Child-Feeding Expert and Victoria BC Dietitian (Nutritionist) Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD Shares Tips for Creating Healthy Snacks for Kids (Toddlers and Preschoolers).Read More
I’m often asked my opinion about what vegetable is the healthiest. I also hear the “best-Mommy” contest that happens on the playground where each parent tries to one-up each other bragging about what weird & healthy veggie their child loves. It goes something like this:
“My Johnny loves carrots.”
“MY Suzie loves broccoli.”
“WELL, MY Nicolas loves kale.”
“Guess what. MY Olivia loves Brussels sprouts. Eats them like candy. Can’t get enough of them.”
You get the picture.
I understand why people ask me about veggies. And why parents feel pressured. The amazing powers of specific vegetables often are the subjects of headlines. It makes a great sound-bite. It’s a great way to sell newspapers & magazines.
But as is often the case, that which makes a great sound-bite isn’t always what’s true. Because it’s been pulled out of context, the sound-bite ends up being only partly-true.
Science’s understanding of exactly what it is in veggies that’s so good for us is crude. We’re constantly learning of new healthy nutrients. For example, when I was studying human nutrition as an undergraduate in the late 1990’s, I was taught that white veggies didn’t have any healthful substances. They may provide flavor and crunch, but they were nutritional zeros. However, we now know that onions, garlic, and their other cousins such as leeks, have healthful nutrients like antioxidants.
While science is constantly discovering new nutrients, what’s found again and again (and again) is that the people who eat the most veggies are the healthiest. Period.
I also like to balance current science with the tried-and-true. And, when I look at traditional diets around the world, I see that human beings have survived and thrived eating all sorts of plant foods.
Let me be clear. I’m not denying that dark green veggies (like kale) and brightly-coloured veggies (like carrots and purple cabbage) are really healthy. They’re fantastic choices! What I’m saying is to not consider veggies such as cucumber and celery as empty junk. While they’re today’s zeros, who knows if they will be tomorrow’s super-stars. And, they’re healthier than most processed foods which kids typically eat if they’re not eating veggies.
So don’t stress if your picky eater doesn’t like today’s super-star veggies.
When it comes to veggies, it’s about quantity. And, variety.
Instead of relying on the magic of any one vegetable (and trying to force your picky eater to eat it), enjoy a wide variety of veggies. Introduce your little one to many different veggies (and repeat those introductions, and repeat, and repeat…). Be a veggie variety role model yourself. Encourage your little one to enjoy the wide, wide world of veggies in all colours of the rainbow. Together explore all the different tastes and textures.
And celebrate when your little one eats ANY veggies - whether it’s kale chips or that French Breakfast radish that the Farmer convinced him to try at Saturday’s Farmers Market, or…
So, what’s my answer when I’m asked what’s the healthiest vegetable? Answer: The one that you’ll eat (because it doesn’t matter how healthy any veggie is – if you won’t eat it – it can’t do you any good).
Photo credit: Keenan Loo on Unsplash
Each year, UBC dietetics students have a class project where they practice writing nutrition articles for the public. This year, I asked students Mei Ho and May Hasegawa to research are food dyes safe for kids. Here's what they found ~ Kristen
When you are shopping for snacks for your child, do the bright colours make you think twice about about adding it to your basket? Many foods we come across in our everyday lives have colour added in order to make it appear more appetizing. It is very common to see vivid colours in foods and beverages marketed towards children, such as candies, desserts and chewing gums. Foods can be coloured by natural food dyes like caramel colouring, or artificial food dyes, which are colours made from petroleum1. Today we will be looking at food dyes in the context of artificial food dyes, which have been used more commonly in foods in recent years.
Are Artificial Food Dyes Safe for Kids?
As early as the 80’s, researchers began to study the effects of artificial food dyes on children’s health. The results of their studies have been controversial, and has stirred concern amongst consumers. Some have suggested a possible link between artificial food dyes and hypersensitivity in children3. Others have researched possible risks of organ damage, cancer, birth defects and allergic reactions1. While no study findings have been conclusive, countries in Europe such as the U.K. have banned artificial food dyes altogether for safety measures1.
What Are the Safety Regulations of Food Dyes in Canada?
Regulations in North America state that there is not enough scientific evidence to say artificial food dyes cause negative effects on children’s health3. Canada permits the use of food dyes in everyday foods from bread, butter, milk to cheese. All food dyes must first be approved by our federal regulatory body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). At this time, Canada has approved ten dye colours for use in food and beverages.
