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What is a Parent's Role in their Child's Nutrition?

I work with children and their parents on many nutrition related issues. Parents often are concerned about how they can fulfil their role in their child's nutrition. As kids get older, parents realize that they have less and less control over what their child eats. And even when parents do have more control, they are not sure if they should be using that control. Here are my thoughts on what the parent's role is with their child's nutrition.

The most important role a parent has in their child's nutrition is to set up their surroundings in a way that allows for the child to have good nutrition. There are a few aspects to this. First is the parent's overall approach to food and eating. Second is the environment in which food is eaten. Third is the actual food that is available.

child eating

Parent's Approach to Food and Eating

A parent's approach to food an eating is shaped starting from the time the parent himself is very young. Is food viewed and eating viewed positively? Is food viewed as a guilty pleasure? Is food often categorized as either good or bad? Is food associated with dieting?

Children learn the parent's approach to food and eating from the time they are little. Even if you as the parent grew up with an approach to eating that you don't want your own child to learn, with a lot of intentionality, you can still model the mindset you want to have.

The Eating Environment

The eating environment encompasses many factors. Does the family sit down to meals together? Are mealtimes peaceful and calm? Are children coerced or bribed to eat foods? Are foods used as a reward for good behavior? Is withholding food used as a punishment for poor behavior? Does the family eat while in front of screens?

Parents can do a lot to shape the eating environment at home. The best time to start having the eating environment you want your child to have is before they are old enough to eat food. You want the environment to be your usual habits. If you currently have an eating environment that you'd like to improve, it is not to late. Children are resilient and can adapt to changes. Although it likely will be challenging at first, and your children may resist the change, stick to it! With enough consistency, children will get used to the change.

The Food You Provide

When children are very little, parents can do 100% of the choosing of what the child will be offered. The only options the child has are what the parents have at home or in other environments where they are supervised by adults. As children get older, they have more and more choice about what they might eat. This is both at home, where a child knows what foods are in the pantry, and out of the home, when they start purchasing foods themselves. Still, parents always get to choose the foods they will provide at home.

The easiest time to add in nutritious foods is when your child is a new eater. Parents who offer vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to their children when their children are just starting to eat end up with children who are able to accept these foods as they get older. With new eaters and young children, trying a new food may result in the child not wanting to eat it. This is what throws many parents off and discourages them from trying these foods. A child refusing a food is not a reason to avoid offering it again. These are the foods to continue to offer again and again. It can take children up to 20 tries to accept a new food. The parent's job is to offer and encourage (but not force) the child to eat a new food.

If your children are already older and are used to eating foods that you don't think are ideal for them, there is still a lot you can do! Children can adapt to changes. If you as the parent want to stop purchasing certain foods for your home and start purchasing other foods, go for it!

What is Not Your Role as a Parent in Your Child's Nutrition

Parents often have a lot of guilt about what their child eats. Parents love their children and want to protect them as best as possible. Parents will do anything for their children. But I always remind the parents that I work with that they can't eat on their child's behalf! You can optimize their surroundings, but that is all. Your role as a parent in your child's nutrition is finite. You do your part, and the rest is up to your child.

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