Growing up, I was a member of the "clean plate" club. How much I ate was not determined by my internal hunger or satiety signals but by the amount of food served to me. As a child, I was taught that food should not be wasted and eating everything on my plate would ensure a strong and healthy body. As a teenager, I struggled for autonomy by frequently skipping breakfast or choosing less than healthy lunches since dinner was still out of my control. It was not until my early twenties that I allowed myself to leave unfinished food on my plate because I was full. It was alright not to have a "clean" plate.
When I became a mother to a baby girl a few years ago, I had to re-examine my own upbringing, beliefs and values regarding food and mealtime interactions. In a way, it gave me a chance to practice what I've been preaching to concerned parents, family, and friends. It's easy to dole out advice and go "by the book" but when it actually involves a walking, talking (oh yes, and she'll speak her mind) little person, it is much more challenging.
Early on, my husband and I envisioned taking our toddler everywhere with us, whether it was dinner at a new restaurant, or a vacation in an exotic locale. We did not want food limitations to factor into our choice of restaurant or travel destination. We definitely wanted to avoid becoming the type of parents who carted around little containers of food for fear that our child would otherwise starve. Being able to enjoy a variety of foods together was important to our family.
With such an ambitious goal at hand, I knew we needed to establish a framework for raising our daughter. I didn't want to consider them as rules since rules have such rigid connotations. On the other hand, a framework provides structure, a format, and a basic system of approach.
Develop positive mealtime interactions
When Sabrina was a baby, she controlled her own hunger and satiety. She would let me know when she was hungry, and I would feed her. When she was full, she stopped feeding and I would see if she needed burping. If she wanted to feed more or stop completely, I followed her cues. Witnessing her development through each milestone coupled with periodic baby checks reassured me that she was able to regulate her own intake, thrive and grow.
This was a good feeding interaction and carried into her first taste of solid foods. I would decide the texture and types of foods appropriate for her at the time, and she would decide if she wanted to smell it, taste it, eat it, or reject it. It is true that children's acceptance of new foods depends on their temperament and the taste of the food. Easy children will accept a new food much quicker than a slow-to-warm-up or difficult child. Our child accepted carrots and broccoli much quicker than tomatoes and mushrooms.
When she started self-feeding, I would serve her one tablespoon of food for each year of her age. As a two year old, she would be served two tablespoons each of grains, vegetables, protein, and fruit. I continued to offer a variety of foods without being pushy or forceful and trusted that she would eat if she was hungry and refuse if she was disinterested or full. She also knew that seconds were always available.
I avoided using words like "good" or "bad" to label foods because it adds such emotional baggage to eating. I did not want my child to feel guilty if she chose to eat a "bad" food. Rather, we developed our own descriptions of "everyday" foods, "sometimes" foods, and "once in a blue moon" foods. Examples of "everyday" foods, as you probably know intuitively, are foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans. The "sometimes" foods category included the likes of chocolate, ice cream, cookies, and fruit chews while we agreed to place candy, donuts, potato chips, and soft drinks into the "once in a blue moon" foods category.
Since I cannot expect my child to eat something if she does not see me eating it, I showed her healthy eating habits by enjoying and sharing with her a variety of foods prepared in different ways. New foods were presented with a familiar one so there would be something for her to fall back on. I can't remember the number of times I offered mushrooms before she finally accepted them. Now, she can't get enough! "I just love mushrooms, Mommy," she exclaimed at dinner one night.
Although fruit juice is far superior to sweetened fruit drinks, too much juice can quickly extinguish a child's small appetite. My husband called me the "juice Nazi" when our daughter was old enough to drink from a cup. It was only then that I offered fruit juice, limited to half a cup each day. I have met too many concerned parents with poor eaters only to discover the reason for their lack of interest in eating is from toting around sippy cups of juice during the day. It's no wonder the child is not hungry; juice contains a lot of calories. Not only that, imagine the effect on teeth submerged in a sweetened liquid all day long! When my daughter was old enough to drink cow's milk, she was offered two cups of milk (to meet her calcium and vitamin D needs) and her juice allotment each day. If she requested more to drink, she got water.
Yes, you get to decide what gets purchased, prepared and served! Let's not forget that some fathers (bless their hearts), also take on or share in this role. You need to negotiate with your spouse and garner his support. Make sure you're both speaking the same language. There is nothing more disheartening than to hear your three-year-old say "but Daddy said I could" when you know you've said "no" the umpteenth time to another piece of candy right before dinner time.
Having shared my approach, you may be wondering, "How's it working for you?" Well, it works really well most of the time. We've been able to enjoy eating out and have traveled quite a bit as a family. Mealtimes are generally pleasant, and our daughter has a large repertoire of foods that she enjoys. Just the other night, as I was getting her ready for bed, I asked her if she would join me for a bowl of oatmeal in the morning. Her reply was "yes, steel cut oats." All right, my little connoisseur.