Leanne, a reader of The Scoop on Food, recently asked, "How does a family with children who have very different nutritional needs and food preferences handle mealtimes?" In an email, she explained her struggle to feed her children who have different body types and appetites. "My 15 year-old son is slim, athletic and has limited food preferences, and my 11 year-old daughter is a little overweight, but she's athletic and eats and enjoys a lot of healthy foods. I try to feed them well, but feel like I constantly shove food down my son's throat and yell at my daughter not to eat."
If you have more than one child, it's likely you can relate to this mom's struggle—at least some of the time. According to Jill Castle, co-author (with Maryann Jacobsen) of the new book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, "Besides having multiple mouths to feed, parents need to be aware that each child's needs change as they grow. Parents need to be prepared to help their children move through different stages of growth and development." The good news, according to Castle, is that parents can make it easier on themselves and their children by streamlining feeding and mealtimes.
To help you feed your children to meet their unique nutritional needs at any stage and keep mealtimes pleasant, I asked Castle and Jacobsen—both registered dietitians—to provide their perpectives on a few feeding matters. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
EZ: Because parents are so time-crunched, do you think it's ok for us to be short order cooks? Or should we feed all family members the same foods at mealtimes?
JC: Ask any parent who has become a short-order cook, and most will tell you they dread it. It makes feeding the family an exercise in drudgery. We encourage parents to provide one meal for the whole family.
MJ: Eating one meal together helps to gradually expand children's palates. Bringing children into the meal planning process by asking for their input can help make mealtimes more pleasant. It's good to have some nights where the meal is something the children like. On other nights, parents can offer something new or something that's disliked along with side dishes that they know their children enjoy.
EZ: What if you have one child who is a big eater, and another who isn't much of an eater?
MJ: The feeding strategy should be the same for all children. In fact, research shows that pressuring a thin child to eat causes them to eat less. At the same time, trying to get an overweight child to eat less makes him want to eat even more. The key is to support appetite regulation in all children by offering balanced meals in a timely and structured way.
In Fearless Feeding, we show parents appropriate portion sizes for children. But we also encourage parents to let children eat until they are full. And during growth spurts, children will need extra helpings of food to feel full. Emerging research shows that young adults who allow hunger and fullness cues to guide their eating have lower weights and fewer eating problems.
EZ: Do you think it's better to plate foods in different portions to meet each child's needs, or to offer foods family style?
JC: We recommend offering all the food groups in the meal plan using a family-style approach. You can place entrées and side dishes on plates or bowls in the center of the table and have family members pass them around the table. Each person can then select what he or she will eat (from what is served) and how much. This feeding method gives children a say in what and how much they eat, but keeps the parent in charge of the meal. It also trains children to self-regulate their food intake over time. What helps this approach be effective is for parents include one or two items on the table that their children are comfortable with, such as milk and/or fruit, and avoid using "replacement items" at the table or offering a "supplement meal" after the meal is over.
MJ: Besides helping children feel like they have some control at mealtimes, offering foods family style may, over time, make children more willing to try new or previously disliked foods. Since children's taste preferences aren't fully formed, they need plenty of opportunities to try new foods. Even children who choose not to try something will at least be exposed to different foods and will benefit from watching others at the table eat the item. Food acceptance in children is a slow process, and trying to speed it up often backfires.
EZ: Any other words of wisdom to help parents feed their children with different needs in positive and empowering ways?
JC: When parents dictate what their child will eat, or even how much they will eat, a potentially negative dynamic around eating performance gets created. Either the child is performing well with eating, or not. That's when conflict, judgment and negative feeding practices can get rooted, and table drama begins. It doesn't have to be so stressful. We wrote Fearless Feeding to take the stress out of feeding children at all ages and stages and to make mealtimes not only more nutritious, but more pleasant and productive as well.
Full disclosure: The publisher provided me with a complimentary copy of Fearless Feeding.
Image of family raising their glasses together before eating via Shutterstock.