By Reem Abdulrahman Jassim Al-Muftah
Most parents are often worried about their children’s diets and have most likely asked themselves if force feeding their toddlers is an option or not. After having the same question and dealing with the ongoing internal and physical struggle between wondering if my child is getting enough food and pressuring her to eat, I have found some answers that may help clarify if force-feeding, or let’s just say making sure they eat their food, is a good idea or not.
If you are a parent that is actively involved in their child’s meals then you must have tried at least two or three of the following tactics: pressure and yelling, blackmail, bribery, threatening, nagging and harassing them with the food and last but not least, punishing. Now according to my research, the mentioned tactics can lead to negative associations to food and mealtime and can gradually confuse the child in terms of understanding his or her hunger and satisfaction cues as well as their appetite control and can lead them to simply hating the food and associating it with an unpleasant experience. I know this might sound extreme, but studies show that parent-child food struggles can ultimately lead to eating disorders, meaning we have to adapt our behaviour and let them learn on their own.
Before getting to the solutions, we need to understand why parents behave like this? Who told us that we must make sure our children eat 3-5 meals a day? The main issue for parents here is the concern that the child is not eating enough and that it will affect their health and physical development. Other sources of concern branch from parents believing that their child should wipe their plate clean, the way they were raised or to not waste food they have taken time to prepare. Yes, we were all raised to understand the importance of eating healthy and in turn, providing our children with balanced diets full of good carbs, protein, fruits and veggies, good fat and all the other vitamins and minerals they need to grow, but how easy is it to get them to actually sit down and eat a complete and balanced diet comprising of the 3 meals and 2 snacks? We should not be comparing our kids to other kids and we should not take all the standards and advice seriously. Every child is different, and every household is different, so do not put too much pressure on yourself. I am sure you are doing your best.
So, let’s all agree that for most of us it isn’t easy, and it is a daily struggle and never-ending source of stress and frustration, so what should we do instead?
It all starts with learning to trust them and to believe them when they let you know they are hungry or full. Do not pressure them to eat, eventually they will have to eat. You also need to keep offering them new foods, even if they refuse to try or eat a specific item, studies show that some kids need to try things at least 20 times before they learn to accept the flavour and texture. Portion control is also critical as some parents overwhelm their child with similar portions to their own. Planning their meals is also crucial so you can include at least one of their favourite food items and/or getting them accustomed to a general meal routine. You can even have them join in on the preparation to make them more excited about eating the food they helped prepare, but make sure not to turn yourself into a short-order chef, stressing yourself out in the kitchen trying to make other options. This sends across the wrong message and encourages pickiness. Finally, let’s talk snacks! Do not give them healthy or 'unhealthy' snacks as often as you might, especially close to mealtime, but if you do offer snacks, make sure they are balanced snacks that complete their balanced diet. Snacks are to help keep them satiated until their next meal and an opportunity to try rejected foods again. Lastly, I know you will say that “it is easier said than done” but try your hardest not to get them used to “unhealthy rewards.” Yes, I believe kids should be able to have some fun and eat their favourite snacks and sweets but be tactful and do not make it a routine or common reward and try your best not to add sugary items such as sprinkles to food because that also sends the wrong message.
* The author is the wellness advocate and influencer @keys2balance.
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