In my years working with families and small children, the things parents seem to worry about most are the basics: eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. How often do they nap? For how long? When will you start solids? What about potty training? Where does your baby sleep? Does he sleep all night?
Why are such basic needs of such interest? Probably because they affect every moment of the day for our kids, and we want to help our children spend their days being happy and well adjusted, developing skills that will make them well rounded adults. We can’t eat or sleep or go to the bathroom FOR our children, so instead we end up worrying about how and when they will do these things. And these basic needs can affect every moment of our time parenting as well. A child who needs to eat, or sleep, or poop, and cannot do so, is not a fun child to be spending time with. I have seen the way that having an extremely picky eater can stress a family. Parents become frustrated. They worry about their child getting enough vitamins and adequate nutrition and fiber. They often stop going to restaurants because their child refuses to sit through meals that are of no interest. It can affect every meal decision, and parents often feel very judged and blamed.
Listening to NPR on my drive home last week I heard a great interview with cookbook author Sally Sampson, who founded an organization promoting families cooking together; and Dr. David Ludwig, who is the author of the book “Ending the Food Fight” and works for Boston Children’s Hospital, specializing in Obesity Prevention. The topic on the table was picky eaters. How to prevent pickiness, deal with it when it happens, and create healthful food attitudes in our children. One of the things I appreciate about Sally Sampson’s advice is that she encourages parents to relax a bit in their meal time approach- she advises to cook just one meal for the whole family and no separate meals for picky little ones. She also follows my personal rule of not getting into power struggles or forcing kids to try things. As a parent and an educator, it’s nice to be told to relax and do less once and awhile. The tips she offers are simple and promote healthful food habits for the entire family, and her tone is very positive and constructive. Here is the interview in full, if you’d like to give it a listen:
This piece stood out to me because Ludwig and Sampson offered some insightful and very specific tips beyond the usual, vague, “keep offering a variety of foods” and “they’ll grow out of it”. They actually spent time with a family, working with their picky preschooler, and share how in juts six weeks they were able to change his behaviors so drastically that he became extremely adventurous eater. Their work is chronicled in a blog for the New York Times, called The Picky Eater Project (excerpt and link below).
After I had finished listening, one of Dr. Ludwig’s comments stayed in my head (the preschoolers call this “an ear worm” – it’s a little voice that gets in your ear and won’t leave):
“You know, we live in an environment that makes junk food, hyper-sweetened foods the norm. And by comparison an apple doesn’t taste sweet and a vegetable seems completely inedible…You know, there’s a natural developmental cycle here at work. Children are born with a fear of unfamiliar foods, which protects them from eating something toxic. But they’re also programmed to develop an increasingly broad set of taste preferences. If not, children would die of starvation after weaning.The problem is our modern junk food, hyper-sweetened diet tends to keep taste buds in tantalized state.”
When I heard this I immediately thought about the many times I see preschoolers arrive at school with a carefully packed lunchbox containing things like sliced apples, carrot sticks, cheddar cheese, and a “treat”. Maybe a package of M & Ms or fruit snacks, or some Oreos. For any parent who has ever packed this, and instructed your child to eat the fruit and veggies before the treat, I’m just going to give it to you straight: they ignore you, and they probably trash the fruit and veggies. Kids aren’t good at impulse control. They see it. They want it. They aren’t good at waiting. So they eat it. And after they eat something very calorie dense, that is enhanced with corn syrup or lots of refined sugar they are not going to have much of an appetite for the apple. In contrast it seems bland or sour, and the carrot sticks don’t taste like anything at all. Not to mention, it sets up a punishment/reward attitude about food. Eat your fruit before your treat. It implies that the fruit itself is not a treat, and is something to be endured. If I’m asked for lunchbox advice I usually say pack a variety of good choices and give your child the control to eat whatever they want from their lunchbox with no guilt. I’m not saying don’t pack a cookie. Go ahead and pack a favorite cookie once in awhile. But it doesn’t need to be an obligatory part of every meal. Pack an appropriate portion size so they are still hungry for their other food.
