Would you like to know a number one secret to happy mealtimes? The most common feeding mistake that ruins dinner for everyone? Just one change that will help your child eat better?
Of course, not all feeding problems are equal. Like anything else in life, they come in different levels of complexities that may require anything from a simple tweak to a comprehensive assessment and intervention by a team of specialists.
But without fixing this feeding mistake things around dinner table rarely get better. It is a foundation of good feeding strategy and, consequently, better eating habits in a child.
And it has little to do with what happens at mealtimes or what is served for dinner. Curious? I bet you are. Here it is: structure in snacks.
There are many reasons parents allow kids graze all day long. From our crazy busy life where eating happens on the go to a real fear that a child will not get enough food to grow and thrive otherwise, grazing has become a new "normal" of child feeding.
But even small kids, although their tummies are tiny, do not need to be snacking all the time, even on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Toddlers are capable of waiting 2-3 hours between meals and snacks and preschoolers and school age kids can go 3-4 hours without eating.
Here is an example of a typical 2 year old who is allowed to graze on "healthier" snacks throughout the day. At first, it looks like the child ate barely anything, but when we do the calculations, we see that he is getting so many calories from small snacks throughout the day that it is enough even without eating any lunch or dinner! Keep in mind that most 2 year olds need around 1000 calories per day.
As you can see, the child who does not "seem" to eat anything, in fact eats enough to meet his calorie needs. Pressuring him to eat at mealtimes will likely lead to stressful meals and even less interest in eating the meals parents prepare. And although he is getting the calories for proper growth, he is missing out on quality family time at mealtimes and exposure to the "grown-up" foods he is expected to learn to eat. Besides, his parents may be worried by his constant begging for packaged snacks and lack of interest in more nutritious chicken and broccoli they serve for dinner.
Done right, snacks will help children meet their nutritional needs and have the patience to wait for main meals with the family. Done wrong, they may ruin the mealtime experience for everyone and affect nutrition. Think about structure to avoid this feeding mistake and enjoy the convenience and flavor of snacks without compromising eating at main meals.
Natalia Stasenko MS, RD is a pediatric dietitian based in London and New York. Mom of three, she is passionate about the science and art of feeding kids of all ages. When not writing, teaching online feeding classes, or consulting, she is most likely in the kitchen cooking and eating with her family. Follow Natalia on Twitter and read more of her work at feedingbytes.com.
Image: Child snacking on yogurt via Shutterstock