Blissfully Ignorant Kid Feeding
My kids benefited from habits established by my parents
The backstory: I got married in January of my senior year of high school (yes, high school! No, I don't recommend this!). My first kid was born a year and a half later. I was 19 years old and had no idea what I was doing. And yet, I raised three very healthy eaters.
For the most part, I simply followed feeding patterns I learned from my parents.
My father was a high school dropout who went to trade school to become a machinist. My mom was mostly a stay-home-mom, occasionally working part-time. I grew up in a decidedly blue collar family. My parents made plenty of mistakes and eventually divorced, but they did some things right - especially when it came to feeding me and my younger brother.
Decades later, research shows my parents' approach to feeding me was spot-on.
6 Good Feeding Habits My Parent Taught Me
1. No one ever asked me what I wanted to eat
My mom made almost all the decisions about what groceries would be purchased and what would she would make or provide for our meals. She did not seek my advice and I never considered making demands. She wouldn't have stood for it! Besides that, I was busy doing homework, playing kickball, and catching crawdads in the little creek behind our house. I didn't worry about what I would eat. I didn't have to.
Following that example, I accepted full responsibility for planning and preparing meals for my own kids. I didn't ask them what they wanted. It never crossed my mind to ask them. I made meals and they ate them. Yes, I'm being honest about this. We didn't have arguments or negotiations about food. My kids were not picky eaters and our meals were enjoyable.
It pains me to see parents falling down the rabbit hole of asking their kids what they want to eat, or begging and negotiating with them to try this or that. If you are in this situation, I encourage you to read my blog post Stop Asking Your Kid What She Wants To Eat. Kids are the least qualified people in the family to burden with decisions about meals.
Registered Dietitian and Psychotherapist Ellyn Satter advises parents to adhere to a Division of Responsibility in Feeding which requires parents to make all decisions about what, when, and where meals take place. Most of our parents and grandparents didn't need a psychotherapist to tell them to take charge of family meals. Kids are less stressed about food and more likely to develop healthy eating habits when their parents can be counted on to take responsibility for providing nutritious meals.
2. We ate supper as a family
We had our supper at approximately the same time every single day, including weekends. We sat at the table. We had assigned seats. All the food was on the table and my mom didn't run back and forth between the table and the kitchen like a waitress. She made one meal for all of us.
We didn't start eating before closing our eyes, bowing our heads, and listening to my dad - who worked hard to provide for us - thank G-d for what we had to eat. My brother and I were asked questions about school or what we were doing with our days in the summer. Dad would bring up current events and we were expected to participate in the discussion. There was no TV or other distraction allowed. We asked to be excused before leaving the table.
Without considering alternatives, I did the same things with my own kids (minus saying grace, which I regret now). I think this is why my kids never pestered me with questions about when they would eat. They already knew. They weren't always snacking or asking for snacks, only to come to the table later without an appetite, because eating snacks and meals were predictable events they could count on. They knew how to behave at the table and in public when eating.
If all this sounds archaic and out of touch, just switch up the vocabulary. Eating with mindfulness. Meditating. Having gratitude. Batching. Making a connection. Time management. Feel better now?
Based on loads of research, the Expert Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families eat together at the table five to six times each week to prevent pediatric obesity. (1)
Download How To: Family Meals for tips on having regular sit-down meals as a family.
3. I wasn't forced to eat anything I didn't want to eat
One time I had a standoff with my parents over green peas. They refused to let me leave the table until all the peas were gone. I was four or five years old. I wouldn't budge. They left me alone at the table. I hid smashed peas all over the kitchen, including in the phone to ensure they would be found later, and told them I was done. The funny thing is I liked peas. I just didn't want them that night. My parents never tried to force me to eat anything again. If I wanted to go hungry it was my choice to make. They had done their job by providing a meal. (They also didn't give me a snack later if I hadn't eaten a meal.)
Likewise, I didn't beg or force my kids to eat. There was always plenty of other foods to eat at each meal if they didn't like something offered. I didn't worry about them getting enough and they didn't worry about having meals turn into a battleground. Without external pressure, they eventually tried everything in their own time, and made up their own minds about what they liked and didn't like. It wasn't knowledge of child psychology that caused me to handle meals with my kids like this. It was just dumb luck and my parents' example.
