Often when we have a picky/selective eater our dinner table is not the most pleasant place to be!
However, as stressful and infuriating as food challenges can be at the table, the more upset/annoyed/frustrated we become the less likely our child is to eat.
If we get upset, they will tune into this and it will affect the way they are feeling. Any time our child gets angry, upset or sulky they are less likely to eat.
This means that having tumultuous family meals actually works against us not for us.
And I get that having a child refuse to eat, throw food, jump up and down from the table, demand new choices and generally make our life miserable - is miserable.
However, we are in charge of the atmosphere at dinner - even if we don't feel like we are.
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And does it matter?
I speak to countless mums who tell me how their child's eating problems are their fault. They have often spent years analysing exactly what went wrong, when and how they are responsible.
But is this the full story?
As I say repeatedly, there seems to be compelling evidence that certain children are just predestined to be more picky than others regardless of parenting.
Some children have had traumatic experiences, medical issues, allergies or other issues that make eating more challenging.
Life situations that can put pressure on families, disrupt routines or upset young children can also lead to eating going awry. A new sibling, going overseas, moving house, the death of a close relative can all impact a child and their eating.
However, the good news is that we, as parents are also able to get eating back on track.
So much of this is in our approach and delivery.
After completing one of my parent workshops a mother told me that she had always believed that her son's eating issues were 90% him and 10% her. Now she was thinking she was 70% of the equation.
This is certainly not a blaming statement. In fact, the opposite. Eating, supposedly a natural and simple process is not for many children and the parents that feed them. However, there is little advice as to how to overcome feeding issues or increase variety for a child who has limited choices.
But there are strategies that empower us to make a difference. There are tried and tested methods that enable a child to overcome fears and discomfort around food and gently support them trying new menu items.
I contend that the way we approach food and feeding is critical. It's the reason I am "The Confident Eater". Having the confidence that our child is able to eat more widely and then teaching them to have that same belief is a crucial part of moving forward.
This is proven to me time and again.
In the last fornight I have totally shocked two sets of parents. I have run my parent workshop over two days. The first day is theory and the second is personalised to a child and family. Both families have children who have not added foods in months and both were skeptical their child would try a new food. However, after the general theory session alone both families saw their child eat a new food.
Both were totally amazed this had happened. I was not. I contend that so often the way we approach things determines outcome.
Our delivery matters.
I was tasked with writing an explanation of my business and why it is I do what I do for a business group. Then I was asked to share. This is what I said:
I want you to look down and imagine you have a plate and that it’s filled with spiders, worms, maggots or whatever really pushes your buttons. Now listen to your mother saying “eat up Julie, they’ll make you big and strong”. “Hurry up and eat John or you’ll be hungry later”. “Martine, you’d better eat these or there won’t be any dessert”. “Steve, why are you being so naughty and not eating, your little sister has already eaten all hers”.
This is the way that many of the children from the families I work with approach new food. To them it seems like spiders/maggots/worms. Whatever a parent says is not going to get them to eat it. Would you?
It’s also the reason that I really despise the term picky eater. It’s because it seems like a blame word to me. You’re choosing to not eat the food. Now that may be the case but many children are not choosing or not consciously. They have done studies on babies that show that those who go on to be selective eaters have a different suck pattern to other babies. There is something there right from the start.
Picky also says “you’re rubbish at eating”. We don’t do this in any other area of our parenting. You would never hear a mother say “oh you’re so bad at reading”. And yet we do it all the time about eating. “You’re so fussy, why is my daughter so picky, how come you can’t eat like your cousins?”.
The reason I bring this up is probably part of my greater why. I am so passionate about what children eat because I truly believe food is super important for all of us but more so for children with their developing bodies and minds. I know how much better I feel when I eat well. And yet I work with children who may never have felt great in their lives.
Because I’m so passionate about getting all children eating from a place of safety and joy not fear, I am sooo frustrated with our culture. We have such little support for parents who struggle getting their children to eat. Have speech challenges or difficulty reading and we’re all over that. But have a problem feeding a child over 2 and suddenly there is this big void.
And yet, feeding is something we do as parents 5 times a day, 7 days a week. When things are going wrong it’s HUGE. Not only is it frustrating, guilt inducing and stressful but for mothers it hits us in the really vulnerable bits. We are biologically hard-wired to feed our children and when that goes wrong it often makes us feel inadequate as a parent. I’ve had so many successful, intelligent women tell me “I can do anything I put my mind to so why can’t I feed my child properly”.
Thinking that your child is not getting their proper nutrients is the stuff of nightmares.
And yet, we go to the doctor and often they brush us off and say it’s a phase, our child will grow out of it.
And they may. However, stats show that there are probably about 10% of children with feeding issues they are just not going to grow out of. I see these every day so I know how many there are.
I am currently working with a family who have a teenager with a really restrictive diet. It’s affecting him socially as he turns down camps and other social events – even sleepovers - as the food is such a concern.
This is not an unusual story. Many families have been pushing for support for years and not receiving help. Or getting referrals that don't lead to an improvement in their child's eating.
This is how I got into this. I found more and more parents who needed support but no services to help them. It’s something that I love. Nothing lights me up more than being able to give a parent the support they need to get their child eating variety. I often feel like I have golden tickets to give away and am just waiting for someone to get in contact.
