Whether your children are overweight, underweight, or perfectly fine, you probably still worry about how they're eating. Here are 7 common mistakes parents make and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Encouraging Kids to Join the "Clean Plate Club"
For the most part, healthy young children eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. They're following their natural, internal cues, and you shouldn't mess around with that by encouraging them to eat past the point of fullness. Teaching your kids to be in tune with their own hunger and fullness cues will allow them to have a comfortable relationship with food and avoid overeating as they grow older.
Recent studies have also shown that all children, regardless of age, eat more when served larger portions. In other words, the more we put on their plates, the more they will eat — regardless of how full they are.
The two takeaways from this?
1. Do not encourage or bribe your kids to clean their plate.
2. Provide small to moderate portions at meals (except vegetables — those are unlimited, of course). Encourage them to eat until they are comfortably full, and allow them additional servings if they request them.
Mistake #2: Offering Sweet Rewards
Trying to get children to eat their vegetables can be downright frustrating, and parents often resort to bribery: “Eat your broccoli and you can have ice cream for dessert.” Unfortunately, this technique teaches our kids that broccoli and other vegetables are less appealing (because their consumption requires a reward) and that dessert is the prize, something to be valued over other foods. Multiple studies have shown that, in the long run, preference for foods decreases when kids are given rewards for eating them.
What to do? Keep dessert a separate entity, and don't make it the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Mistake #3: Depriving Kids of All Sweets
With all the loud, well-deserved messages about pediatric obesity, it's no surprise that some parents have completely outlawed sweets. But that's a pretty extreme measure. In order to help our kids have a healthy relationship with food (desserts included), we have to meet somewhere in the middle. While there is nothing wrong with limiting sweets and controlling the amount kids have access to, you certainly don’t want to outlaw them altogether. In fact, studies out of Penn State University have found that when kids are restricted from eating cookies or other snack foods, their desire to eat the snacks increases, and they’re likely to overeat them every chance they get.
Personally, I think it’s perfectly OK to allow school-age kids a fun food snack with their school lunch and some type of dessert after dinner. The key is to control what you can and to let them have reasonable dessert independence when you’re out and about.
- Limit snacks/desserts to 150 calories (that's two cookies or an ice-cream pop)
- Read labels and choose healthy ingredients.
- If you can sneak in a little nutrition along with the sugar, it’s a bonus. For example, low-fat puddings and ice cream provide calcium; strawberries with whipped cream provide fiber and vitamin C.
The bottom line? Control what you can, and allow your kids some freedom of choice — within reason.
Mistake #4: Letting the Little Kids Eat Like the Big Kids
A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that kids with older siblings are more likely to eat junk foods (soda, potato chips, cookies, cake, and candy) than children without older siblings. Because their older siblings request and have access to these treats, little sisters and brothers tend to be exposed to unhealthy foods much earlier than a firstborn.
Remember how you obsessed over everything your first child did, said, and ate? You probably didn't let your baby eat junk food! Although it's easier said than done, try your best to maintain the same age-based food standards for all your kids, not just the first.
The strategy? Allow your older kids to have snacks that aren’t appropriate for toddlers or preschoolers, but try to time them for periods when your youngest ones aren’t around. Put the treats in lunch boxes to take to school, or let your oldest enjoy them when your youngest are in another room, when they’re taking their evening bath, or after they go to bed at night.
And, of course, some foods, like soda, shouldn’t be in the house at all!
Mistake #5: Offering Too Many Snacks
Constant snacking throughout the day can leave kids uninterested in eating a proper lunch or dinner. And if they’re less hungry, they’ll be less willing to try new foods at dinner — like vegetables!
Looking for guidelines? Try these:
- Try to stick to a consistent meal and snack schedule.
- Allow at least two hours between snacks and meals.
- No more than two to three snacks a day, and limit them to about 150 calories apiece.
Mistake #6: Getting Young Kids Started on Liquid Calories
An eye-opening 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that today’s youths take in 10 to 15 percent of their total daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda, sports drinks, and fruit drinks) and 100-percent fruit juice. Further, kids’ average daily caloric intake from these beverages increased from 242 calories to 270 calories over the past ten years and continues to rise. Most of these drinks contain empty calories, meaning they provide simple sugars but little else in the way of nutrients. What’s more, although highly calorie-dense, beverages do not trigger the same satiety mechanisms as solid foods. This means that your kids are unlikely to feel full from drinking lots of soda or juice and therefore will not innately compensate for the extra liquid calories they slurp up, which can result in weight gain in the long term.
Your best bet? Limit the beverage choices offered in your home to water (including seltzer and sparkling water), nonfat or one-percent milk (after age two), and diluted 100-percent fruit juice on occasion. Don’t start introducing young kids to sugary, calorie-dense flavored waters, juice drinks, or soda at a young age. Set a good example by not drinking them yourself!
Mistake #7: Serving the Same Meals You Did Before Having Kids
Your vision of a healthy, satisfying meal might include plain grilled chicken, fish, salads, and plenty of steamed veggies, but chances are young kids will find these foods bland, unappealing, or downright disgusting.
If you want to persuade your picky kids to try healthier foods, you’re going to have to be a bit more creative in the kitchen. Try jazzing up meals with fun, flavorful marinades and condiments to make bland food more appealing and tasty, or play around with shapes, colors, and textures to liven up your dinner plates.
Need ideas? Try some of these on your brood:
- Serve cut-up raw veggies with a fun dip, like low-fat ranch dressing or raspberry vinaigrette. If your kids like only one or two veggies, it’s okay to repeat often. Serve fruits with a sweet, low-fat yogurt dip — just like fondue!
- Top poultry or veggies, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus, with your favorite jarred marinara sauce and/or part-skim mozzarella or Parmesan cheese.
- Cut vegetables or fruits into fun shapes with small cookie cutters. This works really well with red and yellow bell pepper, raw beet (which is actually really sweet!), cucumber, apple, pear, and melon.
- Take it a step further by using veggies to create fun objects, like celery boats. Fill celery stalks with low-fat cream cheese and top with red pepper “sails.” Cut veggies into strips and other shapes and use to design faces or artwork on whole-wheat mini pitas spread with low-fat cream cheese or ranch dressing.
- Mix chopped or grated veggies (zucchini and carrot work well) into meatloaf, soups, chili, marinara sauce, casseroles, or other mixed dishes.
- Dump extra veggies (frozen, bite-sized mixed veggies are ideal for this) into canned soup or frozen dinners at lunchtime. Your kids will hardly notice the extra vegetables!
I realize that food battles with your kids can be incredibly frustrating, which is why it’s important to keep issues like picky eating and veggie avoidance in perspective. Celebrate the small victories (even if it’s just getting your son or daughter to try one bite of a new, healthy food), and continue to model healthy eating behaviors for your children. As your little ones get older, your good habits will begin to rub off (really!), and you’ll reap the rewards of your persistent focus on good nutrition.
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