Debunking myths about feeding children


by Dana Hawthorne, RD, Registered Dietitians/Public Health Nutritionist
Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit

Myth 1: Parents and caregivers should tell children to clean their plate before leaving the table.

Children are born with the ability to regulate their own intake. Children will eat best when they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are feeling full. This will help them to eat the amount that they need to grow and be healthy. Adults and caregivers can help children learn healthy eating habits by knowing what their “job” is at meals and snacks, and sticking to it, and allowing children to do their job.

It’s the adult’s job to decide:
When to offer meals (at regular times each day)
Where the meal will take place (at the table with an adult), and
What healthy foods to offer.

It’s the child’s job to decide: whether to eat and how much to eat from the foods offered.

Pressuring, bribing or coaxing children to clean their plate or to eat more of something usually has the opposite effect than intended. It can lead to children refusing to eat, or disliking certain foods. Following these tips is one strategy for avoiding mealtime stress.

Myth 2: “Picky” eaters need special meals.

The truth is most children know when they are hungry and will eat an amount that’s right for their age and stage. Most children who are thought to be a picky eater are not picky at all! Children go through phases when they’re less open to trying new foods, or want the same foods all the time. This is normal. It’s also normal for children’s appetite to vary from day-to-day and even from meal-to-meal, depending on their activity level, if they’re tired, or going through a growth spurt. Some days they will eat a lot, and other days they may only eat a little

It’s important to avoid becoming a short-order cook at mealtimes. Short-order cooking happens when parents or caregivers make another meal because a child refuses to eat the meal that is served. Instead, offer children a variety of healthy foods and allow them to choose what to eat from the foods offered and how much to eat. Short-order cooking can create negative habits and lead to more food refusal and power struggles at mealtimes. Healthy children may skip a meal once in a while.

Myth 3: If a child rejects a food, they must not like it.

At times children may be less open to trying new foods, or may want the same food all of the time. This is called a “food jag”. Some children may also need to taste a new food up to 10-15 times before they will accept it, and that’s okay. Be patient when offering new foods to children. They need time to learn about food and eating by tasting, touching and exploring. Try not to worry if children don’t accept a new food when it’s offered. Calmly take the food away and try again another day. It can also be helpful to offer new foods along with healthy foods your child knows and loves. This helps to make new foods more familiar. Avoid pressuring or bribing children to try or to eat a food as this will likely cause them to be more resistant to eating and enjoying the food. Involve children in growing food, grocery shopping, and meal planning, preparation and clean-up. Children are more likely to eat the foods and meals they help to grow, plan or prepare.

Myth 4: Parents should delay offering highly allergenic foods, like peanuts and eggs until children are older.

Recommendations on when to introduce these highly allergenic foods, called common food allergens, have changed recently. Common food allergens are the foods people are most commonly allergic to and include: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, sesame, mustard, soy and sulphites. Older recommendations suggested delaying the introduction of these foods to help prevent the onset of a food allergy. However, recent research has shown that waiting until children are older before offering these foods can actually increase the risk of having a food allergy. Now it’s recommended to introduce common food allergens at 6 months, with a 2-day wait before introducing another common food allergen. It’s important to make sure these foods are in a texture that’s safe for babies and young children. For example, avoid offering large gobs of peanut butter and instead spread it thinly on a piece of toast or mix a small amount in with prepared baby cereal. Research has also shown that breastfeeding helps to lower the risk of developing a food allergy.

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