I also love to work with families where feeding is OK but parents know it could be better. They find themselves in a rut offering the same meals on rotation or shudder a little when they look at what goes in the lunchbox. Often smaller problems take a lot less effort to fix. Some quick tips can get a parent back on track like that – snap! This is so much fun to do. Being able to reduce the stress around eating and return the joy to meals.
However, human nature means that we rarely look for outside help unless our hair is on fire. We wait as we think it will get better. We see a small advance and pounce on it as proof things are improving. We come up with a million excuses why it’s not a good time. Then we realise that not only has the eating not improved but we have added an extra year of bad habits to unpick.
Eating is a funny thing as it’s so wrapped up in culture, family habits, psychology, our genetic make-up and so knowing how to separate what’s innate from what’s imposed can be so freeing. Knowing we are setting things up so there is the best possible chance our child learns to eat confidently and pleasurably is huge.
Which is why I also love to work with parents who have young children just to educate them. Give them all the information they need so they don’t fall into the common pitfalls and eating just happens more naturally and well.
This is important as it shows that some children may just be destined to become more picky than others. I have spoken to many parents who realised that their child was more challenged around food right from the start. Well before the classic toddler years where there is a developmental bias towards fussy, these children were just not eating competently.
I say this in a vain attempt to remove some of the guilt felt by parents about the way their child eats. Sure we can impact what happens with our child's eating - and that's a great thing. But taking responsibility for something that is in-built is not helpful.
Once you have identified that your child is struggling around food it's important to seek support. How we approach food and feeding can have an enormous influence on our child's future ability to eat variety.
Supporting better eating includes:
1. Having relaxed mealtimes. The more comfortable we are the more we are able to eat well.
2. Providing choices. Even if our child has a very limited repertoire it's our responsibility to make sure they have the opportunity to eat something new.
3. Scheduling snacks and meals so there are distinct times for eating and other times for playing.
4. Supporting them by being confident they are able to progress. We need to believe they are capable to enable them to believe it too.
5. Making sure both our oral and body language is positive around food.
If you have a child that just doesn't approach food confidently it's good to look for support. We're happy to talk to any parent with concerns, look at what the issues are and suggest solutions https://www.theconfidenteater.com/contact.html
Sunday afternoon my husband slow cooked a big shoulder of lamb. It meant we had a lot of meat.
So Tuesday when it was Joe's turn to cook I decided to make use of the lamb. We teamed it with home-made spelt wraps, loads of Mediterranean veg, salad, cheese and some hummus I made. A veritable feast.
Meals like these are among my favourites:
1. There is lots of choice.
2. It's bright and colourful and looks appealing
3. There is a good balance of food groups
4. We can make enough so lunches the next day are taken care of
5. It's relatively cheap and simple to make.
If we have a picky eater in the house, meals that offer choice and at the same time the opportunity to try something new with no pressure are great.Note that Joe is in an apron. I on the other hand was not. Guess who got covered in flour?
Ah, school holidays. Love 'em. My boys and I have a deal and their part is that they cook the evening meal. That even rhymed!!
It's amazing for me as I get to work whilst they toil in the kitchen. It's great for them as it means I have time to play chauffeur/entertainer/referee as I don't need to cook.
From a longer term point of view it's beneficial as:
1. When they leave home they will be able to cook for themselves (if our kids can't cook what do they eat?)
2. They are learning all sorts of valuable life skills from reading recipes to damage control to cleaning up after themselves.
3. Cooking is really, really rewarding. Making food and serving it to a family is so empowering. Getting lots of positive feedback makes them feel amazing.
4. They have a true appreciation of what goes into making a meal in terms of time, energy and skills.
5. When they cook they get more of a say in what we have (hence burgers!!)
Here's Max prepping onions as he wanted to caramelise them to go with his burger. There were a lot of salad items plus fried eggs to accompany the burgers. The rolls were sourdough ones I'd made previously and had in the freezer.
Are your kids cooking these holidays?
I've just recovered from my first ever bout of Influenza and I have to say I'd never wish it on anyone. Such a massive step-up from a heavy cold.
One of the worst things was being nauseous. I felt so queasy I couldn't do anything but focus on not taking it to the next level! No reading, no TV. It made for very, very long days.
What has this got to do with selective eating? Actually quite a lot! So many of the feelings I was having are paralleled by those who find food challenging:
1. I was really hungry but the thought of most foods made my stomach turn.
2. Foods I previously loved I looked at and thought - no, I just can't eat that.
3. The smell of cooking food made me feel terrible. My lovely 10 y.o. made dinner the first day I was confined to bed and I had to have him shut all the doors.
4. I would feel hungry, get excited about eating and then look at it on the plate and think "nah, can't go there".
5. Other people eating certain things would make me feel worse. I remember my boys wanting popcorn and all I could think was "greasy" (even though it's home-made and not!!) and the thought of them eating next to me was so bothersome.
Although the nausea only lasted 3 days (it felt like 3 weeks) it took ages for me to approach food in my normal enthusiastic way. During that time I had a fabulous, if frightening insight into how children who struggle to eat often feel about new or challenging foods.
I know from working with so many families that food can be super challenging for lots of children on all sorts of levels. Appreciating things from their point of view helps us be sympathetic to their plight and enables us to meet them where they are at.
Do you have a child that struggles with the way food smells, or what others are eating? Is your child someone who loves a food one day and almost seems repulsed the next?
Judith is passionate about good food and is even more passionate about enabling other people to enjoy the wide variety of fresh food available today.