With Halloween upon us, followed by a busy holiday season, it is very likely that your little preschoolers will be surrounded by sugar for the next few months! That makes now a perfect time to start thinking about intentional food choices. The goal is to teach our children to make healthy choices for their own bodies, to listen to their body’s needs, and to have a healthy relationship with food. Parenting these physiological needs (much like, toileting and sleeping) can be some of the bigger challenges you will have, but I always find setting ideal expectations and being prepared with information goes a long way in preventing challenges.
I’ll talk about sleep and toileting at other times, for now I want to talk about food. From the moment our children are born, most of us have this intense need to “feed” them. It is a strong biological drive. I have never met a parent that wasn’t overly worried their infant might not be getting enough food. Luckily, when they are new, it is fairly easy to tell how much they need by how they grow. Their diet is limited to breast milk or formula and they are so small that you can actually see the nutrition you’re giving them adding on pounds and inches day by day. Once they transition to solids, this becomes more complicated, as they naturally start getting greater variety to what they eat. Their young, underdeveloped taste buds generally like bland foods. Certain taste sensors, like those to bitterness and spice, are sensitive and haven’t had a chance to dull over time (this is why very few will like their first bite of brussel sprouts). At the same time, they also can’t tell when things are too salty or sweet. They just haven’t developed the internal monitors that tell their brain, “this is too much salt” or “too much sugar."
Just like we have to help a 2 year old know when something it too high to jump off or when something is needed to keep them healthy or safe (e.g., car seats or holding a hand). We have to let them know when they have too much of a not-so-good thing—or when they haven’t had enough of a good thing. This is where the expectations and information come in handy. First, we should set our expectations correctly: Children taste things differently than adults. Don’t be disappointed that your child wants sweets all the time, it is hard-wired in their biology—we also shouldn’t expect them to like everything we like. It takes a while/years to develop a taste for some foods. Start from a point of understanding what your child needs to be healthy, and how much is the right amount. Then have an image of what you want them to learn about food—this image can vary based on family and cultural values, but the health parameters remain the same. This is where you share your information. I find preschoolers are more game to what you’re teaching if you explain to them the science behind it. As a bonus, explaining why carrots are good for you, or how prunes help you “poop” is much better conversation than “because I said so”.
Want them to eat their vegetables? Have them try a variety of things and let them know that some things they won’t like the first time. Most children are pretty game to do the one-bite rule, especially if they have some choice items on their plate as well. The more they are exposed to a flavor, the sooner they will like it. I can attest to this, as can almost every adult. We don’t just like spicier, more flavorful dishes as we get older because our tastes buds are dying (although that may be in play too), we also like a greater variety because we have built up our taste for it. Don’t make it a fight, but rather an adventure. Use information as your friend. How many children have eaten leafy greens because they were taught doing so helped give them muscles. If they don’t enjoy a bite, have them talk about why and explain that sometimes we learn to like things over time. You can explain how there were things you didn’t like when you were little too. The above article suggests:
Don’t teach your child that the only way to refuse food is to say she doesn’t like it. “Just try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” can be rephrased, “Try it and tell me what you think.”
You are also the keeper of the knowledge for what is an appropriate serving size for your child, in consultation with your pediatrician, you can help your child start listening to his/her body and stop eating when they feel full. You can also make sure to offer them smaller portions and have them ask for more if they are still feeling hungry, rather than giving them too much to start. Small growing bodies have less room in their bellies but also a pretty decent caloric need and may need to eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day.
When dealing with holidays, like Halloween, where they will have more access to sugary treats, you should follow the same rules and goals you have set at other times. Rather than seeing the holiday as an enemy to the otherwise healthy lifestyle, see it as a great chance to teach your child about making healthy choices. In my family, I always told my children that if they exercised and ate their growing foods, we could also have one desert after dinner if they wanted—since I am the least consistent exerciser, usually I am the one foregoing dessert. That was the same rule at Halloween, after they made all their healthy choices they could have dessert (OK, on the actual trick-or-treat night, they probably had more than one…but after that). I have ended up with two teenagers that are conscientious about their health and their control over their diet and exercise. One still has an sweet tooth and enjoys an almost nightly ice cream and one does not, but both of them understand why we don’t have 3 or 4 desserts a day and why we also have to eat our vegetables and exercise—because the purpose of food is to nourish and take care of our bodies (sometimes the sweets nourish our souls, and bring us together in social traditions, but always within moderation and in keeping with our rules we previously established).
I am going to repeat: Parenting physiological needs (eating, toileting and sleeping) can be some of the bigger challenges you will have. We can’t actually force our children to sleep, poop, or eat and we shouldn’t try as I can link to many articles about how forcing those things to happen can backfire and derail lots of good intentions. Our goal should be to give our children the support, materials, information and settings they need to make smart choices. We can give them consistent bathroom, bed and meal times, offer them dark, quiet rooms for sleep, warm, family conversations at dinner, and teach them why we make the healthy choices we make—which almost always is to help us grow, which is something every child wants.