How to help kids develop a positive relationship with food

For several years, sit-down dinners in my household were more of a concept than a reality. With two kids in competitive hockey, we were often racing from one GTA arena to another at supper hour.

I may have hit an all-time nutritional low, though, one evening in the car when I tossed a barely warmed corn dog (a pogo?) to my son in the back seat, calling it dinner.

As a pediatrician and senior scientist in Child Health Evaluative Sciences at SickKids Research Institute, Dr. Catherine Birken helps children and families establish healthy eating habits.

While it’s doubtful she’d approve of my hot dog on a stick as a meal, Birken acknowledges not all families are able to have meals together every day.

To help kids develop healthy relationships with food, she recommends parents try to be present at mealtimes to give their kids positive attention and opportunities for social interaction while enjoying nutritious food.

What are we trying to achieve when we say we want kids to have a healthy relationship with food?

The goal is twofold: We want mealtimes to be nourishing — both nutritionally and socially. In other words, we want kids and families to enjoy sitting down to a meal for the food, but also because it’s a chance to interact with each other.

We know the relationships and routines we establish with food in early childhood are associated with the development of healthy-eating habits. So, it’s important to think about these early on.

What does establishing a positive relationship with food look like in the early years?

It starts with how we feed our children from the earliest moments. Right from the first weeks of life, children start to develop fullness cues. Those cues are then carried forward to the next phase — when kids are sitting at the table with their parents assisting with eating — through to when kids are eating independently.

Meals with toddlers can be notoriously chaotic. Any tips on how to keep things positive?

It’s important for parents and health-care providers to keep in mind just how normal it is for toddlers to be picky about food. It’s often around meals that kids learn to explore their autonomy and develop their own likes and dislikes.

Mealtimes can be made easier with a clear understanding of the division of responsibilities. What I mean by that is, it’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what food is going to be served, when that food is going to be served and where the food will be served. But it’s the child’s responsibility to determine how much and whether to eat.

How important is it for families to have a routine around mealtimes?

In terms of maintaining a positive relationship with food, I’d say establishing mealtime routines is arguably one of the most important things parents can do.

Avoiding some of the power struggles around how much and whether kids eat can be helped by having meals at the same time each day — and not letting meals drag on too long.

You don’t want to be sitting at the table for hours trying to get your child to finish a meal. Nor do you want to be chasing your kids around the kitchen, begging them to eat “just one more spoonful.”

That’s not going to help your child develop independence over how much they eat, nor is it going to help them understand what fullness feels like.

How much variety do you suggest parents provide at mealtime?

The goal is to have the family eat the same food at the same time together. As much as possible, I think you want to avoid one parent being a short-order cook, preparing individual meals for each person at the table.

However, having a variety of foods to choose from at every meal gives kids an opportunity to try new things.

The science suggests we should present new foods to children up to 10 times. If a child doesn’t take to a certain food once or twice, as parents we’re tempted to give up, saying, ‘Well, they’re never going to eat bananas.’

The reintroduction of the same foods over time is key; it might not be until the fifth or even 10th time you offer bananas that your child starts eating them.

What’s more, when children are in school or a child-care environment, they frequently do really well with trying new foods they don’t typically eat at home because they see what other kids are eating.

How important is it for parents to model their own relationship with food?

Children are very attentive; they observe what we do all the time. So, if we want our kids to have a positive relationship with food and try new things, we need to be self-aware about our own relationship with food.

That starts with making mealtimes social — meaning sitting down together, not having the TV on, putting phones away, and making it about conversation. Try not to put too much pressure on whether everyone eats everything or make the experience just about the consumption of food.

Avoid weaponizing food

Dr. Catherine Birken cautions against using food for good or bad behaviour. “You risk having your child think of food as a reward or punishment, which can lead to other health problems,” she says. “We want to support families with only positive language around eating.”

Healthy Kids poses health questions to experts at SickKids. Always consult your health-care provider with specific concerns. Torstar is in a fundraising and educational partnership with SickKids Foundation to help raise $1.5 billion for new facilities.


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