Updated: Feb 26
Feeding kids is such a beautiful way of showing your love – it can also be a tedious, annoying struggle, and so frustrating. But those dang kids, they need to eat EVERY DAY. More than once!!
Food can be a real point of control between parents and kids, and creating consistent expectations and boundaries can really help. As a Naturopathic Doctor and mama of 3 very opinionated children, here are a few strategies I've developed to promote and support healthy growing bodies. Maybe some of these will help in your household….
The Basics (as in, good rules for adults too)
Every meal & snack has to include protein. Protein is THE nutrient that will regulate your blood sugar and therefore banish the hangries. Nobody likes to be around a hangry toddler. Or teenager. Or adult really. Ok, nobody likes to be hangry or be around hangry.
Start your day with fruit. Fruit can be one of the first foods kids can help themselves to. Juicy, filled with essential vitamins, antioxidants and fibre and they’re naturally sweet, so usually an easy sell. For adults who are looking to lose weight, or people who have trouble regulating blood sugar, berries are a good choice. For everyone else (unless there is an known existing sensitivity) – it’s a fruit free for all! Let them choose – see – we’re giving them control here. Controlled control. Fruit is best to eat at the beginning of a meal, not as dessert, because it breaks down in your gut faster than other foods and can just sit there fermenting and causing unpleasant gas and bloating symptoms while waiting for the rest of your food to digest.
Lunch and after school snack must begin with vegetable and protein. After the requirement, then if they're still hungry you can let them have that bowl of cereal or crackers or whatever else they're begging for (within reason of course). But at least they've started with some good building blocks and they're not shoveling empty carbs in anymore. When kids come home with uneaten lunches - this becomes the after school snack - it needs to get eaten first before a new snack. Unless it’s slimy, that’s gross and not nutritionally recommended. Get kids involved in the process, let them choose which fruit, vegetable and protein to include in their lunches each day. Eventually they may even start packing their own without your help!
Dinner gets minimum 1 protein + 2 vegetables – and one of them has to be green. This may mean a ridiculous amount of broccoli or cucumbers for a while, but keep offering a variety of greens, eventually your kids may surprise you. Mine started a green bean race - who can gobble one green bean at a time the fastest. Now they play it every single time green beans are served.
Family dinner should happen at roughly the same time every day, with the whole family sitting and eating together. No devices at the table. Research shows that eating together as a family increases emotional well-being, positive social behavior and life satisfaction – regardless of gender, grade level or family affluence.
Quick tricks At dinner – each kid gets one veto. That means of all the foods offered, they can choose one thing that they don’t have to eat, taste or even consider. Parental responsibility is to ensure there is enough variety that if they veto something they’re still getting a complete meal. I will often have a "build your own" component to dinner - because there's always something that one kid likes that the other doesn't. This works well for the veto rule. So if it's a build your own taco, or salad, or power bowl, one kid vetoes the chopped tomatoes, one kid won't touch the guacamole, the other says hell no to the olives. That's fine, one veto each. They have control. All good.
New foods at the very minimum they must be smelled, licked or tasted. Kids need to be introduced to some foods 8-15 times before they can really, truly decipher whether they like them or not. I used to tell my kids this all the time, and one day I insisted my now 12 year old have a little nibble of a lychee after which he made a face and said – “Well, at least I only have to try it 14 more times before I like it!”.
Number of bites of food = how many years old you are This is especially helpful for the busy kids who just don’t have time to sit down and eat, or if you’re eating something that isn’t necessarily their favourite, but they are hungry and will accept it. You want more pasta? OK, how old are you? 4? Ok, 4 bites of your soup and then you can have a second helping of carbs. Keeping in mind of course that we want our children to be responsive to their own satiation cues and they should never feel pressured to eat more than they want. When they're full, they're full and they're really the only ones who can truly assess when they are satiated.
Keep an ongoing list of fruits and vegetables you have in the house - chalkboards or dry erase boards are great for this. Then there is a visual they can choose from. Also helps with meal planning and not "losing" wilty vegetables in the back of the fridge.
Eat a rainbow Key for ensuring diversity in the diet and getting adequate vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients. Fun dinner game too – how many colours did you eat today? Which colour are you missing?
Include kids in the meal planning, shopping and choosing of foods. Giving them ownership over some aspect of the food gives them some of that essential control and also can really help you understand what they like and how to find a common balance. Make a grocery store scavenger hunt - have them each choose 3 vegetables and a protein. Or compare grams of sugar in bottles of ketchup or breakfast cereals. Educate and empower.
Overall, the best advice is just don’t sweat it. Some kids are simply not hungry in the morning and can’t deal with breakfast. Others are top loaders who have a seemingly endless pit for breakfast but just pick at their dinners. Some just can’t handle the noise and rush of eating lunches at school. Have you experienced the chaos of a school lunch room lately? Not really conducive to nourishment. It’s always better to look at your child’s diet over the course of a week as opposed to the course of a day. Ebbs and flows. Balance. Provide healthy options, and that’s what they’ll eat. If you stock the pantry with junk food, that’s what they’ll eat and also how they’ll feel.
If you feel like you or your children are struggling with mealtimes and could use some individualized support, please reach out and make an appointment. Many times nutritional advice, or really, any advice coming from someone other than mom tends to be better received.
As always, this is not a replacement for personalized professional advice. Every child, every family has their own challenges and requirements. Come in to see a professional for individualized recommendations and care.