By Cathy Glass, author of Cruel to be Kind and Happy Mealtimes for Kids
There are so many issues surrounding food and eating it can be a minefield for parents (and carers) trying to help their child to eat healthily. Food is essential for life and therefore part of our nurturing and love. If a child rejects the food we have lovingly prepared then it is easy to feel they are rejecting us.
Many of the children I’ve fostered have come to me with some form of ‘eating disorder’: refusing to eat, eating the smallest of amounts, eating only sweet foods, gorging or binging, sometimes until they are physically sick. Max, whose story I tell in Cruel To Be Kind was one of those children.
Based on training, research, and over twenty-five years of fostering experience, I’ve put together a few guidelines that might help.
Start early: If good eating practices are established early in childhood, a child is far less likely to develop eating difficulties later.
Encourage children to feed themselves: A child is far less likely to reject food if they are feeding themselves rather than having food put into their mouth.
Give suitable-sized portions: A child’s stomach is a lot smaller than an adult’s so they feel full sooner. Give a suitable sized portion; they can always have seconds.
Keep meals simple: especially with young children. If a child has too many different foods on their plate (or too much), they may take the easiest solution and eat nothing.
Expect your child to eat: As we expect good behaviour from our children so we should expect them to eat – at the table and the same food as other family members.
Set a good example: You can’t expect a child to eat heartily, healthily and happily if you are sitting there picking at your food and claiming you are on a diet.
Limit snacking: While a little snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon will sustain a child’s energy levels between meals, too many, too large or very sweet snacks will dramatically reduce a child’s appetite at the meal table.
Never use food as a punishment: You’ll go to your room without any tea. And try not to bribe children with sweet things tempting though it can be at times: When you’ve done your reading/homework/piano practice you can have a chocolate bar.
Be firm: A parent (or carer) may have to be firm with a child if they are overeating, refusing to eat or not eating enough for their needs. If necessary, allow the child extra time to eat, but don’t leave them isolated at the table.
Genuine dislikes: All children have food preferences and a few dislikes are acceptable, but refusing to eat all nutritious food is not.
Check nothing is worrying the child: If a child suddenly starts to refuse food, make sure there is nothing worrying them. Worries can take away a child’s appetite just as they can an adult’s.
Control: Food refusal can be a way of controlling a parent or carer. A child who is using food as a means of control will like something one day and reject it another.
Common sense: Don’t worry if the child doesn’t want to eat one day or eats very little. A child’s body usually regulates its food intake and that can vary from day to day. If the child refuses food assume it will pass and that the child will be eating normally in the morning and in most cases that is what will happen.
Fluid: The human body is 63 % water, and the brain 77 %. Drinking regularly, and keeping the body and brain hydrated,is essential to function effectively. By the time a child is thirsty they are already dehydrated, and even mild dehydration can cause headaches, tiredness, loss of concentration and irritability.