There is a father in my neighborhood who is eager to feed his three children well. He buys organic foods, limits sugar and has planted a backyard garden with his kids. He says his wife undermines his efforts, bringing sweets and packaged foods into the house, offering dessert every night and letting the kids graze until they aren’t hungry for dinner. He and his wife bicker about this constantly, often in front of the kids.
This does nothing but confuse the children and make them feel guilty if they choose to side with one parent (likely the one offering dessert). Parental fighting at the table can create negative memories of mealtimes and a negative association with food, often leaving kids ashamed that they want the food that started the argument. A calm, happy dinner table is an important nutrient in a child’s diet, equal to the ever- present vitamins and protein.
Feeding kids is a central, daily part of parenting, so it is a subject on which parents should come together. Kids search for ideas of how they should eat from their most trusted sources of information, their parents. No wonder so many kids are confused about how to eat — they could be observing opposing models at every meal.
Many parents’ perspectives of food and parenting in general come from their own childhood experiences. It is almost as if their ghosts of childhood past have a place and a voice at the family dinner table, making the messages even more layered.
To prevent confusion and arguments about feeding children, I suggest parents discuss the following eight topics. From these conversations, create a family plan to turn to when a toddler tosses yet another plate of food onto the floor, a second-grader begs for dessert or a teen ate too much candy after school and isn’t hungry for dinner. If parents do not have a plan, these situations can make emotions run high at the dinner table and cause parents to argue and contradict each other.
These conversations are important for parents who are just embarking on the feeding adventure, as well as those who have older kids. It is never too late for parents to get in sync.
Do you have set mealtimes? How about set snack times? Do the kids eat with the adults? How often would you like to have family dinner? Does the kitchen close at any point, or can children help themselves if they are hungry?
Should children try one bite of everything served, and are there consequences if they do not? Where do you stand on seconds and thirds? Is technology allowed at the table? Are kids expected to stay seated at the table throughout the entire meal? Do children have to clear their plates and do the dishes? What table manners are important? Is it okay to call your child a picky eater?
What is your approach to “sometimes foods”? What packaged, sweet or unhealthy foods are you comfortable having in the house? What constitutes a healthy meal? Is it worth paying steeper prices for organic foods or grass-fed meats, or would you rather spend your pennies elsewhere?
Determine how often to serve dessert. Will it be served even if the child does not eat a healthy dinner? What constitutes dessert?
Bribes and Consequences
Will you bribe your child to eat vegetables with the promise of a scoop of ice cream, or is bribing off-limits? If your children do not finish dinner, eat certain foods or try one bite, will there be consequences, such as no dessert or limited tech time?
Pressure and control
Are you okay with pressuring, reminding, begging, encouraging or cajoling your child to eat a meal, snack or vegetable? How much will you control your child’s food intake? How much autonomy will your children have in their feeding? Is your control or flexibility appropriate for your kids’ ages? Toddlers require more rules and structure than emerging teens, who need to be making some of their own decisions.
Who does the food preparation, and what are the attitudes around it? Is Mom overwhelmed by the cooking? Are the kids learning that cooking is a chore and something to dread? Are the kids expected to be involved in meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking or doing dishes? Do your kids pack their own lunches or make their own breakfasts? Get clear on roles and expectations and then evaluate the messages you are sending with your attitudes.
How do you want to teach your children about food and nutrition, and what are the main messages you want to convey?
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, March 16th, 2017.