I dislike beets. I have tried them 7 times. To me they taste like dirt. The 20 bite rule is hard for me when it comes to beets (I really want to give up). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the 20 bite rule, it just means you really don’t know if you like a food until you have tried it at least 20 times. It only took me about 5 times to know I actually did like sushi (not all of it, but the one I was persistent with trying, and even though it has fried tempura shrimp on top, it still counts as sushi). The point is that we all have foods that we don’t like, don’t want to try, or even make us go “eeeewww”.
When it comes to getting children to eat, most caring, wonderful parents that I have met tend to practice the same strategies with no success. I call them “old school” strategies because they are the same old things we have always done to try to get our kids to eat. Although I have shared a few posts on feeding kids and picky eating, I recently read an article in the Hartford Current(January 3, 2016) about Kids and food, and saying the right things. It brought up some great points and made me realize this stuff is worth repeating.
Parenting is not an easy thing, and we all look back with some regrets at the way we did things. But if you want to raise a child who grows up to be an adult with a healthy relationship to food, read these 5 common mistakes parents make, along with a better way.
Mistake #1. Making a child sit at the table until he finishes the peas (or meat, or green beans, or heaven forbid, the beets). If you have done this, you know what happens. Some kids will sit for hours and make a scene. Others will stuff the peas in, gag, and sometimes vomit or spit out the food. If you were forced to eat that one food you despise, what would be your reaction? I would be pissed! Is it no surprise that your child does not behave that well when forced into this situation? The down side of this is the table becomes a terrible place to be. It would not increase the likelihood of trying that food in the future and actually, due to the terrible experience, could turn off someone for good.
Instead, feeding therapists often use a “food scientist” approach to non-preferred foods. For example, the food will be on the table, or even a small amount may be on the child’s plate, but just for “exploration”. What color is it? purple. Is it hard or soft? a little soft. What does it smell like? dirt. Can you lick it? Yes, it is a little sweet, hhhhmmmm. No pressure. Just exposure in a fun, non-threatening way. and the good thing is the table is still a fun place to be.
Mistake#2: Making a child finish his plate. Or refusing seconds to a child. Imagine it is one of those days you ate a late lunch out with friends, and then came home and your husband decided to make an early dinner. You sit down to this beautiful dinner but you really are not that hungry. He piles your plate high with mashed potatoes and gravy, a large slab of turkey, stuffing and a big salad on the side. You tell him you just aren’t that hungry, however he says you have to finish the entire plate. Not a morsel can be left. How would you feel? Again, your body is giving you an appropriate message that you are not that hungry, yet your husband is telling you not to listen to your own natural body signals. You feel you have to force that food down, you feel stuffed and not good, and again, the table is not a fun place to be. The same holds true if the opposite occurs. Imagine you missed lunch and come home famished. The same lovely meal is waiting for you, however this time your husband says “that’s enough for you”. You wanted more potatoes but he won’t give them to you. You leave the table feeling hungry and still thinking about food (and when he goes to bed, because you are an adult, you probably would just go heat some up. But for a child, this triggers sneaking food, which then leads to feelings of shame, clearly not good for a kids self-esteem).
Instead, encourage a child to “listen to your tummy”. Start with smaller portions so you don’t end up throwing away food, then give more if a child finishes. Or simply save the leftover food for a snack for later. This prevents drama, and guess what…..makes the table a more fun place to be, along with teaching the importance of honoring your hunger and fullness. Kids usually have this internal mechanism that will keep them growing normally until we adults ruin it with forcing them to over or under eat.
Mistake #3: Allowing a child to graze or nibble all day long. When kids are picky and refuse meals, or don’t eat much at a meal, parents worry. They think their child is not getting enough nutrition and they really want them to grow. So, if the child asks for some crackers in between, mom is going to give them. Sometimes, a bowl of the snack is left on a coffee table so a toddler can go help herself. The end result is a child who is nibbling all day long on foods that don’t typically provide much nutrition, and then when dinner rolls around, the child has no appetite. Sometimes, the pressure starts, the scolding, the forcing, again, all leading to a negative experience. Imagine picking on food all day long. Are you really in the mood for a full meal when you can’t really tell if you are hungry or full?
Instead, parents should provide 6 opportunities to eat. Breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner and one evening snack. If the child refuses lunch, then, without fanfare or pressure, the food is removed from the table (typical meal times are 20-30 minutes). If she comes around asking for food 30 minutes after lunch was offered, the answer needs to be NO. Water could be offered, but that is it. Yes, kids will cry, it is not fun, but they usually do much better at the next meal. Eventually kids get the message that they better eat at meal times or snack time because the kitchen is closed.
Mistake #4: Catering to a picky eater. Short order cooking. This is when you make that macaroni and cheese, or pick up those chicken nuggets because you know Johnny does not eat meatloaf. Or pasta. Or soup. Or fish. And on and on. And why would he? For his entire life he has gotten his nuggets. I have seen teenagers who are stuck on 3 foods because their parents catered to their picky eating. I sometimes joke that if I refused to eat unless it was lobster, I could probably get my husband to make me lobster every night ; ) People who care about us want us to be healthy, but catering to a child does not lead to healthy eating.
Instead, Ellyn Satter (see ellynsatterinstitute ) suggests offering a few “go to” foods that provide nutrition yet do not make you go out of your way. For example, most kids will eat your basic bread and butter, and will drink milk. If you are making meatloaf, potatoes and peas, don’t make a separate meal but have a basket of rolls or bread, a glass of milk and maybe some fruit. Let your child eat as much of these go to foods but do not give in and make that mac and cheese. Instead, have mac and cheese for a meal for everyone in the family once in awhile (we all like our favorite foods on the menu). If you do this along with the food scientist approach, it will be much more likely that your child will try something new. Again, this makes the dinner table a much more fun place to be.
Mistake #5: Forcing food, yelling, belittling, comparing or any other “not nice” behavior at the table. I have heard horror stories from parents about what they do to get their kids to eat. They literally have held down arms and stuck food in mouths (and you wonder why someone would hate sitting at the table?). Parents compare “your brother ate it, why can’t you?” They threaten “if you don’t eat, you won’t get dessert”. This of course could be it’s own mistake because holding back dessert to force a child to eat veggies just teaches them that something is wrong with veggies and sweets are the reward. This can stick with a person forever (when they grow up, have a job, and can afford to reward themselves whenever they want…..a big contributor to emotional eating).
Instead, set an example for your children regarding not only cooking and eating healthy food in a healthy manner (at the table, no TV, no electronics, etc) but also with using polite language. Don’t threaten. It is ok to remind children that it will be a few hours until snack time so be sure you had enough, listen to your tummy, etc. Involve children with menu planning, cooking, setting the table and clean up. Don’t use food for anything other than what it really is: something to enjoy and fuel us and keep us healthy so we can do fun things.
In the end, dinner times can create the most wonderful memories yet. Just keep it happy if you can. I miss those days with 3 kids chatting away around the table, then teenagers, and even the additional friends. It was a blast and even today, when I make certain foods, I think of them. Jen loved stuffed shrimp. Kara loved pesto pasta. Dan loved everything (beef stew for his friend Nick, banana pancakes for half the football team-rumor has it that I made the best of all the moms…just saying).
So start making precious memories of your own. The table is not the place for battles.
And I am going to keep trying beets. At least 13 more times.