As a parent and as nutritionist, I’ve heard A LOT of “rules” that we “should” be following when it comes to feeding kids. Let’s be clear right from the start; ultimately, when it comes to feeding your children, there are NO “rules”.
Whilst there is certainly guidance and advice around certain elements of feeding, as a parent, you are the one who ultimately gets to decide how and what to feed your children.
However, there are some very common rules that I’ve heard too many times that I wanted to set straight. Here are my top kids mealtime “rules” you should completely ignore!
Kids shouldn’t play with their food
This an age-old rule that still gets shared about today. However, more recent research has shown us that one of the key ways in which children accept new foods is through familiarisation. “Playing” with food, whether that’s simply touching it, tasting it, smelling it, or simply seeing it, it’s all part of their learning experience and can be done in so many ways.
Playing with food allows babies to explore a bit more and therefore to become more comfortable with having foods on their hands, face and also in their mouths – making them more likely to accept it. Allowing kids to get messy with foods is an important way for them to become familiar with a variety of textures as well. Try not to worry so much about the mess and let them explore!
They have to eat their sandwiches first
This is something that often comes up at nursery, where children are encouraged to eat their sandwiches, or a certain part of the meal first, before eating the rest of it. This may be because some foods are considered to be the most filling, or nutritious and it’s “best” to eat those before filling up on other foods. Instead, children should be encouraged to explore the tastes and textures of the foods on their plate however they’d like.
That may mean only eating parts of the meal and leaving other parts untouched, but it allows them to follow their own appetite and preferences when it comes to mealtimes.
They can’t have dessert, unless they finish their main
Another common “rule” that gets thrown about is that, in order for children to be “allowed” dessert, they need to finish all of their main meal. Similar to the idea of encouraging them to finish their plate, this can result in them feeling pressured to eat more than they want or need of a certain food. It also encourages the idea that dessert is a “special” meal that’s more exciting than the main meal.
Ideally, we want to avoid creating a food hierarchy, where certain foods, including desserts are seen as better and more desirable than other foods, such as vegetables. Something I often do with my children, is offer sweet foods, such as cakes or biscuits, alongside their main meal and allow them to eat each food in whichever order they prefer – see my blog where I talk a lot more about this too. Sometimes they’ll dive straight in for the cake and only eat that, and that’s absolutely fine. But, more often than not, they’ll eat some or all of the cake, and also eat the other foods on the plate, as they haven’t been made to feel that the cake is the “best” part of the meal.
They can’t get down from the table until everyone is finished
Mealtimes can be a great opportunity to have everyone sitting together and interacting, and it’s often expected that everyone should stay seated until the last person has finished. However, babies and young children, have very short attention spans and can quickly become bored and frustrated sitting at the table for too long. Pressuring them to stay seated, is only likely to result in a battle, making for a stressful experience for everyone.
If your little one signals that they’ve had enough of sitting at the table, allow them to get down. If they then signal that they’re still hungry and want to continue eating, allow them to sit back at the table. Allowing them this independence doesn’t mean teaching them they can do as they please. Instead, by creating a calm and pressure-free environment at the table, it makes your little one more likely to enjoy the experience and want to sit at the table for longer.
Finish your plate
As parents, it’s quite natural to want to ensure your little ones eat enough, and seeing them eat very little can be quite worrying. However, babies are very good at regulating their own appetite and they are the ones who know best when they are hungry or full. A good routine with naps, milk and food helps to give babies a structure that allows them to follow their own cues around appetite. Adding external “pressure,” in the form of encouraging them to eat more than they need, can override their own innate signals. Try to follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues and feed them “responsively”.
Signs of fullness might include pushing the spoon or plate away, crying, becoming distracted or clamping their mouth shut. If your baby is still hungry, they might keep opening their mouth for more, cry when you take the plate away or signal for more food from your plate.
They just need to have “at least one bite”
It can be incredibly tough when you’ve made something you know your little one will like, if they would just try it. You may even be offering them their favourite food, but on that particular day, they’re refusing to eat it. This is quite common, and a natural way for children to exert their growing independence. However, by encouraging them to try “just one bite,” we’re adding external pressure that teaches them to go against their innate cues around fullness and hunger.
The more pressure we put on babies to eat, the less likely they are to want to. Try to avoid the urge to encourage them to try, and instead, focus on making the mealtime enjoyable and model eating the meal yourself.
Baby-led weaning means you can’t use a spoon
Baby-led weaning – the idea that children should feed themselves right from the start of weaning – typically involves children being offered finger foods rather than the traditional method of purees. This often means that parents think they can’t, or shouldn’t, offer a spoon if they want to follow the route of baby-led weaning. I’m a huge advocate that, for weaning to be truly “baby-led,” a combined approach of both finger foods and spoons is ideal. This allows babies the opportunity to explore a variety of ways of feeding, and discover their own preferences.
Babies all take to weaning differently and some may immediately have a strong preference for a particular way of eating, and it’s likely this will change throughout their weaning journey. The important part is to allow your baby to explore and learn to feed themselves, whether that’s with a spoon or with their hands!
Children and adults should eat separately
One of the best ways in which babies and children learn about eating is by watching us as adults. Right from the start of weaning, babies learn all about what to do with food, including chewing, biting and swallowing by seeing others do it. Something I really encourage when feeding babies, is to involve them in family meals – even before they are eating themselves.
Mealtimes are a social occasion and including children as part of the family mealtime can make them more enjoyable, which can in turn make a big difference to food acceptance.