Many parents find themselves with a toddler who fights them at mealtime, is picky, or seemingly doesn’t eat “enough” or eats “too much”, according to the parents. Interestingly enough, eating and feeding habits are established and solidified from the first day of life. Every decision and action made affects a child’s ideology and feelings about food and feedings.
In the beginning of a child’s life, their main needs revolve around connection and trust, food, and being kept clean/dry. How a new parent approaches the baby’s needs for connection and food will set up the child’s feelings of relaxation or anxiety regarding food. Babies especially need to be fed on-demand, meaning they need to be given food as often as they need it and as much as they need. For a breastfed baby, this means nursing when baby is giving hunger signals and learning about the individual cues they give for if they are done or just taking a breathing break or have a gas bubble that needs to come out. For a formula-fed baby, it means also feeding them on demand but not limiting their intake to a certain number of ounces or to a certain frequency or time between feedings. It’s best to read and trust your baby, that they will self-regulate and eat only as much as they need and no more. If a parent can internalize this ideology for feeding, power struggles will be eliminated and the child will get the amount they need.
For when a child gets a bit older and is eating baby food/purées, the game changes a little. A child should be offered a wide variety of safe foods to expand the palate. But that doesn’t mean that there should be coercion, bribes, pleading, or asking the child to try some “for mama” or “for daddy”. Eating needs to be a pleasant experience for a child to have a healthy relationship with food when they are older. It’s been discovered that forcing a child to eat when they don’t want to, and the opposite, trying to get a child to stop eating if you think they are eating too much, can both lead to anxiety with food and may cause eating disorders.
Parents need to divide the “responsibility” of eating with their child: the parent provides the food, the time the meal is offered, and the setting. The child determines how much and of what they eat. It’s best if a variety is offered at mealtime and if the child is allowed to self-feed (if at the age when they are able to, even if clumsily). Best results are achieved if the food is set out in front of the child and then the child is left to eat as they see fit. Once they start to slow down and seem disinterested or have finished their food, determine if they want more or if they are truly done.
As a parent, you know your child’s cues best. If they are done, then calmly remove the food from their plate/tray and discard it or save for later. Don’t have them “take one more bite” or “swallow what is in their mouth” if they don’t want to, or “clean their plate”. These are all disrespectful and undermine the child’s ability to self-regulate their intake. They will only eat as much as they need- there’s no reason to force them to eat more or to eat something they don’t like. It’s a good idea to have a napkin on the table that the child can either spit their “bad” food into or if they take it out of their mouth. This gives them an out that is socially acceptable if it’s needed.
If a child has entered the toddler years and is extremely picky with their food, one of the best ways to figure out why is to record the child’s mealtime interaction with you and others in the home and then review it later. Maybe you are pushing the food on your child versus just offering it on the plate: “Here’s some spinach! Eat up!”. Maybe you are bribing them: “Just one more bite then you can have a cookie”. Maybe you are making them finish everything on their plate: “You need to eat all of that”. Maybe you don’t want them to spit out food they don’t like (which is kind of mean, really): “Need to swallow that”. If you’re unsure of what the problem may be, ask a friend or another mom or even your pediatrician or child’s dietician about it.
Just as it would be inconsiderate to expect another adult to “clean their plate” or to “swallow that bite” of food that they find unappealing or distasteful, it is also inconsiderate to do the same to children, except that it’s all too common, especially among Baby Boomers and even older parents who grew up with these ideas. If someone in your life who is a caregiver of your child (even an occasional one), it’s best to speak up about your feelings towards food and eating and be an advocate for your child if needed. If grandma tells your child to “swallow that bite” of food and your child clearly doesn’t want to and is even slightly in distress about it, by all means, let your child spit out the food in an appropriate place (mother’s hands are a typical landing spot, haha!). Hopefully your respectful parenting techniques will rub off and if not, it’s time for a chat about how you would like your children to be treated.