In the last blog post, we discussed the intricacies of our physical and emotional relationships to food and how to help children begin to think about food as meeting a variety of needs. If you haven’t read it, please take a look here.
Helping Your Picky Eater
There is a good chance you and your child have encountered some kind of difficulty when it comes to mealtime or ensuring that they are eating a variety of foods. Perhaps they only eat one type of food, and you worry their nutritional needs are not being met, or you are frustrated by the nightly battle at the dinner table when your child refuses to eat what you’ve cooked. You and your child may even struggle with lunches because they refuse to pack their own, but he or she feels angry at the options you have packed for them.
If your child does not want to eat what is on the table, you can encourage them to make their healthy dinner. Presenting children with this choice (eat what is on the table or make yourself something), takes you out of the center of the argument and gives children an opportunity to decide what is most important to them at the moment; asserting their independence around eating or trying the food you have provided. Personally, this is how I learned that I actually really love broccoli. I didn’t want to make myself a sandwich, so I just ate what was on the table. Who has two thumbs and is a lifelong lover of broccoli? This girl.
At differing times, it will feel more important to your child to assert their autonomy around hunger and eating, which is often developmentally appropriate. At other times, their emotional need to be cared for by being provided food will take precedence.
For younger children who may not be as independent in food preparation, giving them the option to grab their own piece of fruit, some lunch meat, or a bowl of cereal can be a helpful alternative that does not require parents to change the dinner menu after it has already been prepared. Additionally, collaborating with your child to include some things they would like in the menu, as well as some things you would like them to eat, can be really helpful as they learn to try new foods, make helpful and healthy choices, and become more aware of their own hunger cues and food needs.
But My Child Will Only Eat Tortillas
You’re saying to yourself “Sure, I can leave my child’s hunger up to him, but when he gets hungry he will fill up on tortillas ONLY if left to his own devices”. This certainly isn’t ideal. As much as I love tortillas, it’s important to have some variety in our diets. You can help your child develop this variety in a few different ways.
Giving your child options to a variety of foods is the first important step in helping your child expand their diet. Less variety means fewer choices, and we want children to have as many choices as resources will allow. When you go to the grocery store, make sure to bring home one or two new fruits or vegetables each time, or some other food that you don’t normally purchase. If you spring for something more exotic, like a persimmon or star fruit, you can build excitement and curiosity by sharing it with your child and talking about the differences between these items and what you typically eat or buy at the store. Because the good feelings around eating can be social in nature, sharing a special experience, just the two of you, around a dragon fruit can be a way to internally motivate your child to try new foods. This can work for all foods, whether their value is mostly nutritional (like cauliflower) or emotional (like cookies). This leads me back to a very important point from our last blog post: all foods have value. (If you haven’t read the previous post, you can read it here.)
Food Independence Outside of the Home
Many parents have shared with me the struggles they have around children packing their own lunch. So often I’ve heard parents say, “My child will not pack his lunch before school. He absolutely refuses, and so I have to do it for him”. Inside of this is a very natural fear that the child will starve if the parent does not provide food for him, which is only a reality inside of infancy, when the child does not yet have the capabilities of feeding himself. One thing we work on keeping in mind is that no one who has access to food has starved (eating disorders, again, are a much different situation and should be treated as such).
If your child refuses to eat because they do not want to pack their own lunch or eat what you have cooked, they will eat when they are hungry enough. When a parent takes on the worry and burden of thinking about and keeping in mind their child’s hunger, the child no longer has to do it for himself. Additionally, when you trust that your child will take care of his or her own needs as best they can for their developmental stage, your child internalizes and uses your trust in her to say to herself “I CAN do it”. Pack agrees, stating, “Know that it’s normal for children to go through ‘food jags’, eat more or less on some days than others… and may not ever get every food group at each meal. By showing your child you trust their bodies and their hunger/fullness cues, they can start to learn to trust themselves”.
In the case of lunch packing, a lot of parents have found success in first packing the lunch together. Asking your child to sit in the kitchen with you while you both decide what is packed in his or her lunch is a good starting point. Framing the collaborative lunch packing as “I’d like for you to have a lunch that makes you feel good, but I need your input” or something similar, to your child, will likely help them with the foundation of a feeling of autonomy. Additionally, doing this collaborative packing the night before has been helpful for a lot of parents whose kids struggle with “the grumpies” in the morning. We can’t all be morning people!
Seeking Additional Assistance
If you feel that you and your child need the help of an outside professional to navigate their eating habits and build a healthier relationship with food, and you live in the Houston area, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for referrals. Outside of the Houston area, psychologytoday.com is a great resource for locating helping professionals in your area.