Healthy Eating for Children
“It is important to remember that children have the remarkable inborn mechanism that lets them know how much food and which types of food they need for normal growth and development.” -Dr. Benjamin Spock
We are constantly hearing the cries that childhood "obesity” has become an epidemic in our country. Many people claim to have the solution, whether it be eliminating fast food or increasing physical activity, although none of them seem to be the answer. First of all, and most importantly, it is imperative to remember that every body is unique and people (including children) come in all shapes and sizes.
The relationship with food begins at birth, when the sole feeding responsibility of the parent is the decide what (breast milk or formula) to feed the newborn. The baby will decide just about everything else, including how much and how often. Even at this very young age, newborns have the ability to sense their hunger and fullness. It is crucial that parents resist the urge to get caught up in how many ounces to feed and how many hours between feedings.
Once children are able to feed themselves, the parent provide structure to meal times without rigidity. Parents should provide a meal or snack, and designate where it should be eaten. The child should still have control over how much is eaten and if they even want to eat at all.
Demand feeding occurs when one eats what they are craving, when they are hungry, and stops when they are full. Children naturally do this at birth, and although it seems like a very simple concept, parents often intervene and change it. Parents think it is in the child’s best interest to be on a schedule (breakfast, lunch, nap, snack, dinner, etc.), but that eventually does more harm than good and creates an unhealthy relationship with food, and may even cause stress between the parent and the child.
Parent’s Role in Feeding:
• Choose and prepare the foods at regular meal and snack times
• Make eating enjoyable
• Set a good example regarding food and behavior
• Allow children to grow up into the bodies that are intended for them
Children’s Role in Eating:
• Eat the amount they need
• Learn from example regarding food and behavior
• Which will all allow them to grow into the bodies that were intended for them
At meals provide a variety of foods. Offer a protein, 2-3 starches, a vegetable and/or fruit, milk or other dairy product, and some form of fat (such as butter or salad dressing). This may seem like a lot, but a meal such as spaghetti with meat sauce, a salad with dressing and a dinner roll with butter fills all of these requirements.
During the meal, allow children to choose their portion sizes, and if they are able to, allow them to serve themselves. When considering meal options, pair favorite foods with not-so-favorite foods, and familiar foods with unfamiliar ones. This will decrease the mealtime anxiety for everyone and increase the children’s positive exposure to various foods, without forcing them to eat it.
Family Meals…are very beneficial for a variety of reasons. It provides a time in the day (perhaps the only time) when the entire family can spend time together. It allows children to become emotionally attached to parents, siblings, and other family members, instead of becoming emotionally attached to the food. Each person can share experiences from their day, whether it was good or bad. It also teaches everyone to slow down while they are eating and sense their hunger and fullness cues.
Family meals do not have to be homemade. They can be convenience foods, take out, or even eaten in a restaurant, as long as all the family members are present. It is probably impractical to say that all meals must be eaten as a family, but set a reasonable, attainable goal for your family. By the way, family meals do not always have to be at dinnertime. For example, Sunday mornings are a great time to get everyone together.
Other Important Things to Remember:
Snacking should be allowed and encouraged. Offer snacks through the day. It is ok for a child to be hungry at snack time and not at a mealtime. Parents should not try to alter the natural ability that children have to determine their hunger and fullness. Although snacks do not need to be as formal as meals, many of the same principles about feeding and eating apply.
Physical activity should be done as a recreational activity and should remain fun. This is also great to do as a family (go on a bike ride, play hide and seek, etc.). When it becomes mandatory for children, it will start to feel like a burden, and they will begin to resist it.
If you would like more guidance on feeding healthy children without causing problems, contact Austin Counseling and Nutrition to speak with one of our dietitians at (512) 655-3878.