However, it has not been ruled out that food dyes may affect children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioural problems differently3. Researchers agree that more research on artificial food dyes is required.
Food Dyes Across the Globe
In 2009, the U.K. imposed strict regulations to remove certain food dyes from foods and beverages. This prompts us to think, why hasn’t North America followed along? It is interesting to note the different approaches used by North America and the U.K. when it comes to ensuring public safety through foods.4
- North America: tries to find the strongest evidence available before implementing new regulations.
- UK: uses a more precautionary approach, meaning that it will take action to protect the public even if the evidence is not entirely conclusive.
Moving Forward: What Can You Do?
With all this information, it can be confusing to decide whether you want your children to be consuming artificial food dyes. It may first be helpful to understand how to identify whether something contains artificial food dyes. By law, companies are required to list the name of the dye on the ingredient label. It may be tricky for shoppers to recognize the commercial names of artificial food dyes. Here are the names of 10 common artificial food dyes in Canada:5
- Allura red
- Brilliant blue FCF
- Citrus Red No.2
- Sunset yellow FCF
- Fast green FCF
- Erythrosine Red
- Amaranth Red
- Ponceau SX
There are also ways to add colour into your cooking at home without using food dyes! Kids are drawn to bright colours, and baking at home can be more fun if your child has the chance to make their own colours. This can be done by boiling, blending, and/or pureeing vegetables or fruits for their natural colours.6
- Raspberries, pomegranate and beets - pink/purple
- Carrots – orange
- Turmeric powder – yellow
- Blueberry – blue
- Spinach – green
- Red cabbage – purple and blue
- For purple, boil cabbage in hot water until water is dark purple colour
- For blue, slowly add some baking soda to purple water
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - May’s Opinion:
While there is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial food dyes are harmful to our body, I feel that more research is needed to fully understand their effects on our health. I like to refrain from using artificial food colouring in my own baking, and opt for more natural options like using juice from fruits or vegetables.
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - Mei’s Opinion:
As the research is inconclusive, it is ultimately up to the consumers to make an informed decision. New food labelling requirements in Canada will now include the commercial names of synthetic food dyes in the ingredient list, but it is questionable whether or not consumers will recognize these names or be able to associate them with food dyes.
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - Kristen's Opinion:
Call me conservative, but I am suspicious of foods that are highly processed. My motto is "foods closest to the way nature made them are the healthiest choice". Artificial food dyes are about as far from nature-made as you can get. So, I would recommend steering clear of artificial food dyes for day-to-day eating. But I'm also practical. Our bodies are amazingly adaptive. Eating foods with artificial dyes once in a while is likely not going to cause harm. So if your child is invited to a birthday party where they serve cake with bright green icing, let your child enjoy the cake right along with the other kiddos.
If your child has behaviour concerns, such as ADD/ ADHD, I think it's worth doing a food trial where you eliminate all food dyes and see how your child's behaviour responds. There may be no effect. Or, your child may be a member of the sub-set of kids who have a link between behaviour and food dyes.
Want more science-based nutrition tips for kids? Sign-up today for my e-newsletter.
1Kobylewski, Sarah, et al. “Food Dyes a Rainbow of Risks”. Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2010.
2Stevenson J, Sonuga-Barke E, McCann D, et al. “The Role of Histamine Degradation Gene Polymorphisms in Moderating the Effects of Food Additives on Children's ADHD Symptoms.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2010; 167:1108-1115.
3 “FDA panel concludes food coloring isn't associated with hyperactivity in children.” Nutrition Today. 2011; 46:104.
4Banned in Europe, Safe in the U.S. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/banned-europe-safe-us/
5Food Colours - Permitted Synthetic Colours in Canada and Corresponding United States and European Names.
68 Ways to Make Organic DIY Food Colouring. http://www.networx.com/article/8-ways-to-make-organic-diy-food-coloring
I have good news. People are hearing that babies should have iron-rich foods as first foods. I’ve been talking this up for almost 10 years now and I’m super happy that the message is starting to be commonplace.
Yes, we recommend offering your baby iron-rich foods twice a day. From the very start. Then introduce a wide range of other healthy foods.
Why? Because iron is needed for growth and development. Iron is also needed during this critical time for brain development. This critical period extends from infancy through to about 5 years old.
