It’s food month here at 4Mothers, and we have been reveling in our taste adventures. What do you do, though, if you love a wide variety of foods but your kids have distinctly more limited tastes? What do you do if your child eats such a limited range of foods, that the whole family ends up restricted by the picky eater’s choices?
I recently read Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, a guide by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin, two professionals in helping children with eating disorders. I have to tell you that my first reaction was to count my blessings that my own picky eater is far and away more easy to feed than the children profiled in this book. This is a book for parents and caregivers of extreme picky eaters, children who do not eat “enough quantity or variety to support healthy emotional, physical or social development, or [who have] eating patterns that are a significant source of conflict or worry.” Often, these are children with food issues that have sent them to a medical or psychological professional. These children may only eat five or ten foods, or they are extremely averse to certain food textures, or they have sensory motor issues that make feeding physically difficult. If you are one of those parents, I found the advice in this book so grounded in compassion and common sense, and I highly recommend picking it up.
This is not necessarily a book for parents of run-of-the-mill picky eaters. Nevertheless, I found a lot of advice that can help all families gather around the table with less stress and more joy. I found it full of great, practical advice, and I learned about some of my own unproductive approaches to food and feeding.
1. Eliminate stress from the dinner table
The number one priority is to create a relaxed and inviting atmosphere around food and eating. Who doesn’t want that?
If you have a picky eater, the first step is to learn not to engage in conflict or power struggles and not to draw attention to the issue of food. The idea is to enjoy the time you share around the table and for both parent and child to stop obsessing about food and nutrition.
How many of you do this? You pick up your kids from school or camp, and one of the first questions you ask is an anxious or accusatory, “Did you eat all of your lunch?” I do it every single day! The advice from these authors? Stop that right away and take the battle over what did and did not get eaten right out of the equation.
Enjoy each others’ company; do not measure each others’ food intake.
It’s the same at the dinner table. Eliminate the stress and conflict over food by relaxing the reins and letting the kids take more control. Stop all pressure tactics, bribes and negotiations. Stop all praise or blame. The big picture is that kids have to learn to eat to satisfy the intrinsic cues of hunger, not to satisfy (or annoy!) an anxious parent.
2. Create structure.
No more all-day grazing. Kids need to learn to listen to hunger cues. Make eating a structured and mindful part of each day, and make each meal and snack nutritionally balanced so that all eating opportunities are healthy eating opportunities. Let kids’ hunger and appetite build between meals, and don’t dull the appetite with constant grazing.
3. Create a clear division of responsibility.
The authors of this book are refreshingly clear on what a parent should control:
Your job: decide when, where, and what foods are offered (as long as you include something your child can eat)
Your child’s job: decide whether and how much to eat.
No more one-bite rule! Really?? Really. Your job ends with putting the food on the table. What the children choose to eat is their responsibility.
4. Do not put food on anyone’s plate but your own.
Do not serve dinner on to the diners’ plates. Put all of the food you serve in the middle of the table. All food is equal: broccoli and pasta, salad and bread. It all goes on the table, and there is no division of adult and kid food. No more us and them. If the only thing your child will eat today is crackers, put them in a bowl on the table with the rest of the food.
Then let the kids serve themselves.
The authors even suggest putting dessert on the table with dinner! If you stop using dessert as a bribe, you stop a food battle in its tracks.
In the short term, the kids may still only eat the plain pasta and a bowl of ice cream. Let them. Let them learn enjoyment and pleasure at the table. Let them learn to trust that they will find things they like. In the long term, when conflict and power struggles are gone, they will begin to expand their eating repertoire.
5. You are not a short order cook.
Stop catering to the limited palate of the picky eater. Make your menu, provide at least one safe food and serve it up without apology: “When you sit down to foods you actually want to eat, not only do you expose your child to a wider variety of foods, but you can also authentically model enjoying different foods.”
6. Model healthy eating.
Eat what you love and relish it. Avoid labelling food “good” or “bad.”
I have put some of these very concrete steps into place in our home, and I’m loving the results.
- I put platters and bowls of food in the centre of the table, and, sure enough, the kids were more willing to serve themselves a taster of something new.
- After I told them about some of the tortuous strategies used to teach children table manners, like knives in the backs of chairs to enforce good posture (learned watching a documentary about the making of Downton Abbey!) we laughed about table manners from days of old, and the boys planned a night of eating fancy: dress up and pretend to be aristocrats. This is to be followed by a night on which we eat like cavemen, with fingers and no manners at all.
- My “picky eater” planned a cheese tasting for dinner when he had a friend over, and he went to the cheese store and spoke to the owner and tried five new cheeses. He helped slice the fruit and veggies, lay out the cheese board and the cracker tray. He ate like a horse, and his friend very gamely tried all of the cheeses, even the blue. It was a huge success.
- I’ve stopped calling my picky eater a picky eater. Take the label away and the behaviour will follow!
Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating is published by New Harbinger Publications. We were sent a copy for review.