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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Children

Making Mealtime Pleasant with Young Children

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., Former Nutritional Sciences Specialist,
College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


Gathering around the table to share food and conversation is important for children. It provides them nourishment, and comforting routine. The dining table is a place to learn manners, share dreams, and explore new flavors. Parents and caregivers who provide nutritious, healthy meals in a relaxed setting, give children a solid foundation. It is not important that children finish their peas. It is more important to avoid power struggles at the table, and understand that eating is one of the few areas where young children feel they have control. Promote cooperation and harmony at the dinner table. Remember the more we work with our children-not against them-the better they will eat and the more peaceful mealtimes will be for everyone. Following are answers to some of the most common questions asked by parents and caregivers of young children.

1. One day my son is constantly hungry. The next he may hardly touch his food. Then he may only want to eat cereal for several days. Should I be concerned? 

Children’s appetites tend to vary from day to day. Children typically need a series of small meals throughout the day since their small stomachs fill and empty quickly. Give children credit that they will eat when they are hungry and allow them the freedom to stop when they are full. Often, appetite reflects periods of physical growth. It’s common for children to get onto “ food jags” and want the same thing to eat meal after meal. The important thing to do is learn your child’s individual needs and preferences and not overreact when he won’t eat or wants Cheerios three meals in a row. Eventually, the jag will pass. Monitor the child’s growth and health; if you have concerns, contact a pediatrician. 

2. My children only seem to want to eat peanut butter sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. They turn up their noses at anything new. How can I get them to try new foods? 

Try offering new foods when children are hungry. A little theatrics never hurts either: “oh, this food is so delicious, want to try some?” Reactions from family members and peers will influence a child’s acceptance. Have a rule at the table: no loud objections! If you don’t like the way something tastes, leave it on your plate, but don’t make others feel uncomfortable if they enjoy the food. It may take more than 7 exposures to new foods before a child will accept them, so don’t give up. If new foods are served often, they become more familiar and children will be more likely to try them. Encourage-but do not insist-that children try new foods. Involving children in food preparation will also help ensure that they will taste and even enjoy the foods they help prepare.

3. My father made me clean my plate as I was growing up. Should I insist that my children do the same? 

Never force a child to eat, nor withhold food as punishment. Serve children small portions of nourishing food, then trust them to decide when the have had enough to eat. Forcing children to eat, or encouraging them to eat “just one more bite” interferes with their ability to regulate how much they eat. Insisting that children clean their plates can lead to obesity and will set up a power struggle. 

4. The only way I can get my daughter to eat vegetables is to bribe her with dessert. Is this okay?

Health professionals advise against using dessert as a reward. For one, it places the dessert on a pedestal, making it seem even more desirable. Second, your child will end up overeating twice: once to finish her food, in this case vegetables, and again when she eats the dessert. Using desserts as punishments or rewards can also set up an unhealthy emotional relationship that may lead to development of eating problems later on. Offer a variety of vegetables to give your child some choice, and ask her to help prepare and serve them. Another option is to serve desert along with your child’s meal. You’ll be surprised: your child will eat some of each. Making nutritious desserts for the family is also key. Bread or rice pudding, banana splits, and fresh or canned fruits with yogurt or a small amount of ice cream are nutritious and delicious! 

5. My children want all the junk food they see advertised on television. I know it’s not healthy. What should I do?

 The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents and daycare providers to limit television viewing for this very reason. Research consistently shows that children ask for foods they see advertised on television. The ads are clever and enticing to youth. The AAP recommends that children watch no more than 2 hours of television or videos per day. Watch television with children and point out that the foods advertised are not good for their bodies. If you can’t watch with them, make sure the video or program you select is free of commercials. Next, avoid buying “junk foods” when you go to the store. What you don’t buy, won’t be eaten. Candy, cookies, donuts, cakes, soft drinks, highly sugared cereals, juice drinks, chips and fast food kids’ meals are okay now and then, but they don’t contribute to our children’s good health and should not be part of a child’s daily diet. 

6. My toddler likes to play with her food instead of eating at the table and then complains later on of being hungry. What should I do? 

