March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
- Grandma tells your 4-year-old that she made cookies just for her, and hands her a plate of frosted cookies and a glass of milk an hour before dinner.
- Granddad says, "Eat up. Don't leave food on your plate or you'll never grow to be strong like your big brother."
- Your sister is hosting dinner. She says to your kids, "I've got a fresh batch of chocolate brownies for anyone who finishes their dinner."
Each of these scenarios features well-meaning relatives pushing food on your child. While the grandparents and aunt have the best intentions, they could be innocently contributing to several potential problems affecting your children, such as:
- Teaching children to eat to please others rather than themselves.
- Encouraging the child to eat more frequently, making it difficult to recognize the body's hunger cues.
- Training children to associate food with punishment because they feel that they must eat certain foods to "earn" dessert.
Change the Scenario
Address the family member. If the food-pushing relative is someone your children see sporadically, ignoring the issue is unlikely to do any long-term harm and may be the best response, says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
On the other hand, if this relative frequently pushes food on your children, it's important to address it — but make sure to approach the subject delicately. "Rather than doing so in front of your child, speak to the family member in private and explain why it's a problem," Ansel says. "Once you explain your perspective, they will likely have the best interests of your child in mind."
Help relatives find other ways to realize their best intentions. Suggest reading or playing a game together, going out for a movie or special outing, or hiding a sweet note in the child's backpack, lunchbox or under their pillow.
Determine What Is Appropriate Child Involvement
If your children are young, it's best to keep them uninvolved and avoid discussing the problem around them, suggests Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, co-author of We Can Cook: Introduce Your Child to the Joy of Cooking with 75 Simple Recipes and Activities. "If children are aware of the conflict, they may feel self-conscious about what they are eating," she says.
In addition, involving youngsters relays the message that food is an emotionally charged issue, Ansel says.
If your children are old enough to speak for themselves, help them find the right words to express how they are feeling. Before spending time with relatives again, discuss the possible scenarios in which your kids may want to turn down food. Instead of simply saying "no thanks" and fearing you've hurt someone's feelings, have your children prepare saying "no" with a compliment. For example, they can say, "It looks delicious, but it's too close to dinner. May I take some for later?"
Regardless of their age, children shouldn't be made to feel they must eat food they don't want. Consistently teaching them to listen to their own feelings of hunger and fullness will empower them to eat appropriately.