Cheri M. Gioe, Merrill, Thomas A.
As children grow and develop so do their opinions about foods – what should be eaten, how to eat it and a host of other issues. The challenge is not to panic or worry as these changes occur, says an LSU AgCenter expert.
"Parents and caregivers alike often are sent into a state of panic and worry over what children will and will not eat," says LSU AgCenter child-care associate Cheri Gioe. "Parents often are so worried that they seek the advice of pediatricians regarding the eating habits of their children."
Gioe points out that the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to the First Five Years advises children will eat when they get hungry. "They suggest parents continually offer nutritious food choices and make sure that children receive a multivitamin daily," she says.
Among the other mealtime issues parents and caregivers have to face are children who are overzealous eaters, children with no table manners, children who are picky eaters and children who would rather talk than eat. Each brings its own set of problems to the table, Gioe says.
"Children often hastily grab food from the table and gulp down bites without chewing," she comments. "Caregivers and parents must first understand why some children may have a tendency toward this type of behavior.
"These children may come from homes where they are not fed appropriately or where such behaviors are modeled."
As for how to handle such children, the LSU AgCenter expert says the first step is to develop a system for serving.
"Reinforce the notion that there is enough food for everyone," Gioe advises, adding, "Children must be encouraged to chew their food by telling them that chewing food helps them fuel their bodies quicker. It also is imperative that adults eat with children at every meal and model appropriate mealtime behaviors."
Another issue faced by parents and caregivers is that children often appear to wear more food than they actually eat.
"Parents and caregivers must remember that young children have limited fine motor capabilities," Gioe says. "By allowing children to cut, color, paint, play with modeling dough, use small manipulative objects and work puzzles, children actually are strengthening their fine motor control, which, in turn, will allow them to have more control over their eating utensils."
To assist children with using eating utensils and minimizing the mess they may make while eating, Gioe says to make certain they are close to the table, have spoons and are served food on plates with edges that help to prevent it from spilling over the edge. She also says to make sure children have a bib or some sort barrier between their clothes and their food for protection from soiling.
Moving to another issue, Gioe says most children are what adults term as "picky eaters." But she says the truth is that children have food preferences just as adults do.
"These preferences develop for several reasons," Gioe explains. "Children’s taste buds taste things differently than adults’ do. Children also develop preferences based upon the foods they are offered in their homes."
For example, the LSU AgCenter expert points out that the ethnicity of children may have a lot to do with their food preferences, since people from different cultures often eat different types of foods.
"To assist children who are choosy eaters, make sure you offer them small portions," Gioe advises, stressing, "Children should not be forced to try anything."
She also says adults eating with children should model appropriate behaviors by trying all the foods they are offered. They may also assist by discussing the nutritive value of certain foods.
"For example, milk has vitamin D, which helps make bones strong. Often this sort of information is just what a child needs as encouragement to try something new," Gioe says.
Turning to another mealtime concern, Gioe says children are social creatures, so it is easy to understand why children would rather talk than eat, especially in the child-care setting.
But she says there are several things adults can do to help children pay more attention to their meal.
"Children need to know the meal menu daily. This allows them to already know what they are having," Gioe says.
She also says to try dim lighting and soft music at mealtime.
"This may help set the tone for a more peaceful mealtime experience," Gioe says, adding, of course, that adults also must model the appropriate mealtime behavior in relation to both eating and talking. "Be certain to dine with the children and talk to those seated around you rather than calling across a crowded room or from table to table."
The LSU AgCenter’s "Be Child Care Aware!" educational program is designed to educate parents and child-care providers about quality child care. It is funded, in part, through a contract with the Louisiana Department of Social Services’ Office of Family Support.