Every Parent’s Worst Fear About Feeding Children (And How to Calm It)

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on November 9, 2012

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When children don’t eat the way we want them to, parents feel compelled to intervene. After all, it’s better to do something than nothing, right? But once we do interfere, it’s hard to stop. I call it the If I Don’t Syndrome.

If I don’t keep Sally from eating cookies, she will eat the whole batch.

If I don’t make Joe take a bite, he will never try new foods.

If I don’t have Joanne eat a certain amount of bites, she would just not eat.

The problem with the If I Don’t Syndrome is that it’s based on fear and is not very effective in the long run. It’s kind of like doing your child’s homework instead of being there to help them. Sure, the homework gets done, but what did they learn?

Let’s take a step back and dig into what could be behind this fear so parents can kick it to the curb.

A lack of preparation
Most parents know what to feed their kids, but when this is the only tool they have in their tool box, they are limited. It’s essential for parents to also understand that kids are not mini adults. Their bodies and minds are growing and developing — and this often explains why they act the way they do. Understanding and learning to expect challenges at certain times, helps you develop supportive ways to deal with them.

Knowing that kids between 2 and 6 are truly afraid of some foods, for example, can help parents develop ways to make them not-so-scary without taking food rejection personally. For the more adventurous and easy-going kid, a one bite rule may actually work, but other children might need more warming up. For more on how child development relates to feeding, see this post.

Not trusting yourself
Sometimes the fear that stems from feeding kids comes from a parent’s own eating challenges. In fact, studies show that parents’ attitudes about food, especially moms’, can color the way they feed a child. For example, if a mom has trouble controlling her own sweet intake, she may over-control her child’s food intake, contributing to poor self regulation.

If parents want to prevent their children from the same fate, they can work on healing themselves. What did they learn about food growing up? Has controlled eating really been effective? By creating a sustainable healthy lifestyle, listening to their body, taking care of themselves and finding ways to sensibly fit in sweets, they will, in turn, become more confident feeders.

Alternatives to fear-based decisions
If you’re stuck in a fear-based model of feeding, here are some more effective ways to deal with challenges:

Guidance instead of control: Instead of trying to control your child’s eating, guide them to smarter choices. For example, if your son comes home from school wanting something for a snack that you don’t agree with, tell him, “Let’s consider what you had today and then we’ll come up with two options and you can decide from that.”

Encouragement instead of pressure: Pressure sends the message to children that they cannot be trusted to learn about food. Instead, provide appropriate encouragement so they believe in themselves. “Your taste buds are growing up too so you might want to keep trying foods you used to dislike.”

Change food offerings instead of negotiations: Sometimes a child’s new eating pattern can cause real problems, like constipation for not eating fruit and veggies. In these cases, get creative with offerings, instead of forcing intake, which can turn the desired food into a negative. Little D is in this boat, so it’s apples with peanut butter for snack and raw veggies when he’s waiting for dinner.

Getting help when you know the time is right: There are times when an underlying problem could be getting in the way of eating especially when a child’s growth is not optimal, he eats very few foods and gags frequently and/or tantrums at meals. I’ll be talking about this more in an upcoming post, but getting additional help can let you know once and for all if your child really has a problem or not.

Fear is holding us back
In other parts of our lives, we know that fear-based decisions lead us down the wrong path. And this is definitely the case for feeding kids. But fear can be a good thing because it lets us know something just isn’t right. And once we face the fear, it dissolves and kids eat better, not worse.

Sally did stop eating cookies once she got over the novelty of being able to eat as many as she wanted. Joe started to try new foods on his own, once his parents stopped focusing so much on his “meal performance.” And Joanne actually ate more food when her parents stopped requiring so many bites, because her stomach was no longer in knots during meals.

What feeding fear has been hardest for you to let go and why?

For more tips and advice on positive feeding, join the Fearless Feeding Movement on Facebook.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nickole July 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm

My 8 year old son eats so fast I don’t think he even tastes his food sometimes! I don’t want him to have a problem with weight but I don’t know how to encourage him to slow down either! I have tried a few things but he acts like I just scolded hi whee. I recommend we all eat together and enjoy our food together:-(

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