A few months ago, right around the time my youngest child turned 6 months old, I suddenly became very aware that I had let some things slide in our home. The worst, perhaps, was that I had quit paying close attention to what my kids were eating and drinking.
I guess that during my hardest pregnancy to date, while I was living life in survival mode, I stopped caring about my kids’ eating habits. Honestly, the nine months of pregnancy and first several months of having another newborn were a complete blur. It took time for me to notice my older kids were eating sugary cereal most mornings for breakfast and living on boxed mac and cheese during the day.
Even though I didn’t feel ashamed of those choices—I knew I was doing what I needed to do to make a very hard pregnancy survivable—I didn’t want to keep ignoring my kids’ needs for nutritious foods. Once I adjusted to life as a mom of three, I was ready to start prioritizing healthy living again.
It has proven harder than I expected. Several months in, I still feel like I’m starting from square one, reteaching my kids to eat fruits, veggies, and unprocessed foods. Easing kids into a lifestyle of eating whole foods and avoiding sugary foods isn’t easy, but I’m learning it can be made easier by avoiding these common food-related mistakes that many parents make.
1. Clean Plates
Did your parents require you to clean your plate before you could clear the table? You’re definitely not alone. This mealtime rule was fairly common at the dinner table two decades ago.
“There are starving children in Africa,” your parents may have told you as you squirmed and whined over finishing the food on your plate. They probably meant well, but this is one parenting practice that needs to be eliminated, pronto!
As kids’ nutrition specialist Erin Akey explains, “the portions we eat in this country are usually far bigger than needed to nourish the body. When we start kids off from birth expecting them to clean their plates, we are setting them up for a lifetime of overeating in many cases. We need to be teaching kids from a young age to listen to the signals for fullness from the brain.”
In some families, the practice of requiring children to clean their plate may well have origins in a life poverty and scarcity, according to Akey. In fact, this practice may have begun with grandparents who then passed it down to the next generation.
Of course, allowing your child to signal when they are full shouldn’t mean they are snacking shortly after mealtime.
“Once they realize full means full and not ‘I’m full of dinner but I can have ice cream,’ they will be better able to listen to their bodies,” says Akey.
2. Questioning Their Cues
In general, questioning a child who claims to be hungry or full isn’t a great move, according to Bridget Murphy, registered dietitian at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
“Children are very good at moderating their personal hunger cues. They are in tune to the inner workings of their stomach and metabolism,” she explains.
Instead of pushing a child to eat or discouraging them from eating a second helping, Murphy recommends that parents adopt a principle known as Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. In short, this line of thinking says that parents get to decide when and what a child eats, but the child is in charge of whether they eat something and how much of it they eat.
Parents who follow this practice can then gently remind their child of the previous consequences of deciding not to eat dinner, helping them recall just how hungry they were the night before, says Murphy.
3. Forbidden Fruit
One mistake many parents make is controlling their child’s consumption of “good” and “bad” foods at mealtime. This is a complicated subject, and it certainly isn’t black and white. Avoiding restricting your child’s consumption of certain foods isn’t about letting them eating whatever and whenever they want.
Research suggests that forbidden foods have a unique effect on children. When children are presented with “treats,” but their consumption of those treats is restricted, they are actually more likely to struggle with self-regulation in the future, according to a study published in the journal Appetite.
When parents regularly restrict their child’s eating, they are actually at a higher risk for overeating and weight gain in the future.
So this means parents should just throw caution to the wind, then? Not so fast. The fact of the matter is that kids need their parents to help them regulate their sugar consumption, but not through restriction. Instead, highly processed and sugary foods should be kept out of the home altogether, according to Akey.
It’s one of those “out of sight, out of mind,” things. It is simply better to get rid of the cookie jar than merely keep it out of reach.
If the parents are not buying it then there’s no need to restrict it.
“If the parents are not buying it then there’s no need to restrict it. For example with my kids we just never kept [treats] in the house and therefore when they were at a birthday party or we were in Disney World it really was a once-in-a-while treat,” she explains.
4. Kid-Friendly Cooking
Making dinner as kid friendly as possible might seem like the easiest way to get your kid to eat, but it is also a big mistake, according to Akey.
“The trend in America to make everything ‘kid-friendly’ … has grown over the last 30 to 40 years largely due to the marketing of highly processed convenience foods. This is not a good idea at all,” she says.
Parents who make a separate kid-friendly meal are sending the subtle message that what Mom and Dad are eating doesn’t taste good, according to Akey. Plus, those kid-friendly foods probably aren’t all that good for them.
Kids don’t inherently dislike different foods. Exposing children to new flavors—especially nutritious options—is the best way to help them develop varied and healthy tastes.
5. Short-Order Cook
It might surprise you to find out that one of the biggest food mistakes you can make as a parent is cooking for your kids. Okay, I’m not suggesting you start ordering takeout each night, I’m simply saying you shouldn’t become a short-order cook.
Instead, your children should be just as involved as you are in the planning, shopping, and cooking of family meals. This is one strategy that nutritionists recommend time and time again. Including children in the process is one of the best ways to get them to try new, healthy foods.
“When kids participate and help choose which veggies to have and help to wash and prepare them, they actually love vegetables … letting them help prepare the new veggie you are introducing will make the process a lot easier. Google whatever veggie you want and let them hear a story about that food and watch and see how much easier it is to get them to try it at dinner,” advises Akey.
Research has shown that this is one habit parents shouldn’t avoid; helping in the kitchen is associated with an increased preference for vegetables when compared to children who do not help out with dinner prep, according to research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
6. Role Modeling
If you’re a parent, you probably already know that children seem to learn more by seeing than by being told what to do. We’re the people they watch every day, and we can be good or bad role models when it comes to our eating habits.
Of course, children don’t need perfect parents. Instead, they need to see you practicing a balanced approach to how you eat and how you talk about food, according to Laura Morton, a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition for mothers and babies.
“It’s important to me to convey a positive relationship with food and avoid speaking negatively about my appetite, food choices, or body size. Parents model the eating habits their kids will acquire. Healthy eating habits start with us,” she says.
7. Giving up
Raising your kids to be healthy eaters who are good at self-regulation of their hunger isn’t easy, but the biggest mistake parents can make is giving up altogether. If you don’t feel like things are going well at first, don’t be discouraged.
“If a kid rejects roasted sweet potatoes one night for dinner, as parents we tend to think ‘my kid doesn’t like sweet potatoes.’ But as we’ve heard before, it takes repeated exposure to new foods before the ultimate decision of acceptance,” says Morton.
Instead of giving up, parents should try to look at the big picture, according to Murphy, who encourages parents to see beyond one failed meal or snack.
Pick your battles and weigh the costs and benefits.
“If it doesn’t go perfectly, move on to the next. Food choices are often a matter of bad, better, and best. If we can stay with the better choices, it’s okay that they’re not always ‘the best.’ Pick your battles and weigh the costs and benefits,” she says.