By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
I announce to my kids and husband as the clock strikes six. My children, 4 and 6, race down the hall to see who can wash their hands first. They approach the table with anticipation carefully inspecting the bowls of food I have placed on the table. We pass the food around, and I help them, encouraging them to take a little bit of everything.
That’s the last time I mention the food.
Once I sit down, we take turns announcing the happenings of our days. My daughter, the older and more verbose one, tries to wow us with something new she learned in kindergarten. And we try to pry something out of my four-year-old son, whose only mission seems to be making us laugh. I make a point not to mention the food they are, or aren’t, eating. Unless, of course, there’s an outburst.
“I don’t like it,” my four-year old cries. I remind him to simply say “No thank you.”
I don’t try to reason with him that he ate that exact same dish last week, and there are no negotiations for more bites or insistence on eating veggies or anything for that matter. Some nights we have dessert and some nights we skip it — but nothing the kids eat for dinner is tied to the sweet treat. If it’s on the menu, they get it — no matter what.
This is not the part where I brag about my kids’ love for exotic foods. The truth is my kids are pretty average in the eating department. My four-year old is resistant to new food or any texture that seems offensive to him. And while my 6-year old is slowly opening up to more foods, shown by her willingness to take bites, it’s a good while before she adds a new food to her repertoire.
Even though my children fail to devour all foods, they sure are happy eaters. No one gets more joy out of eating scrambled eggs than my son. And you know there is some kind of love affair going on while watching my daughter eat a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich. My kids have days where they can’t put enough food away and other times where they only pick at meals. But I make it clear to them that it’s not good or bad to eat more or less, but it is always good when they listen to their tummy.
This feeding strategy of mine is not something I fell into, but something I planned to do before having kids. I have counseled my fair share of struggling adults who had to clean their plate as children or were forced to eat veggies, only to rebel when they were on their own.
Since becoming a mom, I have investigated the feeding research and have come to understand a great deal about why kids eat the way they do and how best to feed them. My son’s resistance to new foods, and erratic appetite, is completely normal and is to be expected after two when growth slows. My daughter’s mind and body are growing, making her ready — and hungry for — a larger variety of foods. Like most kids, my children love sweets because they are growing and these foods are rich in energy.
When I look at my kids I don’t just see the happy eaters they are today, I envision the type of eaters they will be twenty years from now. I want them to continue to listen to their tummy, leaving half of those big restaurant portions on their plates to take home as a bonus meal. I want them to enjoy sweets as a normal part of eating, without the habit of eating them in response to life’s many ups and downs. Because they were never forced to eat veggies, as their tastes grow up, they are likely to accept more vegetables (bitter) while decreasing the biological preference for sweets that occurs when growth is complete.
I believe we need a new conversation about feeding kids that goes beyond getting children to eat “healthy food.” Because thinking long-term about feeding kids, the same way we do other learned skills like reading and writing, will make mealtime more enjoyable (and effective) for everyone involved.
And we need more eaters that come running to the dinner table, knowing it will be a pleasant experience. Because happy eaters turn into good eaters, of that I am certain.
How does mealtime go in your home?