The picky eater guide: Part 4. The jobs of parents and kids
© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD
There are things you can do, and things you can’t do. Among the fundamental things that parents cannot do are three things that drive us all crazy.
- You can’t make ‘em sleep
- You can’t make ‘em poop
- You can’t make ‘em eat
It’s just true. If you’re looking for a power struggle, go ahead and try to fight one of those three fights. I’ll wait here.
Back so soon? Don’t be discouraged. Remember: the point of parenting isn’t to win, and it isn’t to dominate, and it isn’t actually to make your child do The Right Thing. The point is to raise a child—to help him or her become an adult, capable of making decisions (hopefully the right ones!) To make a decision, it has to be possible to make the wrong decision. Children need to learn to make even the wrong decisions on their own.
This series of posts started with Melissa’s simple question about what to do with her picky eater. In this part, we’ll focus on what the parents’ and kid’s jobs are at mealtimes. Remember: our goal is to reinforce good habits that will help Junior continue to make good eating choices for the rest of his life. The parent’s job is to offer healthful foods in a appropriate manner, following these steps:
1. Parents set the menu.
Choose a handful of different food items for the meal. Once your child is old enough (usually around nine months of age), he or she should be able to eat most of what mom and dad eat (it’s messy, but fun!) If one or more of the items is in the category of “foods Junior usually likes”, that’s fine. For instance, if your child really likes yogurt, it’s perfectly fine to make yogurt part of most—or even every—meal. Just put it on the table. Don’t make any of the foods belong to any of the people at the table—there should be no “Junior food” or “Mommy food.” If Junior wants some of mom’s anchovies, or mom wants a few of Junior’s chicken nuggets, that’s fine. All food comes out of shared serving dishes.
2. Parents sit and eat with their children.
You can’t expect your child to learn table manners and good eating habits if he’s eating alone at the breakfast nook. Mealtimes are together times.
3. Parents turn off the TV and talk with children during mealtimes.
Don’t talk about the food, unless it is to thank the preparer. Talk about other things.
4. Parents set a good example.
Put a variety of things on your plate, eat slowly, and drink water with your meals. Use a fork. Smile and enjoy yourself. Do the things you want your child to do—but remember, you’re teaching by example. Don’t nag your kids during meals.
Kids have it a little easier. They have only three jobs:
1. Children decide which food items to eat, and how much of which to eat.
As long as it’s on the table at the start of the meal, kids can choose to eat it: a lot of it, a little of it, or none of it. What children should not expect is to get things that are not on the table. Parents choose the items in the meal, then kids decide which of those and how much to eat.
2. When old enough, kids should help with the prep and clean up.
This can include shopping for foods, picking out menus, cooking, clearing the table, cleaning the dishes, everything. Get them to help in the vegetable garden and take scraps out to the compost pile. It’s all work for the family to do.
3. Kids should say “thanks” afterwards. A kiss for the cook is nice, but not required.
There are other benefits to the “family meal.” In addition to reinforcing good meal habits, preventing obesity, and encouraging a variety of foods, family meals help kids be more successful in school and help prevent drug use and family violence. Don’t turn meals into a struggle over whether your child is getting enough rhubarb. Enjoy your meals together by not focusing on just how much is being eaten. You’ll have a better time—and you’ll end up with a healthier-eating child, too.
Next: tying up a few loose ends. And muffins!
The picky eater guide: The whole enchilada: