Oct 032012

Boy apple pickingKids and food.   As parents, we agonize, cajole, bribe, worry and stress about what our kids are eating, when they are eating it and whether or not they are eating enough or too much. From birth, mamas worry about the amount of breast milk they produce or how many ounces of formula our infant is getting. We count ounces and feedings and wonder whether we can impact an infant’s sleep pattern by feeding them more or less at certain times.  We stress about when to introduce foods and at what rate and in what order. And once our kids are eating solids, we worry that they aren’t eating enough or are eating too much or want too much sugar. We use sweets to get them to eat protein and hide vegetables in muffins. From a very early age, the foods our children put in their bodies become intimately intertwined with hidden agendas, rewards for good behaviors, power and control.

We want to control what they eat. But what they allow to go into their bodies is one of the few areas of pure control a child has. It is pretty hard to force someone to eat when push comes to shove. And, for some families, that is what mealtime feels like. Pushing and shoving.

Have you ever heard yourself say these things?

“He just won’t eat vegetables.”

“She doesn’t eat enough.”

“He is eating too much. “

“Mealtime is so stressful.”

“All she will eat is [insert food of choice here].”

It is easy to blame the child for her food choices, but the truth is that the way we communicate about food and the options we offer set the stage for a child’s relationship with food. If we want a child to have a healthy relationship with food, then we need to be creating an environment in which she can build an understanding of what food is and what it does for her body.

Child Eating

  • What Food Is
    • Food is nourishing your body.
    • Food is making sure you have enough energy to run and jump and play.
    • Food is helping your body to grow.
    • Food is available when you need it.
    • Food is about learning to listen to your body. Our body knows when it needs more food.
    • Food comes in many colors and flavors, shapes and sizes.


  • What Food Is Not
    • Food is not necessary when you don’t need it.
    • Food is not a reward.
    • Food is not a punishment.
    • Food is not a power struggle.
    • Food is not about love.
    • Food is not about anger.
    • Food is not about worry or fear.

When we use food as a reward or punishment (“If you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” “If you don’t sit still, then you can’t have ice cream later.”), we are essentially bypassing a child’s natural relationship with food and making food about our child’s relationship with us (“I am pleased when you eat all of your dinner. I am worried when you don’t eat your protein.”). When we try to force the issue, it turns into a power struggle. Now the conflict is between the parent and child. The food gets lost in the mix!

Rather than eating because they want to make mom happy or because there are starving children in China or because they want ice cream for dessert, we want children to eat because their bodies are telling them that they are hungry and because they understand and enjoy the process of taking care of their body.

Helping children develop a healthy relationship with food is simple, but it does take some soul-searching on our part. The first step is to understand your own relationship with food.  What are your own control issues, triggers, fears or anxieties related to food? It is important to be aware of what is going on inside of us. When we are able to model a healthy relationship with food, we offer a foundation and environment that allows children to explore and develop their own relationship with food naturally.

Here are some ideas for helping your children explore and develop their relationship with food:

Getting to know food

  • Offer a wide variety of foods, colors, textures, tastes and smells.
  • Talk about the food. What does it look like? Smell like? What does it feel like in our mouth and belly?
  • Allow children to be involved in the food preparation. Everything from tending a vegetable garden, to grocery shopping, to food preparation, to planning a whole meal. Involve them as much as possible, as often as possible, in every way possible.
  • Talk about the nutrients in food and what they do for you while you are eating the food. (“Will you pass the beans? Beans have a lot of protein. That helps our muscles get strong. Why do you think you need strong muscles?”)
  • Never force a child to eat. If a child says he isn’t hungry, believe him. Encourage him to check in with his own body. (“You are not eating very much tonight. What does your tummy say?”)
  • Don’t offer “special kid food.” If children don’t want to eat what is offered for dinner, that’s okay. They don’t have to, but there aren’t any other options.  This isn’t a power struggle and it isn’t a negotiation. It just is what it is. “Here is what is available, so listen to your body and eat what you need to.” Don’t make it a power struggle between you and the child. (Most kids won’t starve themselves. They will eat when they are hungry and if they are hungry they will eat what is available—unless they know that holding out will result in having their favorite food later! If you are very worried that your child isn’t growing, talk to your pediatrician. But most parents who worry that their child isn’t eating have children who are growing and thriving just fine. )
  • If a child will eat only a particular food, stop offering it for a while.
  • Remember that kids’ taste buds are growing and changing, and their experience with food is growing and changing. Rather than saying, “He doesn’t like broccoli,” say, “You didn’t feel like eating broccoli tonight, but maybe you will next time.” In the same way, if you have your own food dislikes, talk about them in the same way. Try not to say things like, “Dad doesn’t like any kind of green vegetable.”
  • Remember that dessert is not a necessity. We don’t need it, our kids don’t need it. It’s certainly fun and delicious, but if you are trying to help your child relearn her relationship with food, consider taking dessert off the menu for a while.
  • Offer as many whole food options as possible. Rather than offering processed foods, or foods with other foods hidden within, try offering each food separately. Being able to taste each individual food can help a child become comfortable and familiar with the tastes, smells, and textures of each food.
  • Find what works for your family regarding mealtime rules and stick with them. Establish rules and boundaries like, “You can be done whenever you feel full, but once you get down from the table, the meal is over for you.” Then stick to them. When these types of boundaries are unclear, children are sure to test limits or engage in power struggles!

