We all want our children to be good eaters so they will be well-nourished and grow to be healthy young people. But children have their own ways of behaving with food. Understanding that children behave differently from adults is the first key to success with helping kids learn to eat well.
Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter, in her book “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” (Bull Publishing Co., 1986, 2000), defines the “division of responsibility” in feeding young children:
The adult is responsible for what is presented to eat and when and where it is provided. The child is responsible for how much and even whether or not to eat.
Her message is parents and child-care providers are responsible to choose and prepare a variety of nutritious foods, provide a regular schedule of meals and snacks, make eating times pleasant and expect age-appropriate behaviors from their children. The children are responsible for everything else.
With the division of responsibility in mind, Satter shares these insights into helping children to be good eaters:
Children challenge themselves to eat. Children are naturally skeptical about new food and cautious about eating it. “New” to children can be a food they haven’t seen before, a familiar food prepared in a different way, or someone they don’t know doing the cooking.
Children learn to like new foods by having them served repeatedly, by seeing their friends eat them, by tasting them many times and by having someone they trust eat the same food with them.
Children need to feel in control of their eating. Kids eat better when they can pick and choose from foods that are available and decide whether and how much they are going to eat. They need the freedom to turn down food they don’t want, or the reassurance they can taste a food and decide not to finish it. When given a “way out” with food, children often will be more daring and cooperative than if they feel they “must” eat.
Children are erratic about their eating. Children have built into them the ability to eat a variety of food. They might eat a lot one day and a little the next, accept a food enthusiastically one day and turn it down the next. Their internal sense of hunger, appetite and fullness is stronger than adults, and they know how much to eat to grow properly. They’re more likely than adults to stop when they are full rather than when the food is gone.
Children waste food. Food consumption surveys show that plate waste goes up when there are children in the family. Adults tend to clean their plates and eat the expensive foods (like meat.) Children often don’t finish their milk. A certain amount of waste is inevitable.
Children won’t eat food that is unappealing to them. Adults eat food because they like it. But they also eat food that doesn’t taste the greatest because the food is good for them or because they paid for it or to keep from getting hungry later. Children don’t. They eat because food tastes good. And they eat what appeals to them right at the moment.
Children need limits. Kids don’t benefit from being allowed to say, “Yuck,” at meal time. They do benefit from learning to be respectful of other people’s feelings. They benefit from learning to turn down food politely (a simple “no thank you” will do), to be matter of fact about choosing not to eat something, and to be subtle about getting something back out of their mouths when they don’t want to swallow it.
If children are rude about food, look for ways grownups are putting pressure on their eating — the kids might be fighting back.
Adult interference can backfire. Parents and child-care providers can only provide a variety of attractive, wholesome food in pleasant surroundings and encourage positive approaches to eating. After that, it is up to the child to eat.
Taken on a day-to-day basis, it can sometimes look like children aren’t accepting foods well. But over the long-term, children will eat and they will learn to like a variety of food. Putting pressure on children to eat more or waste less won’t work. Children eat less well, not better, when they are forced, bribed or cajoled to eat.
Linda K. Beech is Cottonwood District Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.