Two of my three kids decided to become vegetarian while teenagers. It didn't phase me. We discussed it rationally. I continued cooking meat dishes but made sure they had adequate alternative protein sources available. They each stopped being vegetarians of their own accord without any hoopla.
Despite growing evidence that controlling feeding practices are detrimental to children's ability to self-regulate their eating, research published in the journal Pediatrics reveals that up to two-thirds of US parents still pressure their kids to clean their plates and use other methods to pressure their kids to eat (2). The study showed dads are more likely to pressure their kids to eat than moms, and boys are more likely to be pressured to eat than girls.
If you're battling over foods with your kids, read Help! My Kid WON'T Eat Vegetables. If your kid insists he doesn't like something, just let it go. Don't force him to try it. See "Don't Yuck My Yum:" Stop Saying That to Kids for advice.
4. I wasn't allowed to graze in-between meals
We had distinct times for sit-down breakfast, lunch, and supper. My brother and I could have a snack between lunch and dinner. One snack from a predetermined set of possible snacks was allowed. During school we could have that snack immediately after coming home, not later. The usual roundup of snacks included apples, oranges, raisins, celery, carrots, crackers, Triscuits, and peanut butter. Later, when we got a microwave, popcorn and baked potatoes became snacks, too. Sometimes my mom made cookies, and we could have a few. We didn't have candy, chips, ice cream, or colas in our house, not because my parents were nutrition freaks, but because they were frugal. "I'm not spending money on that junk," was the standard reply to requests for snack foods. We only had ice cream, candy, or soda if someone was having a birthday.
I'm so grateful my parents taught me snacking discipline. It was second nature for me to do the same with my own children. Not grazing on snacks during the day gives kids a chance to have an appetite at mealtimes and to be ready to eat nutritious foods.
Beverages and snacks/sweets account for 78 percent of the added sugars consumed by the average American. (3) The Expert Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, sports drinks, and punches) be minimized or ideally, eliminated from kids' diets to prevent obesity. (1)
5. My mom provided balanced and nutritious meals
My mom didn't invent MyPlate, but the meals she made were remarkably similar. The standard blueprint for supper was some sort of meat, a couple of vegetables, rice or bread, and a glass of milk for the kids. When we got older we could have a glass of iced tea.
Naturally, when I started cooking for my own kids, my idea of supper was what I had grown up with and I followed the same pattern. It turns out my mom knew what she was doing, even if she didn't know what she was doing.
6. We rarely ate out
When I say rarely, I mean almost never. I mean almost never as in the only times I remember eating out where when we were traveling, plus just a few more times. When we did have to stop on the road to eat, a lecture about "highway robbery" by Dad was part of the experience. I think we might have been the only family in the world who had to get water with our fast food meals, because according to Dad he could buy a whole pack of sodas for what they wanted for just one.
What my parents gave me was the sense that eating at home is normal, and eating out is expensive and reserved for extraordinary circumstances. Admittedly, my own kids have had many more takeout meals than I ever did while growing up, but still far less than the norm.
Because restaurant foods tend to be high calorie, the Expert Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families prepare meals at home to prevent pediatric obesity. (1) Once again, my parents instilled habits that made me a better parent feeding my own kids.
But what about today's parents?
I'm concerned. The percentage of US children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Many parents are not providing structured, sit-down meals. Kids are snacking all day at-will on what they demand, and drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages. Many meals are purchased at restaurants rather than cooked at home. Families eat mindlessly while watching TV or fiddling with their phones.
The result is kids who don't know how to grocery shop or cook, who have developed a taste for high-sugar and high-fat foods, who do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and who aren't paying attention while eating.
Normal, or the "Standard American Diet" is detrimental to their health. The feeding patterns they are learning are likely to affect even the next generation without systematic intervention.
1. Barlow SE; Expert committee recommendations on the assessment, prevention, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity. Pediatrics. 2007;120(suppl 4):S164S192. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/120/Supplement_4/S164.full.pdf.
2. Katie A. Loth, Richard F. MacLehose, Jayne A. Fulkerson, Scott Crow, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer. Food-Related Parenting Practices and Adolescent Weight Status: A Population-Based Study. Pediatrics May 2013, 131 (5) e1443-e1450; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-3073
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th Edition, p. 54. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/