That bad news is that people have misunderstandings of what foods are good sources of iron. So, they think that they are feeding their babies iron-rich foods. But they aren’t.
Avocado, broccoli, sweet potato, and quinoa are all foods that people commonly think are good source of iron. Incorrect. Myth.
Foods that are Good Sources of Iron:
- Poultry (e.g. chicken, turkey)
- Beans and lentils. Particularly the lentils.
- Nuts and seeds. Particularly the seeds.
- Iron-fortified baby cereal.
*While liver is a very high source of iron, it also contains extremely high amounts of vitamin A. So much vitamin A that it’s not recommended that you offer liver as a first food, and only offer it on rare occasions to toddlers and preschoolers.
Not All Iron is Equal
Iron comes in two different forms in food – heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by our bodies and is found in meat, poultry and seafood. Non-heme iron isn’t as well absorbed by our bodies. So, when looking at lists of foods with iron that just list the number of milligrams, you need to recognize that you’re comparing apples and oranges.
There’s a great hack for increasing the body’s absorption of non-heme iron. It’s to eat a food with vitamin C at the same time. May fruits and some veggies are good sources of vitamin C. So serve your lentils in a tomato sauce and stir some strawberries into that baby cereal.
Here’s a more extensive list of iron-rich foods (from a trusted source): https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/iron-foods
Low Iron Foods
You’ll notice that a number of foods that are commonly thought of as containing iron aren’t on my list above. Certainly there are a number of other foods that have a little bit iron. Some vegetables and fruit do contain a small amount. But I wouldn’t consider them good sources of iron. You’re likely surprised that spinach isn’t on the “high-iron” list. That’s because while spinach does contain a decent amount of iron, most of that iron is bound to another molecule, called oxalate, that prevents us humans from absorbing it. While most of the anti-nutrient content on the internet is making a mountain out of a mole hill, the oxalates in leafy greens are noteworthy enough to not count these foods as a source of iron.
Dairy foods aren’t a source of iron. In addition, they can prevent the absorption of iron from other foods. This is why we recommend delaying the introduction of cow’s milk until 9 – 12 months of age. And, once you have introduced cow’s milk, limiting it to 2 – 3 cups per day.
Grains aren’t a source of iron. Yes, even quinoa. That’s why iron is added to infant cereal and breakfast cereals (that’s what the word “fortified” means in “iron-fortified infant cereal).
Check out my Youtube channel for videos on how to prepare baby food versions of iron rich foods (puree and finger foods- Baby Led Weaning).
Photo credit: James Sutton
Have you heard? Anne of Green Gables is back on TV. CBC has created a new series telling the story of our favourite red-headed PEI character. Now you may be thinking, “Um, Kristen, I don’t read your blog for TV updates, I read your blog for child nutrition”. Just stick with me for a minute, because I’m not really going to be talking about Anne of Green Gables. I’m really sharing a tip for supporting your child to become a healthy eater.
So what’s the connection between Anne of Green Gables and nutrition for kids?
My first cookbook, given to me as a child, was the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook. I still have it. So, whenever I think of Anne of Green Gables, I think of cooking. Specifically, I think of my first times in the kitchen as a child. I remember pouring over the pages of this cookbook, carefully choosing the recipes that I would try. Saucy Chicken, Thousand Island Dressing, Diana Barry’s Favourite Raspberry Cordial, Coconut Macaroons, and Anne’s Liniment Cake were all made by a school-age, picky-eater, yours-truly. Not every recipe turned out. But I remember feeling very grown-up indeed as I made them. With the knowledge that I now have as a dietitian and child nutrition expert, I know that I was building self-efficacy, self-esteem, cooking skills, and food-confidence. It’s amazing what one little book did for my future nutritional health.
And so, I want to encourage you to empower your kids with food by cooking with them. Teaching kids how to cook is an important life skill. One really can’t be a healthy eater if one doesn’t cook. And, cooking is learned by doing.
Preparing food can help a picky eater overcome their reluctance to try new foods. Toddlers and preschoolers are at the developmental stage when they want to do things for themselves. Use this to your advantage! I’ve known many a little one who will happily try some salad that they “made”, when they otherwise wouldn’t have touched lettuce with a ten-foot pole.
Get kids in the kitchen young. Get them helping to make a wide variety of foods. Don’t just bake treats with them. Help them to build familiarity, confidence, and positive memories with healthy foods too.
