Kids Nutrition: 3 Surefire Ways To Nurture a Healthy Relationship With Food

Author: Calgary Weight Management Centre |

Blog by Calgary Weight Management Centre

Building a healthy relationship with food (and healthy eating habits) starts right from when a baby first starts solids. The way (not so much what) parents choose to feed their kids can shape how they view food and eating for the rest of their lives. If you are someone who feels as though you need to clean your plate at every meal, this is likely something that your well-meaning parents or caregivers taught you when you were young. If you can't stand eating certain vegetables as an adult, there is a good chance that you were either not introduced to them as a child, OR, you were forced to eat them when you were younger. As important as it is to expose your children to a variety of foods at a young age (the earlier the better--right from 6 months!), it's even more important to introduce them in a loving and pressure-free way.

The more we pressure our kids to eat certain foods, the less likely our children will be to grow to love and enjoy those foods.

Similarly, the more we forbid treat foods (and get mad at our kids for eating them), the more they will want them. This is when treat-sneaking often creeps in. Here are three common parent feeding strategies I often witness and have tested myself that DON’T work (and often perpetuate the problem) and three strategies that can transform mealtimes from dreadful to peaceful:

Common Mealtime Mistake
#1: Focusing too much on food

The word that comes to mind here is pressure. As soon as your child, especially if she’s a picky eater, feels pressure to eat something, she will back right off—the opposite of what you’re hoping for. Parents of picky eaters often dread mealtimes because they foresee a struggle from the beginning to the bitter end. From the moment you decide what you’re going to make, to when you clear your child’s full plate of uneaten food, you feel stressed and frustrated. You gear yourself up for the battle that you know is coming (and that you often lose), and hope that your child eats something healthy—even a few bites. Common phrases you might use include:

“It’s dinner time—come to the table and eat!”
“Please try your peas—they are good for you!”
“You can’t have dessert unless you have at least 5 bites of your meal” or
“No you cannot have more bread—you’ve hardly touched your vegetables or meat!”

Although we as parents have the best intentions for our fussy eaters, we often enable picky eating and perpetuate the problem by putting all of the focus on food.

What to Do Instead: Focus on Family Time

Mealtimes don’t have to bring on anxiety and dread if you can master the art of backing off. It's imperative that you take the pressure off (both yourself and your child) to make mealtimes more peaceful. This can be really (ahem… excruciatingly) hard, especially if you feel that your child isn’t eating well daily. Although not an instantaneous picky eating fix, over time, taking the focus off of the food (and what your child is or isn’t eating) and focusing more on family time (talking about everyone’s day, asking about what happened at school or camp, talking about your upcoming family trip, etc.) makes your child feel at ease and will increase the likelihood of her trying things on her own. That being said, it's okay to mention food now and again during meals. Healthy chitchat about food might be “mmm, I love this asparagus- we haven’t had it in a while and I forgot how much I like it”, or “I see that you tried your chicken—how did you like it?” instead of “I’m not going to ask you again—you need to have a bite of your chicken!”

Common Mealtime Mistake #2: Letting your kids be in charge

Many parents feel as though mealtimes are out of their control — they harp and fight with their kids to eat certain foods, yet ultimately, their kids are in charge. Your child refuses to eat, so you give in and stop asking him to come to the table. He complains about what’s served, so you make him a peanut butter sandwich because you know he’ll eat it. He whines about feeling hungry before bed (even though he didn’t eat at dinnertime) so you give him yogurt and a banana in hopes that he'll go to bed peacefully and not wake up hungry. I’ve been there and know how easy it is to give in. You feel frustrated and defeated and you don’t want your child to starve - I get it. But unfortunately, letting your kids run the show will enable picky eating tendencies and will make your life more and more frustrating over time.

What to do Instead: Set healthy mealtime boundaries and be consistent

By establishing some appropriate mealtime boundaries with your kids (and enforcing them consistently), you can regain control over mealtimes (the what’s, where’s, and when’s of feeding) and allow your kids to take care of the rest (whether and how much they eat). This is the cornerstone of childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Parents are in charge of what is served, where it is served, and when it is served. Kids are in charge of whether and how much they eat. Establishing these boundaries early on (in infancy and early toddlerhood) makes things a lot easier as they get older, but these boundaries can be set at any time (the older they are, the more patient you'll have to be).

