parents, we want our children to be accustomed to healthy eating from
the earliest possible age so good nutrition will be a lifelong habit.
children are ready to begin to learn about nutrition (“healthy food”
vs. “treat food”) and about food plans (why meals need to include each
food group). These nutrition lessons will need to be repeated many
times, in more detail, as your children get older and want to
understand more about why.
We can begin teaching
by explaining about the essential nutrients that every meal needs:
protein (including dairy), grains (carbohydrates), fruits and
vegetables, and a small amount of fat. Show your young child
examples from your kitchen and from the supermarket. Parents should
reinforce this by teaching and quizzing their youngster at the
supermarket and restaurants. Children should also see their parents
checking the nutrition information listed on food packaging. When they
ask us what we’re doing, we have additional opportunities for teaching.
Young children need to know that if they eat
just bread, cereal, pasta, or even yogurt instead of a balanced meal,
their bodies are missing the other important elements of healthy
nutrition. For example, you can demonstrate balanced eating by
explaining that a stool with only one or two legs will fall down – it
needs at least three supports to stand.
Regular times to eat
Three meals a day served at regular times, usually along with
midmorning and midafternoon snacks, can help ensure that your child
will be well-nourished. Some youngsters don’t need a midmorning snack,
and some need a snack one day but not the next. Parents can experiment
with whether to provide one or not. If your child is frequently not
hungry enough to eat at meals, check with his other caregivers to make
sure that he’s not eating too much at snack time or snacking too often.
Eating meals and snacks at regular times helps children mentally and
physically predict when they’ll eat again and ensures that they'll be
hungry for the nutritious, balanced meals and healthy snacks you’re
trying to provide. If dinner is early and bedtime late, some children
need a small snack before bedtime. Young children can get grumpy,
over-reactive, and fatigued if they go too long between meals, and
hunger can contribute to tantrums.
On the other hand, children who eat continuously through the day may
get lots of calories but may miss out on a proper balance of nutrients
because they’re not hungry enough at mealtimes. They may be missing
major food groups such as protein, because snacks are not usually as
well-balanced as meals are. These “grazers” may also be using food as
recreation, out of boredom, or as a way to get their parents’
children usually need to have two to three hours between meals and
snacks to develop sufficient appetite. Although it’s hard to deny your
child food when he keeps asking, he can get out of the grazing habit by
being guided to do other things, such as crafts projects, helping you
with chores, or just playing inside or outside.
Many children want snacks frequently. It’s very hard to say no, but
snacks should be limited – both in terms of when and what is served.
Young children don’t usually understand nutrition or have the
self-control to choose healthy snacks or limit their servings. Most
young children are inclined to demand any food that appeals to them,
right now, instead of at a planned snack or meal. They keep demanding
because it’s hard for them to understand why we say no, and of course
because sometimes we have given in. This is why it’s so important to
regularly explain about balanced nutrition and develop family rules
about the kinds of snack foods you offer. (Remember the one- or
two-legged stool mentioned earlier.)
should be served in smaller portions than meals and should consist
primarily of healthy (nutrient-dense) foods – preferably at least two
food groups, so your child’s hunger is satisfied until the next meal.
Healthful snack foods include fresh or dried fruits and vegetables;
bread, crackers, pretzels, rice cakes; and/or protein foods such as
peanut butter or hummus, and nonfat or low-fat cheese, yogurt, and
milk. Try fruit and string cheese or yogurt. Stocking the house with
healthy foods encourages good nutrition, and many parents find it
wisest not to keep the tempting, unhealthy treats around at all. It’s
hard to keep your child away from less healthy foods – like high-sugar,
high-salt, high-fat foods – if you keep them in the house. And not
having to say no means fewer tantrums. If you give in to the demand for
snacks, it can just make the problem worse.
Curbing cupboard raiding
Many children will help themselves to food as soon as they are old
enough to open the refrigerator and cabinets. But most young children
don’t make good decisions about what to eat. You’ll need to explain to
your child why he can’t just help himself without asking. Supervise him
closely so he knows you mean what you say. If the requested food fits
into the next snack or meal, you can say yes and tell him why, and when
he’ll be able to have it, so he understands your rules. Otherwise, a
child can get used to having too much say in deciding what and when to
eat, and when you have to tell him no, he may feel entitled to sneak
food. If a child is very focused on taking his own food, see if you can
figure out why he’s doing it when he’s not really hungry. You’ll need
to remind him that you’re in charge, and why. Also make sure that his
meals are balanced and served at regular times. Help him find ways to
keep occupied. Keeping busy and active, and spending time with
you, can fill your child’s emotional needs better than food can.
your child has other caregivers at your home, they need to know your
rules around food and your reasons. Even at your child’s nursery
school, kindergarten, or child care center, you may need to explain
your food rules and reasons to the teachers.
The children need to
hear you explain this to the caregivers, including suggestions for
activities to redirect the children toward when they’re nagging for
treats. This will emphasize to your child that your commitment to
nutritional guidance is serious.
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent
psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is
in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in
pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg
was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo
Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats, I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual
for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her
articles, visit www.PerfectingParentingPress.com. To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to AnnyeRothenberg.com.