I was thinking about this a lot over the weekend.
When I speak to parents their wish is usually that their child will just eat the food that is put in front of them.
Often with really picky eaters parents are only looking for their child to try the food. It may not even be a huge wish list, just a few key things :)
The picky eaters on the other hand are looking to only eat their favourite foods. This makes total sense to me. If food is a bit challenging, if it causes anxiety, if it could be unpleasant then why not just stick to what you know?
This is a cause of frustration for many parents. I was speaking to a mum this morning who was pulling her hair out at the relentlessness of continually having food refused and spending her whole life walking on eggshells around her son's eating.
Three things can help:
1. Meet our child where they are at. Forget the wish list of foods we'd like them to eat and focus on the foods they currently enjoy. Every time we look at a beige lunchbox or a plate with two things on it we come back to this.
Our task is to gently show our child how to move from their favourite food to a slightly different version. Or to add an ingredient or dip it into something. We don't go from nuggets to eggplant.
2. It's often good to avoid questions like "would you like to try this" or a version of it. Any time we ask a question with an easy no we will probably receive it. If our child has been selective for a while this will be an automatic response that they do not even think about.
There are other ways we can approach something without summoning the NO :)
3. Understand where they are coming from. It's very frustrating to have our child repeatedly refuse foods that we "know they'd just love if they only tried them". But this is approaching food from our competent and rational stand-point.
Our child is usually not thinking rationally. They are operating from the reptilian part of the brain tasked with survival. This tells them that they are far safer to say no than to take a risk.
Relate this to an irrational fear that we have, be it spiders or heights or water. It is not logical to be frightened of something the size of a 10 c and yet a lot of us are. No amount of cajoling would have us comfortably sharing the bed with a harmless spider!
If we understand how our child is seeing food and why they have the response they do it allows us to be empathetic more than frustrated. It also enables us to appreciate why many of the strategies we have been using do not work.
Removing the disconnect can bring us a lot of peace.
I received this lovely e-mail from a family I worked with. Their picky eater had struggled to even try new foods for years and nothing his parents had tried previously had worked.
I feel super pleased and privileged to have been able to support them to make the difference. It is not what I have done but what they have done themselves that has made the difference. I provide the tools, they do the work :)
"I’m not sure where we would be now with our son (12) and his eating if we hadn’t found you and will be forever thankful!
What we have found is that he has gotten over his fear of food and will now try new foods and not be put off anymore with the look or texture of food.
The great thing is he will try any new foods which as you know is huge for us because one of the biggest problems we had is he would not try foods based on look and texture so a big win there! We can also go to restaurants now and he will try new things!
We will continue to have some wins and some losses but definitely meal time is so much better and as long as there is variety it seems to be working for all of us".
* Kids will eat when they are hungry enough.
They will not starve themselves *.
The inference is that we can force our children to eat what we'd like them to if we just shut the back door and prevent any wriggle room.
This is an interesting statement on two levels:
We all eat for a range of different reasons and not all of them are about being hungry.
During school holidays it's interesting to watch why we, and why our children eat. Is it because:
- They are bored? Often when we don't have enough to do eating provides a welcome distraction. I know when I'm totally engrossed in something I don't think about food (as much!)
- They are looking for attention? Asking for food is a good way to get our focus and have us doing things especially for them. This may not be consciously thought through in that way but the end result is that we are at their beck and call.
I have seen parents achieve some incredible things and often, given my day job resolving picky eating, this is in the food sphere :)
Often all we need is some guidance, some confidence and a toolkit of strategies to use.
That's what I love doing! Giving you the tools so you can go away and make things happen for yourselves. It is not about creating a dependency on me and my advice, but the opposite. I want you to know how to do this on your own.
What I want you to go away with is:
Holidays are fun, relaxing and the perfect time to catch up with friends and family. Often as parents we’re just hanging on by our fingernails coming into a break from routines and the daily grind with that shining holiday keeping us vaguely sane!
