How can I help my child have a healthy relationship with food?
Your little nugget will only eat chicken nuggets? (I make the dad jokes at our house-- sorry, not sorry.) Every child will prove that you cannot make a child eat anything, but there are a few simple tricks you can do that can help them develop healthy habits with food.
American diet culture and efforts to improve body image are enough to stress out any mom about how to spare their littles from such turmoil. Parents can't control everything, but there are a few easy things that you can do to help your child create a healthy relationship with food.
Fresh options early
Infant diets tend to be very bland and monochromatic as they wean from milk. Rice cereal is a good starter option, but heavily relying on this relatively flavorless mush can set the bar for your infant. Try to add as much color and variety to your infant's diet as you can when they transition from a milk diet. Without adding unnecessary amounts of work, add homemade fresh purees whenever possible. Fresh veggies taste so much better than preserved ones, which will help your infant get a more accurate idea of what "green" tastes like.
Don't use food to treat boredom and big emotion
As I've explored my own relationship with food, I've realized a lot of my unhealthy habits come from "self-medicating" with food when I'm bored (about 3 p.m. every day) or emotional (about 9 p.m. every day). There is a cultural tendency to soothe our children this way as well whenever they want attention we can't give or if we're trying to get them to be calm. These habits create strong associations with the purpose of food that can be difficult for our kiddos to undo as they mature into adults.
Try to intentionally soothe emotion or boredom through other methods, like redirecting attention to a book, game, or allowing them to be uncomfortable until they're ready to move on. This doesn't mean you can't ever use snacks in emergencies, but try to be aware of how often you use food to calm the toddler storm.
Stick to an eating schedule
When I realized how often I was casually throwing snacks at my daughter, I switched to an eating schedule. I was shocked how quickly she adjusted--in just a few days she stopped asking for snacks and found something else to do.
We do breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. These meals occur at roughly the same time each day. When my toddler tells me she's hungry, it's usually half an hour before these meals. I let her know food is on the way and that we'll all eat together soon. Very rarely has this resulted in a meltdown. I still make judgement calls if she's really upset, but she has proven to be more resilient that I was giving her credit for.
Research has shown that it takes 7 or 8 tries before you can really form an opinion about a new food. If your little has rejected broccoli in a dramatic fashion, don't give up after 2 or 3 tries. Try different preparations, and use describing language like "crunchy", "green" or "salty" instead of the blanket "like it" or "don't like it".
There is no perfect system for creating a well-adjusted eater. Still, helping children focus on food as a positive, nourishing experience instead of a gratification-centered method of soothing will set the tone for a healthy food relationship the rest of their lives. And it will probably help you be healthier too!
Written by: Kelsie Hasleton