Becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist is challenging—tackling organic chemistry and perfecting recipes in the food lab (I kid you not, we learn both!), but nothing prepares you for arguably the toughest task. Feeding your own children is HARD and humbling, even with years of professional experience under your belt. Sure, I knew how to build a nutritionally-sound meal and what foods are important for babies when my oldest was ready to start solids, but I didn’t truly understand the dynamics of being a parent.
So it’s safe to say, I quickly readjusted my expectations when it came to feeding my children. While nutrition and food are important for our family, I know they aren’t the only things that matter, and sometimes we need to make concessions in one area (even for a short period of time) to survive in others. So while I’ve worked with numerous families and they’ve all taught me more than I could have possibly learned sitting in a classroom, my biggest lessons have come from feeding my own toddlers. Here they are:
1. Sugar Doesn’t Have To Be an Enemy
As a nutritionist, I’m extremely aware of all the places added sugar hides in our food system and therefore, highly-aware of when my kids are eating it. While it can seem like sugar is public enemy number one, especially for children, I’ve slowly learned it can be part of a well-balanced diet. Children are naturally more in tune with their bodies and, if we let them, can regulate their own intake when it comes to food, including sweets.
By offering sugar-containing foods often and not making a big deal about them, kids learn they are just one part of the foods they eat. Using this technique with my own kids has led to toddlers who certainly enjoy cake and cookies with the best of them, but who will also stop eating after a few bites if they are satisfied.
2. Vegetables Aren’t the Most Important Food Group
Every parent wants their child to eat vegetables because they know they are good for them and because kids historically don’t like vegetables. But you know what? While veggies are important, they aren’t the most important thing. We all need a variety of foods in our diet to get the nutrients we need to be at our healthiest. For example, protein supports the rapid growth kids undergo, but vegetables are pretty low in protein.
So instead of focusing solely on veggie intake, focus instead on offering a variety of different foods and helping children learn to like vegetables. Make them taste good by adding a bit of butter or olive oil, salt, and herbs and spices. Model eating your veggies too and keep mealtime pressure low. Someday, when you least expect it, they are likely to take a bite of that broccoli.
3. Family Meals Matter
If the kitchen is the heart of the home, the kitchen table is the muscle that makes your heart beat. Eating together during family mealtime is beneficial for children and adults alike, and has been linked to healthier eating habits, improved academic performance and lower risk of depression, while also contributing to bigger vocabularies in preschoolers. What’s even better? Family meals can happen at any point during the day, not just dinnertime.
When family members sit together to enjoy a meal, the table becomes a place for them to talk and connect. As I’ve seen with my own toddlers, mealtime anchors the day and provides a sense of routine in their lives. It’s a time they know they can connect with us as parents and share about their day. Though it may seem like a small part of the day, remember the little things are often the big things to them.
4. It’s Not My Job to ‘Make’ Them Eat
Toddlers’ appetites are notoriously unpredictable. Sometimes they eat everything in sight, other times they fill up on air. But I know it’s not my job to “make” them eat. It is my job to offer food at regular intervals throughout the day and to make mealtimes pleasant. It’s also my job to nurture their inner hunger and fullness cues and to set them on the path to developing a healthy relationship with food.
It is their job to decide whether they are going to eat, and if so, what they will eat and how much. I know firsthand how difficult it is to watch children flat out refuse to eat a meal they loved just yesterday or go to bed with only a few sips of milk in their belly, but nutrition is a long game. My biggest goal is for them to gain eating competence, the ability to be positive, comfortable and flexible with eating.
5. Feeding Children Is a Privilege—Even If It’s Not Perfect
Feeding children is hard work, even for someone who makes their living helping kids eat. Not only does it feel like kids need to eat ALL. THE. TIME., but like many other things in the parenting space these days, there is an increased pressure to be “perfect.” However, there are so many factors that influence the food that shows up on our tables, and that’s OK.
So if you repeat meals often or they aren’t Instagram-worthy, know you are in good company! In the end, it is an immense privilege to have food to serve our children each day. According to Feeding America, there are as many as 9 million kids in the United States who face childhood hunger. So next time you are feeling guilty serving the same breakfast for the third day in a row—don’t. We are all doing our best, and our best is good enough.