Inspired by a question a reader posed about eating problems in kids, I decided to write this article. I had been thinking about doing so for a while because I have been asked this question more than once and now it’s time to come up with something helpful for parents to refer to.
Like I have shared in past articles where I give suggestions on parenting issues, please remember that what I write is not the Bible. These are things that have worked for our family but you always have to prayerfully consider what is best for your own kids and do research, too. Nevertheless, I hope these tips will encourage you.
First, I know what it is like to battle with a child over eating. At some stage in each of their young lives, my children have not been interested in food. There is nothing that would stress me out more than having to deal with a child who constantly refused to eat or seemed averse to the eating experience. It would try my patience and become a source of conflict between my kids and me. However, several years of experience made me realize that this “problem” was not forever.
Let me introduce to you case # 1 so you have an idea of just how bad some of these eating issues were. My eldest son, Elijah, was completely disinterested in food for the first few years of his life. He was breastfed until nearly two years old and after that wouldn’t drink any formula. At one point, we had to use a dropper to get formula into him. But that was ridiculously unsustainable so we let him drink fresh milk instead. He is turning out just fine so far — tall and intelligent for his age, dispelling the notion that formula is essential for stature and cognitive development. So if you have a child that rejects formula, don’t worry. There are other ways to get calcium and nutrients into them.
Milk was just one of his problems. He would take two hours to eat and it was always a battle of the will between him and whoever was feeding him. One day he asked, “How come I am always eating?” After the first meal in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after he had to have the next. So he thought that his entire day revolved around having to eat!
When he did eat, his preference was fish. He refused other meat. Every time he was fed beef or chicken he would gnaw on it in a sort of torturous way. I tried spanking, withdrawal of privileges, showing him photos of starving people in Africa (I was desperate and it wasn’t effective). The only thing that finally worked was complimenting and affirming him whenever he ate well. And then his little man’s appetite kicked in at about age 7, and he can even eat more than Edric and I do! Today, he eats a variety of cuisine with pleasure. He isn’t heavy or overweight, but he can consume two Big Macs in ten minutes if we let him.
Case # 2: My third son, Titus, used to gag and vomit whenever he ingested vegetables. He didn’t like them at all. For certain stretches of time, he would vomit his food at least once a day. Of course this was totally aggravating because he left a mess. And I would feel so frustrated and concerned that he threw up all his food and we had to start all over. Eventually, however, he learned to eat vegetables. We didn’t give up. We cut it up into his food to make the bites smaller and more tolerable, and he saw us all eating vegetables and talking about how healthy they were. He actually likes vegetables now.
Up until a few months ago, Titus wanted to be fed by a yaya. I didn’t like this because I wanted him to learn to feed himself. When someone fed him, he downed his food in a few minutes. But when he would eat on his own, he would get distracted and daydream. When he turned five years old, we finally said, “Okay, no more being fed at the table.” Since he was mature enough to get this, he has complied. There will be certain occasions when he doesn’t eat quite as fast, but we are past the throw ups and spoon-feeding.
My second son, Edan, and youngest child, Tiana, have been manageable when it comes to their eating habits. Edan has always enjoyed his fruit and vegetables and Tiana will communicate that she is hungry when she is. So they have had minimal issues with food. There are instances when Tiana isn’t as excited about eating veggies, but she is growing out of that stage as well.
What did we do right and what did we do wrong? Let’s start with the wrong…
I used to make eating such an issue with Elijah. I would force him to eat his food by putting all kinds of sanctions on him if he didn’t finish what was on his plate. This led to a lot of tension between us. In fact, I probably lost my cool more than once over Elijah and food. After child number one, I realized a couple of things.
- Kids will eat when they are hungry. If you have boys like I do, they will grow up and get hungry. It’s inevitable. Our biggest household expense is now food.
- Don’t let your kids snack in between meals if they aren’t doing well with eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It ruins their appetite. Avoid buying snacks so they aren’t even an option.
- Get them to exercise or at least be physically active. They will be more inclined to eat when mealtime comes around because they’ve burned calories. Don’t expect them to have much of an appetite if they are just lounging around the house watching TV, on the computer, etc.
- Eat together as a family as often as possible. Food should be associated with fun and bonding. Family meals ought to be a highlight of the day, not a lonely, isolating experience.
- If your child isn’t hungry, take their food away after 30 minutes. More often than not, they will be ready to eat their next meal (if you don’t give them a snack in between). You might be interested to know that “mothers who pressured their children about food were likely to end up with kids who avoided eating even more fiercely…and urging kids to eat when they’re not hungry tends to override a child’s innate sense of satiety, which can create kids who have a hard time regulating their appetite.” According to author, Claire Farrow, a senior psychology lecturer at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, “Healthy children are born able to regulate their hunger and fullness.” Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2011/09/29/kids-dont-want-to-eat-dont-sweat-it/#ixzz2XEkNBXMg
- Avoid too many sugary drinks or juices that can fill up their tummies while they are eating. Instead of giving our kids a full glass of juice when they eat, we give them ¼ or ½ of a glass. If drinking is not a deterrent to consumption of food, we allow them have more to drink.
- Give your kids vitamins regularly if you are worried about nutrition. Vitamins like folate or folic acid, thiamine and zinc may also help improve their appetite, too. Read more: http://www.livestrong.com/article/313619-vitamins-for-appetite-stimulation/#ixzz2XElm3t69
- Bring your kids to the grocery so they can pick out food they like. My kids love going to the grocery and helping me fill up the cart. They like the fish section (especially when there are live fish) and the cereals.
- Get them to help you cook from time to time so they are personally involved in preparing a meal. And then let the family compliment them for their “dishes.”
- Affirm them everytime they eat well so they are encouraged to keep doing so. When Elijah ate his first burger, I told him how impressed I was. He remembered that. Burgers are one of his favorite things to eat. And he takes pride in the fact that he can eat more than Edric and I can when it comes to meat.
- Avoid habits like watching TV, leaving the table or playing while eating. Have meaningful discussions and interaction as a family instead. Model good eating habits yourself, too. In our home, we don’t eat a lot of junk, we rarely have sodas, and we talk about the value of keeping a healthy lifestyle in front of our children.
- Expose your kids to different kinds of cuisine (especially the older ones) so they can expand their food preferences. Our kids tried stingray while we were in Singapore and Elijah liked it a lot! Or take your kids out to eat once in a while (not a fastfood restaurant if you can help it.)
BONUS: Remind your children that whether they eat or not, you love them just the same. However, because you love them you want them to eat well. It is for their good. Then give them a big hug!
Personally, I have found that a positive approach to getting our kids to eat has been much more effective than making it an issue. When we were “rookie parents” we learned the hard way. We erred on the side of being tyrannical when the kids didn’t finish what was on their plates. Eventually we realized that kids grow out of the stage when they are disinterested in food. As they mature they can be trained to make wise choices about what they eat and to clean their plates, too!