Development and Child Feeding
If learning to feed children wasn't complicated enough, once parents finally feel like they have a grasp on it, their child enters a new stage of development that forces them to learn new skills once again!
Better coordination and skills means increasing access to the world and new experiences – which can be scary! This makes it a great time to introduce children to a variety of foods. Exposure to a variety of foods and tastes when children are young can help improve their later food preferences. However, in an attempt to gain control over what can be a scary world, toddlers may try to draw limits by saying "No!" quite a bit. This includes reactions to new foods. "Food neophobia,” where children reject new foods, is common during early childhood. Instead of seeing it as the temporary developmental phase that it is, parents may assume their children do not like a wide variety of foods. Research has found that repeated exposures and experiences with tasting increase children's preferences for those foods. As children get older their food preferences become more set, and begin to resemble their parents' food preferences.
Early in life, through nursing, bottles, and weaning, parents take a lead role in determining how much food children eat. As children develop the skills needed to feed themselves, it is important that they be given the opportunity to regulate their own food intake. Young children have the ability to regulate their food intake according to their needs. As children get older they tend to lose this natural ability and intake is guided by external influences. Parents who want their children to eat healthy may feel like restricting certain foods or pressuring their children to eat "healthy" foods is a good strategy. When parents restrict foods it can increase children's preference for them. And when parents pressure their children to eat, children don't learn to listen to body cues about hunger and fullness. This can lead to weight gain.
Knowing what foods are healthy “go” foods must be learned. Parents need to teach young children how to make good food choices. This can be done by giving options that are limited to just a couple of healthy choices. As children grow older they can be given more options and encouraged to think about the pros and cons of their decisions. Parents need to remember that appropriate rules for younger children about eating (e.g. No eating within one hour of dinner.) may not be right for older children (e.g. Make sure you don't eat too much before dinner.). In fact, as children grow older they need to learn how to make good dietary decisions on their own. Restriction of food choices as children get older has been found to be associated with children's poorer self-regulation of dietary behaviors. Older children are also able to learn from their experiences better than when they were younger. This means parents can allow older children to make more independent decisions to give them opportunities to learn and practice their decision making skills.
Modeling healthy eating habits is a good strategy across all ages. When the entire family eats the same nutritious diets together, children are more likely to carry those habits with them in the future.