Feeding children is not always easy.
Sometimes the entire meal can seem like a power struggle. You want to make sure your child eats well, has enough to eat, and enjoys a variety of nutritious food.
Your child may have other ideas.
As a parent or caregiver, making family mealtime a fun, struggle-free experience begins with you. Ellyn Satter, a leading expert on feeding children, has changed the way many parents approach mealtimes.
Her advice can help reduce stress and prevent problems before they come up at mealtime. It's not the way many of us grew up thinking about mealtime:
As a parent or caregiver, your role is to take the lead in what, when and where meals take place. Your child will choose how much to eat, and even whether to eat, from the food that you provide for them.
Children are born with the ability to know how much to eat
We know children eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
So, if you’re serving a few different vegetables, your child can decide whether to eat them, or not. If they don’t eat them, that’s okay. There is always another meal or snack in 2-4 hours - schedule is key.
No pressure. No stress. Just an easier way to manage mealtimes.
And while it’s tempting to say, “clean up your plate,” or “just have one more bite,” let your child’s own hunger be their guide. It takes the pressure off everyone and keeps the experience calm and pleasant.
Keep your eye on the long-term. Slowly introduce new foods to your children without any expectation. As your child develops more confidence around new foods, they’ll begin to taste them willingly, without pressure, bribes, or rewards.
Family mealtime can then be a focus of love and connection instead.
More great ways to keep mealtime struggle-free
Keep to a structured meal and snack-time schedule: Try to schedule breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then 2-3 snacks around the same time every day. Eating regularly helps ensure your child’s energy remains stable throughout the day. And, like adults, children make better food choices when they’re not hungry.
Choose a variety of healthy foods: Make healthy choices and prepare a variety of healthy foods.
Focus on the joy of eating: Serve healthy foods that you enjoy, and express your pleasure in eating them, so your children have a great model of eating well. Instead of focusing on what your child might not be eating, or how much they eat, the emphasis becomes enjoyment.
Support a positive body image: Sometimes negative comments about body image or shape can come up at the table, without even realizing it. Take time to show your child how to accept their body shape, and feel good about themselves. Find out more about children and body image struggles.
Eat together whenever you can: When you demonstrate good behaviour at mealtimes, your child picks up on it. Learn more about why families that eat together, eat better.
A word about hunger and appetite: When to get more support
Some children don’t respond to hunger and fullness cues.
This may include children who are on specific medications that may impact their appetite, or those who ignore the usual cues around hunger. For these children, individual nutrition counselling by a dietitian may be a helpful option.
Ellyn Satter Institute
Resources for children and families on how to feed and eat joyfully and confidently.
Cake and Broccoli: Promoting mental wellness through feeding and eating
Parents know the importance nutrition plays in a child’s physical health, but what about their mental health? In this episode from the Kelty Centre's Where You Are podcast, join Char, a parent with two little ones, and Lorrie Chow, a dietitian at BC Children’s Hospital, for strategies that can reduce mealtime stress and help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.
On UnlockFood.ca you’ll find information on nutrition, food and healthy eating as well as recipes, videos and interactive healthy eating tools. The content is written and reviewed by dietitians. There is also information about contacting a dietitian in BC.