My son Jake was a picky eater, or so I thought. He stopped eating vegetables after he turned 2. Lunch was always a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He refused new foods, and I usually threw out most of his dinner. My husband and I tried the train-into-the-tunnel routine, withheld dessert, and even followed him around, spooning in mouthfuls of food. At times I thought we were creative, but mostly I knew we were just desperate.
The fact is, despite our good intentions, we were only making Jake's eating worse. Recent studies show that adult behavior -- how we handle our child's eating and how we approach our own -- has a lot to do with what kids will eat. To learn the ingredients for more successful meals, Child turned to those at the forefront of this new research: experts such as Leann Birch, Ph.D., a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and Betty Ruth Carruth, Ph.D., R.D., and Jean Skinner, Ph.D., R.D., dietitians at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Since I began writing this story, I've followed their advice and have seen Jake's eating habits dramatically improve. Read on for the 10 mealtime missteps it makes smart sense to avoid.1. Setting a Poor Example
The first thing you can do to help your kids eat well? Eat well yourself -- in front of them. Adults who enjoy a variety of nutritious foods in a happy setting are far more likely to have kids with healthy attitudes toward eating than adults who constantly diet, overeat, refuse vegetables, or simply leave kids to eat alone, says Jane Kauer, who studies picky eaters at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center. Read the nutritional message you're sending your children, and rewrite it if necessary.2. Applying Too Much Pressure
Any kind of coercion is the parental behavior experts object to most. "Children become overwhelmed," says Ellyn Satter, R.D., a Madison, WI-based dietitian and family therapist. "Even if kids do eat the food, they're likely to avoid it when they get the chance." Plus, pressure makes eating a control issue. "It's not about food anymore; it's about a child's need to be autonomous," says Dr. Carruth.
Forcing can begin with the first spoonful of rice cereal. If babies don't want it, parents sometimes try to get the food down anyway. "New textures aren't going to be accepted right away," says Bryan Vartabedian, a Houston-based pediatric gastroenterologist. "Offer three or four spoonfuls, let it come out on the bib, and put away the spoon." Some babies do better with homemade purees, which allow for very gradual texture changes. Once kids can feed themselves, Satter advocates a strategy -- applauded by many dietitians and doctors -- of division of responsibility. "Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented," she explains. "Kids are responsible for how much and even whether they eat."3. Using Bribes
Offering cake to children who eat their broccoli is really just another form of pressure. It adds to mealtime tension, and it won't help them like broccoli. In fact, it may have the opposite effect, Dr. Birch has found. Another problem: When the reward is dessert, it sends the wrong message about what's worth eating. Sweets become more valuable than meat and vegetables.
How to make the joy of eating its own sweet reward? Avoid the issue by offering only fruit. Or make sweets a judgment call (did your child make a reasonable effort to eat?) rather than the result of strict accounting (five peas equal one piece of pie). "A child who isn't hungry for any healthy choices shouldn't be hungry for sweets either," says Dr. Vartabedian.