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The Complexity of Feeding a Child

November 7, 2011

Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids in the Kitchen

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how kids get involved in cooking and feeding. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Excellent food for little ones (only the yolks, not the whites for babies).

My pre-conceived notion of feeding a child was thus: Children will eat from what is available to them; if it’s not available, they won’t eat it. A pretty simple theory, which is actually very true, because children won’t starve themselves to death. Give them only healthy options, they will choose healthy options. I also knew that young children usually have small appetites and should never be forced to finish their plate. Or force-fed, period. However, in the three years, four months that I’ve been a mother, I have found that the feeding of children–at least my child, anyway–is not so very straight-forward.

First, as a newborn, he never ate as frequently as other newborns, which boggled my mind and already made me concerned at times whether he was eating enough. Even though he wasn’t acting hungry, and he was healthy and thriving. I can’t tell you how many times I vacillated between “Is he eating enough?” and “I trust my child to get what he needs.” 

It’s not just about how much, either. It’s also about what. That ‘what’ is pretty huge. At least for us it is. I value health and good nutrition so highly, that it would just be painful for me to give my child junk food, excess sugar, and artificial crap–not because I wish to “deprive” him as some people think (seriously??) but because I wish for him to be healthy and happy. Before I had my own child, I had observed that many little ones will eat excessive amounts of bread and juice. I wanted my child to eat in a balanced way, and as I was also keen to give him nutrient-rich food like vegetables, plenty of fat for his brain development, and protein to help him grow, it was the obvious choice to limit grain foods and sugar. (I didn’t even know about the issues with grain at that point.) I knew that dairy was a common culprit for food sensitivities and allergies, so I was careful about what dairy I gave him as well. We also loosely followed “baby-led weaning” which is giving your baby real, recognizable (though still baby-appropriate) food (as opposed to puree and cereal mush), and allowing baby to self-feed from a variety of healthy choices, trusting baby will get what it needs through instinct and listening to its body.

All seemed to be going well for my little one, though there were always some hiccups in the road. Such as his obsession with fruit. People think I’m crazy for wanting to limit fruit, but it does contain a fair amount of sugar, and as I learned later, it also contains a natural chemical called salicylate, which he seems to have developed a sensitivity to. But despite the small issues we had, I never felt that I could complain: My child enjoyed meat and fish, he ate select vegetables, he didn’t ask for sugary foods…what more could a mama ask of her little toddler?

Loving broccoli at 19 months.

Then I got impatient with breastfeeding so much. I didn’t want to nurse as much, so I tried to get him to eat more. But he only wanted so much of meat and veggies and even cheese. What could I give him to fill him up? Crackers. Bread. Pasta. Pancakes. Yes, GRAINS. Nearly always whole grains, mind you, but something was telling me this wasn’t best. But I really didn’t want to nurse him all day, which is too bad because I think he’d be healthier now if I didn’t try to fill him on grains.

Anyway, months and months later, and millions of heart-wrenching, wanting-to-pull-my-hair-out meltdowns later, I discovered he may be sensitive to a lot of the foods I’d been feeding him. The list is horrifying: gluten, pasteurized dairy, and salycilates which are in most fruit, many vegetables, nearly all herbs and spices, vinegar, coconut and olive oil (the healthiest plant-based cooking oils), and a few other foods. I’ve talked a lot about my struggle with this on my other blog.

Helping make the daily pancakes that I'm pretty sure damaged his gut.

Here’s the thing. Baby-led/child-led feeding is flawless in one respect: allowing your child to stop eating when they no longer wish to eat. That is golden. Allowing them to chose from healthy options is also great. However, determining what is actually nourishing to your child is not so clear-cut. I thought I did everything right (breastfed, waited on solids, introduced solids slowly, avoided common allergens till after 12 month, etc), and he still ended up with food sensitivity. He eats one of the healthiest diets I’ve seen a child eat, and he still struggles. We removed grains from his diet, and suddenly he started enjoying vegetables more, but I don’t even think they are all safe for him to have! And not even sure he should be grain-free. *sigh*

It’s funny, but the foods a lot of people think are “bad” foods, are the ones that are “safest” for him to eat: meat with fat, butter, whole raw milk, raw egg yolks. Just saying…what you think is best for your child may not be so.

