After the age of 12 months, children typically begin to eat in a “rollercoaster” pattern rather than a consistent pattern. That is, they often will eat huge quantities for a period of time then eat very little for a day or two. This pattern will vary based on the child’s individual needs (e.g. growth rate, activity level). It is important to continue to offer nourishing food at predictable intervals, with no pressure, so that they child learns to listen to her own body to tell her when she is full or hungry. In this way, children learn to eat for themselves rather than to please someone else. Here are some ways to teach them these great feeding skills:
Establish life-long mealtime rules now. This means eating at the table, at the same time, eating the same food, at least a few times per day. Children are obviously not born with good manners and a good understanding of nutrition. They learn by watching, over and over. By the time a child is 18-20 months, they should be sitting at the table (booster seat or high chair), eating the same meals (with slight modification in texture or size of bites) as adults, using utensils and wiping their own face and hands, and asking for more or saying “I’m done.” Again, these are learned skill. It takes time. Model and support these skills during every meal. Avoid making 2 separate meals. Don’t offer alternative yummier foods. And, be deliberate about showing them how to eat.
Don’t tell them what to eat. Don’t force them to eat. Don’t talk about what will or will not happen if they do or don’t eat. They will know if you are trying to “sell” them on the idea of eating. If you need to talk about food, talk about the yummy taste, the colors, the textures, the smells, and how it feels in your mouth. Or, talk about things you would normally discuss at the table, such as how your day was or what fun things you did.
Take responsibility for you own roles. You and your little one have different roles with feeding. Don’t try to take away their “roles” (e.g., how much to eat) because they will try to take away one of your roles (e.g., when to eat).
- Your role as a parent is to decide:
i. WHERE to
ii. WHAT to
iii. WHEN to eat
- Your child’s role is to decide:
iv. IF to eat
v. HOW MUCH to eat
How to implement these good feeding principles:
· Serve EXACTLY what you intend to eat for each meal (with modifications for safely and biting/chewing skills)
· Serve tiny portions of each items to your child.
· The child can ask for more when their plate is empty. Asking for “more” means “I ate all my food and my tummy is still hungry”
· A child can ask for “more” as many times as he/she wishes
· Remember, no encouragement, praise or scolding. Eating is the child’s responsibility, not yours.
· All meals are mini-meals. That is, we don’t distinguish between “meals” and “snacks.” Most kids eat 5-6 “meals” per day (3 bigger meals and 2-3 mini meals)
· No more than 15 ounces of milk per day, DURING meals only. Whole milk until 2 years of age, then low-fat milk from then on.
· A meal includes healthy foods that we (parents) would eat. I use the word “meal” as a reminder. Ask yourself, “Do I eat ice cream, fish crackers, chicken nuggets, or gummy bears EVERY day?” If the answer is no, then you are probably not teaching them to eat according to your values/opinion of what “healthy” looks like. Remember, kids learn about their relationship with food from YOU, their parents!
· Summary: We eat meals and mini meals. We eat at the table. We use good manners and attend to our food. When we are done, we leave the table.
Testing the rules: Children learn by observing and testing. They watch what you do, what their siblings do, what their friends do. Then they test to see what happens if they do things differently. What if I spit my food out? What if I pour my milk out? What if I throw my food? What if I refuse to eat? It is YOUR responsibility to teach them the rules for mealtimes. If they engage in behaviors that are not acceptable, it is your responsibility to have a consequence. Decide ahead of time what your rules are and what will happened if the rules are broken. Then calmly tell your child when they have broken a rule and what will happen. For example:
Child pours milk on table. You say, “No, we do not pour our milk. If you do that again, I will take your milk away.” Child pours milk out again. You calmly repeat the rule, “No, we don’t pour out our milk. I am taking that away.” Then, remove the milk. At the next meal, begin by reminding them of the rule and the consequence BEFORE handing them the milk. Repeat. Until they understand.
Child throws food. You say, “No, we don’t throw food. If you throw food, you will be done.” Child throws food. You calmly remove the child’s food/plate, take them out of their highchair/booster seat, and place them on the floor. That meal is over. But be calm and consistent. No snacks. No second chances. You will be offering them another meal/mini meal in another 1.5-2 hours anyway, so don’t worry, they won’t starve! But they will learn that deliberately breaking a rule means the end of the meal.
This can take many, many, many trials. Please try to avoid threats, screaming, hitting/spanking, begging or giving chance after chance. We are adults and we are more patient and more consistent and more deliberate than our children. And this is how we are able to teach our children how to be appropriate at mealtimes. With love and consistency. After all, they are just trying to figure out the rules and the consequences.
As long as you both respect each other’s roles and responsibilities, you can avoid struggles now and in the future. And, you can teach your child to accept what is served while listening to their bodies. Eating should be its own reward.
Our goal for teaching good eating for a lifetime: We eat to enjoy our food and our company. We eat what we are offered. We eat only if we are hungry and we stop eating when we are full. We don’t eat to please or punish others. We don’t over-eat just because dessert is coming.