Ten tips for getting the balance right with kids and food
Where on the 'food spectrum' do you sit as a parent?
There is the 'anything goes' approach to food. The 'Soft drink in the baby bottle won't hurt them will it?' end of the spectrum.
Then there's the other end. The 'I've grown every ingredient for this snack in my own backyard' and 'My kids don't know what sugar is' end of the spectrum. This is the end of the spectrum I am personally more familiar with and the end of the spectrum that induces the most parenting guilt.
You do spend a lot of your time thinking about food as a mum. It's starts the minute they are born and on it goes. I learnt a lot about the impact of food chemicals when my eldest child was diagnosed with a significant number of intolerances and allergies. It simplified our diet immensely and in general gave us a healthier diet.
I do find parental anxiety about food, a little worrying though. I think by making a big 'thing' of food, we pass that anxiety on to our kids. I think our job is to model a normal relationship to food. Talking about food all the time is not healthy - either junk food or good food. The purpose of the food we eat is to keep us alive and healthy. Sometimes we lose perspective of that when we tend to either end of the spectrum.
Anyway, here are my top tips when it comes to kids and food (and I am by no means an expert, just sharing accumulated thoughts):
1. Eat as many meals as possible at the table. This is not always easy to do, but do it. It is vitally important for little kids to watch how adults eat. Kids will eat food better when they do it socially. They'll be more adventurous when they see others do it.
2. Be consistent. Give them vegetables as a normal part of every meal. Even a 'junky' meal. Have some carrots or cucumber on offer. Almost all of my kids would not eat vegetables for years. I just kept plonking it on their plate every night, and it became normal. Not all of them are vegetable lovers today but they have mostly accepted that they are not going away and will eat the token, required quantity.
3. Let them have some chips or lollies every now and then as a treat food. It will make birthday parties less embarrassing because they won't gorge themselves in public! And helps model how to manage 'treat food'. However, the challenge then is to not justify every second event in a child's life as deserving of a treat.
4. They don't need to eat all the time. If they don't like what's on offer for dinner, they can go to bed without it. Truly, breakfast is coming. I think it is very rare for Western kids to learn the sensation of hunger and it makes it hard for them to gauge when they are genuinely hungry or just bored. My kids LOVE eating when bored - kind of fills in the time.
5. Don't cook lots of options. Just give them what you are eating, whether they like it or not. I sometimes have to modify a meal for the allergic child, but it is only ever a slight modification, not a separate meal. It is good for kids to learn that some meals they won't like, because they live in a family with other people - it is part of sharing. And remember point 4 - if they don't like it, they will be OK!!!
6. I always insist that they give meals a go - at least a couple of mouthfuls. For years my kids would say 'Yuck, I don't like that' as their first point of call in response to an unfamiliar/unloved meal. They now know they can't complain and say they don't like it (I get super cranky when they complain about food - it is such an effort to produce it) and they have to give it a go. Often they have surprised themselves.
7. Accept that your meal times are not always going to be a picture of loving happiness and beautiful family time when they are little. We had a lot of crying, negotiating the number of peas to be consumed, 'hands on the wall' (our time-out), kids on our laps, us helping them eat. It was a madhouse. But now it is nice and they are OKish in public. Persevere.
8. Snacks - I have spent the last 15 year reminding the kids that morning and afternoon tea are NOT MEALS!! They are good for toddlers, who like hobbits, seem to need to eat every 5 seconds. But once they are older (at least by school age), I have tried to slow the snacking down, because remember point No. 4. They will also eat main meals better and complain less because they are genuinely hungry.
9. It is OK to eat the same thing lots of times as long as it is nutritious. I grew up in India. Lots of kids I grew up with ate the same thing for every meal. It's OK to not have a massive variety. In saying that, neither Rowan or I love the spaghetti bolognaise (the enthusiasm has not waned at the kid end of things however!).
10. Keep junky food out of the house. I looked at my shopping trolley the other day. I realised that I buy a lot of apples and bread. They are allowed to help themselves to apples or make toast if they are hungry. Deliberately not exciting, but at least vaguely nutritious and will fill them up.