Here are some things that I believe parents should know about feeding children (these are not my ideas, but rather things that many experts concur on, and make sense to me). I am including some references from various sites just to keep things balanced.

What to feed:

  • Children need plenty of fat, including saturated fat. This is important for their brain and eye development, among other things. Do NOT put your child on a lowfat diet or else they will fail to thrive.1
  • Children need sufficient protein for proper growth. Protein given with each meal helps stabilize blood sugar.2
  • Conventional dairy is riddled with problems, but milk contains important nutrients. If your child cannot have milk, you need to find a replacement food for calcium (homemade bone broth is an excellent choice) and other nutrients found in milk. Some children may do okay on yogurt or kefir, even if they can’t have milk.3
  • Grains and beans are difficult to digest do to their phytic acid and (for some grains) gluten content. Grains/beans are better tolerated when they are soaked in the traditional way before consuming.4
  • Some babies do not produce enough of the enzyme amylase to digest starch until after they are 12 months old.5
  • Poor digestion can trigger food allergies/sensitivities.6
  • Probiotics build good gut flora. They can be found in yogurt, kefir (there are non-dairy versions of these), and fermented foods, as well as in supplement form.7
  • Enzymes are essential for digestion. Fresh, raw foods contain enzymes, and should be consumed regularly.8
  • Refined foods such as white flour products and white sugar are not just empty calories…they actually deplete the body of nutrients.9
  • Artificial “food” has no business being in your child’s body. Many children have reactions to this stuff, ranging from mood swings to sleep disturbances to headaches and more.10
  • Pretend “health foods” like margarine, store-bought crackers, and boxed cereal are actually toxic due to being highly processed. Do not feed these to your child. This includes those puffy finger snacks for babies.11
  • While a diet full of nourishing foods will provide nearly everything your child needs, don’t underestimate the value of cod liver oil (cold pressed) and natural vitamin D supplements (especially if you live in a higher latitude, don’t get outside a lot, or don’t have a vitamin D-rich diet–most of us don’t).12
  • Mother’s milk contains all the essential nutrients needed for proper growth and development (fats, protein, probiotics, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, etc). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 100% breastfeeding for six months, and as the main source of nutrition 6-12 months with complimentary solids. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of two years of breastfeeding, while the AAP recommends a one year minimum, and both organizations encourage breastfeeding beyond the minimum.13

How to feed:

  • Children should never be force fed. This causes a negative association with whatever food you are cramming into their mouth. They will hate that broccoli forever.
  • Ideally, babies should be allowed to feed themselves, although eating off a fork or spoon some of the time is okay…as long as you are sure the baby wants it. This helps the child regulate how much food goes into their body, so they learn to stop eating when they are no longer hungry.
  • Emotions around food should be kept as neutral as possible. Food is fuel: It is not for rewarding or for consoling a child. Children should never be coaxed/guilted into eating a food or be punished for not eating a food. Even if you are excited or upset over what your child eats, try not to convey these emotions to your child. They should not be eating to please you; they should be listening to their bodies.
  • When they are done, they are done. Do not require a child to finish all their food, as they may be stuffing themselves uncomfortably if you force it.
  • Give them choices. There are a lot of opinions on how much choice is best, but as a general rule, children need some choice. You figure out what choices you want to give them.
  • Some days children eat a lot, other days they eat practically nothing. Some days they want the same food all day. Don’t freak out, it’s fine. They are listening to their bodies.
  • If you suspect food sensitivities, do a food journal for a couple of weeks. Try eliminating a suspected culprit for a while, then add back in a look for a reaction.
  • Children don’t understand ethical reasons for avoiding certain foods…do not withhold foods from your child that their bodies may need.
  • Junk food can be extremely difficult to deal with if you want your child to eat a nutritious diet, as junk food can trick the body. Keeping junk food out of the house deals with this problem nicely, but if you choose to have it…well, there just isn’t enough room here to write about it.
  • Try, try TRY to be as relaxed about food as possible. Keep offering healthy options, problem-solve when you need to, but overall remember that your child needs to have a healthy relationship with food, and a healthy relationship with YOU.
Back to my little boy. He’s now three years old, and eating very well. He eats such a wide variety of food, I think a lot of parents would be jealous. Yet I still want to pull my hair out sometimes because his food sensitivities make it a challenge for me to put meals together, and then so often he is not in the mood for what I make…but I’m getting the hang of it.
If I could go back in time, to when he first started eating solid food, there are some things I would change. I would feed him more high-fat foods, for one, including egg yolks, liver, more butter, and whole-fat kefir. I would avoid grains until he was at least a year old, maybe until 18 or 24 months, and then I would only give him small amounts of traditionally prepared grains. I would serve fruit as a dessert, instead of letting him fill up on it. I would feed him probiotic foods more often. I would give cod liver oil and vitamin D supplements. I would really try to breastfeed him as much as he wanted until he was two. I think if I had done these things, his gut would have been healthier and he might not have developed his salycilate sensitivity. But other than those things, I am pretty happy with how we’ve fed him: He has a very good relationship with food, and with his special diet, he is much healthier.
  • Trusting one’s child and giving them choices with food is challenging, yet very important. How do you accomplish this?
  • Does your child have food sensitivities/allergies? How do you handle them?
  • Did you unknowingly feed your baby a poor diet, then later regret it?
  • How do you handle the junk food issue?

1 Infants, Toddlers Should Not Restrict Fat IntakeNutrition and Mental Development

2 CDC guidlines
3 Nutrition Facts for Whole Milk
4 Phytic AcidLiving with Phytic Acid
5 Development of salivary a-amylase in infants…, Heed Natural Timing…
6 Getting to the Root of the Problem–DigestionGut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet info
7 The Importance of Probiotics for ChildrenProbiotics for Children?Natural article
8 Are Digestive Enzymes Safe for Children?, You Are What You Digest
9 The Health Hazards of Refined Carbohydrates, Traditional Carbohydrates
10 Artificial Food Products and Their Effect on Children, Introduction to food intolerance
11 The Low Down on Margarine and Fats, Butter Versus Margarine, What are Processed Foods?
12 The Health Benefits of Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil, Cod Liver Oil Basics and Recommendations
13 World Health Organization infant feeding recommendation, American Academy of Pediatrics/Breastfeeding

Resources for Feeding Babies

Feeding Babies—from Nourishing Traditions, Heed Natural Timing before Infant Introduction to Solid Food, Baby Led Weaning, Feeding Infants a Grain-Free and Nut-Free Diet

Resources for How to Feed Children

Ellen Satter: How to Feed Children,  Ask Dr Sears: Feeding the Picky Eater, Baby Led Weaning

A directory of articles from the Weston A Price Foundation relating to food and children’s health can be found here.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

21 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 6:38 am

    I hear you, and I’m going to read your other blog as well to hear more about your struggles with food sensitivities. My son has them too — even from things in my breastmilk starting at three months old! I thought he was through with them, so after a year I just let him have everything, only to have him start having problems (diarrhea and skin issues, to say nothing of sleep problems which *could* be related) at 18 months old. So far we are having good luck with eliminating gluten, but it’s too soon to say. And it’s *really* hard to work around it, especially because he wants to eat with the rest of the family … so we all have to be gluten free. (It seems to be helping me, too, though, so perhaps we should all just stick with it.)

    If the problem is actually *multiple* sensitivities, I don’t know what I’ll do. Finding even one sensitivity is hard enough!

    • November 8, 2011 7:05 pm

      Sheila- I’m pretty sure gluten is the root of my son’s salyciate sensitivity. Gluten can damage the gut, leading to more issues, so I thinking removing gluten is good place to start! It’s a lifestyle change, for sure, but becomes easier when you get used to preparing delicious gluten-free meals.