Some of our mealtime boundaries are as follows:

  • Everyone must come to the table for meals, but there is no rule that they have to eat. When my son says “But I’m not hungry” or “I don’t want spaghetti again!” I calmly reply “You do not have to eat, but it’s mealtime and you must come to the table.” Nine times out of 10, he eats a fair amount of his meal happily. My kids aren’t excused until at least 10-15 minutes have passed and must ask to be excused. If you have a slow eater, you may want to set a timer for 30 minutes so that meals don't drag on forever and ever. This allows your child to better pace him/herself during a meal.
  • There are no toys, screens, or other distractions at meals: we reserve mealtime for family/catching up time and discourage mindless/distracted eating. Mealtime manners must be followed: sitting properly at the table, not throwing food or making rude comments, using age-appropriate utensils, and being polite are rules that we keep in our house.
  • There’s no short-order cooking: Although I offer lots of variety and I always serve at least one food that I know my kids like, there is one meal (and only one) served.
  • The kitchen is closed after mealtime: If I feel that my kids haven’t eaten enough, I remind them that it’s a good idea to make sure that their tummies are satisfied because the kitchen will be closed until __ o’clock (or the next morning). Requests or demands for snacks outside of these times are gently turned down, with a reminder that they had a chance to eat at the last meal or snack, and they chose not to. Over time, kids learn how to regulate their appetite healthfully this way.

These are our personal mealtime boundaries and might work well for your family too. Know that each family is unique and you should tailor your own to what works for you and your family.

Common Mealtime Mistake
#3: Assuming your child won’t eat it

I often hear parents say “Don’t bother serving him any veggies — he won’t eat them anyway,” often right in front of their child. This well-meaning strategy (after all, you don’t want food to be wasted, especially at a friend’s or family member’s house) often perpetuates picky eating two-fold: it makes a child believe that he does not and will not ever like that food (and yay! he doesn’t even have to try it again!), as well as it doesn’t give him a fair chance to warm up to it (kids often need several exposures to a food before they feel safe enough to taste it).

A recent study out of Aston University in the UK tested out “the 3 R’s” (Repetition, Role modeling, and Reward) of feeding with 115 children aged two to four. These children were separated into four groups and for 14 days served vegetables that had been previously rejected. Those kids who were offered a vegetable several times (repetition), whose parents also ate the vegetable happily (role-modeled), and who were offered verbal praise for trying a vegetable (rewarded) ate more than four times the amount of vegetables than they had prior to the study. Even those who were exposed to only two R’s (repetition and reward) ate significantly more than the control group.

What to do instead: Give your child the benefit of the doubt

We’ve known for a long time that kids need repeated (and non-pressured) exposure to certain foods (sometimes 15 or more times) to warm up to them, but parents - I included - are often quick to assume that their child will not even touch it, so they don’t bother serving it. It’s important not to assume. Recently my son who is four and a half, all on his own, ate salad for the first time and loved it. Instead of saying “Oh, you won’t like it” (which I almost did!) when my son asked for a helping of salad, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and served him some. Much to everyone's surprise, he gobbled up the whole thing and now eats salad regularly. Know that kids’ palates are ever-changing and what your child doesn’t like one day (or for several years) might be their new favorite food the next day.

If you're enjoyed this post, we will be posting more on healthy childhood feeding/weight management over on our Facebook page, so feel free to check it out!

Also, here are 8 summertime snacks that both parents and kids will love and 5 yummy ways to sneak more vegetables into your day

*Post adapted from Sarah Remmer's "Non-Diet Dietitian" blog over at Erica Ehm's Yummy Mummy Club:*



Weight Management Doctors, Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist, Psychologist

Serving clients from across Alberta, including Calgary, Airdrie, Okotoks, Chestermere, High River, Langdon, Cochrane, Strathmore and other surrounding areas.