Many children go through a time in their lives where they are seen as picky eaters. Many young children get into food jags, such as them wanting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a year straight. This is perfectly normal, because children are still learning, as is their palate, and they seek security in what is already known and comfortable to them. When I discuss picky eating through this article, I’m not talking about food jags or a child who may have constant changes in favorite foods but overall eats a sufficient diet. I’m talking about a child who is deprived of a, or several, food groups due to preference and selective eating.
Over the years, I’ve found one issue with picky eaters. The core problem it comes down to, why the child has gotten to this point and why the child is still at this point. The real dilemma at hand and the source of it- the parents. More specifically, the feeding relationship. Before I insult so many mom’s and dad’s out there, let me explain what I mean.
Little Zoe, 4 years old, is sitting at the table with a healthy plate of food her mom made her. She pushes her plate to the side, won’t eat a bite. Now, mom knows that Zoe always eats that food when grandma makes it for her, but somehow she will never eat it when she makes it. Finally, after fighting and failing to get a single bite out of little Zoe, mom asks her what she wants instead. “Mac and cheese!” Zoe says with a giant smile. Mom takes the plate from Zoe and starts preparing her mac and cheese. It’s better she eats something than nothing at all right?
The problem here is not a food jag or even mom’s not-as-good-as-grandma’s cooking. The problem is the feeding relationship. The feeding relationship is simple, and it’s just this: The parent decides what to eat, where to eat, and when to eat. The child simply decides if to eat and how much. When we damage that feeding relationship, problems may pursue. With little Zoe, grandma likely doesn’t give another option, it’s eat it or don’t, and Zoe eats what grandma offers because she KNOWS she won’t get another option. Children are smart and they know what they can get away with and with whom. When we give children the option of what to eat, they learn that they are in charge of that feeding relationship, and typically that ends with something not-so-healthy.
I always encourage parents to strongly enforce that feeding relationship. If their child won’t eat their plate of food, don’t offer a less healthy alternative. Wrap the plate up, put it in the fridge, and offer it again some time later. Your child will not starve, I promise. If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat. You may hear a lot of whining and if that feeding relationship is damaged enough, maybe even screaming, but once a strong feeding relationship is established, it is very much worth it and so much easier on you in the long run.
I understand getting there doesn’t happen overnight and it can be a serious struggle. There are many things you can do to help along the way.
- Think ‘Happy Meals’. Yes, I am talking about McDonald’s. They market their children’s meals for the child. It’s kid-friendly and attractive to a child’s eye. McDonald’s knows that the kid likes what they see, the kid wants it, the kid begs for it, the kid gets it. They don’t market a happy meal towards adults. Make your child’s homemade meal kid-friendly. Bring out the cookie cutters for their sandwiches, celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins as ants on a log, make a picture on their plate of a smiley face or a rainbow with the colors, ditch the soda and add colorful fruit to their water. Your child will eventually see the dark brown bubbly soda as boring next to a glass of water with bright blue blueberry ice cubes, bright pink raspberry ice cubes, and bright green kiwi ice cubes floating around their water glass. My mother used to make us tuna ice cream cones growing up as a treat. A wafer sugar-free ice cream cone with tuna inside, mixed with celery and carrot slivers, with a cherry tomato on top. And guess what? It was healthy and we didn’t even know it! Now, if it were a scoop of tuna on a plain plate with grilled tomatoes on the side and celery and carrots, would we have been as excited for that meal? Probably not. Kids love fun presentation.
- Let your child help to prep the meal. Give them the lettuce for the salad to rinse off and tear apart for you. And let them set the table however they’d like. It’s shown that kids are more likely to eat a meal they had fun in preparing.
- Offer a healthy food they like on their plate along with something new. They may not even touch the new item, but at least it was presented to them. Don’t force them to try anything, because then that food is associated with negativity. Just offer it again at a later meal. Sometimes it takes several times of a food being placed in front of them before they even try it.
- Make mealtime fun. Name foods something that they’ll enjoy. Instead of broccoli, fluffy trees. Or even just changing the name of the food around a little. Ravioliosaurus Surprise! Use your imagination. It may sound silly, but it works, and it’s pretty fun!
- Make mealtime family time. With all the chaos and running around we do today, can’t we have a simple hour to catch up with family? Let mealtime be at the table spent with family, television and radio turned off. Less distracted little tikes are better eaters.
- If they’re picky with their veggies, make them a fruit (and vegetable) smoothie for breakfast. A strawberry banana smoothie with a little spinach or kale blended in is healthy and you can’t see, pick out, or even taste the veggie!
- Lastly, as mom and dad, you likely already know that your child’s food touching is the absolute worst thing in the world to happen to them. Keeping the groups separated, and keeping the veggies crisp and fresh instead of warm and mushy is likely a bigger hit.
It’s when we interfere with the feeding relationship, problems result, whether it be a child getting an alternative unhealthy meal or them eating too much because it was forced. And who is your child’s biggest role model? You are! So make sure you keep your eating healthy in front of them as well since they look to you as their guidance.