Negotiating the Picky Eaters

Perhaps, because you are a good parent, you rush home, conscientiously prepare a meal that is fresh, and at least constitutes food, if not high nutrition. Perhaps it was a meal that your kids gobbled up last week so you are feeling satisfied with yourself: you have discovered that secret dish that appeals to all, and especially your need to nourish your offspring. Your children are laughing as they set the table, the sun is still high in the sky, and the serene song of the robin lulls you into a sense of domestic bliss. You place the beloved dish on the table and seat yourself to a chorus of ... “Yuck. We had this last week. I’m not hungry. Do I have to eat it to get dessert?”

Is there anything so ingratiating?

I was recently relieved to overhear one of my children tell the other: if you don’t like the food just say no thank you. Don’t say yuck because that will hurt the person who made its feelings.

When it comes to nourishing your child it helps to remind yourself of a few things: one, they often follow their own curve. If your child was born weighing in at the 3rd percentile, they may very well stay at the 3rd percentile no matter how much you may want them to be at the 50th percentile. Unless they are either falling off their curve, or veering way above it, worry about what, where, and when they are eating and leave the whether and how much up to them.

Second, a normal child offered healthy meals at regular times will not starve. To resort to allowing a dinner of twizzlers and twinkies, or pizza pops, because that “is all they will eat” is a slippery slope into a syrupy hell (but not hopeless). Children warm up slowly to unfamiliar foods. They may have to see, watch you eat, or taste a food 15 or 20 times before they like it. Do not despair. Keep putting fruits, vegetables, low fat protein, and whole grains on the table. If all they choose to eat is two dinner rolls, so be it. Have faith in your child. Even for the toddler, providing an empty plate with serving bowls from which they serve themselves can be very empowering. It’s more dishes, but you may find they are more adventurous. We like to keep it easy in our house: pop, chocolate bars, processed foods are simply not available, for anyone.

When time permits, cook with your children. Kids love to dress up their own pizza, and homemade cookies are infinitely better than packaged. The preparation and eating of food should be a joyful experience for your child. Eating should not be another chore they complete in order to please their parents. To make it so sets up a pattern of lifelong struggle where they are under, or over, eating for all the wrong reasons.

If you are tired of the constant battle - stop. Putting pressure in any way (that includes all those positive behaviour modification methods like stars, cheering, and bartering) on your child’s eating will result in one of two things: a battleground for the determined child or a pathological relationship with food for the child who aims to please.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of the sit down family meal. An espresso and power bar on the run may have been fine before kids, but you owe it to your children to share a meal with them. I have on numerous occasions had one of my children declare they don’t like anything on their plate.

“Oh that’s too bad, you used to like marinated tofu. So, do you have any new jokes for us?”

Granted, we did have to sit through a litany of very unfunny knock-knock jokes, and half chewed tofu being spewed out of the mouth of a child in hysterics is not that appetizing. But by the end of it his plate was half-empty.

“Would you like any more tofu?

“No thanks, I hate tofu”

“Oh yes you mentioned that. We’ll have to make something more to your liking tomorrow.”

Children and teens who have family meals eat better, feel better about themselves, get along better with other people, and do better in school. They are less likely to gain too much weight, abuse drugs, smoke and have sex. In fact, family meals are better associated with raising healthy, happy children than family income, single or two parents homes, after-school activities, or church.

Remember: as a parent your job is what, where, and when. Leave the whether and how much up to your child. They are in the midst of developing a relationship with food to last them their lifetime - offer them good food and don’t intrude.

*Most of the concepts in this article are from: Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense.