My kids have definitely gone through their phases of picky eating. My 5-year-old is currently still in such a phase. Couple his pickiness with my hatred for wasting food, and you get a recipe for disaster. He's whining, I'm frustrated, and the healthy meals I've cooked for him end up being polished off by myself or my husband while my son eats an apple and a cheese stick for dinner for the third day in a row.
But according to the experts at Feeding Littles, you should stop making your kids clear their plates. The pediatric feeding expert duo of Occupational Therapist Judy Delaware and Registered Dietician Nutritionist Megan McNamee want parents to understand exactly what is happening when you try to force kids to eat everything you provide for them during meal times, starting with when the foods are first introduced.
Part of helping kids become well-rounded eaters is exposing them to a variety of foods — even if they don't actually eat it. Exposure does not only include taste, which can throw some parents off when feeding a new food. "Some babies or children won’t touch new foods until they have seen them at least 20 times. Why is this? Babies and children need to explore the properties of every food before they put it in their mouth," Delaware and McNamee tell Romper. "This includes the feel, texture, smell, and finally the taste — and tasting it always comes last. Kids may be naturally reluctant to try new foods, especially if they don’t see them often, so they gravitate to their familiar options."
So, when you fill your kid's plate with a vegetable they like such as carrots paired with a new food like salmon, your kid may barely even mess with the salmon, but they will likely eat the familiar carrots. Delaware and McNamee say that this is a perfectly natural course of action for kids, and that offering these new foods over and over can help kids become used to seeing, smelling, feeling, and eventually tasting them.
Another food-related issue that can lead to kids not wanting to eat all of the food offered to them is how the adults around them label the foods they're being given. "Have you ever dieted before? Perhaps you told yourself you’re not allowed to have any sugar... but then what do you crave? Children are the same way," Delaware and McNamee tell Romper. "The more restrictive we are with 'forbidden' foods like desserts, the more kids gravitate toward these options. Foods that are 'bad' or 'unhealthy' become the focus. In fact, research suggests that the more we label foods as healthy, the less likely our kids are to eat them."
This is such an easy habit fix, especially if your kids are still little and you haven't already done too much labeling of healthy vs. unhealthy foods. "How do we teach kids how to eat without making them obsessed with food? The first step is dropping the labels," Delaware and McNamee tell Romper. "Don’t talk about healthy or unhealthy, good versus bad. When you choose to provide a given food, let them self-regulate and decide how much to eat."
Often, forcing a child to finish everything in front of them can backfire since this is not how children are wired, as the pair explained on their website. "Children are born intuitive eaters. They are built to self-regulate based upon their own individual hunger and fullness cues. They remain intuitive eaters until they are forced to eat more food and bypass their physiologic cues, or if they're not given enough food to be satisfied and they start over-focusing on food and bingeing." So, if you never force your kids to eat when they're not hungry or to eat until their plate is cleared, you can preserve the natural intuitive eating patterns they are born with to help keep them happy and healthy.
If you find yourself frustrated with your kids during mealtime more often than not, you're not alone. It's a tricky avenue to navigate, but keeping these tips in mind will help ensure that you and your kids have a more peaceful relationship with food. If you still need a bit more guidance in this area, Feeding Littles offers online courses with self-paced videos to support parents with babies and toddlers looking to learn more about nutrition and feeding success.