This instalment of Ask the Dietitian focuses on feeding kids. A few people asked: “What do I feed my kids? It’s all too confusing”; “Are my kids eating enough? They’re not big on meat”; “How do I get my kids to try new foods without them instantly refusing?”
Remember that the information below is general; if you need more specific information for your child, see an RD.
The first thing to realize is that if your kids are growing, they are probably getting enough food. The growth curves are the gold standard of measuring ‘enough’ in terms of how the kid’s intake is affecting them. The doctor should be plotting your kid’s growth – weight and height – every year on a growth chart, and all you have to do is ask to see it. We look for a kid to follow the curve – whether it’s at the 5th or the 95th percentile. Any deviation of 2 percentiles is a red flag. Some kids are just small, so they’ll always be on the 5th percentile and that’s okay if that’s healthy for them and there’s no other health issues involved.
Kids generally eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. We don’t force feed, play games, hide food, trick them, bribe them, or do anything else to make them eat more. When your kid is hungry, they’re going to eat. If they’re not hungry at meals, take a look at their snack timing: did they just snack an hour before a meal? Are they drinking a ton of milk or juice between meals that could be filling up their little tummies? The easiest, most obvious answer is usually the right one.
Don’t hover around your kid at the dinner table, and try not to focus on their eating. If you make it a big deal, it’s going to turn into one, so offer them whatever the family is eating and if the kid doesn’t eat it, they’ll have to wait until the next meal or snack. Just try to relax and be cool. Don’t comment on what the kid has or hasn’t eaten, which is sure to make everyone anxious. Understand that if your kid has a varied diet, then nothing bad is going to happen if they don’t eat vegetables for a little while. Be consistent and offer them daily anyways, without comment. You don’t want to die on that hill; kid vs. parent at meals is the ultimate power struggle, and you are NOT going to win this one, I guarantee. It’s actually going to work against you.
When offering new foods, respect that your kid might not care for new stuff. We all know people who aren’t adventurous eaters, and this might be your child’s nature. Continue to eat the food in front of your child and don’t make a big deal about it. When they see the food being consumed enough times, they’re more likely to try it. Some people have the ‘one-bite rule’ – they make their kids take one bite of everything on the plate. I prefer a more laissez-faire approach but you can try the one-bite rule if it doesn’t turn into a fight. The moment it turns into a power struggle, shut it down. Another strategy is to offer them the new food with a food you know they’ll eat. If they don’t consume the new food, they have the back-up preferred food.
Setting a good example is key. Saying ‘I HATE mushrooms!’ in front of your kid pretty much clinches the fact that they will hate mushrooms too. Keep it to yourself and give kids a chance to figure out for themselves if they like certain foods. The same goes for your eating habits; model a varied, healthy diet and it will become normal for your kids to expect whole, fresh foods. This means that you might have to cook more if you don’t already.
In terms of what you should be feeding your kids, assuming they’re not babies, they need the same foods you do. By the time they’re 3 or 4, kids’ recommended serving sizes are the same for adults. Instead of drilling it down to how many servings a day of fruit and how many ounces of protein they need, remember this: each meal should have ½-1 cup at least of fruit and/or vegetables. A protein. A starch or starchy vegetable such as peas, corn, or potato. Don’t resort to crappy junk food ‘just so they’ll eat something’. Normal kids won’t starve themselves and they don’t need an arsenal of Lucky Charms and chocolate milk in the kitchen ‘just in case’.
A ton of kids won’t eat meat, so offer them alternatives. Eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese, nut butters, lentils/beans/hummus, tofu, light tuna, salmon, cottage cheese. A kid of 40lb needs around 3 eggs-worth of protein a day (once they’re teenagers, that number jumps up). Does that take some of the pressure off? It’s not a huge amount at all. There are lots of very healthy vegetarian kids out there.
The absolute best way to get your kids to eat better is to make them invested in what’s being offered. That means bringing them along to the grocery store and letting them choose a fruit and a vegetable they’d like to prepare and eat; letting them help you choose recipes and prepare meals; and for sure, letting them serve themselves. Don’t just plop the food onto the kid’s plate. Give them the choice of how much to take. All of these things empowers kids, which is what you want to do.
Don’t think that your kid is going to be any healthier if you strong-arm them into eating what you want them to eat. It’s not a psychologically healthy thing to do so don’t even go there. Guilt, shame, and food don’t mix. Ever.
Remember that parenting is tough and if your kids are healthy, they’re probably going to stay that way regardless of if they hate vegetables. Nobody is perfect!! I give my kids Oreos too! Just keep it cool and have a little chuckle about this in a few years when you realize that this issue was just a drop in the bucket.