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Child & Adult Care Food Program

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Tips for preventing food hassles

"Clean your plate."
"No dessert until you eat your vegetables."
"If you behave, you can have a piece of candy."

For parents and caregivers, these phrases probably sound familiar. Food should be used as food, not as a reward or punishment. In the long run, food bribery usually creates more problems than it solves.

Adults often view a child's odd food and behaviors as a problem. Childhood food binges, food strikes and other unusual habits are usually a part of normal development.

Children use the table as a stage for showing their independence. Sometimes, food isn't the issue at all. The eating process is just one more way children learn about the world.

Here are some common childhood eating situations. Try these simple tips to make meal time a more pleasant experience.

Situation: A child will eat one and only one food, meal after meal (food jags).
Solution: Allow the child to eat what he or she wants if "jag" food is wholesome. Offer other foods at each meal. After a few days, the child will likely try other foods. Don't remove the "jag" food, but offer it as long as the child wants it. Food jags rarely last long enough to cause any real harm.

Situation: A child refuses to eat what's served ("Short Order Cook Syndrome")
Solution: Have bread, rolls or fruit available at each meal so there are choices that the child likes. Be supportive, set limits and don't be afraid to let the child go hungry if she or he won't eat what is served. Which is worse - an occasional missed meal or a parent or caregiver who is a perpetual short-order cook?

Situation: A child wants to watch television at meal time.
Solution: Turn off the television at meal time. Meat time television is a distraction that ruins social interaction and interferes with a child's eating. Value the time spent together while eating. Often it is the only time during the day when the whole family is together.

Situation: A child will only eat bread, potatoes, macaroni and milk - "The Great American White Food Diet."
Solution: Avoid pressuring the child to eat other foods. Giving more attention to finicky eating habits only reinforces the demands for limited foods. Continue to offer a variety of foods. Encourage a taste of red, orange or green foods. Eventually the child will move on to other foods.

Situation: A child refuses to try new foods - "Fear of New Foods."
Solution:  Continue to introduce and reintroduce new foods over time. It may take many exposures to a new food before a child is ready to taste it and a lot of tastes before a child likes it. Encourage, but don't force, children to try new foods.

Parents and caregivers act as "gatekeepers," controlling what foods come into the house. Having lots of healthful food choices available eliminates the need for you to be a "food dictator" at meal time. Limit the undesirable foods you serve. This helps children understand that healthful food choices are a way of life.

Prepare children to be ready for meals. A five-minute warning before meal time lets them calm down, wash their hands and get ready to eat. A child who is anxious, excited or tired may have trouble settling down to eat.

Consistent food messages encourage children to eat and help prevent arguments over food. Try these simple steps:

  • Be a smart gatekeeper: buy only the foods you want the child to eat.

  • Don't worry if the child won't eat any of his or her food.

  • Set an example by eating good foods.

  • Let children make their own food choices from the good choices you provide.

It's important to keep a clear division of responsibility when feeding youngsters. Children are the best judges of how much they should eat. Parents and caregivers are not responsible for how much a child eats or even whether a child eats.

Here are five important feeding jobs for parents and caregivers:

  • Buy healthful food.

  • Serve regular meals and snacks.

  • Make meal times pleasant.

  • Teach good manners at the table.

  • Set a good example.

Happy encounters with food at any age help set the stage for sensible eating habits. Handling food and eating situations positively encourages healthful food choices.

Adapted from: Feeding Kids Right Isn't Always Easy, American Dietetic Association


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