Eating behaviours and skills evolve during the first few years of life; children learn what, when and how much to eat through experiences with food and by observing the eating of others. Positive experiences in the early years can set the foundations for children to grow into confident, happy and healthy eaters for life. We love hearing stories of our clients becoming happy eaters at each and every meal. Here are some of our top tips for setting your kids up for eating success.
Can parents and friends help kids to become confident (and competent) eaters?
YES!!! Just like learning how to get dressed or how to colour in, children learn about eating by seeing others doing so. Research shows that children’s intake of fruits, vegetables and milk from a cup particularly increases when they have seen adults enjoying these foods. Similarly, when children see their friends eating vegetables, their selection and consumption of vegetable intake increases.
The greatest influencers of a child’s fruit and vegetable intake are the availability, variety and repeated exposures to these items. This is why each and every day kids should have a range of fruits and vegetables to “explore”. They should observe adults enjoying eating these and have opportunities to see other kids enjoying them too (think “he eats it at preschool but never at home”). Encouraging kids to explore their food (particular amongst their trusted friends and family) helps build trust of the food and confidence in licking, tasting, biting and eating.
Parents who regularly and happily enjoy a wide range of foods, including those traditionally considered less “kid friendly” should feel confident that they are supporting their child to become a competent, confident (and healthy) eater.
Is it better to give them something they like to eat if they’ve had nothing at all?
NO!! Ignoring a child’s internal hunger cues can negatively influence their confidence in eating. Children who are required to finish everything that is served to them or are pressured to eat a particular food item, tend to have muddled understanding of their appetite and reduced confidence in trying new foods.
Parents should try to consider themselves as the “providers” in the feeding relationship and their child as the “decider”. This means that parents provide a variety of nutritious foods together with a supportive environment and the child can then decide from the items available what they select and how much of it to eat.
Parents should provide regular opportunities (for kids this means 3 main meals and 2-3 in between “mini meals”) to eat and notice that sometimes children will eat a little more at one meal and a little less at another. Remembering that this is part of the eating and learning to eat process. Try not to offer favoured items if a meal isn’t eaten as this can, in the long-term make it hard for a child to feel confident in trying new foods.
Parents who are able to provide regular meals and mid-meals; who are able to encourage but not pressure their child to eat a particular volume or food item and who understand that a child may eat a little more one day and a little less on another can feel confident that they are supporting their child to become a happy and healthier eater.
Is there a role for food as a reward?
Concerns about what a child is (or isn’t) eating can lead parents to providing rewards or incentives for eating differently. These well-meaning practices often lead to unintentional consequences including further “fussy” eating and childhood confusion about why and how to eat. If you think in the mind of a 3-year-old it can be hard to understand why eating food XXXX is rewarded by food YYYY. “Nothing good comes without reward, right?” and this automatically shifts food YYYY to being thought as a better item than XXXX.
Through research we know that pressuring children to consume more fruits and vegetables results in most children eating fewer fruits and vegetables. The same goes when children are rewarded for eating healthy foods, human nature overrides and there becomes a decreased preference for eating these foods in the future.
So how should we approach this? We know that children do respond well to positive reinforcement and positive exposures to food. At mealtimes this can include carers showing children how to be good eaters, providing them with moderate praise about positive things displayed at mealtime (such as “I like the way you sat at the table tonight” or “I like that you had 3 different colours on your plate tonight” rather than “You didn’t eat XXXXX. Don’t use incentives or rewards for eating particular foods as we know this can set up reduced confidence in eating everyday foods (and could lead to an endless shopping list of rewards to buy!).
Piecing it all together, our top tips for raising confident and competent eaters include:
· “Do as I do, not do as I say”. Meaning, parents eat a wide range of healthy food if that’s what they’d like their kids to do too.
· Provide regular (but structured) opportunities to eat. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner +/- supper is needed for most kids
· Avoid food rewards for eating (or not eating). This is really confusing to kids and muddles up their hunger/ eat cues but means loosing “if you don’t eat XXXX you can’t have YYYY”
· Discuss internal cues to eating encouraging a recognition of the bodies needs rather than what the mind might want. “I’m starting to feel a little bit tired. My tummy is rumbling. I’m feeling hungry because it is lunch time soon”
Have mealtime routines which act as "cues' to eating. This is often something as simple as washing hands before going to the table to eat. This transition from one activity to a mealtime signals to the brain and tummy that it is time to eat.
Eating "success" will mean different things to different families. Consistency is key in learning any activity. Be sure to acknowledge your steps in success and don't feel disheartened if each meal doesn't resemble a "made-in-the-movies" style of family dinner (just come back at the next meal and make another step towards your success)