Safety is important in the kitchen. With adult supervision, there are lots of safe things that kids can do. Here’s some ideas:
What Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Do in The Kitchen
- Tearing lettuce
- Tossing a salad
So whether you buy a kids cookbook or invite your child into the kitchen to make family favourite dishes, I encourage you to use this strategy for minimizing picky eating.
Looking for some new recipe ideas? Check out these healthy (and delicious) kid-friendly recipes.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of this long, extra-snowy winter. I mean snow in Vancouver and Victoria, BC in March?! So I’m choosing to think about spring. Spring is the beginning of the season for many opportunities to give picky eaters ways to explore and be interested in food. Because for many picky eaters, veggies and fruit are less scary when you’ve grown them, picked them, or chosen them from the farmers’ market. So today, I’m sharing with you some spring picky eater success strategies.
While the saying may be, “seeing is believing”. For many a picky eater “seeing is eating”.
Well at least for some. Other picky eaters will happily participate in growing, picking, and shopping but still won’t try them. Which is okay, because all of these activities still contribute to your picky eater building food-confidence, which one-day will turn into eating a wider variety of food.
Picky Eater Key to Success
So go ahead and plan family activities that involve exploring food. The key is that these activities are undertaken in the spirit of fun and exploring – not pressure to eat/try the foods. For example, if you follow up your growing of the radishes with “Try them. These are the radishes that you grew. Come on, you’ll like them.”, you likely will unintentionally undo all the confidence that you built with the activity of growing the radishes. And, next time you ask your little-one to help you in the garden, she/he will refuse because she/he knows that growing leads to pressure to eat.
- Bring your picky eater to the garden centre. Let him/her choose plants and/or seeds. Plant them together in the garden. A pot on a patio is great too.
- Fast-growing veggies like radishes and lettuce are a great match for short attention-spans.
- Do any friends or family members have veggies or fruits that you can offer to pick?
- Plan a family trip to a u-pick farm. Strawberries are great because they grow low to the ground. Check with the u-pick farm whether they allow young children (some do and some don’t).
Choose Them at a Farmers Market:
- Have a game where everyone in the family gets to choose 1 veggie or fruit to buy and try.
- Enjoy the free samples that many stalls offer.
- Encourage your child to talk to the farmer. Their enthusiasm is contagious! Ask how they grow the veggies to engage kids’ innate curiosity. For example, do the veggies grow up high in air on tall plants or secretly hidden under the ground
Looking for more success strategies for your fussy eater? Keep browsing through my blog, I share lots, such as this picky eater success tip.
A recent study reinforced something that as a child nutrition dietitian, I’ve known through working with thousands of families over the years in Vancouver, Victoria, and beyond. The study found that giving kids frequent snacks is associated with lower iron levels. In other words, it increases the risk for kids' iron deficiency.
Why are we concerned about kids’ iron levels? Because iron is necessary for having good energy, overall growth, but perhaps most importantly, it’s necessary for little ones’ growing brains. Without adequate iron, kids won’t live up to their full cognitive capacity.
It’s very, very common for parents to give kids frequent snacks. Families record a food diary when I work with them. In reviewing their food diaries, more often than not, we realize that they’re feeding their kids just about every hour. No wonder the far is full of crumbs and you have food stashed in every purse and jacket pocket!
So how does this habit contribute to kids’ lower iron levels? In two ways:
- Snacks usually consist of foods that we deem “snack foods”. They’re things like fruit, granola bars and cookies. These are all low in iron.
- Because kids are in the habit of snacking all day long, they don’t have an appetite to eat at lunch and dinner – the times when iron-rich foods are usually served.
Now this doesn’t mean that kids only need to eat 3 meals a day. They have big energy needs (to keep those busy bodies moving and growing), small tummies, and short attention spans. So it’s unlikely that kids will meet their nutrition needs by eating just 3 meals a day. I recommend that kids be offered opportunities to eat 5-6 times a day. There is no one pattern that families have to follow. But a common pattern that achieves this is:
- Morning snack
- Afternoon snack
- Bedtime snack
To avoid constant snacking, look ahead at your family’s schedule. Plan for when you’ll offer these 5 – 6 opportunities to eat. Plan for the opportunities to eat to be at least 1 hour apart from each other so that your child has a chance to digest what they’ve just eaten and build an appetite again. Aim to have your meals and snacks at about the same times each day.