For some fresh ideas and constructive advice, here are The Picky Eater Project’s “12 Tips to Take Back the Dinner Table”:
1. If you don’t want your child to eat it, don’t bring it home. “When it comes to food,” says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of “Ending the Food Fight,” “one of the pillars of parenting is to protect the home environment. Attention to this non-coercive measure can prevent eating issues in the first place, or help defuse problems that have already developed.” You decide what foods are welcome.
2. Institute a “one-meal rule.” If you don’t want to be a short order cook, making a separate meal for different children, stop. Keep the messaging positive: Tell your kids that the house rule is now one delicious dinner for everyone. “Parents need to parent,” advises Bill Dietz, M.D., the former director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food related responsibilities in families should go like this: Parents are in charge of what foods are offered at home, and children can choose to eat it or not. If a child rejects the food, it is not the parents’ responsibility to offer something else.” It’s fine to make sure the meal includes at least one thing that’s generally acceptable (even if that’s just plain pasta), and you should decide in advance what’s acceptable to you after dinner for a child who didn’t eat (a choice that’s distinctly different for toddlers than for teenagers).
3. A little hunger can go a long way. Snacks are fine but don’t overdo them. If children arrive at the dinner table hungry, they are more likely to eat what is in front of them. I routinely put salad on the table before the entrée and found that salad eating spiked as a result.
4. Shop and cook together. Involve your children in every step as much as possible. Take them to the grocery store and ask them to pick any vegetable/fruit they want. Have them help you cook. Depending on their age, this can mean counting out cherry tomatoes to add to a salad, stirring, and later making a meal on their own. Even setting the table instills ownership.
5. Meet them where they are. If your children love roast chicken, don’t start the “one-meal rule” by making exotic pork dishes with a lot of sauces. Make basic food you know they like. This way it will not feel like deprivation. Additionally, make sure they can personalize parts of their meal: If you’re making burritos/omelets/burgers, have all the fillings/toppings in little bowls so they can choose what to add.
6. Don’t force them to eat anything. There are many schools of thought about this. Some people feel you should make them “just take one bite.” I don’t agree and think that this has a very negative implication and tends to backfire. Instead say, “Wow, these roasted brussels sprouts/shredded carrots/spinach pancakes are amazing.” Children who won’t taste don’t get nudged or judged. The 10th time you serve them, your child may, unprompted, take a bite.
7. Talk about what it takes to grow and cook food. Breed respect. When children understand that someone had to plant a seed and harvest a vegetable even before it gets to your kitchen, they will more fully appreciate what goes into making a meal. Even better, plant a little garden.
8. Be consistent but not rigid. Be sure everyone knows what the rules are, but if your rule is a home-cooked dinner every night and you’re exhausted, cut yourself some slack: get take-out. Eat breakfast for dinner. Pull everything out of the fridge and see who can make what.
9. Be a good role model. Children take their cues from their parents: if you don’t like something, don’t pretend to like it but express your pleasure that someone – even you — went to the trouble to prepare it.
10. Play. Experiment. Try different food “games” outside of dinnertime. We’ve had a lot of success with games where everyone can make a lot of choices and mix and match:
Vegetable Tasting Extravaganza: trying many vegetables, each prepared in multiple ways. My Plate Scavenger Hunt: show them MyPlate and have them identify what goes into each quadrant. Raw Vegetable and Dip Experiment: trying different dips with different raw vegetables
11. Don’t refer to anyone as a “picky eater” or make a big deal out of their “picky eating.” If your child doesn’t eat carrots, don’t stop serving them, or when your child is a guest at someone else’s, don’t say: My child doesn’t like carrots. If you define them, it makes it much harder for them to change.
12. Use positive peer pressure. When my children were in elementary school, their friends ate whatever my kids ate when they came to our house. I literally never had a child say: “I don’t eat hummus. I don’t like carrots.” Seeing a peer eat an unfamiliar food automatically makes it safer. You’ll be amazed at how many children will eat something because they see another child eating it.
The rest of the advice and stories shared on the Picky Eater Plan are great. To read the full blog post, and the entire series, or find more tips for encouraging adventurous, healthful eating, here is the link to the New York Times Picky Eater Project: