By Rakia Ranney, RDN
Feeding young children can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting, but it doesn’t have to be! Starting our children off on the right foot with food can set them up for a lifetime of making their own healthy choices. Here are some of my favorite tips and resources for helping young children thrive with food:
- There is no such thing as “kids foods.” Kids’ menus make us believe that our children will only eat mac ‘n cheese, chicken nuggets and plain cheeseburgers. If parents believe this, so will our kids! Children are fully able to eat the same foods that we do, especially if we begin offering them a variety of foods at a young age. Don’t be a short-order cook and make your children separate meals. Family meals are easier on everyone and remind our kids that experimenting with new foods is a fun family activity.
- Follow the division of responsibility. It’s always your child’s decision to decide IF they want to eat, and HOW MUCH. It’s always your decision WHEN the food is being offered, and WHAT you are offering. When we force our children to eat, and to finish their plate, we are telling them from a young age that they shouldn’t listen to their hunger and fullness cues, and we are teaching them to over-eat. Children quickly catch on to this high-pressure environment and often refuse to eat altogether.
- Make meal times a calm, relaxing and supportive experience. Offer choices, but don’t push your children to eat everything. Talk about fun and happy things to help your child develop healthy attitudes around food. Talk in neutral phrases rather than pressuring phrases, saying things like “these radishes are crunchy!” rather than “you have to eat that before you can leave the table.”
- Talk with your child about feelings around food. What does it feel like to be hungry? What does it feel like to be full? How does that make you feel emotionally? Do your feelings change based on where we are eating?
- Don’t offer sweets as a reward. When we offer a cookie for eating their vegetables, we teach children to see sweets as good, and vegetables as bad. Make all foods neutral and fun. Let kids play and experiment with their food, help in the kitchen and go shopping with you at the grocery store.
If you would like more help and guidance around childhood feeding, be sure to see if you qualify for the WIC program! WIC offers free healthy food, breastfeeding support and referrals. With WIC, you also have access to registered dietitians and trained WIC educators to help support your family. See if you qualify and sign up for WIC here.
Here are some great resources to learn more about each of these topics:
- Ellyn Satter Institute
- USDA phrases that help vs hinder
- Kitchen Helper Activities
- Healthy Tips for Picky Eaters
Rakia Ranney is a registered dietitian and lactation consultant for the Jefferson County WIC program. She loves working with families and children off all ages, from infancy and breastfeeding through childhood.