Are family meal times being spoiled by unrealistic expectations?
The more families I join with to create happier and more peaceful feeding relationships, the more I realise how unrealistic expectations can derail the best-intentioned family mealtime.
Here are 5 common “great” expectations about feeding kids that you can feel free to let go:
- If my child doesn’t eat fruit and vegetables every day I’m a bad parent
- Arrgghh! My child is still using his fingers to eat!
- Kids shouldn’t play with their food
- My child should be able to taste a new food without having a melt-down
- Kids should eat all their dinner
Child nutrition recommendations are important and useful, but they’re based on averages. Our role as parents is to ensure that children are OFFERED a variety of food each day to choose from, to provide them regular opportunities to eat and a relaxed and happy space to eat. It’s always a child’s job to decide how much to eat and, indeed, whether to eat. Children learn to eat a wide variety of foods over their whole childhood and continue to learn even into late teens and adulthood.
Learning to use utensils is a skill that takes many years to master.
Spoons – Give to hold at around 6 months. Proficient at spoon feeding themselves by age 2.
Forks – Start around 18 months – 2 years. Mastered by age 4.
Knives – Practise with kid-safe knife to cut food and help with food preparation at age 4. Sharper knives around 5-6 years of age as your child’s skill level improves.
We discuss more about age-appropriate utensil use with our friend and colleague, Dr Nicole grant, Occupational Therapist in the article [Food skills our kids are missing out on]. HYPERLINK TO THIS ARTICLE
Kids learn an enormous amount about food using their sense of touch. The value of allowing children to explore food using their fingers, hands (and sometimes their whole body) cannot be underestimated. Mess is good!
If a melt-down is occurring about a new food on your child’s plate, expecting them to eat it is probably going to be an unrealistic expectation! Asking, prompting or coercing a child to taste a new food is often a sure-fire way to halt their learning. Kids who are fearful or resistant to trying new foods do best when they are in the driver’s seat of their own food exploration in a safe and pressure-free environment. Allow your child to sneak up on new foods when they are ready and in the meantime, continue to serve food you like and let your kids see you enjoy eating it. Taste is often the very last step to learning to like a new food.
Your child is the only person who fully experiences their own sense of hunger and fullness, and therefore must be in control of deciding how much and whether to eat. That said, kids DO make mistakes as we all do, sometimes eating too much or too little. Regular meal and snack times give kids regular opportunities to practice eating the right amount for them. Making a child finish their plate or take “just one more bite” shows them that you don’t trust their appetite and they then learn not to trust it either. It potentially teaches children to ignore their body signs of hunger and fullness and at the extreme can lead to a poor relationship with food and disordered eating.
Parenting help appears everywhere. Much of it is useful, most of it isn’t and often it simply confuses and divides us. If you want clear, practical, evidence-based, no-nonsense nutrition support for your family, parent group, childcare service or school then we’d love to hear from you.
Accredited Practising Dietitian & Director
Post edited 22 June 2020