We control what and when on food; kids control whether or not they eat and how much.
Keep in mind what we are trying to teach related to food: a lifetime of listening to your body. Connection with your body; food as nourishment and sustenance; not a reward or punishment; you are not a “good” or “bad” eater.
Release yourself of the burden that making your child eat is your job (it isn’t!) So freeing.
Just as with so many other areas - trust your child and keep your own anxiety and “what ifs” at bay.
You don’t need to make special meals for your children. They eat what the family eats.
Eating is an important area to set limits and show calm leadership, especially in the early years.
By all accounts in my family when growing up, I was an exceptionally picky eater. It is legendary that apparently for months (maybe years?) I refused to eat anything that wasn’t quiche (so weird). I’d like to say that as a result of my experience as a picky eater, that I did lots of research right out of the gate on this topic to prepare myself for having kids...but that isn’t actually what happened.
My first child is fierce. She has always been a strong, independent lady; she knows what she wants and doesn’t want. When she turned 6 months old, I started attempting to feed her pureed foods with a spoon, as I had been told I was supposed to do. For a whole month I tried. She refused every. single. time. Mouth closed. Eyeing me down (or my husband, or my perplexed parents who were very used to feeding my slightly older nephew easily with a spoon). Usually she’d scream at me till I relented and gave her the spoon, and then she’d make a huge mess and throw everything on the floor.
I was starting to get a bit stressed that my child might never eat, so I happened to post a picture on my Instagram account noting my child’s strong will to not let me feed her. Fortunately for me, a friend noted in the comments that I should check out “Baby Led Weaning”, which I promptly did. I read a book and about 10 articles within 24 hours of seeing that post, and I was SO excited at the concepts in the book that I immediately started the next day with my girl.
The concept is simple. Somewhere along the line people decided that babies cannot eat real food and must be fed purees. But actually, research shows babies can go straight from milk to real food!
For my child, this was PERFECT since she really just wanted to do everything herself and eat what we were eating. Also, I loved the idea of her being able to participate in the family meal right away. Both of my kids have always been very curious about food from early ages, so it has made it so much easier for me just giving them whatever the family is eating.
For us, starting at approx. 6 months we mostly did sweet potatoes (cut into french fry shapes); broccoli or broccolini; bananas...and then we just started adding things on as we went. The best foods are long and thin, so they can grip them and they stick out of their fists while being gripped.
9 months + both my kids had some teeth, and both at this point were very comfortable with lots of kinds of foods, so we started giving them everything we ate whenever we ate it if they showed an interest.
By a year we started letting the kids feed themselves cereal out of the bowl with a spoon. They make a mess a lot in the beginning, but get pretty good pretty fast. Similar with a regular cup...a bit over a year, we usually let both start trying if they showed an interest.
I’d say neither kid “ate” that much before a year, but after a year, both started to really get most nutrients from food and much less from milk. Prior to a year, they mostly played, experimented, sucked on and gummed a lot of food. It. is. so. messy. And cute. And it goes by fast - you’ll be amazed how quick they pick things up. :)
Throughout the whole process though, we made a point to leave it all up to the kid what they ate and didn’t eat. We only provided foods we were comfortable with them eating, and the rest was up to them.
Although messy in the beginning, this is so freeing in that it leaves the power up to the kids. So it doesn’t turn into a power struggle as they feed themselves. Therefore, it is one less thing for YOU to do, so you can have a family meal eating while your child sits with you. It makes eating out in restaurants easier for the same reason as well.
Baby Led Weaning starts you off well since from the earliest of ages it teaches kids to listen to their bodies and learn to stop eating when they are full on their own (vs. caregivers feeding them till we decide they’ve had enough). This is very helpful since the toddler years bring lots of potential power struggles.
In addition to Baby Lead Weaning, I found Janet Landsbury when my first child was 14 months old. It makes sense to me that I found her then, because 14-15 months is usually when tantrums start. It is right around when they are starting to really understand what you are saying, but they can’t communicate clearly back to you, and that is probably immensely frustrating. Additionally, a coworker introduced me to Ellyn Satter’s work right around the same time that I started Baby Led Weaning.
