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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« There's Good Stuff Inside (And kids still like it.) | Main | Cooking with Kids »
Wednesday
Aug292012

Let Your Kids Sit with Their Own Struggles

Many children need time to stare offensive food "in the face." They need time to think, to ponder, to consider, to struggle, to sit and stew. Eventually they'll eat.

This is a point I made in my last post Cooking with Kids, but since it was buried at the bottom you might have missed it.  It's such an important, and counter-intuitive point, that I want to revisit it here.

When it comes to getting kids to eat right most parents I know think they have to choose between being lenient and being strict.

Many parents also think it is mean to put a picky eater in a situation where he has to wrestle with his demons (or a well-crafted crontrol sturggle), but think of it this way: You wouldn't keep a shy kid away from social situations. Instead you would expose your shy child to carefully choreographed, and increasingly complex, moments of mingling.  

That's what picky eaters have to do with food: They have to mingle.  With a safety net (more on this in a moment).

I am not advocating a starve-it-out strategy.

In this month's Real Simple Magazine, Noelle Howey writes about how she put her kids through a picky-eater boot camp. Look at how she let her kids sit with their own struggles.

First, Howey established a set of rules that included general politeness and appreciation, and rules such as:  

  1. Three bites before you say you don't like it.
  2. Kids get to choose their own portion size.

Then, Howey proceeded to make a series of meals, some of which were "easy" for her kids, some of which were more "challenging."

Finally, THE SAFETY NET. Howey made sure there was at least one ingredient in each dish that her kids found palatable. 

A safety net provides your child with nourishment (so you don't have to worry he'll starve) but also gives him the opportunity—time— to think about eating whatever it is you've cooked.

I might not make kids eat three bites, and I'm particularly wary of "I don't like it," but, the key to Howey's system is this:

After the rules were established, Howey sat back and let her kids work through their eating issues on their own. She didn't beg, scold, demand or do anything else. She remained silent (and hopeful).

And her kids began to eat. Tentatively.  Read Howey's story.

If you're too lenient your kids never have to come to terms with their own food challenges.

But, if you're too strict, your kids also never have to come to terms with their own food challenges—because they get wrapped up in the struggle.

You have to expose your children to food challenges without too much pressure to help them grow.  Structure, with a safety net, lets you do that.

1) Decide not to fight about food.  Cook foods you like to eat.  Make sure there is something on the table your children will eat (even if it's not their first choice.) Ellyn Satter recommends bread and butter, but I recommend you switch up your "safety." (Variety creates a variety mentality; monotony creates a monotonous mentality.)

2) Let your children sit with their own internal struggle.  Get on your kids' team by finding ways to help them: Serve foods that aren't too unfamiliar; Teach your children how to predict what a food will taste like; Make sure there's a glass of water handy.

Might your picky eater still refuse to eat?

Sure, but that doesn't change a thing.  If you've put a safety out that your child should reasonably be expected to eat—he ate it yesterday for instance—then you've done what you can do.  Some kids need to choose NOT to eat before they'll chose TO eat.

But, if you completely cater to your kids' culinary demands you'll reinforce the pickiness rather than take steps to eradicate it.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Reader Comments (4)

Great post, as usual Dina!
I had my own version of this last night with some success! Dinner was saag gosht with rice (spinach lamb curry), but as I was cooking it, my 3-yr-old said he wanted lentils for dinner (the ready-to-eat, preservative free sachets that Costco sell, which BTW, are a GREAT backup dinner when you can't be bothered cooking!!).
Instead of fighting him on it, and insisting he eat the dinner I'd made, I gave him some lentils, but also served him a little rice, a little saag sauce, and a little lamb (taken out of the sauce). I didn't pressure him to eat anything, I just gave him his plate & let him figure it out.
He chowed down the lentils & rice, ate most of the lamb (he called it "seal meat" because he was pretending to be a polar bear!) and then took a spoonful of the saag sauce... and actually swallowed it!!! He then declared it "yucky", but I was so impressed that he tasted it without complaint or spitting it back on his plate! Usually his "taste" is a tiny lick that doesn't actually get any flavor onto his tongue, or he says it's yucky before he even tastes it. I tried to discuss with him WHY he didn't like it (color, flavor, texture, smell, etc) but he didn't want to talk (he just wanted more lentils & rice, which I happily gave him, as he'd "had a bite of everything").
At bedtime, I rewarded him with an extra story, for trying 2 new foods (saag & lamb) and for having a proper bite before deciding if he wanted to eat more.
Yay, happy dinner time!

August 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVestifarian

Vestifarian,

Great story; thanks for sharing it. As usual, I say, don't take the "yucky," too seriously and don't worry that your son didn't want to talk about why he didn't like it. First of all, the yucky could have just meant "I don't want to eat it," not actually, "I don't like it." Secondly, even if he didn't like it he probably doesn't know why. Next time just try talking about one aspect of the food to draw his attention to it (without necessarily getting his input): "Wow, this is so green" or "This is smooth like the yogurt we had yesterday." These might not be the correct examples, but you get my point.

Love the lentils as backup.

Best,

Dina

BTW, when we introduced my daughter to Indian food we always put a bowl of plain yogurt on the table so she could add it to any food she thought was too spicy. It worked a charm.

August 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

We tell our kids they should try foods they don't like every few months because your tastes change as you grow. They are always willing to try it because the deal is if they don't like it they don't have to eat it as long as they take a real bite. We have a glass of water handy too, in case they need to push it down if they still don't like it. They are always quite proud of themselves when they finally like something. The older they get the amount of times they needed to try each food before liking it has decreased. We started this when they were about 2. Now at 7 and 10 they eat almost anything. The 10 yr old even eats foods that I won't eat!

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterC.J.

C.J.

You make a good point: kids get better at tasting (and eating) new foods the more they practice. Thanks for sharing your story.

Dina

September 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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