Raising a healthy eater shouldn’t be about ‘making’ our children eat healthy food. Our role as parents is to teach and support our kids as they learn to make decisions about food and eating behaviours.
If you have already started to feed you child, you probably already know that you can’t make a child eat… but the good news is, it is not the goal and is not your job (stick with me on this one, I’ll explain!).
Raising a healthy eater isn’t about ‘getting’ kids to eat.
Rather, raising a healthy eater is:
- Empowering your child to make healthy food choices
- Encouraging your child to explore, try new foods and expand their diet
- Educating your child about food, health and nutrition, in a way that they can understand
- Supporting your child as they learn healthy eating habits
Children are learning to eat and make food choices (it’s a life skill)
As you support your child to eat better, it is important for children to be able to make decisions about what and how much they eat, and to respect their hunger cues. They are learning to eat, for now and for life!
For example, children need to learn to regulate their hunger. Asking your child to finish all the food on their plate may go against their hunger cues and cause them to overeat – this is a good example of ‘making’ our children eat as opposed to helping them tap into their hunger cues and eating as much as their body is telling them they need to eat.
Similarly, if your child chooses not to eat the healthy foods you offer (perhaps they throw a tantrum instead), they will discover that making poor choices leaves them hungry.
The Division of Responsibility
There is a simple rule to remember when feeding kids:
Parents control what food is served and when
Children control whether they eat and how much
Ellyn Satter, a renowned expert on feeding children, introduced this rule in her Division of Responsibility in Feeding. It defines the responsibility between the parent and the child, because neither can have all the responsibility of feeding and eating.
The main role of the parent is to provide healthy meals at regular intervals during the day. It is not the job of the parent to get the child to eat.
While there are many things parents can do to help their child make the right decision about whether or not to eat, and how much, children must also develop their own competencies about eating and making decisions at mealtime.
Parents choose the food
Do your kids make healthy food choices? Do they ask for a balanced diet, choose plenty of vegetables and prefer to limit sugary, fatty and salty foods? Most children don’t have that maturity – remember they are learning! This is why parents should choose the food. But remember, it’s easier to eat healthy food when it tastes delicious! So help your child eat better by making food that they can genuinely enjoy (even though it might take a few tastes before they learn to like it).
What if they choose not to eat?
If your child is very fussy about the food they eat and doesn’t eat a wide variety of nutritious foods, it might be daunting to change the menu and start removing the foods they constantly ask for. To make the transition, make sure you always include at least one food your child likes on the plate. Don’t include enough of their preferred food to completely satisfy their appetite (so that they still feel hungry for the other foods), and encourage them to try everything on the plate.
If they choose not to eat, they will learn that not eating enough is not a good decision. They will feel hungry until more food is available, at the next snack or mealtime. These consequences help them learn to regulate their eating behaviours. Next time they don’t want to eat something, they will remember that not eating enough leave them unsatisfied.
Children are more likely to try new foods when they are hungry
The best time to introduce new foods is when your child is hungry. Instead of introducing new foods as part of a main meal, where your child might prefer other foods on the plate, consider offering new foods first, for example as an entrée or snack.
Remember that they are learning to regulate their hunger:
Hungry tummy + Nutritious food = Happy tummy.