Kids approach eating very differently than we do. For most boys and girls under nine to ten years old, eating is simply not a priority. It is just something they know they must do. But for us parents, what, when, and how our kids eat is an emotionally loaded issue. We mothers and fathers want our kids to eat well so that they grow the way they should. Because when our kids grow well, we feel like successful parents.
In twenty-five years of practicing pediatrics, I can say that some of the most stressed parents I encounter are those whose kids can’t gain weight. Whether it’s anorexia, chronic diarrhea, bowel disease, etc., when a child fails to gain weight, parents feel like failures.
We need to understand that food issues in children under age nine to ten bother us, not kids. When we become anxious about their eating, they pick up on it and learn very quickly to use eating habits to get what they want from us. They hear us say, “Eat your peas and I’ll buy you a toy” or “One more bite, and then you can go outside and play.” When they hear things like that, why wouldn’t they use eating to get what they want? I sure would.
Since eating is a source of anxiety for parents and a tool for kids to manipulate parents, there are a few things that every parent must know in order to avoid serious trouble. Here’s what I have learned works to keep kids’ eating patterns normal.
1. No food wars.
If your two-year-old won’t eat his peas, don’t make him. Offer him balanced meals three times a day and if he doesn’t eat, don’t feel guilty and never offer compensatory foods. (Don’t offer fruit roll ups two hours later because you’re afraid he’s starving.) Just offer another meal at dinner. Remember, he’s not interested in a large variety of foods, so keep things simple. Give him a choice of one or two vegetables, one or two meats, and a fruit or two. He doesn’t need to like a wide variety of greens; one or two will suffice until he’s older.
2. Never bribe kids to eat.
Bribing kids lets them know that their eating is really important to you. Since you can’t force them to eat, this gives them a lot of control. They quickly realize that they have power over you. Even three-year-olds will hold out eating in order to get what they want from parents, so never enter this arena. Don’t let them know how much you want them to eat.
3. Meal times should be pleasant.
If your kids won’t eat, have them sit at the table with you anyway. Don’t talk about what they eat or how much. Just have pleasant conversation. This will help them relax and I guarantee, eventually, when they are relaxed and realize that no one is focusing on food, they will eat. In twenty-five years, I haven’t had a child starve to death yet. Remember, kids don’t naturally make food a big deal. So when you do, it throws them off and they quickly recognize that food and meals can be used to drive you crazy, so don’t talk about it.
4. Don’t be the food police.
When a child has an eating disorder, she knows that Mom or Dad watches every morsel of food she puts in her mouth. This act fuels her starvation. Time and space limit a deeper discussion here for the reasons, but suffice it to say that when we treat kids with eating disorders, one of the first things we do is have Mom and Dad stop watching over their shoulders. We physicians take responsibility for their weight gain to take the burden of food intake off of the parent’s shoulders. Parents need to provide love, security, comfort, and a relaxed atmosphere—not ensure that kids gain weight.
When it comes down to it, food wars, bribing, and over-focusing on meals is our issue, not our kids’. The best way to ensure healthy eating habits and healthy weight gain for them is to help relax our attitude about meals and hold our kids’ eating habits much more loosely.
After all, food exists to keep fuel in their bodies so they can reach adulthood. No more, no less. Let’s keep it that way.