What’s your approach to feeding children?
When feeding children, it’s critical to have a balanced approach. Parents need to pay equal attention to WHAT they feed their child, as well as HOW they feed them and WHY they behave the way they do around food and eating. I call this three-prong approach the Fearless Feeding Strategy. We all know that healthy food is important, but the attitudes and actions used with feeding children (HOW parents feed) while understanding and anticipating normal developmental changes throughout childhood (WHY kids eat the way they do) are critical pieces to the feeding puzzle. Using this approach helps parents not only raise healthy eaters and avoid problematic eating but also helps children develop a healthy relationship with food.
Surprisingly, many parents are stumped when it comes to HOW to feed their children. Many parents believe children should be “cleaning their plate.” Other parents feel pressured by society to have lean, fit children, so they may pre-portion meals, regulate second helpings, and take control of their child’s eating in an effort to control their shape and size. These efforts can backfire with overeating, under eating, and/or general unhappiness and insecurity with food and self-confidence. Parents are also surprised by normal child behaviors such as picky eating during toddlerhood, outside influences of friends and school during the school-age years, and dieting experiments during adolescence. When not prepared for these, their responses to these behaviors can cause more problems. By addressing the WHAT, HOW and WHY of feeding kids, parents can learn to shift their focus not only to healthy and nutritious food but also to a healthy feeding dynamic, a positive eating environment, all while navigating the normal nutrition ups and downs of childhood– without fear!
What are three simple, healthy eating approaches parents can use when feeding children?
- Provide structured and predictable family meals that occur about every three to four hours. The role of a meal and snack schedule is to provide the opportunity to eat, which helps children meet their nutritional needs.
- Be responsive with feeding. Recognize hunger in your child. Sometimes kids get hungry, especially during growth spurts, despite a good feeding structure. Make sure hunger isn’t masked as boredom or an emotional response. Acknowledge signs that imply a feeling of fullness and allow your child to stop eating. Lose the agenda on how many bites of food your child needs to eat—this may cause poor eating or overeating.
- Set boundaries around food such as closing the kitchen between meals and snacks, an “ask first” policy for extra snacking, or a stance on the frequency of dining out with a teenager.
What are three ways parents can raise healthy eaters?
- Know the nutrition your child needs. At each stage of development, nutritional needs change, and it’s important to understand this, as well as how to execute good nutrition day to day. Also, certain nutrients become more important at different times, like DHA during infancy, and iron during adolescence. These ins and outs of nutrition are covered in detail in my book, Fearless Feeding
- Use a feeding approach that allows your child to learn self-regulation. This can be done with family-style meals. Simply, the parent is in charge of what will be served for the meal (the menu), and the child decides whether he will eat and how much, from what is offered. The key to success is the parent prepares a well-balanced meal, consisting of most food groups (lean protein, vegetable, fruit, grains, and dairy), and offers a menu that represents foods the family likes, as well as new variety. No pressure, no catering, no substitutions—just a meal the whole family can eat. This is discussed in more detail in the book, helping families (especially parents!) prepare one meal for the whole family, and lighten the burden of executing family meals.
- Start the conversation about hunger and fullness early. As young as toddlerhood, parents can use terms like “happy belly” vs. “hungry belly” to identify hunger and fullness. Support food choices by saying things like, “this food is good for your body and will help you get strong and powerful”. Additionally, ongoing “nutrition talk” throughout stages of development is very helpful in raising a healthy eater. After all, parents are the primary nutrition educator in their child’s life! Topics about nutrition, food, body shape, and size will undeniably come up in conversation over the years, and I encourage families to use these moments to teach, act as a role model and use positive responses to preserve your child’s nutrition intuition and healthy relationship with food. There are lots of examples and sample responses parents can use in the book!
Can you explain to our readers what creating a healthy rhythm to eating means?
A rhythm with eating is created through predictable and reliable meal times, which are different in every family. Children feel secure when they know meals occur on time and they are going to be fed. Parents sometimes get caught up in the timing of meals, when in reality, timing can be flexible as long as the food is offered every 3 to 5 hours, depending on the age of the child.
What are the barriers in raising healthy eaters?
There are so many barriers to raising healthy eaters today—in fact; I believe it’s harder than ever before! Parents today, through no fault of their own, are less prepared to feed their children. Many parents struggle with meal planning, cooking, and basic parenting skills—and it’s not surprising when you consider the elimination of home economics in school, shortened healthcare provider interactions and a fast-paced life with dual income families. Then we have the plethora of conflicting messages in the media. Mass marketed fast and convenient foods side by side with diet products and weight loss cures and thin models that don’t realistically represent the average American. All said, the food environment we live in makes it hard for parents to raise healthy eaters—but it’s not impossible! Fearless Feeding takes away the fear, and helps parents on the long journey to raising healthy eaters!
