03/17/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Not to Worry Over Your Child's Every Bite

An email showed up in my inbox recently from an old friend worried about her 4-year-old's fixation on food.

It read:

My daughter eats a good diet, but has an obsession or interest in food that I don't think is necessarily normal. She is the kid who will hang out at a snack table at a party because she just likes food, but doesn't moderate well. I am concerned about lifetime habits and wonder why food is her trigger. She's young, it may all resolve itself, but I'm concerned.

Her sentiments were familiar. I had similar worries not so long ago about one of my own children who was especially interested in eating. As a baby, she'd burst into tears when she'd get to the bottom of her food bowl, as if to say, "You mean it's over?" And as a toddler, I once found her holed up in a closet greedily working her way through her sister's Easter Basket, happy as a clam.

Part of me went straight to a place of panic, with visions of a lifetime of closeted overeating. But my calmer self recognized this as a perfectly innocent child who had simply discovered the delight of food -- and in the latter case, the wonder of chocolate.

The fact is, there is a range of "normal" when it comes to eating. Some children are happiest sitting at the table over a bowl of mashed bananas while others find staring down a dinner plate nothing short of torture.

Wherever your child falls on the spectrum -- whether he or she is fascinated by food or afraid of it -- what's most important is the way in which you respond. If you panic over every bite, your kids will absorb that anxiety like a sponge. Allowing feeding fears to develop into dinner table battles is not where any of us wants to be. I recognize that for some families, mealtime challenges are significant and can't always be solved with a few simple guidelines. But, in the interest of our kids, I thought I'd share with you the advice I shared with my old friend. Consider it a bit of food for thought that may help get things moving in the right direction.

1. Get clear on who does what.
Consider it your job as the parent to decide what is served for meals and your child's job to decide what and how much they're going to eat. Translation: you put the chicken, green salad and broccoli on the table at 6 p.m., your child chooses what goes on his plate and how much of it he is hungry for. There is room within this approach for nuance. Perhaps you have a child who needs to be reminded to consider a new food or one who can be encouraged to slow down so his brain can catch up with his tummy.

2. Don't let them see you sweat.
Working yourself into a lather over how much or how little your child is eating can breed anxiety and lead to dinner table battles that you don't want to wage. Try to stay calm and measured around feeding issues. This process is a marathon, not a sprint, so focus on the long-term goal of raising a child who will be drawn to wholesome food by adulthood -- not one who isn't eating her spinach at dinner.


3. Be a role model.
Let your child witness your own healthy behaviors: enjoying food, eating when you're hungry and stopping when you have had enough. It goes a long way towards helping them develop good eating habits.

4. Pay attention to your own baggage.
Whether you were the kid who was forced to finish every last pea or the one who struggled with weight, it's important to be mindful of your own triggers around eating and not lay those onto your offspring.

5. Get help.
If you are worrying, check in with your child's doctor, seek the counsel of a pediatric dietitian or pick up a copy of a good resource such as Fearless Feeding by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobson or How to Get Your Kid to Eat, but Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter for some advice and insight.

As for my own child, she still loves food. With age and maturity, she has learned to pay attention to her appetite, eating when she is hungry and stopping when she has had enough. The "Easter Basket Incident" was the one and only time I found her holed up with a storehouse of chocolate.

As for her mother, well, that's a different story.

This post originally appeared on Katie's blog, Mom's Kitchen Handbook, where you can find recipes and tips for feeding a family. You can also follow her on Instagram @KatieMorford