Helping our children develop a healthy relationship with food means that we have to take ourselves out of the mix. In the same way that we want them to learn communication skills, problem-solving skills, and empathy, we want them to understand the role of food in their life and to learn to enjoy the process of tending to their own body. When we as parents stop engaging in power struggles over food, it becomes easier to create an environment in which our children can engage in their relationship with food.

Want more? Here are two of my favorite websites focused on supporting our children’s relationship with food. Visit Spoonfed at http://spoonfedblog.net/  and 100 Days of Real Food at http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/.

 Posted by at 10:59 am

  16 Responses to “Kids And Food: A Budding Relationship”

  1. Hi Darci and Julie, I love this! Have you read any of Ellyn Satter’s work? She wrote about “normal eating” and it sounds so similar to what you share. If you’ve never read it, you might a like-minded soul. http://www.ellynsatter.com/what-is-normal-eating-i-62.html Thanks for your thoughts! Emily

    • Emily, thank you!!! I love her site, especially the drop down menu for “what to feed children” divided into ages! She gives great specific ideas that can really help families build healthy food relationships! – Darci

  2. Thank you SO much for this great article – I have drama’s everyday with my 20 month old, and dinner times have become a ‘nightmare’ so this was a hugely refreshing read – it’s really changed the way I think about her food (and mine!) and how to approach feeding time at the zoo 😉 THANK YOU

  3. Just found your site and am finding it to be helpful, thanks! I can’t say I have the food thing completely worked out with our 3-yr-old but I *think* I’m starting to see some benefit from our struggle and wanted to offer our approach, and possibly hear your take.

    I learned in a nutrition class that it takes around 15 times of tasting a food before a person can really know if they like it, so that, combined with wanting to instill a sense of gratitude has led us to “thank you bites”. We ask our son to take at least one bite of each food on the plate to say thank you to the person that prepared the meal. He can eat as much of each item as he wants after that and can get down from the table after his thank you bites as well. We do give him a mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and bedtime snack, so that allows him to eat less at a meal if he doesn’t like the food; but we keep the snacks healthy and try to have some variation. There is coercion on occasion to eat a bite of something he really thinks he doesn’t like, but since its only one bite I feel pretty comfortable with that. We have also discussed how when we were kids we didn’t like such and such food at first, but now we really like it. And, recently we had a breakthrough where he decided he likes carrots and celery, after protesting them for months, and he proudly announced that he liked them because he was growing bigger. I think it’s because he had tried them enough times for his palate to get used to the taste.

    We do tell him that he has to eat more than just one thank you bite of his meals if he wants to have a treat, which we call a “sometimes food” and don’t have all that often. So, for example, he had some Halloween candy and we have let him eat a piece of candy after a meal if he ate a good amount of healthy food (defined depending on what the foods/meals are). We explain that its important for his body to have all the healthy food (“everyday food”) it needs before he eats the sometimes foods, which aren’t healthy. We also talk about what the healthy foods do for his body, and what sugar does as well. I see that as slightly different than using food as a reward to get him to eat something.

    I hope we are instilling some politeness, gratitude, willingness to try new foods, and hopefully a healthy approach to food in general. Its so hard to know if we’re doing things right! Thanks for addressing this important topic.

    • Hi Maureen,

      Wow, I love the idea of “thank you bites” and the sentiment behind them. It seems to connect the source of food, preparation, etc. It also sounds like it is working for your son and your family which, at the end of the day, is the most important part!

      I think it is very true that it can take a person (and child) many repeat tastings to really know if they truly don’t like something. Because of this, I generally recommend avoiding (at all cost) using language such as “you don’t like carrots….” I think that this label of liking or not liking certain foods can influence a child’s relationship with food almost as much as a true underlying dislike of something can! Rather, whenever a child protests, I recommend simply saying “okay, today you don’t feel like eating carrots. Maybe tomorrow you will.” And then continue to offer the food without prejudice. Like you found out, it isn’t uncommon for kids to suddenly like something they have been refusing, as long as we haven’t sealed the deal!

      I also really like that you talk about what the healthy foods do for his body and what sugar does as well. Kids take in this information, even at a very early age, if we offer it and building their food competence can really impact their willingness to eat or try different things.

      Thanks for sharing your strategies!
      – Darci

  4. I’m wondering if you can speak to kids who have hyper-sensitive taste. My son, his whole life (he’s 13), has gagged with certain tastes or textures. I might mark it up to drama had I not had the same thing with certain foods as a kid. My parents thought I was making it up, but there were certain foods that kicked off a very real gag reflex in me, and in my son it’s even stronger–it can be based on taste or smell. So the section about “don’t offer any alternatives to what you’re having for dinner, your child will eat if they’re hungry” feels like it falls short under this circumstance. We try to cook meals that have components that everyone likes, but sometimes we want to cook something different and feel the need to serve him something he can eat.

