How to Raise Healthy Eaters
Parents are inundated with reports about childhood obesity, eating disorders, questionable preservatives in food, increasing food allergies and other health problems related to kids’ diets. As registered dietitians who work with families, we get fear-filled questions from parents almost daily.
The answer to feeding challenges isn’t always about food, as most people think. In fact, tackling the fear that is a result of feeding kids in a complicated food world is a big part of the solution. This fear unknowingly builds over time and exacerbates common nutrition problems, robbing families of the simple joy of eating.
To lessen this worry, we believe parents need more preparation for the job of feeding kids in the 21st century. Yes, most parents get feeding support for the first year or two, but that’s the easiest time of feeding in childhood! Things get harder as kids get older, and support for parents during these later years is almost nonexistent.
For example, some parents panic when their toddlers become fussy about food almost overnight. Without proper guidance, parents do the best they can by catering to their child or attempting to make them eat—two strategies that backfire, extending the shelf life of picky eating. But if parents are adequately prepared for this stage, they can lessen the severity of picky eating and react appropriately.
Older children have their own feeding challenges too. The school-age child may develop less than healthy habits once he starts school, becoming more aware of his peer’s eating habits and media messages. Adolescence is a time of independent food choices, which can lead to a new set of potential nutrition problems. While parents may think they can take a hands-off approach, adolescence is a critical time for communication, connection and preparation for adulthood.
Believe it or not, weight and appetite issues are not always about food either. Parents often look to food first by restricting or pressuring their child’s eating. While understanding problematic eating patterns is key, challenges with over or under consumption often reflect parent-child interactions during feeding, something most parents don’t even consider.
Eating disorders have also been on the rise for decades and spur fear among parents. For many reasons, parents may take too long to act, jeopardizing their child’s treatment and recovery. Even children from homes with healthy eating patterns can develop an eating disorder, so knowing the warning signs and what to do and say is key—and could save lives.
Making matters worse is our culture’s drive to fit into the “perfect parent” mold. This ultimately leaves many parents feeling ashamed to admit they struggle with feeding. Even dietitians come to us with challenges, showing that nutrition knowledge doesn’t always mean smooth sailing in the feeding department.
This first step to resolution is bringing feeding challenges out of the closet, which is why we wrote Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eater from High Chair to High School. It provides step-by-step feeding guidance, simple nutrition information, and child development expectations for the long haul of feeding kids—18 long years!
With growing awareness and support, more discussion, less judgment, and a comprehensive view of feeding throughout childhood, confidence can gradually replace the fear that is lurking in millions of kitchen tables across America.