Are you tired of being the food referee for your children?  Jodie Shield, dietitian and child nutrition expert, offers a winning strategy to help your kids learn the rules about healthy eating.

Kids eating pasta

Q.  My big challenge is all my kids want everything FAIR down to the last crumb!  So my 3-year-old wants the same amount as the 8-year-old.  Obviously they have different calorie needs.  Help!

A.  As the mother of three highly competitive kids I can relate to your situation!  This “fairness doctrine” drives me crazy.  You are absolutely correct; children do have different nutrient and calorie needs based on their age and activity level.  A great place to check this out is MyPlate where you can get an individual meal plan for everyone in the family including preschoolers.

Given this biological inequity, if you want to be “fair,” I recommend you start serving family-style meals.  Letting kids serve themselves at meals and snacks is a great way to teach children how to tune-in to their tummies rather than what’s on – or not on – their plate.  Studies have found that while babies and young children are highly aware of feelings of hunger and fullness, by age five they start losing this important weight control ability called self-regulation. Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences.  When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body’s hunger cues.  They don’t learn to say, okay, “I’m full” or “I’m still hungry.”  In fact, several studies have found that kids over age five (and adults, too) tend to eat whatever is on their plate.

Here are a few ground rules to help you keep the peace and make family-style eating a success in your home:

  1. Start small.  Teach each of the kids to take a small amount of food at first.  Let them know they can have more if they are still hungry.  The goal is to leave the table satisfied not stuffed.
  2. Use child-friendly serving pieces.  Invest in some small non-breakable bowls and serving platters that are light and easy to pass.  Younger children will need you to hold the dish while they practice spooning out their portions.
  3. Implement the “one bite” policy.  Make sure you are offering a variety of healthy foods from each of the food groups.  Let the kids know they need to take a small amount of everything.  If they don’t care for a certain food, they can politely take it out of their mouth and put in in their napkin.  Don’t be discouraged; research indicates it may take as many as 15 different “taste times” for kids to learn to like some foods.
  4. Teach kids to rate their appetite.  Use a hunger scale to help children learn when to put down their fork. In my book Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens, I recommend using a 10-point hunger scale and encourage kids to eat when they’re in the hunger- zone which is around 3-6; anything before 3 they’re too hungry and after 6 they’re full.

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