It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.
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Tuesday
Oct232012

Encouraging Kids to Eat

Parents sometimes (inadvertently) send kids the message that they're not good enough in the eating department.

  • You only ate 1/2 your peas? Not good enough. Eat some more.
  • You tasted this food? I wanted you to eat it.
  • You have an unusual (or unconventional) idea for breakfast? Forget about it.

That was where I started in my post last week. I went on to say that parents need to create a positive eating environment.  Read the rest of  Nix YOUR Negativity.

In response, I received the following question from Karen:

Could you please elaborate on what you mean by encouragement when it comes to eating? 

This question comes up a lot, Karen, so thanks for asking it.

The answer boils down to creating reasonable expectations for your child.

Choose an achievable goal for your child.  This mild amount of pressure encourages your child to live up to your expectations and goals.  This encouragement, though, isn't enough pressure that your child won't be willing to "play along." 

If you set an expectation that your child rejects you should retreat to a smaller expectation.

A lot of parents think there is no way they are going to win if they retreat, but you don't retreat completely, you just pick a goal your child is willing to work towards.  (Sometimes this means the first goal is infinitesimally close to your starting point.)

Last night in the webinar, "Eat your vegetables. They're good for you." we were talking about The Happy Bite and parents were asking what to do if your child refuses to take a Happy Bite.

The answer is to retreat to a smaller Happy Bite. Maybe your child needs a much smaller taste. Maybe the taste is too much and she's only ready for a touch, a smell or a kiss. (Yes, a kiss is what it sounds like: Kiss the food.)

If you retreat to a small enough step, and only you— and your kids can determine what that small step is—your kids will comply because they'll think it's easy.  Easy is the key.

Don't get discouraged if your Happy Bite request is ignored at first.  

Sometimes kids reject anything you suggest about eating outright because they need some time to struggle with it and decide they're going to engage in it. Read Let Your Kids Sit With Their Own Struggles.

Repeat your request—once per meal—in a calm, cool and casual way. "Oh, maybe tomorrow."

Reward your child for playing the game.

For many children the reward is your praise. For other children you might want to use an actual reward. I know there is a dispute about using rewards for eating, but in this case we aren't really using rewards for eating, per se, we're using rewards to shape behavior.  Read Star Power.

Karen's question continued:

Specifically, how do I encourage my 9 year-old son (who has ADHD and takes medication that suppresses his appetite) to eat? Our whole family is suffering from the negativity that surrounds our mealtime battles with him. I would love to find a way to get him to, first of all, just eat without fussing. And second of all, to eat more. And third of all, to try vegetables and fruits or a protein other than chicken tenders. Every mealtime is so exhausting and stressful.

Well, Karen, I can't give you specifics because I don't have enough information, however:

  1. I love that your first goal is to get your son to eat without fussing.  Identify the steps that your son would need to take from where he is to where you want him to be.
  2. Be mindful to eliminate the pressure. Don't focus on how much or what your son eats during this time. This will make meals are manageable for him.
  3. Reward your son for each little step he takes in the right direction.

It can be scary to back off the pressure.

This is true especially when you are worried about how much (or rather, how little) your son eats.  However, the pressure is producing most of the problem.  

Trust that if you create a more positive eating environment your son will start eating better (and then remind yourself of this as often as possible).  It sometimes helps to decide in advance how much time you're willing to experiment with. "I won't pressure my son to eat more food for two weeks and see how it goes."

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Reader Comments (1)

I sympathized with your reader, Karen's, question because I also have a 9yo with ADHD. Every kid is different, ADHD or not, but perhaps some of the things that have worked for us might be adaptable for Karen's family:

I've found that my daughter enjoys helping to prepare foods, and when she does, she's more likely to eat them. She eats breakfast (which is always been a bigger problem for her than dinner) without a fight much more often now, because she feels independent and "grown up" when she can reheat leftovers or make a sandwich by herself. And yes, leftover meatloaf or mac n cheese for breakfast is just fine by me. I pick my battles: making sure she gets something in her to get body & brain going in the morning is worth a fight; what she eats, not so much.

Choices are helpful as well, as is letting her know expectations in advance - really anything that makes her feel more in control. I try to experiment with one or two new recipes each month in an effort to expand our woefully slim meal rotation. I might show my daughter two new recipes and let her choose which one we'll try first, and also help me decide on which day we'll do it. If possible, she can help me make it. Being involved in those ways help her to feel more in control of the situation, and knowing that we have a set "appointment" on which she's going to be expected to eat a reasonable amount of something a little bit new (I never go outrageous; usually it's one basic new ingredient, or all ingredients she likes combined in a new way) helps her to feel more prepared and less stressed about it.

I also support her nutrition in any other ways I can - she takes a multi-vitamin, and I buy the "gummy" type to insure that she takes it rather than fighting over a pill. Protein powder has been a savior as well - I make smoothies with milk, frozen strawberries and a banana with some powder mixed in, and I get an A+ breakfast for her. In her toughest period, when her weight was in danger of dropping below a healthy range, that was the only way to insure I got a reasonable amount of protein in her on any given day. Now that she's eating better, they're more of an occasional boost or a "treat" option for breakfast. If a new recipe we're trying is a little bit of a stretch, sometimes I'll add a smoothie to dinner - that way we can focus on congratulating her just for trying something new without worrying that she needs to eat "enough." It makes it a more positive experience for everyone.

For a kid who doesn't like fruit, you could add ice to the blender to get that thick, "frozen" feeling, and use other flavoers he does like - the person who first recommended smoothies to me said her favorite splurge was adding powdered chocolate pudding mix!

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

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