I realise that this is not a sleep related blog post but I am often asked about this topic from worried and stressed parents.
If you have a child in the house whom is past weaning age then you will be familiar with this situation:
You make a yummy and healthy breakfast for your Little Darling and they turn their nose up at it stating that they are not hungry, you then encourage them to eat which in turn leads to more refusal on their part and this is where frustation on both sides starts to come in. Eventually, you give in and end up offering them what they want to eat because well mainly, it is better that they eat something instead of not eating anything at all.
Or perhaps you do stick to your guns and do not give in to their demands in the hope that they will eventually be hungry enough to give in, Then 20 minutes later, they are crying for snacks and juice where the battle continues to the point where they are in meltdown and you are almost on the verge of meltdown also.
I appreciate that this is a tough situation as you are stick between two options that are not that great. You do not want your Little Darling to be hungry but you also very much do not want to keep giving in and allowing them only eat foods that have no nutritional value. I know most children's cereal aren’t exactly unhealthy, but they don’t offer everything a child needs from their diet either. We are desperate to get some variety in our children's diet, but every time they see anything with some colour, they immediately shy take a disking to it.
To people who do not have children, I can see how this conundrum sounds amusing. However, it is actually a serious issue.
The issue is that too much pressure on a child to eat can set up a resentment towards mealtimes and a bad relationship with food in general that can last well past their formative years.
How do we solve this issue? I am not a nutritionist or a child psychologist but here are things which have helped in my life:
Understand Your Role
You are the parent and we tend to see ourselves as the authority figure in the household, but let’s be truly honest for a moment, because when it comes to eating, our ability to actually enforce the rules is somewhat limited. This is because we don't have the ability to actually force our Little Darlings' to eat and therefore, we don't actually hold the power.
The role of the parent is not to decide how much of a food your child will eat. You are in charge of buying food, making the meals, and deciding on times for them to eat.
Your child is in charge of how much they eat or leave and you can not control that.
Make a Schedule for Meal and Snacks
Young children are in a growth phase where they are high on output but have a limited capacity for input. This means that they are full of energy but their tummies are not big enough for them to fuel their levels of energy for very long. Therefore, I recommend offering a meal or a snack every two hours. Once your child is awake, offer breakfast and then two hours later, offer a snack. This will lead to lunch time usually being two hours after the snack and then the next snack around 2pm. You can then offer a further snack at 4pm with dinner at 6pm.
Please don't take this as a set in stone feeding schedule but it does give you a template to follow to ensure you are offering food at good times.
What I want you to be very strict on is offering snacks in between those two hour gaps. I also want you to be very diligent about offering up their go to (usually not so healthy snacks too).
If your child knows that they just need to wait a while after you offer breakfast in order to get their favourite snack, they will do so!
Offer Up Choices
With each meal and snack, I recommend that you offer three choices.
Honestly I am not suggesting you cook three different meals every two hours. The choices can be small but the main thing is that they are reasonably healthy. For example you may offer toast with butter, cereal or banana. Your Little Darling can eat any of what you have laid out but nothing else.
Let's imagine you are making pasta for tea, you could do a salad as well as a side dish. This does not have to be fancy but maybe broccoli or green beans and then serve those too. This gives your child options and can take some of the edge off the demands for alternatives.
Leave Them Be
You have now set a feeding schedule and provided them with options, the rest of it needs to be their choice. If they decide to eat all of the pasta but no veg that is fine. If they decide to eat the salad and nothing else, that is also fine. If they want to eat mashed potato on top of that salad, that is also fine. You need to give them control over what they eat and it will take the stress away from everyone at the dinner table. It will honestly create a much more positive association towards food, eating and mealtimes.
Young children do possess the ability to have judgements about food before even tasting them. They will swear they don't like asparagus before even allowing it to pass their lips.
They rarely take to a food before they have become familiar with it by their eyes and smell. Therefore, don't give up offering as they say it takes up to five times for a child to accept a new food.
Be a Good Example
If you don't take food seriously then the chances are that your child will not either. I am not even talking about nutrition here, I am more talking about the preparation of food as well as the enjoyment around food.
Making the effort to prepare balanced and delicious meals is a priority for the whole family. It can be a positive force behind mealtimes. If you treat food as just fuel then your child will also pick up on that. If you make it a fun, social and family aspect then they will have that positive association with food and family from an early age.
Please don't get me wrong, fast food should never be off the meal schedule but it should be a treat and not the norm.
Avoid Using Negative Labels
I personally believe that adult's also need to embrace this too. We do tend to look at foods as either 'good' or 'bad'. Most dieticians will say that most foods can be reasonably healthy but usually in moderation. On the flip side, only eating a 'good' food and nothing else can be just as unhealthy.
If your child witnesses you refusing a certain food because they 'are not good for you' then they are also likely to associate negative feelings towards food as a whole, as well as avoiding unfamiliar foods.
In summary it is important that you stick to a schedule, be patient, offer choices and foster positive food associations!
In both feeding and sleeping, it is our Little Darlings' that have the lead on what they want to do. We can not force them to eat or to sleep but we can try and teach them positive associations with both.