    • Hi Wendy,
      I remember having a similar reaction to fish when I was a young child. Somewhere along the line, my aversion disappeared and it is now one of my favorite things to eat, although I have no recollection of when or how that happened. I think that a child can have a strong reaction to something, not like a smell or a texture or a taste at one point, and then like it later. Sometimes that changes day to day, sometimes it may be over the course of weeks, months or years. Tastes change as we grow and I think there are multiple factors involved (social, emotion, physical, developmental). Our reactions to their changing preferences can really impact the natural course of their developing relationship with food.

      If you know that a child has a strong reaction to a specific food:
      1) Continue to talk about that only in the present tense, rather than an unchangeable truth about him.
      2) Continue to offer it whenever it makes sense for your family, but don’t expect them to “force it down” or even try it every time.
      3) When that food is on the menu, make sure that it is not a “one-dish-dinner” and that there are other options available.

      So, let’s say fish is the culprit, the family may have fish one night per week. The child may not choose to serve themselves fish, but may fill up on the broccoli, quinoa, rice, etc. that is offered along with the meal. They will still have the opportunity to get enough food and have the autonomy to choose not to eat the fish if they don’t want it, but still be eating what the family is eating. If the family avoids using language such as “oh, he just wont eat fish” then one day, as his taste buds change and grow, he may decide to eat it. Or not. There is still plenty of food available.

      Additionally, at 13, a child is plenty old to be involved in food preparation, meal planning etc. Maybe on days when the family is going to eat something that he is sensitive too, he could be responsible for choosing and preparing the side dish. Again, allows him the space to not eat the food in question, yet still be eating what the family is eating. If he is sensitive to a lot of foods, having him involved may be a way of exploring other options of foods he may be interested in and widening his menu options.

      Without knowing more specifics it is hard to problem solve, but I am happy to talk further about it if you want.


  5. Great article, it has a bit of a tendency towards getting children to eat, I would love to hear more about dealing with a child with overeating tendencies, who eats till she is too full, because it tastes good,despite many helpful messages about health and listening to her body for years now. I struggle with teaching healthy messages about her body and setting limits with food while not giving her a life long struggle with body image and weight.

    • Hi Topa, Thanks for your comments. This is certainly a concern for many parents. I think that the response may depend greatly on how old your child is. Young children can go through growth spurts in which they consume incredible amounts of food. Some parents worry that allowing a toddler or preschooler to each a seemingly adult size portion is indicative of lifelong problems. Then days later, the same child will turn away food leaving us to worry they aren’t eating enough. Sometimes what seems like over-eating may be a child just taking what their body needs. If your pediatrician is not worried about your child’s weight, then trusting the child is eating the right amount is probably a safe bet.

      Whether we want to set up good habits, or change existing ones, I think there are a few key ideas that can be helpful.
      1) Make sure that the food that is available is healthy food. If we don’t want our kids to eat sweets, then we shouldn’t have sweets in the house. Make fruits and vegetables available anytime a hungry kid needs them, or at regularly scheduled snack times, depending on age and family culture. If a child is hungry, they can have all the apples or carrot sticks they want. Chips, cookies, processed foods are simply not available on a regular basis.
      2) Make small servings the norm. Give (or allow a child to serve themselves) small servings of each of the food choices for dinner. Eat with your child. Slowly. Talk about the food, talk about how it tastes, talk about how it feels in your body. But also talk about the day, the movie you saw earlier, the game you played on the playground. If a child wants more, they can have more. Small servings each time.
      3) Remember that body images, weight, and relationship with food is more than just what happens at the table. Making sure kids get outside, minimizing screen time, increasing body movement, all have huge impact on obesity. Healthy body image starts with having role models who have healthy body images and healthy relationships with food!
      4) Use language that helps a child be aware of their body. For young children you could say, “You want more? What does your belly say?” Maybe help a child who eats too much understand that their tummy hurts because they overate. “Your belly hurts. What does it feel like? Do you think you have too much food in it?” If a child is serving themselves, ask them “Can you serve yourself a reasonable amount? How much is reasonable? How much do you think your belly needs?” You can model this by saying things like “Wow, that was so good, but my body is telling me to stop.” Kids learn a lot from watching us!

      Offering lots of healthy options, varying the food choices and eliminating unhealthy options can go a long way in teaching kids to appreciate food and what it does for their body!

  6. I can not tell you how much I love this post. I feel like you were inside my head as I feel the exact same way. I just had a conversation with someone about this very thing. Great job!!

  7. Great post! We are very much on the same page… Come by the blog some time :-) You might enjoy this post in particular: http://frenchfoodiebaby.blogspot.com/2012/12/salmon-wrapped-leeks-au-gratin-and-7.html :-)

  8. AMEN!!!!

  9. […] Darci Walker has an amazing piece about Kids and a Budding Relationship with Food […]

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