      You might want to check out the GAPS diet, as it claims to heal/reduce food allergies/sensitivities by healing the gut.

      I’m so grateful to have discovered his food issues while he is so little (his symptoms are not obvious like a rash, they are all behavioral and could have been chalked up to having a “difficult” child). I feel early intervention is huge, since there is a greater chance of reversing the damage.

      Good luck!

  2. November 8, 2011 7:07 am

    Greetings from Malaysia! Hopping in from the carnival!

    Love your tips! And I totally agree with you on stop feeding when they are done. No point forcing them to finish up their food (like what I often see parents do) and then they end up puking out everything because of being too full!

    ~ Jenny ( )

  3. November 8, 2011 7:19 am

    The best thing I discovered about feeding my child is (besides following my intuition regarding concerns) that attitude is everything. I know people whose children eat quite well and they’re still neurotic or worried about it. My girl is considered a finicky eater, but I have such a relaxed attitude about it that I don’t think of it as a challenge, or envy other people’s ‘good-eater’ kids.

    I cook up what she likes in batches, so there’s always a good meal frozen and ready. Always have the fridge full of the foods she likes. Will ask and encourage her to try a new thing once in a while, and it’s up to her whether she includes it in her diet or not.

    With a different attitude I could lead a very stressful life! But it’s so normal and no biggie to us now.

    We do include ‘junk’, she loves crisps (potato chips?) and biscuits. As they’re in the house I refuse to deny her, but always ask that she have her fruit first, or tea and a biscuit after dinner, or some sort of thing. That way they don’t become Forbidden (and therefore more interesting foods. Because those foods are out there – at other people’s houses, parties, etc. But of course our emphasis is healthy whole foods, and secondly a good attitude towards food, as you mention.

    excellent post Lisa!

  4. November 8, 2011 7:23 am

    Ah food sensitivities… we’ve recently come to think that our daughter has some of them too… really hard to diagnose and even harder to act upon, especially since we’re radical unschoolers… muchos to think about!

    • November 8, 2011 6:32 pm

      Yes, the unschooler approach is something that actually held me back a bit on making the right choices for our family. I love the concept of giving a child free reign with food, but it was not going to work out for us. I went back and forth a lot, and ended up abandoning all philosophical ideas and just doing what felt natural and right to me. Intuition trumps philosophy, after all.🙂

  5. November 8, 2011 8:05 am

    We could do everything possible to try to keep our kids healthy, and they could still develop sensitivities or allergies – trust that you’re giving him the best possible start mama! Thank you for all of these awesome links and info!

  6. November 8, 2011 10:28 am

    lisa, this is an amazingly thorough and well articulated post. the lists are great! you have clearly done tons of research on these topics. that picture of michael with the broccoli is priceless!

    the choice topic is loaded of course, but i think you’ve laid out some great tips to keep in mind, and i think there is often the danger of thinking that it is either/or (your child gets to choose and therefore binges on junk, or your child does not get to choose and is disempowered and all that comes along with that.) i think giving the child information is often very empowering and can help them make better choices without the “good” choice being delivered through coercion or force. both/and instead of either/or.

    the ethical topic also sticks out to me. i interpreted that line to mean, go ahead and feed kids organ meats (or whatever food has ethical stuff tied to it), since they need the nutrients and can’t wrap their minds around the ethics of it anyway. whereas, i know for sure that quinn does wrap his head around the ethics of food, i have seen him have mixed feelings about consuming a crab that he was really excited to catch, and did want to eat, but mixed feelings arose nonetheless, as they always do for me when consuming many foods. i think the appreciation of the fact that “things have to die in order for me to eat them” is important. and i do think kids can get that philosophical paradox and i think the more information we give them, again, the better choices they can make, for the plants, animals, their own diet health, etc. so i guess i would say go ahead and feed kids the food they need, because there will ALWAYS be ethics behind it, and there are MORE ethical ways to choose to eat any genre of food, which don’t always have to mean abstinence (or we’d die of starvation). and talk to them about how you make those ethical choices… better yet, ask them what they think.