Previously I’ve written about using share plates as a successful strategy for helping picky eaters to try new foods on their own. Today I’m sharing how to take it up a notch if you’ve been using the share plate strategy already. You can also use what I’m sharing today as your starting point. Either way, I’ve seen this be a successful way to getting picky kids to try new foods.
Almost always, when I visit families for an in-home consultation, I observe that a parent plates the food on each family member’s plate and then brings the plates to the table. I recommend serving meals in a different way. Instead of individually plating food in the kitchen, I recommend serving food on share plates that you place in the middle of the table. This is also called serving food “family style”.
Toddlers and preschoolers, also known as the picky eater or fussy eating years, are at a developmental stage when they want to do things for themselves. It’s what I call the “me do it” stage. They are also at a developmental stage where they are wary of food. Considering these normal stages of child development, you can see why kids this age hate it when their plates arrive in front of them with food already on it. They didn’t get to choose the food themselves and the food is arriving out of nowhere – how suspicious.
Instead of trying to work against kids’ normal developmental stage, the share plate technique uses children’s developmental stage to your advantage. Kids get to closely inspect the food on the share plate and choose, for themselves, what specific pieces end up on their plate. This level of empowerment certainly is worth washing a few extra dishes (especially if you have a dishwasher).
To take this strategy to the next level, I recommend not just having the share plate sitting in the middle of the table. Pass the plate around the table and allow each person to choose what they want from the plate. Yes, smaller children will need help holding and serving themselves from the share plate. But they can still participate. This strategy is particularly helpful for highly picky kids, particularly those who have anxiety about a food even being on their plate. This strategy also is good for kids who completely ignore the food on the share plate when it’s sitting in the middle of the table. This passing of the plate can be a simple, and non-threatening, way for them to interact with each food that you’re serving. You’re also silently expressing to them both how much they are included in the family as well as your faith that one day they’ll choose to eat each food. Talk about empowering messages!
Maybe you’ve heard the statistic. It takes kids between 10 – 30 times of trying a new food before they like it. But did you also know that a study found that parents typically gave up offering a food after 5 times? Yes, they didn’t even make the minimum 10 times and certainly were nowhere near the 30 times.
I use the term “challenging food” to refer to a food that your child has either:
- Never seen before. This includes new recipes/dishes/ preparations of a food they’ve known previously. For example, if your child is familiar with raw and steamed carrots but has never seen roasted carrots before, roasted carrots would be considered a challenging food.
- Seen many (many) times but has never tried.
A mistake that I see parents make all the time is to only offer challenging foods at dinner. Offering challenging foods only at dinner is a mistake for several reasons. First, is the purely practical reason that if you’re working your way up to 10 – 30 presentations of a food and you’re only serving challenging foods at dinner, it’s going to take years before you reach those 30 times. No wonder parents in the research study gave up after 5 times. It seems like you’ve been trying to get your child to eat that food forever.
The second reason is that this contributes to kids’ bad behaviour at dinner. Kids are smart. They figure out pretty quickly that they can get their favourite foods at breakfast, lunch, and snacks. But, that they’ll be presented with scary stuff at dinner. So, they try every trick in their books to get out of eating at dinner. They misbehave. They announce that they aren’t hungry (and then whine about being hungry 20 minutes later). They complain that they’re too tired to eat. In other words, anything that they can brainstorm that will push your buttons and get them out of facing the challenging foods on their plate.
So, what’s the alternative? Use any meal or snack as an opportunity to present a challenging food. Breakfast, lunch, morning snack, afternoon snack, and bedtime snack are all fantastic opportunities to present a challenging food. Mix it up from day-to-day. One day at afternoon snack, serve some of the challenging food leftovers from dinner the night before. The next day, serve a new fruit at breakfast. One day, pack in your child’s lunch a couple of pieces of the raw veggies that you’re packing for your own lunch.
A couple of key tips to making this strategy work:
- Always include familiar foods at the meal or snack. Remember: it’s unlikely that your child will eat the challenging food today. So, be sure that there are familiar foods from the other food groups that they can eat to satisfy their hunger and meet their nutrition needs.
- Provide a small serving of the challenging food. I’m talking one baby carrot in their packed lunch. This limits the amount of food waste when they don’t eat it. And, a small serving is much less intimidating than a large serving. When your child does try, and like, the challenging food, as they say in showbiz, always leave them wanting something more. In other words, when your child does eat the challenging food, you can repeat that food soon and provide a larger serving.