Not all children eat “on schedule.” If a child doesn’t seem hungry, remove their plate and allow them to draw pictures or do a quiet activity at the table while the rest of the family shares their meal. If she gets hungry later, you can offer a healthy snack or leftovers. 

7. My children are so picky about what they will eat. What can I do? 

The key to solving the picky-eater syndrome is to involve your children in meal planning, shopping, preparing and serving meals. In the spring, give your children a small section of the garden to plant their own seeds. Children will be more willing to eat those foods they have helped to grow and prepare. Serve children a variety of foods with different textures, flavors and aromas. Savor and enjoy foods together. Talk about different foods on your plate and how they each help to make us grow and stay healthy. You might even try giving foods fun names or reading a book about a special food before eating it. Pea soup can become “mouse” soup; meatloaf can become “Superman’s favorite.” If your child refuses to eat a planned meal, then offer an easy- to- make snack--a glass of milk and a peanut butter sandwich, for example. But don’t get into the habit of being a short-order cook by making a different meal for each child or member of the family. 

8. I worry about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. Is it safe to give my children these foods? Should I buy "organic" produce? 

Organic foods are those that are grown without pesticides and herbicides. However, they can be expensive, and not everyone can afford them. The most important thing you can do is wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly with plain water and a scrub brush. Detergent and special produce washes are not necessary. Purchase as much locally grown produce as possible. Remember variety and moderation too. By eating moderate amounts of a variety of fruits and vegetables, the chances of getting too much of one residue will be lessened. 

9. Is sugar bad for children? What about sugar substitutes? 

Sugar has a bad reputation. Yet we are all born with a liking for sweet taste. In moderation, sugar can make foods taste better. But in excess, sugar contributes calories, but no important nutrients. It can also cause tooth decay. However, sugar has never been proven to cause or worsen hyperactivity. It’s important not to make sugar (or any food) the “forbidden fruit.” Think of sugar the way Mary Poppins did--a spoonful helps the medicine go down. In other words, syrup on a pancake, helps the pancake go down. Chocolate syrup in milk, helps the milk go down. As a rule of thumb, look for breakfast cereals with no more than 8 grams of sugar per serving. Sugar substitutes are only recommended for children who can not metabolize sugar (diabetics). 

10. Are food additives harmful? 

When people think of food additives, visions of harmful chemicals pop into mind. But additives like preservatives, colors, and flavors actually make up a very small percentage of our daily diet. Food additives will not cause hyperactivity, or harm to your children. In fact, preservatives help prevent spoilage, such as the growth of mold, which can be harmful to our health. 

11. Do overweight children need a special diet? 

Our weight-conscious society can be an unhealthy place for children. Children who are placed on restrictive diets lose self-esteem. They believe we are not happy with them the way they are. If we restrict food, we can also stunt growth and development. If a child suddenly puts on extra weight, talk with a pediatrician and dietitian to make sure there is no underlying health problems. If a child’s weight gain is the result of family stress--divorce, death, abuse, etc. then seek the help of a professional counselor. Weight gain in adults and children is most often caused by a combination of inadequate physical activity and an unhealthy diet. Limit television, video and movie watching. Encourage physical play, and limit fast foods, soft drinks, chips and snack cakes. These foods aren’t healthy for anyone in the family. Explain to children that people come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and that’ s okay. It’s what makes us unique and special. Most important, set a good example. Our children look up to us; don’t let them down. 

12. Are certain foods unsafe for children? 

Yes! Choking is a safety concern especially for children up to the age of four because they are still developing the ability to chew and swallow. Older children have larger windpipes and better cough reflexes. Foods which pose the greatest hazard include: hot dogs, grapes, peanut butter, coin-sliced vegetables, popcorn, nuts, candy and other small, hard foods that can get lodged into a child’s windpipe. Never leave children alone when they are eating. Make sure they are sitting upright, and that they chew and swallow the food in their mouths before speaking or laughing. Learn the signs of choking: ineffective coughing, inability to speak or cry, high-pitched noises, and bluish lips, nails and skin. Talk to your pediatrician about ways to relieve choking.




Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009








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