Many unique learners struggle with eating for a variety of reasons. You have probably tried, at one time or another, the ways usually suggested for getting children interested in their meals- putting smaller portions on the plate, letting children serve themselves, making no comment about their eating, and limiting eating to appropriately scheduled mealtimes and snack times. While these techniques often are helpful, they might not have worked immediately for your child.
Worried About Your Child’s Eating?
When your child isn’t eating well, it’s worrisome. You worry that they won’t have enough energy or that they won’t grow. You try coaxing and bribing (“you can have dessert when you eat your broccoli”). Finally, you resort to power and declare they will sit there until they have eaten all their food.
Getting into a power struggle over food is a battle that no one can win. Ultimately you will lose.
Yet you do want your child to eat and to learn healthy eating habits. What can you do?
First, use detective mode (read the article HERE) to determine what is causing the eating problem.
Second, parents need to know that the passage of time and their relaxed attitude toward the situation usually will bring a welcome change. Understanding the nature of growing children and of the family and conflicts that can affect the mealtime atmosphere can be helpful.
Appetite is Variable
Just as children are individuals in other respects, their appetites are uniquely their own and will vary from time to time. Eating habits are formed mostly by early experiences with food and mealtimes. Many different factors determine what children like, how much they eat, and how satisfying mealtimes are to them.
A healthy baby’s appetite is apparent early in life. However, children do not grow at an even pace, but in spurts. When they are growing fast, as in early infancy and in adolescence, their appetites are greater. At other times, such as in the 2nd year, children’s growth rates slow down, and their appetites will decrease, too.
Some children, especially preschoolers, are likely to be limited in their food preferences. Parents may offer food they like, but some children will want to stick to foods they know and like.
Other children may become bored with foods that are offered too frequently. Occasionally, children may refuse to eat food they had liked before, saying, for example, “It has things in it,” “It’s too hot… cold… little… big,” “It’s gross” – or whatever the popular word is in their area.
Meals may be more appealing to children if they are attractive in appearance. A variety of foods can provide differences in colors, textures, flavors, cold and warm, and aroma.
Children will learn to eat most new foods if the introduction is gradual and if a minimum of pressure is put on them to try something new. After the first few refusals, preschoolers usually will sample the new food on their plate, especially if it is served with a familiar food. If refusals continue, you may hold off and re-introduce the food later.
As children become acquainted with food offered by caregivers away from their home, school lunchrooms, and perhaps the tables of other families, their tastes will broaden.
Some children may have food aversions due to sensory defensiveness towards certain foods because of texture, appearance or aroma.
It is important to understand that for these children it isn’t about preference. The food in question is so distasteful to them it could be compared with how you might feel about putting a spoonful of wriggling insects in your mouth.
This is very different from a matter of taste. It is important that you offer what they consider palatable options for these sensory defensive children.
The Parents’ Role
When parents are overly concerned about what children are eating, they interfere with their children’s enjoyment of meals. Children should be allowed to exercise food preferences within reason, such as having food hot or at room temperature, enjoying fruit juice frozen on a stick instead of in a cup, or being able to choose a small or a large serving of a particular food.
Parents should set the goal of offering their child a balance of nutritious foods from the major food groups – bread and cereals; fruits and vegetables; milk and milk products; meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans, dried peas, nuts, and peanut butter.
Not every meal has to be balanced and complete, though. A child occasionally may not have 100% of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance- often seen on labels as U.S. RDA-for all nutrients, which will do no harm.
Dessert should be considered a regular part of a meal and can be nutritious: for example, gelatins, fruits, and graham crackers. Desserts should not be considered to have special importance or to be a reward for eating a meal.
When a parent promotes eating something because “it is good for you” the food sounds like medicine to some children. A hungry child usually will eat. Parents shouldn’t let their children’s natural changes in the eating patterns make them feel inadequate or guilty.
Regular health checkups can help determine if a child is growing and gaining weight normally. A child’s age, physical activity, heredity and family lifestyle are all factors and growth and weight gain.
Parents should consult their child’s doctor if their child has signs of illness, an unexplained major change in mood, or when unusual patterns of eating extend over a long period.
Parents, Children, and Mealtimes
Behavior at meal times is often a reflection of family patterns in general. Children who demand and get excessive valet service, entertainment, and chauffeuring from their parents also frequently use mealtimes to impose on them. If adults submit to children’s whims at other times, they may find themselves submitting to them at mealtimes as well. Parents should feel completely justified in denying individualized food whims that require extra work.
Because children are readily available at meal times, parents, unfortunately, may feel this is a good opportunity to teach or enforce family rules. Assignments are made, progress on previously allotted tasks is checked, and completion schedules are reviewed. While such matters- discussed in small doses at another time and in an age-appropriate way- help accomplish necessary family business, they have a negative influence on a meal.
Parents who tend to over direct their children’s activities usually find meal times another opportunity to do so. They go beyond reasonable directions needed to preserve the enjoyment of the meal for each family member.
For example, they may carry on a running stream of instructions: “Take your elbows off the table. Use your napkin. Don’t gulp your food. Don’t kick the chair.” To make sure the child eats enough food they may issue similar commands: “Eat your string beans. Drink your milk.” Or they may adopt a method of waiting the child out: “We’ll sit here until you are finished.”
The child usually responds by dawdling, daydreaming, and squirming, resulting in still more directives. Unable to meet the parents demand consistently, the child becomes increasingly tense, and he or she often becomes afraid of saying or doing anything for fear of disapproval. A child can concentrate so much attention on achieving perfection that mealtimes often become a difficult chore to face.
Instead, when an occasional remark is necessary, the parent can make a positive statement. A child can be told “You can splash water in the bathtub tonight” when the child starts to splash soup. Or “Peas belong in your mouth or in your dish” when a child drops them from a high chair. Eating is a normal, everyday activity. There is no need to make an overblown issue of criticism – or praise – of food habits.
As with other accomplishments, children grow into adult mealtime behavior slowly. They are able to perform in a completely acceptable way only for relatively brief periods. They learn from the example and guidance of their parents and older brothers and sisters and are encouraged by approval of their successful efforts.
Feelings Flavor Foods
Feelings expressed at meal times are important in setting a favorable environment for the emotional and physical development of a child.
The behavior of both parents and children during a meal is influenced heavily by their attitudes towards one another and themselves. For instance, people are more likely to initiate or heighten conflict if they have had a difficult day or if they are tired or sick.
Mealtimes are an important socializing influence in children’s development. When families sit down to eat, children not only learn about food preferences but also absorb other attitudes and feelings from their parents. Consequently, mealtimes can help children develop positive or negative attitudes about themselves.
Families that enjoy meals together, however, probably will have better appetites and better digestion then families that emphasize the negative. If the food is reasonably varied, and if the atmosphere around the table is one of acceptance and respect for each member as an individual, the meal will be nutritionally and emotionally satisfying.