The 10 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make

More Mealtime Mistakes

4. Giving Up On New Foods Too Soon

Too many parents stick to chicken nuggets and grilled cheese because they are eaten without complaint. "To eat a variety of foods, you must have a variety offered to you," says Dr. Skinner. It pays to persevere: Dr. Birch has shown that it takes 10 to 15 exposures for a child to accept a new food. "You have to keep offering the food with the expectation that the child will eat it," says Satter. Look for signs that a child is sneaking up on a food: watching you eat it, allowing it on the plate, and putting it in his mouth and taking it out. (Yes, let him spit it into a napkin.) Try not to get frustrated when kids don't eat, says Satter, "and don't get hysterical with pleasure when they do take a step."

5. Short-Order Cooking

It's easy to fall into the trap of preparing something different for each family member. But this doesn't improve eating habits, and it saps time and energy. Instead, offer limited choices related to what the rest of the family is eating. If you're having sandwiches, for example, kids can choose between turkey and peanut butter. (Accepting certain requests, like removing crusts, gives the child some control.) Be considerate with menu planning. "There should always be at least one item at the table that the child knows and likes," says Satter. If she chooses not to eat anything, so be it. She won't starve in the hours before the next meal. And if she does get a little hungry, she'll begin to understand the consequences of not eating.

6. Serving Big Portion Sizes

In this land of super-size servings, we sometimes forget that children are small and therefore need child-size portions, which equal one tablespoon per year of life, says the American Dietetic Association in Chicago. Too much food is intimidating and discouraging for the child -- and disappointing for the parent who sees a full plate even when the child has sampled everything. Start small and remember that one green bean is better than no green beans and that you can always offer more.

7. Overdoing Juice and Snacks

Some children graze all day on cookies, crackers, and other snacks washed down with endless juice boxes. Neither habit helps when it comes to healthy eating because children are filling up on the wrong things and then aren't hungry for healthier options when it's time to eat real meals.

It's not necessary to cut snacks and drinks altogether, says Dr. Vartabedian. "Rather, parents should look at snacks as an opportunity to provide nutritional alternatives or new tastes. Make snacktime a ritual -- offer a few healthy options at specific times of day." And limit juice to six ounces daily, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

8. Overemphasizing Neatness

Taste is only one way young children learn about food. "Feeding is a multisensory experience," says Dr. Vartabedian. A new eater who is never allowed to play with food won't enjoy it as much as one who knows the fun of smearing bananas and crumbling crackers. As for toddlers, what they eat is more important than whether they eat it with a fork, so it's good to be tolerant of messy mealtimes.

9. Ignoring Nature

Not everyone will learn to like every food. Some people just taste flavors more strongly, especially bitterness. There's also a natural fear of new things ("neophobia") that's strongest during the preschool years. "Parents interpret it as pickiness, but it's actually adaptive and normal," says Dr. Birch. Food neophobia is stronger in some kids than others, mostly due to temperament differences.

When your child refuses new foods, chalk it up to neophobia and keep trying. If after repeated exposures he still doesn't like it, just accept that preference. But if you're worried about his diet, consult a nutrition book to find smart substitutes.

10. Worrying Too Much

Even children who seem to live on macaroni and cheese may not eat as poorly as moms and dads think. "Parents label children 'picky eaters' and it ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of these kids are actually quite normal," says Dr. Vartabedian. And many improve with age. The truly important indicator of a serious problem is the growth curve. "If a child is growing at a normal rate, she is meeting her nutritional needs," he says.Young children, he adds, meet those needs over a broad period of time, not meal to meal or day to day. For reassurance, you can give a multivitamin, but remember that it's better to get nutrients from food. Another helpful exercise is to write down everything your child eats -- even one bite -- for a week. If you come up with at least one serving from every food group, things really aren't so bad after all.

Lydia Denworth lives in Brooklyn and has two sons, Jake and Matthew.


Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the April 2002 issue of Child magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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