As you learned earlier in this series (here and here), lessons on what to eat are for grown-ups. It shouldn’t be a child’s burden to make the household food decisions, choose the “right” cooking oil, ensure there are enough nutritious foods in the house, or read food labels.
Your kiddos have more important food-related learning tasks. Let’s go over what’s present from birth and the skills kids learn at various stages that depend on our guidance. We will focus on newborns to early elementary for now.
Skills Present From Birth
- Drive to eat (survival!)
- Ability to regulate their intake based on internal signals of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction.
- Ability to grow according to their genetic blueprint.
Those are fully-loaded, factory installed, ready-to-go skills. Isn’t it awesome that we’re born this way? I think that’s seriously good news. Maybe you’re doubtful Does it seem like your little one is missing something from this list? Consider your expectations. Or that something is getting in your child’s way. Medical, environmental, something else?
The tricky part is that children need our support to keep their innate skills — as you feed your children, they will do best if you do so in a way that reflects your trust in their biological wisdom. If you start to lose trust in their eating expertise, consider joining my online family support group or contact me for a consult.
What Your Baby Needs to Learn about Eating
It’s probably a bit more obvious that you don’t have to “teach” babies nutrition. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to learn about eating. One of the first things babies must learn is to get relaxed and organized for eating. And that eating involves connection. You probably did this “teaching” naturally without even thinking about it by holding your baby, talking to her, and getting her comfortably situated with breast or bottle. Your baby, in turn, learned that she can trust you to provide for her needs when you were responsive and fed her on cue. You also paid close attention so that when baby showed you she was done, you stopped feeding her.
When solid foods begin, babies practice trying and learning to like new foods. This usually goes swimmingly with infants because they tend to put everything within reach into their mouths: keys, hair, food–it’s all just a sensory wonderland! You can support this learning by continuing to feed responsively, offering finger foods appropriately, and offering (but not pushing) repeated tries of a food even if baby makes a face the first time she tries it.
You may have also heard that infanthood is prime time for training your little one’s taste buds. And there is some truth to that, but it isn’t as fool-proof as many would like to believe. Two expert colleagues of mine and I were quoted in this fabulous article on taste training here. If you’re getting ready to start solids with your baby, you will love this Starting Solids ebook bundle from another fabulous RD I know, here.
What Your Toddler Needs to Learn about Eating
Learning to be part of the family — When your baby was first learning to eat solids, you had all eyes on him. Whether you were working hard to be responsive by waiting for that open mouth or you played “here comes the airplane” to convince your child to gobble up another bite, you probably sat yourself in front of your new eater and focused entirely on his meal. But once a child becomes a toddler, it’s time to transition from him being the center of the meal, to being one of the family. This is why it’s important to start eating with your toddler instead of just feeding him separately. Toddlers are the kings of autonomy, so focusing a lot of attention on their eating will turn meals into a circus and your 2 year old will end up the ring leader.
Get into the groove of structured meals and snacks — before age one, babies are more-or-less fed on demand, which is perfect because their growth needs are huge. But after that first year, growth slows down and moving toward a routine that allows her to join in on family meals is very important to her continued food education. Not only will eating together keep her exposed to the wide variety that grown-ups eat–critical during the upcoming picky eating period–but it will also prevent the chaos of grazing, and misusing food to soothe emotions.
Food is for satisfying hunger and appetite — Food is a pleasurable part of our lives. And from the moment a child is born feeding is one of the main ways we show love because we are meeting a basic need. But eating really needs to keep its place as an antidote to hunger and appetite–and not turn into a soothe-all salve. Because guess what? A child can learn to misuse food for coping with boredom and sadness even as a little two year old! We can prevent this by keeping to sit-down meal and snack times, not promoting grazing, and not using food to bribe, soothe, distract or reward. Will you totally spoil your child if you promise him a Hershey’s Kiss to get a family photo taken? Probably not. But don’t make a habit of using food to manage your child’s behavior or feelings.
Trying new foods and learning to like them…again! — Despite an infant’s openness to new foods, most kids hit a picky period around age 2. This is often surprising and frustrating for parents. Why won’t Timmy eat anything green anymore? He loved peas when he was a baby!” There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that the picky eating period is like starting over from scratch for many kids. But if you know what to expect you can be prepared, chill out about it, and start family style meals to support his learning despite his weird toddler ways. Essentially you need to be a solid rock of mealtime structure whose feelings can’t be hurt by “I hate casserole!” because you know he doesn’t even remember what casserole is.
Serve as many casseroles as you feel like serving. Whip up veggies in every way you like them. Don’t remove anything from the menu because he rejects it 17 times. And don’t skip your favorite food because you think it’s not “child-friendly.” Neither of you will have any idea what he’s capable of eating or trying until he does (or doesn’t)–and that will only be true for that singular attempt. It may not hold true tomorrow, next week or 6 months from now.
“I can do it!” — it’s easy to think that kids wanting to do things on their own is an act of defiance. But what’s really going on is that toddlers are exploring their ability to be autonomous and have some control over their environment. This is a great time to introduce family style meals if you haven’t started. And as messy as it is, let your little one feed himself, don’t push a set portion and accept “No.”
Is that enough?
Now you have an idea of all the food related skills children must learn behind-the-scenes. It’s no wonder more formal nutrition lessons are totally unnecessary and very much overboard for the youngest of kids. Is that enough, though? I think it is. It doesn’t mean that you can’t let your 2 year old “help” while you cook or garden, but anything formal with a goal to get them to eat differently will likely backfire. And what about older kids? Preschoolers? Kindergartners? 2nd Graders? Coming in June we’ll look at what preschoolers and early elementary kids need to learn about food & eating.
Reference: Satter, Ellyn. (2015). Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.