What is your family’s “go to meal” on a busy day?
My “go to meal” on a busy day is a Crock pot dinner. One of our family favorites is a stew that includes a lean cut of beef, onion, and water, slow-cooked in the crockpot, I shred the ingredients and serve them over egg noodles along with a side of peas. My family also enjoys shrimp scampi over angel hair pasta—this is a quick meal using frozen, uncooked shrimp, sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. If a busy day creeps up on me, I often prepare a Caesar salad with sliced chicken breast and homemade croutons or pasta with sautéed veggies. To all our meals, I add a bowl of fruit, salad, and a glass of low-fat milk to the menu.
What are some strategies families can use to create diversity in their food habits?
To increase diversity in what children eat, exposure is the way to go! Including a variety of new foods in combination with familiar foods allows a child to feel secure and unthreatened by the new food. Also, sharing food from your plate with your young child, particularly something unfamiliar, provides a secure environment in which she can try something new, and strengthens trust between the parent and child.
One strategy I encourage families to do is add fruit to every meal. I encourage the concept that “fruit is always a yes.” Whenever hunger sets in, a piece of fruit can satisfy and provide good nutrition. Make sure there are different fruits available and substitute whole fruit with berries or cut up fruit to keep things interesting and colorful.
What are three simple steps families can use that make mmealtimea family affair?
- Set a minimum number of family meals you will have together in a week. Research has shown that eating together as a family at least five times per week can help your child eat more healthfully, perform better academically, cut down on the likelihood of childhood obesity, and for teens, reduce risk-taking behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.
- Allow children to participate in the meal preparation and process. Children can help with food preparation, such as assembling a salad, cutting fruit, setting the table, or boiling pasta, depending on their age. Check out the Super Crew Guide to Cooking with the Kids.
- Challenge your child to come up with meal options for the week that include the major food groups. It will help them understand what constitutes a well-balanced meal and can help them learn to choose healthy options when at school or at a friend’s house. Ask your children what they would like to eat and be sure to include an item or two that was requested in the meal plan.
How can a parent encourage healthy eating in school or other environments that are surrounded by packaged foods high in sugar and salt?
I encourage families to use the 90:10 Rule, eating Nourishing and Half-and-Half Foods about 90% of the time and Fun Foods (soda, desserts, fried foods) about 10% of the time. Children can choose one to two Fun Foods on average each day, which helps keep a cap on eating too much of these foods. Fearless Feeding provides details on which foods fall into each category, helping families strike a healthy balance with food.
I also think it’s important to normalize all foods, i.e.,., not glorify food as better than any other food and not vilify food as horrible to eat and/or horrible for you. Children are learning a lot about food, and in reality, all foods are legal—it’s the balance and frequency of eating that matters most.
Last, I encourage families to help their child anticipate what will be offered in certain situations outside of the home, and plan in advance. For example, if your child is going to a school function and wants money to buy something at the concession stand, discuss the potential options a concession stand offers, and how those fit into their day of eating.
What’s your approach to feeding preteens or teenagers?
Preteens and teens are very aware of the food world around them. Get tweens and teens interested in preparing a couple meals for themselves each week, here are some no-cook meal assembly ideas. While they will try different approaches with eating, parents are still the most powerful role model of nutrition and activity out there! I encourage parents to be great role models:
- Have kitchen cabinets stocked with healthy food; your kids are going to grab whatever is there.
- Don’t worry about what is eaten when they are not home. You can only control what is in your own kitchen. Let them experiment. If they are happy with the nutrition and feeding they grew up with, they will likely come back to it.
- Consider a nutrition class if you’re not comfortable with the topic. Even better, take one together!
- Have a family mantra. Mantras or policies set the tone and reference point when your child goes out in the world. For example, “Our family eats real food most of the time,” “I don’t believe in dieting,” or “All foods are legal—it’s the overall balance that matters most.”
Jill Castle is a childhood nutrition and feeding expert, and the co-author Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. She has practiced as a registered dietitian in the field of pediatric nutrition for over 20 years. A former pediatric nutrition private practice owner, she currently shares her expertise through writing, blogging, consulting and speaking. You can find out more about Jill at www.JillCastle.com and the book at www.FearlessFeeding.com.