It seems like I discuss “food battles” with my patients and their families several times a day.
From the early days of parenting, when babies are first offered either breast milk or formula, there’s no need to ask, “Do you like this?” It’s taken for granted that an infant will eat and grow, and that’s that. Those are the easiest days of parenting, right – except for those few months of sleep deprivation?
But once that baby begins to eat solid food, the comments begin that “he makes a face when he eats spinach,” or “she will only eat chicken tenders from Chik-fil-a,” or “he only likes pasta and won’t eat meat,” or even, “I make three different meals for my three kids.” If you have a child older than 9 months, you understand what I’m talking about.
Obviously, food is essential for nutrition, growth and general health. But, that being said, parents have to trust that a child will eat when they’re hungry. Hunger drives us all to eat, eventually. Your child will eat that bowl of cereal, the steamed vegetables, or the dreaded chicken breast when he/she gets hungry enough.
I remember reading somewhere that “a parent’s job is to provide food for their children at appropriate meal times, and a child’s job is to decide if they will eat it.” In other words, make the meal, whether for your toddler or teen, and then “forget about it.” Mealtime need not be a battle, but more a chance for parents and children to enjoy being together – with eating as a bonus.
As an adult, when you’re invited to a dinner party, you don’t ask what the hosts are serving before you accept, nor do you tell them, “I hate lamb!” You just smile and find something to eat without creating a scene. We all need to approach family meals as dinner parties.
Our children are our guests. Sometimes they’ll like what we fix, and other times they’ll push some food around their plate and choose not to eat. The good news for most children is that there is another meal to follow. So, think about it and don’t let certain food likes and dislikes dictate your mealtime routine.
In fact, the more foods young children are exposed to, the better chance they’ll have of eventually becoming well-rounded eaters. Children’s taste buds change with time, as well, so some foods that a 3-year-old loved will no longer be the favorite when the child turns 13.
Well-balanced, nutritious, colorful meals are the best possible goal, with no room for food fights.
Dr. Sue Hubbard is a pediatrician, medical editor and media host.