But I know from talking to parents that having a picky eater can put a giant spanner in the plans. It can also turn a holiday into a potential minefield. Well-meaning relatives who are able to teach your child how to eat “properly”. Being away from home and on-hand accepted foods. Traveling and routines being disrupted. There are so many places where parents are suddenly finding an already challenging task has become even more difficult.
There is no magic bullet resolution to this but there are some strategies that may make things a little easier:
1. Relax – I know my stress levels go up planning to go away and working out what food to take and how best to manage everything. That definitely gets communicated to my boys. I know when they were little in the few days before a holiday their behaviour used to disintegrate. Hmm, cause and effect?
As we are the most important relationship our young child has, it’s important that we are as relaxed as possible – especially around food. If we are stressing, they will pick up on this. The more relaxed children are the more likely they are to want to eat. As parents we often set the atmosphere without even realising it. How can we create an environment that enables us all to relax?
True or false?
In general, fussy eaters prefer foods that are beige, and uniform and without surprises!
This makes sense. A cracker for example, has that lovely predictability and uniformity. It will always look, feel and taste the same.
Picky eaters often have remarkably similar diets consisting of foods like cereals, toast, crackers, plain pasta and nuggets.
However, I know from speaking to 100's of parents that there are also children who, although very selective when it comes to most foods, have some weird likings for left of centre foods.
I know from talking to parents on a daily basis that many have decided that multiple meals are a no-go. YES!!
- I think cooking more than one dinner per night should be illegal :)
How we do this though can have an effect on long term outcomes.
If we "dumb" down our dinners to suit our pickiest eater there are several knock on effects:
1. Our child has no example to follow. If we're serving everyone nuggets and chips then by default what our child gets used to eating and sees everyone else eating is only their favourite foods.
2. If we serve only our child's favourite foods they are not being given the opportunity to eat something new.
3. Most parents do not enjoy eating the same foods as their picky eater. This means that the pleasure goes out of eating for everyone. Parents role modeling joyful eating is very important.
I advise we do the opposite and set the bar high. We want our children chasing us and having a long-term goal to eat the variety of foods that we like to eat.
This doesn't mean that our child has to eat a Vichyssoise or starve :) But it does mean that we serve what we want to eat and give our child the opportunity to eat it.
It's been a very busy time for me recently but very exciting too. I have spent the last few months working on the new book. Actually, it started as a book and has morphed since then.
I started out with the goal of putting together a book that would help parents of picky eaters to support their child to add variety. So often when I'm speaking to parents they feel really stuck. Their child has a list of favourite foods and moving from these seems impossible.
This was my goal. To give parents the tools they needed to make the move from toast or crackers or plain pasta to something else. As I was writing however, it moved from being a book to being a very practical, very user friendly guide. It takes you through the "how". If our child is only comfortable with toast how do we gently move from there.
I have a local artist creating the pictures and local businesses helping to digitise, to publish and to promote.
Like most things worth doing it's taking a lot more time than I expected but the end result will be something that is totally unique in the marketplace. A guide that shows you in simple, gentle steps how to get from what your child eats now to a new food.
I am hoping the first draft will be ready this month and have asked those on my newsletter list for volunteers to read and give feedback.
We can move mountains, especially when it comes to our children. Often we're desperate to help them but we're just not sure how to do this.
I work with so many families where there have been food struggles for years for their picky eater. The parents have tried everything they can think of. They are not lazy and lax, giving in to their child's food whims. In fact, I find the opposite. Parents have done everything bar trade a limb to attempt to get their child eating more variety.
Nothing is more satisfying than giving these parents a plan and watching them fly. Often all they need are some tried and tested strategies and a new approach.
This has happened twice in the last two weeks. Two sets of parents, two 8 y.o. boys. Two plans and two families who are already adding variety.
You are the most important component in supporting your child to eat well. Do not downplay the power of a parent with a plan :)