8 Feeding Myths Every Parent Should Know About

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on February 6, 2012

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I wrote a post for WebMD about nutrition myths and it got me thinking about feeding myths that plague families. I often say that if I didn’t know what I know, I would make many feeding mistakes (and I know my husband would). And it wouldn’t be because I’m a bad person, it would simply be based on myths about food and feeding that are pervasive in our culture.

So here are 8 feeding myths that hold parents back from feeding well and nourishing their children. For more specific nutrition myths see this post.

1. You have to be a good cook to feed your children well: I understand all too well what it’s like to enter parenthood with few cooking skills, scared to death that my preference for simple cooking would negatively reflect on my children. I asked my writing partner, Jill Castle, for some feedback and she mentioned this one, along with a couple of others listed.

“Moms think if they don’t know how to cook or have a limited repertoire of menu items that they are the reason their child doesn’t eat well or healthfully,” she says. “The truth is most kids like uncomplicated straightforward meals with minimal fuss–and they like to put them together themselves (and eat better when they do). ”

Hooray for simple cooks!

2. Eating is a two-step process: Dr. Kay Toomey, pediatric psychologist and Director of SOS Feeding Solutions, says eating for children is not a two step process (sit down/put in mouth) the way many parents believe. Learning to eat is actually quite complex with a steep learning curve. Pickier children, who tend to be more sensitive to food textures, may need as many as 32 steps (see below for examples) to happen before they are ready to put a food in their mouth!

Go here for more of Toomey’s myths.

3. Children shouldn’t play with their food or get messy: “The biggest myth I see that gets in the way of learning about food, is that we need to clean kids as we feed them: gigantic bibs, swiping their chin with the spoon, wiping away every bit of mess,” says Melanie Potock, feeding specialist and creator of My Munch Bug.

Like Toomey, Potock says kids need to experience food using their entire sensory system often before taking their first bite. This is how they learn about taste, temperature and texture of food. See more about the importance of playing with food in this helpful article.

4. Parents are to blame for picky eating: There is a tendency to blame parents for kids’ being selective with food. But according to a 2007 review article by Lucy Cooke, it’s a 50/50 proposition. That means about 50 percent of kids’ eating is genetic and the other 50 percent is their environment (the foods that become familiar to them), over which parents have the most control.

In fact, food neophobia (reluctance to try new foods) is not only a normal part of development (peaking from 2 to 6), it is highly genetically linked. So instead of trying to change your eater, which is a battle no one should engage in, take control of the home environment and let your child learn to like a variety at their own pace with positive encouragement and support.

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5. Children naturally dislike healthy food: There is a common belief that children are born not liking healthy food. While children do prefer sweeter tastes and reject bitter ones, which is why they tend to be carb queens/kings and take a while to warm up to veggies, this is only part of the story.

The truth is most kids learn that eating healthy is not fun based on how they are fed. According to a 2007 study published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, after age 6 kids had a negative taste impression of healthy foods. Many of the children discussed the creative ways they were able to eat disliked vegetables that parents insisted they eat, such as squeezing their nose, eating the non-tasty food first or adding ketchup to the vegetables.

6. Children always have to eat at meals: Many parents believe that kids need to eat at every meal. This often leads to the mistake of only providing food that kids readily accept, increasing the shelf-life of picky eating.

It’s very normal for kids to eat very little (or not at all) at some meals and gorge at others. In fact, laboratory studies on young kids’ eating shows that even though calorie intake varies greatly from meal to meal, it’s surprisingly consistent from day to day.

7. Lean kids are healthy kids: In her private practice Castle often hears parents say, “well my child doesn’t have a weight problem” as justification for eating whatever they want, and that usually translates to too much empty-calorie food.

Despite the obesity statistics , most kids will not battle their weight. But eating well is not just about weight as smaller kids can have bad health and bigger kids can have good health. What’s really at stake is a child’s current and future relationship with food. Don’t we want all kids, regardless of weight, to enjoy good health and feed themselves well?

