For health-conscious parents, the abundant variety of healthy foods and the cultural enthusiasm for nutritious cuisine are just some of the perks of life in the Bay Area. And though their own diets may sometimes be more bagel-grabbing, multi-tasking reality, than farmer’s market poster-parent ideal, they endeavor to do better for their children. Many parents go to considerable lengths to help their kids establish healthy eating habits. Unfortunately, many children do not share their parents’ zeal for robust nutrition, or in some cases, for eating in any form. This can lead to frustration. Frustration often leads to power struggles around food and eating, which in turn, often lead to less eating and more frustration.
As with so many things, eating habits are highly influenced by a child’s temperament. For children who are open to new foods, and eat readily, providing them with healthy and appealing food, setting boundaries around what is and is not okay to eat, and modeling nutritional priorities as a lifestyle choice, will lay a good foundation for healthy nutrition and an appreciation of food. But children who are highly sensitive to taste, texture and temperature may have surprisingly strong preferences and dislikes.
So, what do you do when your child wants to survive on a diet of Pirate’s Booty and chicken nuggets? The most important thing you can do to support proper nutrition for your child is to prevent food and eating from becoming power struggle issues. If you are already in a power struggle, you will have to change the way eating feels before gaining success over what, or how, your child eats (and this doesn’t mean letting your child eat only what their temperamental favors). Establishing healthy habits means meeting kids where they are and helping them to expand.
If your son knows you are set on getting him to eat more, he’s likely to become resistant or anxious around mealtimes. Children who tend to be oppositional may deal with the anxiety through defiance; but even kids who are usually compliant will find themselves in a bind between the discomfort connected with their parent’s menu choice and the fear of failing or disappointing a parent. Even offering rewards for eating certain foods can feel like pressure to some kids – it reinforces the dynamic that you and your child are on opposite sides of the table, so to speak, about what they will eat. It’s often more effective to let your dialogue about food take the form of a discussion, rather than an instruction or a cheerleading session. Talk with your kids about what foods you do and don’t like, and why, and what you notice about how they respond to certain foods. Let your discussion be fun and light-hearted. The point isn’t to convince them to eat a particular food; the point is to model a curious and enthusiastic attitude about eating. This will be especially important if food is already a point of tension. In addition to eating together, look at and play with foods together without any pressure to actually eat. While this may not exemplify the table manners you would like your children to keep as they get older; it will give slow adapting kids permission and a model for developing a relationship with a new or suspicious food without having to jump right to eating it. This is an important and natural progression for slow-to-warm kids.
In addition to creating a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere around food, the other important factor for picky eaters is time. Even when a new item is a food a child will eventually like, slow adapting kids need time to consider a food, to reject it, reconsider, touch it, push it away, look at it, ignore it, smell it, push it away, taste it, reject it, and look at it for a while again before they are going to be ready to eat it. This is a delicate process, hard to perform properly under pressure. If parents give up and remove a food from the table before this vetting process is complete, kids have to start all over with the replacement and few things ever make it to consumption.
Follow a formula for meals with picky eaters: each meal should include one thing you know your child will eat, one item that you are working on introducing (this item may appear over and over for three or four weeks regardless of whether your child eats it or likes it) and one wildcard item.
Do not allow your daughter to have seconds and thirds of their favorite item: once that portion is gone, she can eat the other things on the plate or end the meal. If you are worried about calorie consumption because your child ate only 1/3 of his or her meal, fill in with healthy snacks between meals.
Finally, do what you can to stress less about what your child eats. If you are worrying about food, your child will pick up the anxiety. It may help to measure your child’s consumption in terms of what they eat in a week rather than in any given day. Whether your child is a particularly picky eater or just a normal toddler with a preference for Tootsie Rolls over broccoli, remember that the clearest messages you send to your children about food will not be transmitted by your words, or even your choice of what appears on their plates. It’s your own approach to food, appreciation for it, and for your body’s relationship to it, that will be the most potent instruction to your children. And in the sage priority system of a toddler, that which is fun and creates connection is good; so don’t be afraid to chew with your mouth open from time to time.