Child Nutrition: Dividing the Responsibility between You and Your Child

Trying to keep your children eating a balanced and nutritious diet can start to feel like a battle sometimes! Around age 1 ½ they might learn the power of saying “no”, and especially enjoy practicing this new-found power at the dinner table. Sometimes it just seems easier to let them have another cookie instead of their apple to avoid a tantrum, right? Many parents find themselves continuously having to use bribes to get their children to eat some of their vegetables. Others attempt other bribing methods like not letting a child leave the table until their vegetables are eaten, which often ends up with everyone feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Is it possible for your children to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains without bribing, power struggles, and using dessert as a reward? According to research, allowing your child an appropriate amount of meal-time decision making is essential to teaching positive eating habits.

Children should be taught to find joy in healthy eating, and not to see certain foods as punishments and others as rewards.

Division of Responsibility

For Toddlers through Adolescents:

Parents are responsible for what, when, and where. In other words, parents need to make healthy food available, create a positive eating environment, and determine the regular times for children to eat food.  

The child is responsible for how much and whether to eat. Children must be in charge of choosing how much they will eat and what foods they will try from what their parent makes available. Allowing children this responsibility, helps them to develop the habit of eating in response to their internal hunger cues and stopping when they are full. They do not get to choose when to eat, but whether they will eat when a meal time comes. So, if they choose not to eat at a meal time, then they must wait until the next.

Introducing Fruits and Vegetables

Studies show that repeated exposure to a variety of healthy foods is a more effective method for helping children eat new foods, than is using bribes or other discipline methods. 15-20 occasions of serving a certain new food may be necessary, but through repeated presentation will help it to become familiar to your little one. This strategy will also help your child to avoid forming a negative association with a food because of repeated power struggles over eating it. It takes time to learn to like new foods, and we need to use patience to give children the time.

It’s your responsibility to “feed” your child:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.”

It’s your child’s responsibility to “eat” the food.

  • Children will eat.
  • They will eat the amount they need.
  • They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
  • They will grow predictably.
  • They will learn to behave well at mealtime.”

General Guidelines to Remember:

  • Limit snacks and sweet drink between and after meals. Control your child’s access to the pantry or refrigerator. Require that they ask first before getting snacks from the pantry.
  • Eat together as a family as often as possible. Be an example of good nutrition.
  • Serve a variety of foods at each meal. Serve the same foods to everyone. Don’t short-order cook for your child.
  • Require that everyone remain seated at the table until all are finished. Require your children ask to be excused. Slowing a child down to eat is half the battle.
  • Make mealtime pleasant. Avoid nagging or coercing your child to eat and let the child’s natural hunger drive do the work for you.

In summary, do your job, let your children do theirs, and everyone will eat well!

For more information, view the following ACPeds resources:

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How Children Learn to Like New Food by Ellyn Satter

Robison J, Cool C, Jackson L. Kids, eating, weight and health. Absolute Advantage. 2007.

Satter, E. Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid Incapacitate Consumers and Contribute to Distorted Eating Attitudes and Behaviors. Health at Every Size. 2005

Satter, E. Joy of Eating. Weight Management Matters. 2011.

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