8. If you get food and nutrition right, you automatically raise a healthy child: While I’m reading a zillion research studies for Fearless Feeding, one review on responsive feeding said it best: “Nutritional recommendations that focus exclusively on food and ignore the feeding context may be ineffective, inadvertently encouraging parents to use nonresponsive, controlling behaviors, with little consideration to children’s contribution to feeding interactions.”

It takes much more than getting kids to eat healthy to raise healthy eaters. While What kids eat matters, so does understanding their developmental process and how best to instill eating confidence and a love of nutritious food. Join us on Our Fearless Feeding Facebook Community to discuss important issues.

Do any of these myths surprise you? Are there any you want to add?

References:

Black et al. Responsive feeding is embedded in a theoretical framework of responsive paring. The Journal of Nutr. 2011;141(3):490-494.

Cooke L. The importance of food exposure for healthy eating in children: review. J Hum Nutr Diet ;2007: 20;294–301

Zeinstra et al. Cognitive development and children’s perceptions of fruit and vegetables; a qualitative study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2007;, 4:30

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Julia Moravcsik February 6, 2012 at 11:28 am

(Re: #7 Lean kids are healthy kids.) If a kid has a small appetite, he’ll have to squeeze MORE nutrition into the food that he eats, because he’s eating less food each day. So there may be MORE need to feed your skinny kid healthy food! You have to fit all the vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy phytochemicals, etc. into a smaller number of calories.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Really good point Julie! Thanks for bringing it up…

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Danielle Omar February 6, 2012 at 12:33 pm

These are awesome, Maryann! I especially relate to number 6. I am always arguing with my husband about whether or not my daughter must clean or plate. This may sound crazy, but around dinner time, I often wait for her to tell me she’s hungry before I actually feed her! This usually guarantees that she eats and she’s usually open to trying/tasting new foods.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 7, 2012 at 10:14 am

Thanks Danielle! This is one area my husband takes the lead from me ; )

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Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP February 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Thanks so much for chatting with me about this! Wonderful point throughout your article – well done! (-:

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 7, 2012 at 10:14 am

Thanks for contributing. You have so much great knowledge to share!

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Jessica Linke February 7, 2012 at 1:09 am

I don’t think it sounds crazy at all Danielle, my son is just hardly ever hungry in the evenings, so he rarely eats dinner. He’ll sit with us and have a few mouthfuls of whatever we’re having, but mostly he just plays with it. It’s just not a ‘hungry’ time of the day for him – but I’m usually the same too. We don’t push him to eat, I figure it must mean he gets enough during the day. We refuse to make food a battle in our home. We try and offer a range of healthy choices but don’t stress if we don’t think he’s eating ‘enough’ – my motto has always been “kids won’t let themselves starve”.

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Karen le Billon February 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

Great article. I agree with all of your points – except one. I don’t think kids need to be messy. It’s a matter of social context. Our first daughter was born in North America — and plastered herself (and the floor, and the walls, and us) with food as a baby. She’s still a messy eater.
After our second daughter was born, we moved to France (my husband is French), and she started daycare there when she was just under a year old. They taught the children to eat cleanly (one staff person sat with each baby as they ate – time-consuming but worth it!), not to spill, to position their bodies appropriately. Despite being a few years younger she still eats more tidily than her older sister! I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes .The French really have food education for kids figured out. (In fact, some of your myths/tips correspond to the French Kids Food Rules that worked so well for our picky eaters that I was inspired me to write a book about it! http://bit.ly/ynSGwH)

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

Thanks Karen. Good luck with your book!

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Bri February 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Thank you SO much for including number 7! As the parent of two boys, one of whom is slightly underweight and the other slightly over, I’m SO tired of hearing the misconception that my youngest is “healthier” than my oldest. Both of my kids are very healthy, thankfully, and the four or five excess pounds my older one carries are no indicator of anything except his father’s build. :-) As for the little one…he’s harder to keep healthy because he eats so little and is less adventurous with food than big brother. Sometimes weight tells you nothing!

