There’s nothing more basic to parenting than the act of feeding your child. But even while breast feeding, there are decisions to be made. (Yes, breast-feeding mothers should eat spicy food if they like it. No, they shouldn’t respond to all infant distress by nursing.) Pediatricians currently recommend exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months, and then continuing to breast-feed as you introduce a range of solid foods. Breast-feeding mothers deserve support and consideration in society in general and in the workplace in particular, and they don’t always get it. And conversely, mothers are sometimes made to feel inadequate if breast-feeding is difficult, or if they can’t live up to those recommendations.
You have to do what works for you and your family, and if exclusive breast-feeding doesn’t, any amount that you can do is good for your baby. As children grow, the choices and decisions multiply; that first year of eating solid foods, from 6 to 18 months, can actually be a great time to give children a range of foods to taste and try, and by offering repeated tastes, you may find that children expand their ranges.
Small children vary tremendously in how they eat; some are voracious and omnivorous, and others are highly picky and can be very difficult to feed. Let her feed herself as soon as and as much as possible; by “playing” with her food she’ll learn about texture, taste and independence. Build in the social aspects of eating from the beginning, so that children grow up thinking of food in the context of family time, and watching other family members eat a variety of healthy foods, while talking and spending time together. (Children should not be eating while looking at screens.) Parents worry about picky eaters, and of course about children who eat too much and gain weight too fast; you want to help your child eat a variety of real foods, rather than processed snacks, to eat at mealtimes and snacktimes, rather than constant “grazing,” or “sipping,” and to eat to satisfy hunger, rather than experiencing food as either a reward or a punishment.
Don’t cook special meals for a picky childbut don’t make a regular battlefield out of mealtime.
Some tips to try:
- Talk with small children about “eating the rainbow,” and getting lots of different colors onto their plates (orange squash, red peppers, yellow corn, green anything, and so on).
- Take them to the grocery store or the farmer’s market and let them pick out something new they’d like to try.
- Let them help prepare food.
- Be open to deploying the foods they enjoy in new ways (peanut butter on almost anything, tomato sauce on spinach).
- Some children will eat almost anything if it’s in a dumpling, or on top of pasta.
- Offer tastes of what everyone else is eating.
- Find some reliable fallback alternatives when your child won’t eat anything that’s offered. (Many restaurants will prepare something simple off the menu for a child, such as plain pasta or rice.)
Above all, encourage your child to keep tasting; don’t rule anything out after just a couple of tries. And if you do have a child who loves one particular green vegetable, it’s fine to have that one turn up over and over again.
Bottom line: As long as a child is growing, don’t agonize too much.
Family meals matter to older children as well, even as they experience the biological shifts of adolescent growth. Keep that social context for food as much as you can, even through the scheduling complexities of middle school and high school. Keep the family table a no-screen zone, and keep on talking and eating together. Some families found that the pandemic meant more opportunities for family meals, which helped them through the hard times, but if the stresses of the recent past have pushed your family toward more snacking and more fast food, know that you are not alone. It will always help to re-set as a family, to stock healthy foods in the house, and to eat together and connect over food.