While presenting a workshop on Monday, a small group of parents pulled me aside and asked a question that I get asked all the time. “What do you think about sneaking in vegetables? Is hiding veggies okay?” You know what these parents mean. There are several very popular cookbooks, one by a celebrity, made up entirely of recipes that involve pureeing vegetables and hiding them in other foods. Classic examples are squash in mac and cheese and beets in chocolate cake.
Most parents who ask me this question do so with a sheepish look in their faces. They’re expecting me to tell them that it’s a horrible idea. However, my answer isn’t a simple – “good” or “bad”. Here’s the details.
Studies show that kids do eat more servings of vegetables in families where they add pureed vegetables to dishes. Also, most of us could use to eat more veggies. So exploring new dishes that include veggies is a fantastic idea. Go ahead, incorporate more vegetables into your eating habits!
However, if you are going to use this technique, there are two very important steps to take to make sure that you are both helping your child eat more veggies now AND helping teach them to choose to eat vegetables as a life-long habit. (And, not inadvertently creating an even more picky eater).
Hiding Veggies Important Step #1:
If all you’re serving your child is mac and cheese and chocolate cake, all they’re learning is to eat mac and cheese and chocolate cake. You may know that there’s squash in the mac and cheese and beets in the cake, but your child doesn’t. If you choose to sneak in veggies, also be sure to serve obvious veggies too. For example, serve steamed broccoli on the side of that mac and cheese. Even if your child doesn’t eat the obvious veggies, you’re role modeling choosing to eat vegetables – an important lesson for life-long healthy eating habits.
Hiding Veggies Important Step #2:
Don’t deny that there are veggies in a dish if your child asks. One book I read recommended waking up in the middle of the night to prepare your purees and freeze them so that you can sneak them into dishes without your kids seeing you. Um, no. Not what I recommend. First, I want you to get the few hours of precious sleep that you can get. Second, picky kids are smart and pay close attention to detail. They’re also little conspiracy theorists about food. They will figure out that you’ve been hiding veggies in your dishes. Then, they’ll wonder what else you’ve been hiding and will become even more suspicious of their food. Not the path you want to head down. Don’t deny what you’ve put in a dish. At the same time, you aren’t a waiter at a two Michelin star restaurant. You don’t need to describe every ingredient and every step that you took to prepare each dish. In other words, you don’t need to divulge what’s in a dish, but don’t deny what’s in it either. If your child asks, answer them directly in a neutral, matter of fact tone.
You’ll not likely be surprised to hear that one of the things I love to do while travelling is to observe and experience different people’s cultural food ways. I was travelling alone for two of my four weeks in Spain last month so I had lots of time to observe how people ate.
One thing that really struck me is how people chose their food at a buffet. In one of my hotels, a breakfast buffet was included. There was an optional dinner buffet too. I noticed that the Spanish families ate very differently at buffets than we do here in North America.
You know the routine here in North America. Every family member goes up to the buffet and chooses how much of which foods they’ll put on their plates. Kids who are too young to serve themselves either stay at the table and they receive a plate made up for them by a parent. Or, the little ones come up to the buffet and “help” choose what foods go on their individual plate. Then every family member sits down with their individual plates and people eat.
This is completely different than how the Spanish do buffets. What I observed is that some family members stayed sitting at the table and some went up to the buffet. Everyone placed an empty plate in front of themselves at the table. The family members up at the buffet would select a plate full of foods from the buffet that they would place in the middle of the table. For example in the middle of the table at dinner there were plates full of meat, plates full of fish, plates full of vegetables, a plate full of bread, and a plate full of olives. One food per plate. Then, everyone served themselves from these plates. In this way, even at a buffet, everyone shared the same meal. Yes, even if there were toddlers, preschoolers or older kids amongst the family members.
Why am I telling you this? I can’t help but draw parallels between what I observed at the buffet table and how people responded to me when I described what I did for a living. The Spanish folks whom I talked to were completely confused when I said that I helped families with picky eaters. It wasn’t a language barrier- these folks’ English skills were very good and we experienced no problems communicating ideas until this point. People were understanding me when I said that I was a dietitian (although sometimes I needed to use the term “nutritionist”). But they didn’t understand the concept that some kids don’t eat well. They didn’t understand that kids refuse to eat a variety of foods. They didn’t understand that this situation is stressful for parents and creates an unhealthy relationship with food for the kids that can last a lifetime. And, that I can help sort out the situation so that kids choose to try new foods on their own, meet their nutrition needs, and develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Nope, my Spanish conversation partners were completely baffled by me.
