I pretty much steer clear of guarantees when it comes to children’s eating. But while sitting in on an educational session at the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Expo — a big light bulb went off after hearing “Kids are dynamic and constantly changing.”
I knew this was true for kids’ eating but somehow hearing it struck a nerve — in a good way.
So here’s my guarantee: your child’s eating will change. Depending on where your child is in their development, this may be a good thing, a not-so-good thing or something in-between. And I’m going to tell you why it matters.
Being able to see past today is a sanity saver
No matter what feeding stage you are in, you were probably never taught to look beyond it. If you’re focused on what foods to feed your baby or how to handle picky eating, it can be all-consuming. But looking ahead is not only vital to your child’s future eating habits, it’s important for your sanity.
Knowing that my reluctant-to-try-new-foods 5-year old is at the tail end of her food neophobic peak (2-6 years) helps me tremendously. That means all the food exposure she’s getting now will translate to more and more food diversity in the not-so-distant future. But if I thought she was going to be this way forever, this stage would be much tougher and no doubt our feeding interactions would suffer.
Understanding that things will get better down the road doesn’t solve everything– you also need to anticipate the next major challenge so you can focus on prevention and be prepared.
Being prepared is half the battle
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is never going to be a time when you are free and clear of challenges when it comes to feeding. That’s because kids’ brains and bodies are constantly changing — and they learn something different at each stage.
Much of the advice given on this blog such as providing regular meals and snacks at the table, allowing children to choose whether and how much to eat and managing sweets wisely, helps prepare toddlers and preschoolers for the outside food influences they encounter during the school years. After all, you will not always be there to tell your child how much to eat or what type of foods to choose.
Once children hit the school-age years, you’ll want to anticipate the I-want-to-get-away-from-my-parents teen stage by building on your child’s food independence skills. I asked Jill Castle, expert pediatric dietitian and mother of 4 kids between the ages of 10 and 15, for some advice.
“Allow school-aged children the liberty to assemble snacks, pack lunch (with a template to guide), decode ads and images, and help with meal planning and preparation, ” she says. “Family-style meals, self serving and keeping in line with the Satter Division of Responsibility allow for test-driving independent food selection.”
Fortunately for us busy parents, preparing and preventing problems in the next stage helps us to do a better job today.
When you’re not prepared it’s worse
Diane Welland, MS, RD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean, had a son who ate well from the very beginning and she had no reason to think it would ever change. She was surprised when his eating habits took a complete nose dive in the teen years when he gained a new kind of independence that included a car!
“While I was not prepared for my son’s eating habits to change so drastically, I knew this is one way teens assert their independence and try to find themselves.” she says. “I understood why he was doing it and the fact that it was a phase but swallowing it from a mom/dietitian’s perspective is still hard to take.”
Diane tried her best to not force or nag her dietary habits on to her son, which wasn’t always easy. Instead, she tried to focus on being a good role model and teaching her son by showing.
“It’s the long term that counts — think of your child’s diet as a cycle with ups and downs,” she adds. “If this is a down period, hopefully, with time, it will go up again.”
Being unprepared for the next stage doesn’t always mean you did something wrong in the previous one, it’s just easier when you expect the challenges. So if they don’t happen, or aren’t as bad as you thought, that’s even better.
Each feeding stage is linked
One of the reasons I don’t focus on one age-range for this blog is because all of the feeding stages are linked and that includes adulthood. If you are struggling with feeding your child today, it can help to look back to what they learned, or didn’t learn, in a previous stage — and course correct if necessary.
And it’s never too early to think about how what’s going on today affects your child’s eating tomorrow, ten years from now and into adulthood.
Soon, I’ll be announcing a new project that I’m working on to help parents navigate feeding kids of all ages with more ease and confidence, so stay tuned.
What worries you the most about your kids’ eating future and are you doing anything to prepare for it? Or are you just trying to survive the here and now?