Parents and children: Who is responsible for feeding?
Consider the way meals were served when you were growing up. Chances are your mother or parents decided what you would eat and when – rarely consulting with you on what you felt like, what you wanted for dinner or what they purchased at the supermarket.
Fast forward 20 to 30 years and we have the opposite!
Toddlers and young children decide what they will eat and when, what parents prepare for dinner and even what snacks parents purchase. While there are benefits from involving children in the food conversation at home, there is also a strong argument for revision of the division of responsibility when it comes to food and eating within a household of little ones.
The issue that evolves – when young children are overly involved in making decisions about what they will eat and when – is that their food intake can become heavily skewed towards foods they ‘like’ to eat. If a toddler starts to refuse their wholegrain cereal for fruit or milk, or their tuna sandwich for sweet yogurt, or their meat and vegetables for a bottle of milk – they learning that they can control their parents by what they will and will not eat. In addition to this, their low calorie, nutrient rich whole grains, proteins and vegetables are replaced with high carbohydrate, often high sugar, sweet foods which contain little protein, iron or fibre.
As young children have a natural preference for sweet foods, reinforcing this preference by allowing them to only consume these foods will help establish strong food habits which are difficult to break.
If you approach feeding children from the perspective that parents need to be in complete control of what foods are offered at set times – children can decide if they will eat and how much of what is offered they will eat – things will fall into place both behaviourally and nutritionally.
Parents can remain in control of the quality of foods that are offered and ensure that children eat at set times so they are actually hungry for meals. Children, in turn, will learn that certain types of food need to be consumed at certain times and if they choose not to eat, they will have to wait until the next meal time – which could be two or three hours later.
While this may initially lead to tantrums when small children suddenly cannot have the foods they are used to eating and demanding – long term it will have numerous benefits. Overall your children’s nutritional intake will be better balanced, you will not find yourself making three different meals for the family and your child will learn that there are times to eat and times not too.
As you take control of your toddler or child’s daily food intake, remember that children do not know what is best for them. When they demand several yoghurts a day and will only eat plain pasta for dinner it is because this is what they want, not what they need. Failing to do the best by your child at a young age with respect to their food intake can set you up for a lifetime of your children demanding what they want, rather than you remaining in control of what they need. A little hard work now for some big benefits later will be worth it.
So remember, parents need to decide what is on offer and when – and it is a child’s job to decide if they will eat and how much – because no child ever suffered serious consequences when they skipped a meal or two when healthy food was available.