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goodfountain February 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm

These are great. The one about children always having to eat at meals is the tape recorded message I always hear in my brain. I try my best to ignore it and be all cavalier but usually I’m telling myself, it’s okay if they don’t eat at dinner, it’s okay if they don’t eat at dinner. I do always offer a (healthy) snack later and most times they do take me up on it.

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Valerie February 8, 2012 at 11:56 pm

On #2 above, you say to look below for the 32 steps, but I don’t see any. Can you direct me? I’m super interested to read more on that.

Thanks!

bestofthebunch (at) gmail (dot) com

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 10, 2012 at 7:42 am

@Valerie those steps can be a variety of things like seeing the food, touching it etc. I don’t think there are outlined steps but just gtting confortable around a food. Hope that makes sense!

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Gina February 13, 2012 at 12:21 am

When my oldest child started to eat table food, our biggest mistake was thinking he needed lean, healthy foods. He really struggled to get out of the 15% percentile for weight until his one year visit to the pediatrician where he advised us to switch to dark meat, whole milk and using other healthy fats like avocados to help him put on weight. It worked! While both of my kids are incredibly thin, they are the healthiest eaters I know.

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Sleeping Mama February 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I agree that the way we treat healthy food makes an impact on how children view it. I try to treat all food equal, so that I don’t say, “If you eat your salad you can have fruit/dessert/treat!” Instead, we go through the salad, and I present the fruit or sweet food in the same manner as I did the salad. This way, the healthy food isn’t simply something to be gobbled up just to get to the sweet food.

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Katie February 17, 2012 at 8:01 am

I like 6 and 8 the best, ones I repeat to myself and my clients. Thanks Maryann!

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Honora Russell March 25, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Kay Toomey really has outlined 32 steps for getting ready to eat. I think you have to take her SOS course to learn them, or maybe she has them written in a book. They are basically a progerssion of tolerating different aspects of food (smelll, taste, touch) in a progression from easiest to hardest. For example, tolerating foods across the room, on a table next to you, on your table, on a plate next to your plate, on your divided plate, and then on your plate next to your preferred food. Another progression would be to tolerate licking lips after food touches them (after kissing food), licking the actual food, biting a piece of food and spittin git out, biting food and holding it in the mouth for a moment and then spitting it out, biting and chewing a certain number of times and then spitting it out, biting and chewing and swallowing a tiny bit, biting and chewing and swallowing it all. Her course is supposed to be pretty awesome

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Tom Adams September 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm

“But according to a 2007 review article by Lucy Cooke, it’s a 50/50 proposition. That means about 50 percent of kids’ eating is genetic and the other 50 percent is their environment (the foods that become familiar to them), over which parents have the most control.”

Actually, Cooke reported that 78% of the *variation* was genetic and 22% environmental:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17684215

But that might be just a statement about culture, that parents tend to provide similar environments, that most make the same mistakes. If all parents provided exactly the same environment then 100% of the variation would be genetic. This does not show that parents cannot engage in effective interventions to nip picky eating in the bud.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Tom,

That is a different study and not one I cited. That study particularly looked at food neophobia which is highly heritable. And it was one study and not a review.

I was discussing what can shape a child’s food preferences. The review study I cite at the end of this post reviews various studies with the conclusion that “Familiarity accounts for more than half the variance in children’s food preferences and novel foods are often rejected.” That means that the foods parents make familiar at home, are ones kids are likely to eat.

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Tom Adams September 13, 2013 at 6:50 am

I did look at the wrong paper. The review you cite says that:

“Neophobia is not a fixed response to particular foods,
however, and children’s experiences with food
strongly influence their preferences and intake.
Children who from the earliest age have plentiful
opportunities to sample a variety of healthy foods
appear to have healthier diets throughout childhood.”