You see, these Spanish folks were already doing many of the techniques that I teach parents. I teach making one meal for the whole family. I teach serving food from shared plates. I teach allowing kids to choose from the foods that you provide, without parents getting involved in demanding two more bites of one food in order to earn seconds of another food. I teach planning a meal so that there’s at least one familiar food that each person in the household enjoys. And, most importantly, I teach having pleasant conversations at the table. Each and every one of these techniques I saw in operation at the buffet restaurant. And guess what. The kids stayed at the table during the entire meal. The kids knew how to take turns in a conversation. The kids ate well. The parents didn’t need to scold their kids or cajole them to eat their peas. There were no mealtime meltdowns.
I suspect that the Spanish traditional way of eating was preventing the ubiquitous picky eating that causes us so much trouble here. That picky eating was such a rare concept in Spain that people just hadn’t heard of it. I’m sharing my observations with you today in the hopes to inspire you to eat more like the Spanish – and I’m not referring to the Iberico ham, paella and olives!
Rarely do I give a workshop on introducing solid foods to babies or feeding toddlers and preschoolers (including picky eaters) where a parent doesn’t ask how much food they should feed their child. It’s quite an easy question for me to answer. And, the answer applies to any meal or snack for a child of any age:
As much as they are hungry for.
If this answer surprises you, you’re not alone. This answer usually is met with confused faces. So, let me expand. As the adult, it’s your role to provide opportunities to eat 5 or 6 times a day. It’s your child’s role to choose how much to eat.
I recognize that it’s difficult to trust them to know how much to eat. But it really is best to do so.
We’re born being able to know when we are hungry and when we are satisfied. Over time, through social pressures, we learn to not listen to our bodies and instead look to external cues for how much to eat. This is associated with higher rates of eating disorders and obesity.
Studies show that when kids are raised in households where they’re told to stop eating before they’re satisfied (i.e. because the adult believes that their child has “had enough”), they learn to sneak food and gorge on food when they get the opportunity.
On the flip side, when kids are forced to eat more than they are hungry for, they learn to over-ride their bodies’ signals and they learn to overeat.
Instead, trust your child to listen to their bodies and eat as much as their bodies tell them. Expect this to vary from day-to-day. Some days they’ll eat so much that you don’t know where they’re putting it all. Other days they’ll eat so little that you won’t know where they’re getting their energy from. I recommend serving a very small portion. If kids want more, allow them to have seconds.
You’ll know that your child is getting enough to eat when they have lots of energy and their growth is tracking along their curve on their growth chart.
When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period. This is a strategy for dealing with kids who are picky eaters (fussy eaters) that is amazingly powerful, yet seldom used. When the families whom I work with adopt this tip they love it. It immediately makes meal times way less stressful (for everyone). Everyone is freed up to enjoy the meal.
This strategy has the power to create the family meals for that you wish for. Yet, if you’re like most of the parents I meet, you feel that you need to be doing more to be good a good Mom or Dad. You’re under the impression that to do a good job of parenting your child around food, you need to cajole them into eating their veggies. To refuse allowing seconds of rice/noodles unless they take 2 more bites of their meat.
If this rings true for you, I have big news. You don’t have to be the food police. Your job is to plan, prepare, and provide meals and snacks. And, to join your child at the table to lead the way in creating a positive environment.
How to do this? Be good company. Have pleasant conversations. Yes, that includes having pleasant conversations with your partner too – your child doesn’t have to be the centre of your attention for every second of the meal.
What to talk about? Choose any topic except the food you’re eating. One of my favourites is to play good thing, bad thing. This game is also known by many other names. What it involves is everyone at the table taking turns telling about the best and worst things about their day. Even preschoolers love playing this game. And you’ll connect as a family.
No, this doesn’t mean that magically you’ll no longer be concerned about your child’s nutrition. It seems paradoxical, but the more you back off telling your children how many bites they need to eat, the better they’ll eat. Kids respond positively to you removing the pressure. Hunger motivates kids to eat. You don’t need to. When you follow this “be good company” strategy, it’s a weight off your shoulders and it’s empowering for your children.
When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period.