these pitfalls with your kids. Here’s my list of Fail vs Fabulous, when encouraging healthy nutrition and food habits in your family.
1 – Stop Demonizing Food
It’s so easy to label a food “good” or “bad”. There’s plenty of junk out there, including organic junk. Obviously, it isn’t what kids should live on. But don’t drill these labels into your kids’ minds. What they need to learn is discernment – and they will. Eventually, ideally, when they’re out and about on their own without you, those “bad” foods should be neutral to them.
What do I mean by “neutral”? I mean that the idea of eating that food doesn’t provoke anxiety. It isn’t even compelling, because it was never forbidden in the first place. It doesn’t elicit judgment or shaming for themselves, or toward friends and peers who eat those foods.
As long as there is no safety or egregious comfort issue – as in, needing an Epi Pen, or a vomit-to-shock (FPIES) reaction, hives, migraine, nausea, bloating, burning diarrhea, disabling gas pain – then let kids have forays into junk. Not daily staples or regular snacks, mind you, but occasional dabbling.
Instead: Provide treats for special occasions (or every so often for no reason other than it’s fun) with no discussion about whether it’s “good” or “bad”. Again, safety issues and food allergens or triggers aside, simply make or buy some fun food, and let your child enjoy, care-free.
My one exception: Spoiled food. This IS bad and dangerous and kids need to learn that too. So, tell them.
2 – Don’t Expect A Young Child to Have Discernment (or even care)
Speaking of discernment, forget needing your four year old to have it. That’s your job. Children do not need to know what organic is, or glyphosate, or MSG, colors, additives, gluten or what have you. They shouldn’t care either. They’re little and they have much more important stuff going on in their little worlds. Please stop walking them through the supermarket and asking them to pay attention to labels or what you’re buying. Believe me, they are observing. They don’t need the specifics, and this will only be information overload that can lead to anxiety or meal time control battles. They need you to be chill, in charge, and happy that you’re with them (most the time). That’s about it.
Instead: Lead by example. Say less, do more. If your child accompanies you shopping, let them day dream and leave them alone; if they love chatter, join them in the randomness of it. Your child doesn’t need every moment to be teachable!
If they see something truly junky or sugary or processed that they pitch a fit for (and they will, because supermarkets place colorful cartoony packaging at your child’s eye level on purpose), that’s your call. Sometimes we can get away with floating to the next aisle with a soothing “Hmm no I don’t want to do that today” (and refrain from giving a reason why). Other days, you know the both of you don’t have it in you to make it home without giving in. Up to you, but avoid each supermarket trip rewarded with a junk treat.
If you’re in servitude to your stove or kitchen and miserable making all this scratch beautiful food, guess what – your kids know. Even your baby can tell. The most important thing here is that you get to be happy and enjoy food. Even if there are stressors, including big ones, about what can be safely eaten in your household, endeavor to find the joy in some of it. Joy is, above all else, why we’re here.
3 – Stop Explaining Everything and Stop Feeling Sorry For Your Kids with Diet Restrictions
You’re in charge. You’re the adult. If you know your child does poorly with a particular food, and they are fiendish about getting it and asking for it constantly anyway, oh well! You know best and have decided that they’re not going to have that food, period. Remember: This goes for foods that are a known danger or debilitating to your child – not for foods that are imperfect, but harmless.
Explaining and justifying your parenting choices to a young child (or even a teen) is, um, a bad idea. Doing so engenders entitlement in your child, which can make their opposition and protests even bigger. In little ones, expect tantrums, anxiety, and meltdowns when you try the “here’s why” route. In teens, expect impressive arguments, brooding, and door slamming. Most of all, don’t expect or need your kids to agree with you.
Instead: If a child asks for a reason why, offer it in the most developmentally concrete way for that child’s age. Refrain from volunteering comments like “it’s bad for you” or “will make you sick” or “your body can’t have that.” Don’t label the food or your child’s body as defective or bad.
Younger kids can be redirected with “there isn’t any more of that at the store so I found this one instead” or “I think this will feel really good in your tummy. Let’s try it and you let me know.”
Teens are reaching a point of practicing discernment on their own. Experimentation and screw ups are par for the course at this age. Let them experience the discomfort of eating the wrong food. You will decide when you have had enough as a parent: “I realize this isn’t what you want, but I am the one taking care of/rescuing you each time you feel sick from eating xyz. So, that food is no longer going to be in the house, and I won’t buy it anymore. If you eat it on purpose outside of here, I won’t be able to help you.” And then there’s always “..because I am the one buying the food, and I said so.”
4 – Stop Feeding Your Kids Like They’re Gwyneth Paltrow (or expecting them to like it)
Oh dear. How many, many food diaries I have seen that look this beautiful: Green smoothies, pumpkin seeds, sprouted Einkorn homemade bread, kombucha, fermented kvass, homemade dosa, coconut flour pancakes, avocado toast, bone broth… Or, a list of light veggie snacks all day long: Carrots, celery, nori, cucumbers, and apple slices with a few cashews. Or, a food diary that shows me 120 grams of protein and less than 60 grams of carbs (a nearly ketogenic intake).