    • November 8, 2011 6:28 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

      “i think giving the child information is often very empowering and can help them make better choices without the “good” choice being delivered through coercion or force. ”

      I’m glad you said this. I left this idea out of my post because #1 it was getting too long, and #2 I don’t feel I’m expert enough to give advice on it. I’m not sure really how much to talk about food with my son, or what is appropriate to say for his age level. However, I believe you are right…with the confusion of modern foods these days, it is important to educate our children on making healthy choices. I am trying to teach my son what is “real” food and what isn’t. What is a “meal” and what is a dessert, etc. When he eats something that makes him feel unwell, I try to point that out. He can only understand so much at this age, but it’s thrilling when he says something like “I am only going to have a little bit of chocolate.”

      As for food ethics, you are so right that ethics can be tied to just about every food possible. We get our food as ethically as possible, and eat a full range…my personal issue is with tropical foods (since they aren’t local) but I’ve decided it’s worth it to have bananas, coconut, etc, as long as we are *mostly* local. I can see how Quinn would feel that way about his crab–such a sensitive boy. I’m trying to be candid about the fact that we eat animals, but like you said, having an appreciation of the fact that an animal died so that we might eat it. Such a sensitive issue for sensitive children…I just want him to understand that we need to eat what makes us healthy.

  7. November 8, 2011 11:22 am

    Such a great post! I’m trying to uncover a food sensitivity with my daughter – poo troubles are making her a little fussy and I know it has something to do with her digestion. Thanks for all the great tips – I haven’t even known where to start, but this gave me some great ideas!

  8. November 8, 2011 3:43 pm

    Fantastic post. “Give them only healthy options, they will choose healthy options.” I need to follow this more, I’m never as organised with food as I want to be (okay, never organised full stop). And I get “are you still being mean not letting them have sweets and chocolate?” from my girls’ grandad. He sneakily fed Elise chocolate at 6 months, when my other half noticed he went mad! I don’t get why junk food is such a “treat”. I do begrudgingly let them have it at parties (and face the horrible mood swings after), but their grandad was trying to dole out a pocket-full of neon coloured, chewy sweets every time we visited them or he visited us – and they only live round the corner.
    I grew up with severe lactose intolerance and developed soya intolerance too, but I can eat dairy in moderation now, and don’t seem to have a problem with soya. I hope your son’s sensitivities lessen with time.
    Going to plough through all those handy links now!

    • November 8, 2011 6:15 pm

      Yes, the sweets issue is a complicated one. I just wish that sweets weren’t so common these days, and that they were made with real food like back in the day. I don’t mind at all giving my son the occasional sweet made with reasonable ingredients. But artificial, high-refined-sugar is a meltdown waiting to happen…not much of a treat if you ask me!

  9. November 8, 2011 7:59 pm

    It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? To wade through all the recommendations and try to do your best, and yet still your child ends up with sensitivities. That’s tough. I often want to just throw my hands in the air and just eat … whatever … and that’s kind of the phase I’m in right now. Maybe we’re odd, but I’ve never noticed any difference in any of us when we eat or don’t eat a certain way. That doesn’t seem fair to you, when you’re trying so hard and I’ve thrown in the towel at the moment.

    • November 9, 2011 10:14 am

      We are all at different levels. For me it’s been a long road going from “wanting to eat really well” to “actually eating really well.” I’ve thrown in the towel many times. I have a weak constitution, however, which Michael seems to have inherited from me (which totally makes sense once you understand how the health of the mother can affect the health of her baby), so we both feel the difference when we don’t eat well. Phillip has a heartier constitution so he doesn’t feel the effects so much.

      Eating a healthy diet is extremely difficult these days. It takes a lot of knowledge, a lot of shopping for fresh foods, and a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s hard. People don’t just go from eating a modern diet to eating healthy traditional foods overnight. I felt like I was always taking one step forward, two steps back for a long time. All I can say is that it takes a lot of baby steps, a lot of practice, and a lot of really yummy recipes (because why would you want to eat healthy if it didn’t taste good??). We still have plenty of room for improvement…the good news it that I’m getting the hang of it, finally.

