My daily song and dance: Getting children to eat during mealtimes

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“Macaroni, macaroni, macaroni! Heeeey macaroni!” I’m shaking my hips and wiggling my bum to the tune of the Macarena. As my kids watch, seemingly entertained, they begin to lift a spoonful of macaroni to their mouths. It’s working. I shake harder and wiggle faster.

A huge forced smile may be plastered on my face, but I don’t feel happy. I’m in a panic. One son is eating; the other isn’t. One will be skinny and lifeless until snack time when he goes into the cupboard and gorges on Rice Krispie Squares – not a terrible snack in itself at 90 calories but definitely not a lunch! My other will be fat and lifeless, eating both his meals plus whatever snacks his older brother throws his way. But what choice do I have? In a frenzy, I make up new routines for every meal. We’ve got a general mealtime song I invented, “Yummy, yummy, yummy I’ve got (fill in the blank) in my tummy,” as well as a song for sandwiches and hamburgers. Sure, they are entertaining and good exercise for me, but in the pit of my stomach I feel that something is amiss. I wonder if I’m the only parent in this situation.

Getting help

“Will my toddler starve himself and end up malnutritioned?” I ask a friend with kids of her own. “Is my baby eating because he’s hungry or is he already developing bad eating habits at 13 months old?”

In my two and a half years as a mother, I have yet to find a consistent answer so I turn to an expert for some advice. “Kids should decide how much they eat; parents should decide what and when,” says Toronto pediatrician Dr. Morton Goldbach.

“Some kids are big eaters and some are small – even as infants. Only one person conforms to the average. The rest are meant to be bigger or smaller.” The key, he says, is to feed children a balanced diet and expose them to high-quality foods so that they learn to develop a taste for foods that are good for them, such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables. “These are the most important things you can do.”

“So I can stop shimmying?” I ask hopefully. “Why don’t you try sitting down, eating with your children, and modelling good eating habits,” says Dr. Goldbach. “They learn from you.”

It’s easier said than done. I’m constantly jumping up and down when my toddlers demand more milk or I’m cleaning up food that’s been thrown onto the floor. That’s when I decide to act on a neighbour’s advice and call up Rosemary Greisman, a baby and toddler expert, for some tips on how to reinforce model eating habits. Rosemary comes to my house, sits down at our kitchen table and listens to my frustrations about my children’s eating behaviour. She also sees my kids, Ari, two-and-a-half, and Josh, 13 months, open the kitchen cupboards and shuffle around for something on which to snack. They eat while running around and intermittently watching TV, which is always on to keep us company.

“My skinny son snacks all day instead of eating his meals,” I explain. “And the big one eats his brother’s meals and snacks!” “First of all, you need to all sit down and turn the TV off,” she says. Done. “Second, don’t allow them to take what they want from the cupboards whenever they want. They need to learn to eat at meal times and snack at snack time on whatever you give them. You’re the boss.”

Third, we address my kids’ habit of drinking a litre each of milk a day. “Limit them to three cups a day at meal times,” says Rosemary. “They won’t want to eat breakfast if they’ve had three cups by 8 a.m. Kids often get too much milk or formula and then they don’t eat foods that provide them with the additional nutrients they need.”

Fourth, Rosemary says to establish a routine. Offer meals and snacks at the same times every day, have everything prepared when the kids sit down so they don’t lose patience, and minimize distractions at mealtimes, such as visitors, so kids don’t suddenly lose interest.

“Sometimes you will have to play games like Airplane to get them to eat, but keep in mind that some kids have smaller appetites and need to eat frequently, and others have bigger appetites. There is no risk that a kid will starve himself – he will eat when he’s hungry.”

Getting results

ALSO READ: 5 Tips for Getting Your Child to Eat Their Meals

And how do big kids end up even bigger? “Older kids sometimes eat so quickly that they don’t realize they are full and they overeat,” says Dr. Goldbach. Kids also end up heavy if they are given poor quality foods, which can sometimes happen if they are looked after by caregivers who have different ideas about what is healthy. “For some grandparents, for example, there is a World War II mentality in which a chubby child shows that you have food and it is equated with good health,” says Dr. Goldbach. “Today, parents have different views about what is healthy. I tend to feel that children generally make good choices about volume, so it’s up to parents and caregivers to make sure their kids have a balanced diet.”

Rosemary is more cautious than Dr. Goldbach about monitoring portion sizes. “In my experience, there are some kids who don’t stop eating. Parents need to decide what’s appropriate and cut their kids off if they feel they are eating too much.”

She encourages parents to trust their own intuition when it comes to feeding their kids. “Parents always worry about doing the right thing, but a lot of it is trial and error. Parents make mistakes. It’s how we learn, but we also need to learn to rely on our own judgment and be aware that each child is different.”

She leaves me with some hope, and challenges me: “Try the tips I’ve suggested for two weeks and call me each day to update me on your progress. I promise that their eating and sleeping habits will improve if you stick to the routine and follow my advice.”

Sure enough, when I put my foot down, stopped dancing and stuck to mealtimes (breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m. and dinner at 5:30 p.m.) with healthful snacks offered in between, and no more than three cups of milk a day, they seem happier and so am I. Perhaps I can retire my “Macaroni” routine a little earlier than I expected!

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