Strategies to Stop the Food Fights with Your Child
Many parents worry their kids don’t eat enough, eat too much, or are too picky with food choices. Fighting with kids about food is a common occurrence in the United States, and many parents ask for strategies to help feed their child without arguments. The first step is to understand the delineation of roles: it is the parent’s responsibility to feed, and it is the child’s responsibility to eat.
Parents’ basic responsibilities are to provide proper food choices and develop a structure for meals and snacks. Other responsibilities include making eating times pleasant without guilt, shame, or pressure around eating, guiding children on how to act at meals, and letting each child grow into the body that is right for him or her, without expecting them to look a certain way.
Kids thrive with structure, so it is vital to establish a consistent schedule with food choices available for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. While meal times may change depending on the season, children learn how to regulate food intake when they know food will be available at certain times.
When planning meals and snacks, start with a nutritious balance of food including protein from meat (poultry, seafood, eggs, cheese, and beans), carbohydrates (milk, grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables), and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil). Once basic nutrition guidelines are met, add foods that may not be considered “healthy” but are a daily part of our culture such as sweets and crunchy snack foods. If kids have after-school activities, make sure to pack or have extra food available for snacks.
Since children learn and watch their parents’ eating habits, being a positive role model is important. A child is more likely to try an unfamiliar food if they watch a parent eat it first. If a parent restricts food or diets, this can influence a child to restrict or not trust food. Take time to examine your relationship with food and learn to enjoy balance, variety, and moderation. Remember not to judge food as good or bad or make negative comments about weight and bodies.
Analyze how much you pressure your child about eating. Any pressure put on children to eat more or less, or to eat or avoid certain foods will backfire. Food pressure can make kids feel something is wrong with them or the food, can increase or decrease cravings for food, can lead to emotional eating or refusal to eat, and can also blunt hunger and fullness cues.
Learning to trust your child to eat may sound counterintuitive and it takes time to see change. Giving a child the freedom to make their own choices of what to eat from the foods you provide helps them develop a healthy relationship with food. Kids may eat too much or too little or too much “junk” at times, and that is okay. Keep providing balance and variety at consistent times and learn to stay calm. For example, if a child eats very little and then five minutes after the meal asks for ice cream, let them know a snack will be available soon. Expect tantrums when new rules are made, and hold strong to the routine.
Children are responsible for eating and need exposure to many food options with time to explore different tastes and textures. Food is new to young kids, and their brains are rapidly changing – like any habit, this takes time to learn. Kids, like adults, may eat more on some days and less on other days and may refuse a food they ate yesterday. With a wide variety of nutritious food and a schedule of meals and snacks, a child will learn to eat enough to grow properly for their body, enjoy food and the eating experience, and learn to behave at the table. This means the parents can enjoy the meal too!
It takes patience and self-control for a parent not to control their child’s intake but it means freedom for the kids to learn more about food and eating on their own terms. It is also important not to use food as a reward such as “you can have dessert if you eat your vegetables.” This pressure encourages increased cravings for dessert foods, increased avoidance of the food you want them to eat, and sneaking food. Ideas to get kids more interested in food choices include encouraging their help in the kitchen, exploring produce in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, growing veggies or fruits at home, and picking produce at a farm.
Eating meals together strengthens family bonds and improves mental health. Plan to have at least three meals a week when the family sits down together without screens and can catch up with each other. Developing traditions such as Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Whatever Wednesday, Stir Fry Thursday, or Pasta Friday is an easy ritual kids look forward to. Make sure to keep hot topics off the table for a pleasurable experience for everyone.
For picky eaters, offer foods in different ways such as broccoli served raw with dip, cooked with cheese sauce, or added to a stir fry. It can take 15-20 exposures before a child will even taste a food. Parents do not need to prepare a different meal for a child. Aim to serve at least one to two items at meals and snacks you know they will eat. If they refuse all food, have one or two alternate options such as cereal or a sandwich.
Children grow at their own rate. Keep up with your child’s growth chart at pediatrician visits. As long as they are growing appropriately, it is not a cause for concern. If a child rapidly loses or gains weight, talk to your provider about options to help your child get back on track. Stay away from talking about weight with your child and focus on health.
When starting the process of change, take it slow and build habits over time. A first step can be to establish consistent meal times or add more produce to meals and snacks. Stay patient even when you may think nothing is changing or that your kid is eating too much or too little. The long-term goal for our children is for them to grow and develop a healthy relationship with food that lasts a lifetime.
Camille Montes-Ramos is a pediatrician who is fluent in English and Spanish with special interests in childhood education, safety, and advocacy as well as parent-child relations. She is currently accepting new patients. For more information, visit hope-health.org or call 843-432-3700.