This article was first published in the ACAQ Early Edition, Autumn magazine 2017 and is written for early childhood educators who are caring for young children.

Isabelle’s mum, Melissa rushes into the toddler’s room at 5:30pm.

“Did Isabelle eat all her food today?” she asks you.

“Well she ate her snacks quite well, but she wasn’t much interested in lunch today” you reply.

“So… all she’s eaten today is fruit and crackers? That really isn’t enough for a whole day!” says mum, as she gives you a frustrated look.

She hurriedly collects her child and her belongings and leaves the building…

Versions of this exchange can be heard in every childcare service across Australia, every day. What a dilemma for childcare educators! Being the food police is exhausting, and more importantly it doesn’t build healthy, happy eaters.

When parents and carers try to take over children’s jobs of deciding how much and whether to eat, problems surface. It doesn’t matter whether food is provided in a lunchbox from home or provided at care, the result is the same.

When we get pushy with food, things don’t go well:

  • Children generally eat less, not more
  • Children learn to ignore their hunger and fullness cues
  • Battles increase
  • The joy goes out of mealtimes, for everyone

It’s easy to unwittingly and reluctantly become the food police, especially when you’re feeling pressure from parents to make sure children eat.

You know you’ve become the food police when…

  • You give strong encouragement for children to finish their food, taste a food or take “one more bite”.
  • You find yourself bargaining with children about how much to eat.
  • You give praise or rewards for finishing, eating, trying or tasting food.
  • You make children stay at the table to finish food or to eat more (2-20 minutes is usually a typical mealtime length for under 5’s).
  • You find yourself playing games or becoming a circus performer to get children to eat.

Feeding is Love

At the essence of parents’ concern about nutrition at childcare is always “Did my child have enough to eat today?” because feeding is an action/expression of love and care for our kids. Parents want to know that their child “ate enough”, so carers and educators begin to focus on this too.

The best indicator of eating “enough” is steady and predictable growth. Parents simply want children to grow well and be healthy and happy. Volumes eaten at any given meal are not good indicators of good “growth”. It can be helpful for parents and educators to check growth first. This can be the most reassuring thing of all.

Children also tend to have best and worst times of the day for eating. Get curious about this with parents so you can optimise the best times and relax a little at the worst. Can you guess the meal that is hands-down the worst for Under 5’s?
(ANSWER: Dinner time!)

Changing tactics with food

If we know that pressuring kids to eat isn’t helpful, what is the alternative to food policing?

Honour children’s appetite, knowing that they may eat very little or nothing at some meals and be ravenous at others. Discuss a child’s unique appetite patterns with parents if they are concerned about the “how much”.

Share positive observations with parents about how their child is learning and interacting with food and behaving at mealtimes. If you can’t find any positives and parents are struggling, engage with a paediatric Accredited Practising Dietitian for help.

Support children when they make mistakes with food and eating by providing regular opportunities for children to eat, but not giving in to requests for food between meals. A grazing pattern of eating doesn’t teach children to tune into their body cues. A grazing child’s requests for food often mean poor choices are made when parents and carers get caught off-guard.

Show children what they need to know about food, eating and mealtime manners by eating meals and snacks with them. Role-modelling works, and it is essential for building competent and confident eaters.

Always speak about food non-judgementally with children (and yourself). Don’t use words like GOOD, BAD, JUNK, TREAT, HEALTHY, UNHEALTHY, DIET & EATING CLEAN when discussing food. These words and phrases put a value judgement on food choices. They teach kids to believe they are “good” for eating some foods and “bad” for eating others. Instead describe colour, shape, smell, texture and the sound that food makes. All food has a place.

Hang your food police hat up and eat happy!

Deb Blakley
Accredited Practising Dietitian & Director

Post edited 22 June 2020