Kids go through substantial stages during the first 18 years of life. For parents, especially first time parents, this can be a challenging period because what appears to be unusual behaviors in children can actually be very common. One of many evolving behaviors is eating habits.
Children naturally vary food consumption to match their growth needs, which range based on their development and activity levels. A child’s need for protein, vitamins and minerals increases with age.
Beginning at the toddler stage, age three to five, there is a natural decrease of interest in food. Growth is slower. The appetite corresponds. Toddlers enjoy the independence of feeding themselves. They may become picky eaters and express food preferences and dislikes. They may stop eating foods they previously liked or begin a food jag – consistently eating only one or a couple foods prepared the same way. While adults can food jag too, it begins around the toddler stage.
Temperament and Food Jag
Every child is born with and develops a temperament, or behavior style. There are three basic temperaments for children.
- Easy – about 40% of children are in this category, adapts easily to schedules, tries/accepts new foods fairly easily
- Slow-to-warm up – about 15% of children are in this category, slow adaptability and refuses new foods with mild reluctance
- Difficult – about 10% of children are in this category, irregular eating patterns, slow adaptability, strong reluctance to new food
The remaining children are classified as intermediate-low/high meaning they have a combination of behaviors but gravitate to one.
Based on the child’s temperament, he may or may not be willing to try new foods. When he gravitates to one or a couple food items made a certain way and shuns others, he is on a food jag. While most children move through this phase without difficulty, it’s still void of daily nutrition obtained from food variety. One food can’t supply all the vitamins, nutrients and amino acids we need on a regular basis. It may seem convenient to serve the child one thing for a week or two. However, there is a threat of the child becoming a mono-eater with nutrition and developmental deficiencies. Fortunately, children typically move out of this stage on their own, but parents can help the process end faster or prevent it by introducing new foods.
To prevent food jag, it is recommended that parents introduce a new food along with the preferred one – this works for adults too. For example, if the child likes mashed potatoes, try serving carrots or green beans a few times with it. Don’t give up if the child does not accept a new food at initial introduction. It is common to introduce and suggest a new food up to 15 times or more before a child gravitates toward and accepts it. However, at the toddler stage, it is best to keep food combinations to a minimum so that potential allergies or intolerance can be identified easier. Simply introduce one new food at a time, over time, with the food he likes.
Rewards and Punishments
According to the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, “Our society tends to use food as a reward, as a means to control others, and as part of socializing. These uses of food can encourage the development of unhealthy relationships with food, thereby increasing the risk of developing obesity.”
As children grow, they form habits. Food is no exception. Food habits are learned behaviors or taught by experience as a response to stimulation. Parents of young child can become frustrated that the child made a mess of his lunch or is totally defiant against eating – common food jag behavior. If that is the case, don’t force. Children eat when they are hungry. Yet, parents may unknowingly use conflict around food to punish children or coax them into eating. This may include:
- Forcing the child to eat everything on his plate for the sake of not wasting
- Forcing kids to sit at the table to eat everything though they may be full or not hungry
- Giving children ultimatums for not eating their food- “can’t play unless you eat”
- Punishing children physically for spilling, throwing or rejecting to eat/drink something they do not want
These punishments null the satiety cues (feeling satisfied or content with a meal) and children do not grow into mindful/intuitive eaters. Forcing, ultimatums or punishing behaviors can affect a child’s relationship with food and nutrition as he grows into adolescence and adulthood. They can also force him to eat foods that might not be healthy. He may become conditioned to reject certain foods based on the emotional ties to them, even if he is hungry and there are few options. Punishments can lead children into eating disorders.
What Parents Can Do
A parent or caregiver has great influence over a child’s development. They are prone to mimic the habits of their parents. Some habits are carried into adulthood. However, habits are based on several factors including environment, culture, economics, and genetics. It can be mutually beneficial for parents to actively participate in a health transformation journey that includes these areas with the child, rather than dictating to him with no change in other factors.
Experiment with a variety of healthy foods the child and family can enjoy. Replace sedentary with physical activities. Be mindful of creating habits for the child. For example, if the child has screen time (TV, video games or computers) at a specific hour with ice cream for several days, he will begin to expect to repeat the behavior every day at the same time with ice cream. If the parent chooses ice cream anyway, then consider a physical activity like walking or biking, rather than screen time. According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children who eat meals while watching TV may not be able to read their own internal cues of fullness and may eat larger portions and less healthy foods.“
Find reasons to praise a child’s behavior without using food as a reward. Adopt healthy eating habits and encourage children to follow, but be patient and understanding if they do not. Some children need more time to adjust and some find a different way. Help children to self-regulate their food intake by encouraging age appropriate portion control. Most importantly, don’t be a food jag parent who only eats one type of food, one way without variation. This is detrimental to your health and your child’s.
Finally, exercise patience. It is ok if kids (and adults) do not like certain foods. We all have likes and dislikes, but find a happy medium without punishment if the child does not adopt right away, or at all. Most children and adults tire of the single food monotony relatively quickly, but if the food jag period persists longer than two weeks, contact your child’s doctor or seek medical attention as there could be an underlying concern.
For assistance with establishing or increasing holistic nutrition options for your family, contact VKNOX at www.vknox.com.