Anyone who's tried to force an unwilling baby to "please, just eat one pea" knows that a parent's nutritional responsibilities are difficult to uphold. Time and again, we find that mealtime deteriorates into predictable conflicts, so we devised the following eight strategies to help you tackle the most common childhood feeding dilemmas. May they help you keep the peas... off the floor.
1. Vow not to fight over food
Right from the start, promise yourself that you're not going to wage war with your child over food -- at least not so much that you find yourself worn out, frustrated and feeling like a failure on a regular basis. Life's too short to pick food fights, and you're not likely to win them anyway. Instead, commit to some basic mealtime rules (such as our tried-and-true favorite, the "no thank you bite," wherein your child is expected to have one taste of everything you serve but retains the subsequent right of refusal) and then apply them calmly and consistently.
2. Remind yourself that it's not (just) about the bite
Eating is an activity that is quite susceptible to a young child's natural tendency to rebel. Your tot's declarations of independence stand to throw a wrench into the dietary plans you have for him and assert themselves in the form of food refusals -- including all-out tantrums -- at just about the same time you nobly set out to introduce him to a wider range of foods and teach him the social graces of eating. So try to remember that mealtime is no exception to the rule that your child is going to test your limits. If you realize that he's doing exactly what he's supposed to be doing at this particular stage of development, you may be able to handle food mutinies with less frustration.
3. Never let them see you sweat
We could just say "Don't sweat it," but our years of experience tell us that unless you're far more calm, cool, and collected than we are as parents, you're going to stress about feeding anyway. Instead, we suggest perfecting your ability to hide it when you do. When it comes to babies, it may seem as if they aren't aware of how much of an emotional investment you have riding on getting them to eat their rice cereal or drink out of a cup, but they nevertheless do sense stress, and it often does rub off on them. If your little one realizes just how much his consumption of a spoonful of pureed carrots means to you, he may refuse it until he's made you crazy -- just because he can. Do your best to stick to your guns, but if he won't eat something after a few attempts, maintain your composure and try again next time.
4. Keep food for food's sake
This important peacekeeping strategy seems, on its surface, relatively straightforward: Just teach children to eat when they're hungry, drink when they're thirsty, and refrain from doing so when they're not. Sound simple? You'd think it would be since we're all born with a natural drive to consume only as much as our bodies need. Yet by the time we reach adulthood, and often far sooner than that, these internal cues are overshadowed by external ones, and too many of us eat and drink for reasons that have very little to do with hunger or thirst. It's pretty safe to say that enjoying a movie really shouldn't require a bucket of buttered popcorn, and a lot of football fans would be a fair bit slimmer if they didn't associate Monday Night Football with beer and a bag of chips. When you find yourself on the verge of offering your child food as comfort, convenience, or reward, try a different tactic. To quiet your squirmy child on the way to grandma's, for example, pull out a special "car toy" that only appears when the wheels are in motion. Perfection in this area is unattainable: Sometimes the breast or bottle or a healthy treat, like banana yogurt, for comfort's sake is simply a necessity. But as soon as you start relating feeding to hunger and not much else, you'll see everything from Cheerios to desserts in a new light.
Adapted from Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup, by Laura A. Jana, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and mother of three, and Jennifer Shu, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and mother of a son. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
More feeding dilemmas -- and solutions
5. If at first you don't succeed... try, try again
We would like to suggest that you approach instilling the skills required for eating and drinking in the same way you would when teaching your tot her ABC's. You don't wait until the day before kindergarten to sing the alphabet to your child. In fact, some parents start singing it to their babies even before they begin to coo, and only with time, repetition, encouragement, and many "failed" renditions do kids respond, imitate, separate the l-m-n-o-p, and eventually start to put "a" and "b" together in any sort of meaningful way. Knowing it can take a dozen or more exposures to a new food before a child decides to accept it will make it a little bit easier for you to swallow the reality of the preceding 11 refusals. The goal here: teaching tolerance. The measure of your success is neither how many tries it takes nor the number of foods your child ultimately is willing to eat, but the instillation of a willingness to take a bite and give it a real chance.
6. Eat by example
It's going to be a very hard sell to get your child to eat things that you won't eat, or to make healthy choices when he sees you indulging your own frequent visions of sugarplums all through the year. If you aren't in the position to change your own pattern of eating, we suggest you make a concerted effort to keep your less-than-desirable indulgences, habits, and dislikes to yourself. On the flip side, feel absolutely free to model good eating habits for your child. This is a great time to let your little one see you enjoying healthy snacks and balanced meals. As soon as solids are a part of her life, he'll be curious as to what's on your plate and more likely to try your chicken and asparagus if you're munching away with delight.
7. Opt for out of sight, out of mind
No, hiding food is not the most direct or enduring approach to teaching your child a sound eating style. But as a strategy for averting a battle, restricted access works wonders, and we highly recommend it. Kids of all ages are known to want what they see. At the same time, they're not very good at grasping the concept of delayed gratification, much less listening to reason if they can't have what they want. So if you don't want your child to have certain foods -- whether it's a bedtime bottle or potato chips -- then don't put them where he can see them. Don't want to hear him begging for dessert each night? Don't bring it into your home. Want to minimize the number of times you need to say no at the grocery store? Bypass the cookie aisle and choose your checkout lane wisely by avoiding the chocolate- and candy-laden ones.
8. Keep a big-picture perspective
This final strategy is meant to be applied to any and all food fights to help take the pressure off you and your child. There are no expiration dates on any of these strategies, and regardless of whether your tot is 5 weeks, 5 months, or 5 years old, you've still got a lot of time to make an impact. Simply think of his diet as a video rather than a snapshot, and you're much more likely to end up with a clear picture of how you can handle just about any food-related challenge.
There are sure to be good days and bad, and even week-to-week variations in your child's attitude toward food. It's much easier to forge ahead knowing that it's not each bite or each meal that really counts. What matters far more is the weekly picture -- that the balance of good food to unhealthy snacks is fairly even, and the ratio of plate-cleaning days to ones where his mouth stays firmly shut doesn't get too far out of whack. After all, the food pyramid wasn't built in a day.