Jennifer Brown, M.Ed., LPC
Picky Eating Predicaments
Before we begin to discuss how to help children develop healthy eating habits, I want to share that if you think your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, please seek professional help for them immediately, as eating disorders are not the same as being a picky or finicky eater. If you are in need of referrals to assess/address an eating disorder in your child, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some children love any food you put in front of them. From the moment their first few teeth begin to poke through, they find enjoyment in mashed peas, bananas, ice cream, yogurt. They love making messes but are sure to put as much of the food you set in front of them in their mouths as they can. Some children are never picky eaters, and dinner time is never a battle.
And some children are picky eaters, and dinner time is often a battle.
After a long day at work or other obligations, many parents dread the fight that will ensue around the dinner table because their child doesn’t want the food that has been prepared, will only eat tortillas, or just refuses to eat in general. Food and eating habits come up with every family I work with in different ways, and this is a very important topic to understand for all of us -- the ways in which we (and our children) emotionally experience food, a necessity for survival. I reached out to Tessa Pack, MS, RD, LD, RYT at the Eating Recovery Center and Ethos Wellness, to gain her professional insight as a Registered Dietician on children’s eating habits and how parents can support the development of a healthy emotional relationship with food.
Emotional and Social Eating
New literature continues to emerge about how our emotions are connected to our eating habits, behaviors, and preferences. Currently, scientific research suggests that 90-95% of the serotonin produced in our bodies, which is essential for stabilizing our mood states and putting some pep in our step, is produced in the GI tract. When people joke about “emotional eating” in my office, we think together about how real this is and how some starchy foods like potatoes give us an uptick in serotonin production.
All of us have an emotional relationship with food to some extent, and when a parent packs their child the food they want in their school lunch or makes it for dinner, it often creates a special kind of satisfaction for the child. Registered Dietician, Tessa Pack, expounds on the connection between emotions and food. “Food and eating is often a source of connection with others and is meant to be pleasurable”. Pack goes on, “However, we don’t want food to be our only source of comfort. Finding a balance between eating for fuel and eating for enjoyment is important, as veering towards either extreme of the spectrum can compromise our physical, mental, and social health”.
Besides serotonin production, feeding someone a home-cooked meal and sharing that meal is often an expression of caring. Sharing a meal is a time to socialize and share oneself with others. Many children learn essential social skills, such as how to have helpful conversations and what to do if they don’t like a particular food, at their family dinner table before they practice these skills out in the world.
Assertion and Eating Autonomy
From the time your child was born, they were developing an awareness of their hunger sensation. Your child signaled you to be fed when they were hungry and were too small to feed themselves. As your child grows, like in all other areas of development, your child hopes for more independence because doing for oneself feels good. This is also true about noticing bodily sensations like hunger and feeding oneself.
If you reflect on the Tantrum Troubles post where we discuss assertion, your child may be trying to assert him or herself for more eating independence as they refuse food that you put in front of them at the dinner table. When parents can keep this in mind, the argument at dinner time can transform into an opportunity to help children develop more thoughtful independence around food. Pack shared her thoughts on helping children develop food autonomy, and recommends a “division of responsibility” to parents of younger kids, wherein, “...[p]arents are in charge of eating times and providing access to a variety of all foods (this includes grains/starches, proteins, dairy products or substitutes, fruits, vegetables, fats, and desserts/sweets)... Some days the afternoon snack you provide may be cookies, and other days maybe it’s a selection of fruits. The child is responsible for how much they choose to eat”.
Pack’s advice on letting a young child choose how much they want to eat of a particular item at snack or dinner time is very similar to the therapeutic paradigm we use for food here at The Journey School. When children are learning to regulate their hunger sensation and satiation, we trust that they will eat the amount they need, no matter what the offering is and even if it is something they do not prefer. When they eat less fruit and more popcorn on a particular day, we know that they need an extra “filling up” emotionally and that popcorn might be a food to which a particular feeling or experience is attached. If the child is still hungry after eating the popcorn, you can guarantee they will also eat the fruit if it is available to them in their lunch. One thing I ask parents to keep in mind of their children is that they will not starve if food is available to them (also keep in mind that this is not the case with children struggling with eating disorders).
Providing your child with a wide variety of food each day helps them begin to see that they can meet all of their food needs without labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. If we’re keeping in mind that eating is an act that satisfies physical and social/emotional needs, ALL food has value and a place in our lives.
Avoid Labeling Food as “Good” or “Bad”
As children are learning to trust their judgment, regulate their intake of food, and understand their hunger cues, it is important not to label food as “good” or “bad” and reflect on your language and thoughts about food as a parent. Pack shares that labeling food as a good food or a bad food, “...implies that food has moral value. Children can start to internalize these messages and see themselves as bad or good based on what they eat”. While a child might not be able to express this idea consciously, think about how you have internalized thinking about eating cake or fries. Does it feel like a “treat”? Does it feel like a “guilty pleasure”? Where did the idea of associating pleasure and guilt and food come from?
Pack says, “Even a comment we may feel is harmless, like ‘I’m not having dessert tonight because I’m trying to be good’ can have an impact”, and this is because we have associated, in our own lives, foods that are higher in fat/calories or lower in other vitamins as “bad food”. If we’re keeping in mind that our bodies (and the bodies of our children) need food as fuel, but also for pleasure, and that we use food and mealtime as a means to meet social needs, all food has value. If we found absolutely no pleasure in eating, there would be no drive to do it.
Additionally, associating food with a reward or punishment can also confuse how our children view and relate to food. Any food that is associated with a punishment will inform your child’s ability to view it as a food that they can find pleasurable (Were you ever forced to sit at the table until you ate ALL of a certain vegetable? Do you eat it now? If you do, how long did it take you to enjoy it?). Attempting to force a child to have a relationship with any food will likely have the opposite effect because a child will eventually have ultimate autonomy over what they eat and how they enjoy it or don’t.
Similarly, allowing children certain types of food only as a reward can create an association of needing to do something to deserve that food or food type. Supporting conscientious food habits is rooted in being thoughtful about food consumption as it meets many needs. Pack says, “If a child has access to a food usually labeled as ‘bad’ or that is limited in some way” as in only used as a reward (and it’s typically the foods associated as “bad foods” that are used as rewards), “...they’re more likely to overdo it, sneak food, or hide food for fear of being judged”, and I’ll go further here to add that they may feel as if they didn’t do anything to “deserve it” and think they are “bad” for wanting it or even sneaking it. When kiddos start feeling that they need to do something to “deserve” a food, we obscure the fact that we need food to live by assigning a moral value to food that Pack talked about above.
What Can I Do Now?
Now that we’ve discussed the intricacies of our relationships with food, parents and caretakers can start by examining their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with food to better guide their decisions around parenting any kind of eater, but especially a picky eater. We have a saying at The Journey School which goes, “We can’t teach children to do something we cannot do ourselves”. If you are struggling with your own relationship with food and need to examine it with a professional to help yourself better and help your child, you can reach out to me at email@example.com, and I will be glad to assist you. You can also reach out to Tessa Pack for professional Registered Dietician services at Pack_Tessa@yahoo.com.
In the next blog post, we’ll discuss, along with Tessa Pack, strategies for helping children develop lifelong habits for wellness and health in food consumption, physically, emotionally, and socially.