How parents can nurture good practices.
Every child is different: One might eat everything under the sun, whereas the other refuses anything but chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. “The first step in helping your child build a healthy relationship with food is knowing their tendencies then adjusting your tactics and seeking professional help if they or you need it,” says Natalie Hill, a registered dietician at Atlanta Pediatric Nutrition Inc. and GI Care for Kids in Sandy Springs. No matter if you’re in the infant or teenage phase of parenting, medical professionals have good baseline recommendations. Hill offers the following advice.
Modeling behavior, such as eating a healthy diet that focuses on lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, is highly impactful. “Kids are such sponges; they watch everything we do,” Hill says. “Parents can say that all foods are good foods, and there are some we should have in moderation and some that we should be more cautious about.”
If your child is an infant or young child up to age 6, the best thing you can do is introduce them to everything. “We often have it in our heads that they have sensitive palates, but you don’t have to stick with bland foods. Even if babies refuse the food at first, it can take up to 12 introductions to decide if they like something,” Hill says. She advises to continue to introduce the food and have their plate look like yours or an older sibling’s.
Hill suggests having a set schedule for meals and snacks, separated by two to four hours. This is important for children to learn how to better self-regulate if they are hungry or full. Also remember that a plate should consist of appropriate portion sizes that are about the size of your child’s closed fist. “Vegetables are unlimited, though,” she says.
This may go against your parental instincts, but as long as you have a healthy child, Hill says, “Never offer alternatives to non-preferred foods.” She notes that your job as a parent is to always make sure the kids have healthy, well-rounded meals with at least one favored and one non-favored food on the plate. “They need to learn that ‘If I’m picky, I’m going to be hungry.’ Stick to your guns on that even if they don’t eat the foods they don’t prefer for 24 to 48 hours.”
That said, pickiness is different than sensory or texture aversion. “If a kid can’t cope with textures and is having a visceral reaction to multiple foods, such as gagging if something touches their mouth, tensing up, looking uncomfortable or looking like they’re going to vomit, it’s time to pull in a feeding therapist to help them adjust to textures,” Hill says.
Pre-Teen and Teen Tummies
Support this age group with healthy choices at home. “You can’t control what they eat outside of the home, but you can make sure all the foods they have at home are healthy. There aren’t Cheetos puffs in the pantry to grab,” Hill says. If you feel that pre-teens or teens need some guidance about healthy food choices, having it come from a medical professional rather than mom or dad could be a great starting place.
Developing a healthy relationship with food includes dessert. “You don’t want it to become a fear food or point of contention. The key is that they get something, but there is some nutritional benefit to it,” Hill says. For example, offer a frozen yogurt bar that has some protein in it instead of ice cream, or oatmeal cookies over Oreos.
ATLANTA PEDIATRIC NUTRITION, INC.
Managing Editor and Wellness Columnist at Simply Buckhead. Blogger at Badass + Healthy.