Feeding your family should be a source of joy, not stress. But for many parents, the dinner table is yet another battle zone (typically followed by the bath splash clash and the bedtime “I need water/I have to pee” parade).
But after speaking with several leading child nutritionists, it became clear that it’s not our kids—it’s us. We as parents need to reframe our approach and our expectations, both about what and how much our kids need to eat. Mealtimes should be, above all, conflict-free, says pediatric dietitian and child nutritionist Natalia Stasenko. And here’s the kicker: We often invest the most in dinner, both in terms of time, money and energy spent on meal prep, and nutritional value offered. But the end of the day is when many young children are most tired and least hungry. Is it any wonder we are at odds?
Parents also misunderstand our role in feeding kids. We worry they’re not eating enough or enough of the right stuff, so we hover, pressure, bribe or distract them (usually with books or screens) into eating more. But the experts wish we realized that “young children are very good at regulating their food consumption—knowing when to eat, how much and when to stop eating,” says registered dietitian and child nutrition expert Jill Castle. “Their internal barometer for getting what they need is quite good, so parents don’t need to ‘make sure’ their child eats this or that, or enough food.” What do we need to do? Offer nutritious meals and snacks at frequent, regularly scheduled intervals (that means every two to three hours for toddlers). This gives our children plenty of opportunities to eat what they need. Adds Stasenko, reassuringly: “Unless there is a real growth-related issue, diagnosed by a doctor, children can and should be trusted to self-regulate.”
If you’re worried about all this, you are not alone. “I try to avoid the expression ‘picky eating’ because most kids are selective eaters,” says pediatric dietitian Victoria Stein Feltman, cofounder of Apple to Zucchini. “It’s just reality. It would be way more difficult to find a child who is open to trying everything than it is to find a child who is restrictive in some way.” (As food for thought, she recommends all parents read Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.)