Exposure to new foods is the only intervention that the review considered. It accounted for over half the variance in food preference. In other words the results are 50:50 when parents limits themselves to this one intervention: food exposure. Would the results be better if additional interventions were added?

In your interview with Cooke she recommended praise and, if all else fails, small tangible rewards. Whereas Ellyn Satter (who is also a advocate of food exposure) strongly recommends against praise which she labels as “pressure”.

This paper indicates that differential attention (praise for trying new foods and ignoring picky eating) other interventions are effective:

http://jpepsy.oxfordjournals.org/content/24/3/193.full.pdf

I agree that parents should not be blamed, but one should not underestimate what they can accomplish in an attempt to justify not blaming them. They should not be blamed in part because they are being exposed to misinformation. Give the conflicting advice from Satter and Cooke, it must be the case that someone is exposing parents to misinformation.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm

The article you provided is not only 14 years old but is focused on children with severe feeding issues which is not applicable to the majority of kids and families. My blog and advice is focused on normally developing children. I do try to help parents understand red-flags and when they need to get help, but I do not write or research to this population.

I see many parents of normally developing kids who think picky eating (which peaks between 2 and 6), blaming themselves when it’s a normal part of development. At age 2 growth slows and this shows up in appetite along with other cognitive changes making kids skeptical about food. Because parents aren’t prepared for this they start pressuring, rewarding with food, labeling their child as picky and prompting them to eat even when they are not hungry. Research shows these types of feeding practices backfire. In my book, Fearless Feeding, I help parents understand nutritional needs and child development so they can stop worrying. There is a lot of pressure on parents today to get children to eat healthy and I try to support them as much as I can.

While there are differences of opinion on feeding, the big picture stuff is the same — keeping meals pleasant, offering a variety, eating together and not forcing. Lucy Cooke is a researcher and Ellyn Satter is a clinician (social work and RD) who has worked with families for more than 40 years. They have different perspectives based on their area of study, both of which I present on this blog. In the end, parents need to decide what is best for their children. This family newsletter form Ellyn Satter gets into why she doesn’t recommend controlling (even covert) feeding practices. http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/fmf/fmf84.php?utm_source=August+2013+FMF+84&utm_campaign=Aug+FMF&utm_medium=email

Getting children to eat vegetables is not the point. fdSatter and sDOR are about quality of life: Parent’s harmonious relationship with food and with feeding their children. Achieving harmony requires trust in one’s self and one’s child relative to eating. Even if controlling methods increase children’s consumption of target foods, and even if that consumption is longer-term, as some researchers show,6,8 it is likely to come at the cost of introducing disharmony into feeding. Getting children to eat certain foods isn’t the point of sDOR. Instead, it is raising children to be Eating Competent with respect to their eating attitudes and behaviors.12 To be Eating Competent throughout life with respect to food acceptance depends on a sense of self-direction with respect to choosing what to eat and a sense of agency with respect to exploring unfamiliar food and learning to eat it. Children raised according to sDOR have these positive inclinations; those raised using controlling feeding methods do not.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to feeding kids. WE do not have enough research, or the right kinds to say every parents should do X and Y will occur. If children have an underlying issue, they will need specialized help to deal with that. I help parents raise children to have a healthy relationship with food. I come at this subject from my experience as a dietitian and my knowledge of development, nutrition and the feeding research (on normally developing kids).

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Tom Adams September 13, 2013 at 6:21 pm

I see your perspective. The onset of picky eating around age 2 causes many parents to start having counterproductive reactions to picky eating. This is often the most important issue to address and often the only issue that needs to be addressed. Ellyn Satter’s approach has proven to be effective at getting these parents to cease these counterproductive reactions.

In my case, I has learned to use planned ignoring strategies for all sorts of unwanted behaviors that were harmless in the short run while working at a university daycare before I had kids, so my reaction to the onset of picky eating was deploy planned ignoring off the bat. The picky eating phase was short lived and both the kids we raised are not picky eaters as adults.

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