This is a guest post by Dr. Kathleen Cuneo. She is the founder of Dinner Together, LLC, which provides education, consultation, and coaching to families with concerns about their children’s eating behaviors. Over the last 2 decades, Dr. Cuneo has helped parents and children of all ages including those with special needs. Follow her on Twitter @dinnertogether.
When I am asked by parents about what they can do to raise healthy eaters, my recommendations focus on the “how” of eating rather than the “what.” Feeding children takes place in a relationship, most often a parent-child relationship. Feeding is parenting. It can be confusing and overwhelming at times, but it is so important. What you do as a parent and how you approach your feeding relationship with your child can help set the stage for them to develop a healthy relationship with food and maintain a healthy weight, as well as to maintain a healthy relationship with you.
Mastering the “how” of feeding your children involves a number of factors, but one of the most important is getting in the habit of eating together with your children. Research has shown family meals to be associated with better nutrition and academic success in children. Frequent family meals have also been associated with lower risk for obesity, disordered eating, and substance abuse in children and adolescents.
Despite its importance, many parents struggle with getting the family together for meals regularly. The reasons are numerous and varied. Work schedules, children’s after school activities, and parents’ discomfort with eating and/or cooking are all potential obstacles to family meals. Another potential obstacle, especially for families with younger children, is the child’s mealtime behavior. Some children are picky eaters who can make mealtimes unpleasant, especially if their pickiness gets enacted by whining, complaining, or throwing food. Some kids can’t sit still at the table and make it challenging for the rest of the family to enjoy a sit-down meal together. Other children can disrupt the family meal with boisterous, overly-active, or other uncooperative behaviors.
I formed Dinner Together, LLC in any effort to help families find solutions to some of the obstacles they face in having successful family meals. My experiences as a psychologist and as a parent to three children help me to help other parents. Families with toddlers can face special challenges with feeding because this is both an exciting and frustrating time of learning and growth. As your toddler is learning motor skills and trying to find their independence, you may find yourself feeding a very different child than the baby who sat patiently with an open and eager mouth waiting for you to spoon feed her. Parents need to adjust their feeding expectations for this “new” little person developing before them. A toddler will not likely be able to sit still and focus on eating (or anything else for that matter!) for more than ten minutes. A toddler will likely reject many foods. They may like something one day and reject it the next. This is all normal and to be expected.
So what is a parent to do? In a nutshell, my best advice is captured in three tips.
- First, have patience. Raising a successful eater takes time. There will be ups and downs along the way, but stick with it, don’t give up, and have faith. Try not to get too discouraged with your toddler’s rejecting ways and don’t stop offering all those healthy foods you want him to eat.
- Second, relax about the nutritional content of individual meals. Your child’s health is not determined by the nutritional value of a single meal. Look at patterns in food intake over a period of time – more like a week’s work of meals
- Finally, understand the division of responsibility in feeding. Familiarize yourself with Ellyn Satter’s classic work, stating that parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, while children are responsible for whether and how much.
For more information and ongoing tips, recipes, and strategies for cooking and feeding, sign up for my free e-newsletter at www.dinnertogether.com and follow my blog at www.dinnertogether.blogspot.com. Currently, I am running a gift card giveaway and recipe contest which expires July 12, 2009. Read more about it at my blog.
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