      I’m glad you guys feel fine with your diet–you probably have nice, hearty constitutions like Phillip. I don’t know exactly what you guys eat, obviously, but I would admonish you (when you feel up to it) to take some baby steps towards healthier eating. Poor food choices eventually catch up with people (although let it be said that attitude affects our health, too, so don’t stress out about it either!! lol).

      • November 9, 2011 11:36 am

        That’s a very wise response — thank you. I think part of the problem for me is that even if I want to eat differently, I need to either get Sam (our cook) on board or I have to shoo him out of his element (the kitchen), which isn’t a pleasant swap for either of us. For awhile I was crock-potting dried beans that never got used, and I bring home garden produce that goes bad, which bums me out. But baby steps are what we’ve definitely been making, so I will keep up with those for now.

        • November 9, 2011 3:35 pm

          Oh, yeah, that’s hard if your main cook isn’t on board! We would be in a sorry state if Phillip was chef of the house, lol.

  10. November 9, 2011 12:01 am

    This is a fantastic post!!!!! Your nutrition guidelines are spot on as are your methods. Great list of resources. My favorite line from this post is: “However, in the three years, four months that I’ve been a mother, I have found that the feeding of children–at least my child, anyway–is not so very straight-forward.” How well I know that. My daughter is gluten intolerant and has a strong gag reflex so feeding has been an adventure! I am sharing this post. Too much good info not to pass on!

  11. November 9, 2011 9:33 pm

    Here are some thoughts I had while reading this: I have often read on Traditional Food blogs “But, Sally FAllon, I did EVERYTHING right and my child still ended up with food allergies/sensitivies! What gives?!” One thing that people seem to forget is that a child inherits, for the most part, its gut folia from its mother. This all goes back to Weston Price’s physical degeneration theory. The health of the mother/father determines the health of the offspring. Another theory is that the antibiotics given almost universally to women during labor to fight Group B Strep may actually cause gut dysbiosis because the now sterile birth canal, being a baby’s first exposure to microbes, does not inoculate the gut. All of those are theories but I still find them fascinating nonetheless.

    Calcium…I know you already know this Lisa because I saw your comment on Cheeseslaves blog, but I am beginning to believe that it is not Calcium that is so essential so much as Magnesium. There are so many non dairy places to get calcium but magnesium is harder to find if you aren’t eating grains and SO essential. Even though I eat no dairy I only take Magnesium and Zinc supplements.

    Lastly, one of the KEY lessons I took from GAPS: It isn’t all about the protein it is ALL about the fat, especially when you are eating something sweet. Not only does it taste fabulous and slows the absorption of glucose, it also keeps you from eating as much because you are satiated faster. Whenever I crave sweets I now always go for something fatty. It works like a charm.

    • November 10, 2011 4:48 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment Carrie. You touched on things that I wish I could have included in here, but I really had to narrow it down to just how and what to feed kids. I believe you are correct about the fat, too–there’s a reason it was first on my list! I think with protein is important to divide it up throughout the day, particularly for sugar-sensitive individuals, but based on what I’ve read, kids need more fat than protein. And what you said about having fat with sugar…that’s something I’ve always done. I’ve completely shunned lowfat desserts for the past several years of my life. Just like you said, the fat makes it taste better and also helps keep blood sugar stable. Lately I’ve been adding butter to melted bittersweet chocolate chips for a treat…oh, my, goodness, it’s so good.

      But yes, yes! about inheriting problems from the parents, especially the mother. I know this is a part of Michael’s problem…maybe I should have a least mentioned that because so many people have no idea. I’m trying to get my rear in gear to eat more fertility foods so my body is better equipped to produce a healthier baby next time around. I think that will have to be a future post sometime. Oh, and the magnesium! Such a good thing to bring up. I do need to read up more on that, but it’s clear Americans need more magnesium. Thank you for your thoughts!


  1. Kids in the Kitchen - teaching healthy food choices | A green living, green parenting blog

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