I’m a dietitian, but first and foremost, a mom. The former has most definitely influenced the mealtime practices of the latter – in ways you might not expect!
Below are some of my thoughts on feeding happy, healthy, and culturally-competent little ones.
Contemplate your family’s food culture.
In the words of Megrette Fletcher, the “godmother” of mindful eating, “every family has a food culture that is unique to them.”
My family’s food culture embraces the enjoyment of all foods. Whatever Mommy and Daddy eat/drink, our child can too, with the exception of caffeine and alcohol.
Yes, this means my daughter has enjoyed rainbow cookies, pizza, and French fries, but she also consumes a variety of vegetables, is accustomed to spicy foods, and isn’t dependent on any foodstuffs from the baby aisle at the grocery store.
Consider the division of responsibility.
If you’re a parent and you’re not familiar with Ellyn Satter, RD, I strongly encourage you to GET familiar with this feeding specialist and the Ellyn Satter Institute. One of her guiding principles is the division of responsibility. The parent of a toddler determines what, when, and where to feed, while the child determines whether and how much to eat. And I couldn’t agree more with this quote from the ESI homepage: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”
Try, try, and try again.
Research tells us that children may need to try a new food as many as 12 times before deciding he or she enjoys it. Salmon makes a weekly appearance on our dinner table, and even though it’s not her favorite, I always serve my daughter a small portion. Because I follow the division of responsibility, and my food culture dictates my child will eat what I’m eating, I don’t get discouraged. Don’t make a big fuss over not-so-favorite foods, and NEVER cajole or force feed.
Choose food adjectives with care.
“Good” and “bad” are horribly inappropriate descriptions of foods. Here's some more food for thought: what if you refer to the foods you eat as “clean”? How would you describe other foods? Take a step back and think about how those descriptors might be internalized by a young mind. Now imagine your child on a play date in another home, and your mortification upon discovering that he or she referred to an offered snack as “dirty.” The mere thought makes me wince!
Early exposure builds acceptance.
Modeling food choices that support good health is important, but there is so much more to the ritual of eating. Branch out. Serve dishes from ethnic cultures other than your own. Include your toddler in excursions to new restaurants (at off-peak times, of course). Expand your OWN knowledge of different cultural foodways, and start the conversation about food from a global perspective. My hope for my child is that she’ll be grateful for the food she has, and eager and open to new culinary experiences.