I spoke to a mom yesterday about the eating habits of her 4 year old who eats the same food for lunch every day – white bagel with cream cheese. Mom’s reasoning for tolerating such monotonous diet: “He would not touch anything else. At  least I know his belly is full”.  As I was listening to her, I could not help thinking: ” We tend to worry about short term nutritional goals and forget about long-term eating habits.”

Let me explain. If her child stopped getting the food he has been getting every day for the last few months he would probably miss a lunch or two or even five before stepping outside his bagel+cream cheese comfort zone and branching out to try something new. But for many parents, seeing their child to skip a meal it is out of the question because we are concerned with the immediate consequences. We are ready to offer substitutions to less favorite foods and entice with desserts in order to get the child to have two more bites of broccoli. We are worried that the children will fell hungry, cranky and will not grow well. What we do not consider at this moment is the long-term lesson we are teaching our children:

1/ Eating the same foods every day is ok

2/ I (the child) get to decide which foods to eat

3/ I (the child) am not capable of learning to like new foods

The good news is that skipping a meal here or there is perfectly normal for kids. Some of them are not hungry because they had a filling snack, others have low appetite due to coming or recent illness, yet others have not been very active that day or just passed their growth spur. Of course, there are special cases when children have underlying issues preventing them from responding to hunger in a natural way. In this case, a thorough evaluation by a team of specialists will be helpful. Read: Is your child a resistant eater?

But for a vast majority of children, refusing a meal that you prepared is a great opportunity to learn about how their body feels after when they are slightly hungry. Children whose parent maintain structure in feedings know that if they do not eat at a mealtime, they have to wait for another eating opportunity . They also learn that it is the grown ups who provide mealtime choices. Read Division of responsibility works.

My feeding strategies were far from perfect when my first child was around 2 years of age. As a result, I made all the typical feeding mistakes. Read 6 things I wish I knew before I had kids. My 3 year old, on the other hand, is now getting the “feeding expert” treatment, which is very different from the “stressed mom without support ” approach provided to my first child, complete with bribes, threats and short-order cooking.

Here is a fairly common dinnertime scenario with my 3 and 6 year old children. Dinner menu: roasted chicken with potatoes, salad, kale chips, all served family style, everyone helps themselves to whatever they like. Everyone’s favorite, banana bread, is cooling on the rack in the kitchen.

The conversation between me and my 3 year old:

– Is this the only thing for dinner? – she asks,  pointing to the food on the table

– Yes.

– I do not like this! I will not eat this!!!! I want pasta!!!!

– No problem. You do not have to eat. No pasta today, maybe tomorrow. What was the best thing you did at school today?

– Butterflies with wings from paper. I want dessert!!!!

– Of course you will get your dessert, just wait till we all finish our meal.

Silence and a sigh….. She looked around – everyone was happily eating their dinner and no one was going to make a big deal out of her NOT eating.

She served herself a small piece of chicken breast and ate it all. Then looked into the salad bowl and fished out a few chunks of avocado. She did not touch anything else and then polished her piece of banana bread for dessert. My 6 year old feasted on kale chips and roasted potatoes, did not touch the chicken or salad and  of course, enjoyed some yummy banana bread. Me and my husband had a great balanced meal with a glass of wine and a pleasant conversation (without even mentioning what and how much the kids were eating).

But there were nights when my kids did not eat ANY dinner because, although I always tried to serve at least one food they like, they refused everything. On those evenings, I often felt worried and disappointed, but I still just gave them their usual glass of milk before bedtime and sent them to bed. Sometimes, especially when we just started using the division of responsibility in feeding,  I used to give the girls a very small serving of dessert TOGETHER with their meal. This helped to take off the pressure and redirect the focus from the dessert to the rest of the meal. The key is to keep the serving really small, around 1/3 of a regular slice, so that kids remain still hungry if they eat it first.

Of course, what my kids chose to eat that on particular day was not a nutritional ideal. Sure, I wish my kids were always eating their veggies first, followed by a healthy heaping of protein and starchy foods, as they are doing more and more often now. I definitely wish we all liked our dessert a little less (what a great solution to many of our problems!). But, stuck with what I have, I still give them freedom to choose whether and what to eat, even if this means that all they have for dinner is dessert, avoid a whole food group for a week or go lunch/dinner skipping because all these nutritional  “failures” teach them that:

1/ We eat a variety of foods

2/ We should learn to make do with the foods that are not our favorites in order not to go hungry. Read It does not matter what your child ate at dinner

3/ If we do not eat a meal, we will have to wait for the next one, i.e. it is us who pays the price for being picky, not someone else like our parents.

4/ Desserts are delicious but they are just food, not a manipulation tool for getting other people to eat their veggies.

What long-term healthy eating lessons are you teaching your kids?