The high level concepts that I took away and found freeing from the above work are that it is not your job to make your kids eat! This has brought me so much relief and saved me so many power struggles, and also I think freed my kids to be so much less picky than I was as a kid. As a caregiver, you get to decide what you put in front of your kids and when it is time to eat, and then you let go! If they choose to eat at all and how much they eat is entirely up to them. So freeing!
For me this looks like offering our kids what we are eating at meal times. If they eat, great. If they don’t, that is their choice - really. If we say all we have for dinner is chicken and veggies...our daughter will often complain, but after 10 min or so of us not making a big deal or responding to her complaints other than to acknowledge them and then just go about eating our dinner she’ll usually start eating. And for snacks asked for not during meal times, we only offer healthy options. If they are really hungry they will eat. If they don’t each much at dinner and then are hungry before bed that is their choice. That has happened - and it is a good learning experience for future nights.
Sure, our daughter begs for desserts and sweets and fun, colored snacks. And sometimes we’ll do those things in moderation (although dessert is only on the weekends in our family unless the grandparents are around...then of course we have no control :)). It is totally fine for them to beg for bad foods, it is our job to calmly refuse when it is not best for them and to know they can deal with the disappointment. They also learn the house rules quickly, so I bet if you’re consistent they’ll stop harassing you just like our kids.
Also, we’re very conscious about how and what we say about food. We never say “you’re a good eater” or “you’re a bad eater”. We don’t congratulate our kids for eating or not eating anything. We always tell them that what they eat is up to them and make it clear it is 100% their choice. When our daughter is making poor choices around eating (for example, maybe just eating starch at mealtimes and no protein or fruits / veggies) - we do the following:
We stop serving starches entirely, (so she has to eat something else). We most definitely don’t say we are doing this on purpose - we just do it.
And / or we’ll talk to her about how eating just starch and no protein or fruit and veggies could hurt her body. And when she complains of a belly ache or has trouble going #2, we talk honestly with her about how maybe her diet is the reason. It is not uncommon for her if she is struggling to go #2 to hilariously say “I need to eat more vegetabbbles…” from the toilet.
We talk often about food and how it affects our bodies and how it makes us feel, but never about how it makes us look. And always in the context that ultimately it is up to the child what they choose to eat, and to be in charge of their own bodies and to live with the consequences of their choices.
Occasionally, we have been to parties with the kids, and we will suspend all rules and tell our daughter she can eat whatever she wants. Usually, we can’t really see her at all times anyway and certainly don’t want to be running after her policing what she eats at these events...so usually we say eat what you want. But we tell her "know that if you eat 100 desserts you will feel it". I can tell you she has done this...and she has felt it. I see this not as stressful, but as great learning experiences for her as she grows to be aware of her body and how her food choices affect her.
Finally, I have really bought into and seen the benefits of certain strict limits with feeding protocols, especially in the early toddler phase (like 18 months - 3 years old). This is really where Janet Landsbury helped give me great specifics to try out. Namely, when we are eating we sit at the table (we don’t let them wander around eating all day and making crumbs everywhere). When children throw food or leave the table after a warning, they are done with that meal until the next one (and we clear their plates even if they scream that they are hungry). These limits have really helped me, and the kids figure it out really quickly that you mean business even at a very young age. It was shocking to me how early you can start this stuff and how holding these limits really does help overall with the child and family mealtime dynamics. And again, if the kids are upset about these boundaries, you calmly accept their displeasure and hold your ground.
Setting limits, not preparing special meals, releasing myself of the feeling that it is my job to make my children eat...all of this has helped me feel much more relaxed around food with my children. It ensures mealtimes are quality time, not a power struggle that we all dread.
Pouches at the grocery store are great for busier parents. Both my kids could easily feed themselves these things by 9 months old without making a huge mess. I love them because they are super easy to grab and go, and they have kinds with complete food groups in them (protein + veggies + fruit).
This bib catches food and is perfect for kids doing baby led weaning. We LOVED this thing and used it all the time.