I’m no parenting expert, but I’ve learned a lot over the years, from raising my own kids to working with thousands of families. As a parent of adult children, I’ve learned how to parent through a set-back and through opportunities. As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve spent many years watching parents manage their children’s eating.
In this article, you’ll learn about:
- the importance of parenting food and raising good eaters
- reciprocal trust with feeding
- structure, guided food choices and food boundaries
- how to help your child build autonomy with food choices and eating
Being a Good Food Parent Has Little to Do with Food
There’s a lot of advice about food. How to get the right amounts. How to make sure it’s healthy. But there’s a whole other aspect about feeding kids that has nothing to do with food.
It’s how you feed your child, or what is known as parenting food. I’ve taught other nutrition professionals in an in-depth workshop about food parenting, and now I’m bringing this information to you. Getting your food parenting muscle toned and strengthened is a worthy endeavor.
It makes feeding your child easier.
Perhaps you’re well-informed about nutrition and feeding kids, but many parents are not. They didn’t get the education they need to succeed in this area. So let’s get started with the basics of food parenting.
Before we get started, I want you to know there’s a lot to learn here, and I teach ALL of it in my class, The Nourished Child® Blueprint. This “masterclass” is a soup to nuts nutrition class for parents of children aged 3 to 18 years and includes the basics of healthy food balance for each age, positive feeding approaches, and how to build a self-regulated, autonomous eater who has a healthy relationship with food.
Parenting Food Effectively Has Everything to Do with Your Feeding Practices
When I first opened my business over 12 years ago, my mantra was “It’s not about eating, it’s about feeding.” I was so taken with feeding styles and feeding practices, I included it in all my nutrition education topics, and focused on the feeding aspect when counseling my clients.
Why is it so powerful, you wonder?
Feeding has the power to shape the relationship your child establishes with food and eating. And that, my friend, influences your child’s food decisions, eating habits, regulation, and perhaps even her body image and self-worth.
There a few fundamental concepts to familiarize yourself with when it comes effectively feeding your child:
1. Understand the Importance of Trust and Feeding Your Child
We know when babies are born, the most important thing they need to learn is trust. Trust that you will take care of their every need, including nourishment, warmth and physical contact, for example. If a parent fails to meet a baby’s needs, the trust may erode. When a child can’t trust his parent, there may be ramifications to the relationship and it may become difficult to trust anyone else.
When it comes to feeding, your child needs to trust that you will provide food that satisfies her and supports her growth, development and health. The reciprocal is true, too. You need to trust your child, as well. Trust that she will eat enough to nourish her body to grow well.
It’s a dynamic process, this trust thing. Feeding your child won’t work well if you don’t trust her, or she doesn’t trust you.
2. Schedules and Structure Give Rhythm to the Day
I’m a big fan of schedules, structure and a general rhythm to the day when it comes to eating and feeding. Regular times for meals and snacks offer a child a predictability they can count on throughout their day. Your child can rely on the when (timing) of eating and the where (location). The reliability of meals and snacks allows your child to develop a rhythm to eating that supports appetite regulation.
Teachers, for example, believe that routines and structure helps kids learn and behave at their best. I believe the same goes for having a routine with feeding kids.
3. Guided Choices Make Decisions Easier for Kids
As parents, we can’t give our kids complete control over food. For one, many kids are overwhelmed with open access and unlimited choices, and may not make healthy decisions that serve them well.
This is where guiding their choices can be helpful. For young children, I suggest offering two food options from which to choose. For example, toast or cereal. Older kids can handle a few more options, but they can get overwhelmed, too. Keep it contained and reasonable, such as toast or cereal or pancakes. Guiding your child’s food options allows him to make an easy choice, without overwhelm.
4. Food Boundaries Support Your Day-to-Day Feeding Structure
Saying “no” can be one of the hardest things for a parent to do, especially when it comes to food. Yet, setting limits is a key part to practicing the art of parenting, whether it involves food or not.
I prefer to say “no,” nicely. For example, “We’re not having that today, but I can put it on the grocery list for later this week.” The implied response is no, but there’s promise that the requested food will be available in the future.
Without boundaries, access to food is open-ended. Kids can enter the kitchen and help themselves any time of day. They can eat whatever they want, where they want. Boundaries help children understand the structure in the home around eating and food access. They support good eating habits.
Understanding Child Development is Key to Feeding Your Child
Kids grow and change all the time. In infancy, when parents think they’ve got a routine with food and feeding, their baby changes and is ready to move on to the next stage. Parents need to know where their child is at with development today, and be able to anticipate the changes that will come tomorrow. In fact, this is true throughout childhood.
1. The Changing Body and Brain Affects Eating
What gets missed in the big picture of feeding kids is the important role of children’s development, from the physical changes that happen throughout the course of childhood to the cognitive, social and emotional changes that influence food preferences, eating attitudes and their motivation to eat well.
If you don’t understand the different stages your child will go through, you’ll wonder why he does the things he does with food and eating, like being picky or gorging on sweets. As the body grows and the brain develops, children are moving through stages that impact their hunger levels, as well as their social connections with the world around them and their emotional responses. Development has the power to influence food choices, eating habits and the relationship to food. You need to have a handle on this aspect of child nutrition.
2. You’re the Role Model Your Child Looks Up To
Nothing is more impactful on a child than watching her parent. From how your put on makeup and the clothes you choose to wear, to what you say about your body and whether you choose to be active, your child takes note of it all. It’s a powerful thing, this role modeling.
Your child will look at you differently as she moves through her childhood. You will be her whole world when she’s young, and when she’s a teen, she may think you’re her biggest obstacle to getting what she wants.
Behave the way you want your child to.
Most importantly, walk the talk. Be that person who acts like the person you want your child to become: a healthy eater, an active person, a good sleeper, a non-dieter, or whatever you deem important to raising the best human you can.
3. Prepare for the Future by Promoting Autonomy
I’m betting you want your child to be able to choose healthy foods on her own one day. To eat well enough to support her health in adulthood. To have a good relationship with food and body so she can enjoy life without hang-ups about food. You probably want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to set her up for a healthy future…mind, body and soul. I know that’s been my goal for my kids.
Good food parenting means we have to give some control over to our child. Not all control, but some. We do that with those guided choices I mentioned above, but it takes more than that. We have to make concerted effort to involve our kids in the day-to-day tasks around food, like meal preparation. Getting kids involved helps them see, learn and experience food in a way that prepares them to be more independent, or autonomous with eating.
Look for ways to include your child in the process of making food, educate her about food when it naturally comes up, and view eating as an experience that broadens her knowledge, not only of food, but of herself in relation to food. Involvement, education and experiences will feed her developing autonomy, preparing her to be independent (and healthy) in the future.
Get Better at Parenting Food
There’s a lot to learn about parenting food and becoming good at food parenting. If you want to raise a good eater, you need to nail this stuff.
I teach ALL of this in The Nourished Child® Blueprint. A “masterclass” nutrition class for parents of children aged 3 to 18 years, including the basics of healthy food balance for each age, positive feeding approaches, and how to build a self-regulated, autonomous eater who has a healthy relationship with food. You can learn more about the class here.