Those are beautiful foods. Some kids really love this stuff. But, usually, it turns out this is a little dysfunctional. There are too many food rules in the house, and it’s causing tension to comply so stringently with eating only organic, perfect whole foods.
I’ll also usually discover that in these households, kids are falling off their growth patterns, experiencing stunting, or underweight. What tends to happen here is kids end up low for total calories, low for carbohydrates, and high for fats and protein. This is a great eating style for adults (who are not growing), but it can cause stunting and underweight in children.
Here is a common anecdote from my practice: I began working with a mom whose child was eating an overly restricted diet. Mom removed all processed foods entirely, based on the belief that any of them, at any time, are bad. Her child also happened to be a picky eater and refused many textures, limiting her choices more. On top of this, based on a misinterpreted blood test for a food sensitivity panel that the mom had somehow done on her own prior to our meeting, the child was only allowed to eat 7 foods, and had been eating this very restricted diet for years. She was not growing, had miserable behavior and sleep problems, and was trending toward anemia.
It turned out, right off the bat, the child could eat many foods that mom had wrongly assumed were trouble. A shift in view point on the good vs bad food mythology helped a lot. The child’s behavior improved immediately and she gained some much needed weight. Finally, her brain and body were getting replenished.
But even after a few sessions, things didn’t sound quite right. So I asked for an updated food diary. Mom shared a usual day food intake of small quantities, throughout the day, of raisins, peanuts, maple syrup, rice, potato chips, and a brownie. That was it. That was a usual day of food. This explained the re-emerging problems: No protein, no good fats or oils, too little food over all, a grazing pattern, and few micronutrient rich foods (for vitamins and minerals).
Mom said this child would sometimes eat chicken. So I asked – what if you gave a chicken nugget, would she like that, or try it?
A big silence followed. Mom was stunned. She had never done that, and wouldn’t, “because, you know, they’re so junky.” We agreed to give it a try after a quick search gave us some brand options she could live with. There are ready to heat and eat versions of this stuff that aren’t so terrible, or are gluten free too.
Instead – This child was already eating a junky poor diet. It didn’t matter if the peanuts and maple syrup were organic. Those alone don’t make up a whole foods diet. So, toss in some fun. Find some ready to serve, heat-and-eat stuff so you don’t have to work so hard cooking it all from scratch. If you hit on something, then you can make your own scratch version even better if you like.
Let kids be kids. They need different diets than adults. They shouldn’t be eating they way you do, most likely. Peruse my blog for more ideas and tips on how kids eat, what they need, and some recipes to try.
• 5 – Baby Led Weaning Is Great… For Babies
No, babies and children don’t know what they need all the time, and don’t necessarily have a keen inner wisdom that they can tap at a moment’s notice. Some babies wean because they feel eager and ready to move on. Some can’t get there, and won’t, even when it is safer and healthier for them to do so. Don’t pressure your young child to know everything. I’ve met many toddlers way past the day they needed to wean, and mom is still waiting for permission to do so. Nope nope nope. You’re in charge, mom.
Likewise, toddlers and kids need direction too. Weaned or not, presenting food all day long in a parade of choices is often just plain overwhelming and frustrating for little kids. It’s too demanding to expect that they will know what to do. This strategy can create anxiety in young kids, while mom or dad get super frustrated by the poor growth and picky appetite that this can often trigger too.
- Don’t expect them to guide you in making their food choices. Sure they will have their preferences, but it is your job to feed them.
- Don’t expect that they will always know or verbalize when they’re full or when they’re hungry. Especially when kids have used reflux medicines, appetite and its cues will be weakened over time. If you need help with this, contact me or speak to your pediatrician.
- Don’t chatter about how important food is. Just make or buy something you love to share and enjoy with your family.
- Don’t allow non stop grazing. Toddlers and young kids grow, sleep, and behave better with distinct snack times and mealtimes.
- Don’t limit texture options to just pincer grasp foods and pouches. Kids can be rigid. The longer you wait for them to reach for a new food, the longer you may be waiting. I’ve met several four and five year olds who don’t know how to chew. It’s ok to rock their world a bit and expect them to progress much earlier on.
Instead – Make food a benign or pleasant background piece. At snack or meal times, it’s just there, beckoning. Allow a choice between 2, maybe 3 foods at most. Present mixed textures and novelty, including foods that might be messy or that require mastery of a utensil. Let your child feed himself or get messy. Good help can be had with a pediatric occupational therapist if need be – let your doctor know you’d like help, and get a referral, if feeding is so stalled that your child isn’t growing or gaining well.
I really meant it …
…when I said that the most important reason why we are all here is joy. Eating and food are great paths to create it, share it, grow it. More than anything you say or do around food in your household, making food a generally positive, inquisitive, and expansive experience is what will create good self care and eating habits in your growing family. For extreme picky eaters, you may have other problems afoot that need tackling. Check out my e book here for more details on how to redirect that too.