It seems every parent I talk with is having struggles with mealtimes and picky eating. It’s not uncommon to hear that a child won’t eat anything except four or five select foods. I’ve come to realise that parents today have a cultural phobia of previous generations’ “clean your plate” approach to eating. Unfortunately, the permissive ‘eat-what-you-want’ approach is not any less disastrous.
Childhood obesity is epidemic as are learning and behaviour challenges. Diet is the first and most immediate way to shift these conditions, yet understandably, most parents would rather climb Mount Everest than convince a picky eater to eat their vegetables.
What’s the Magic Secret You Ask?
There is no magic secret to getting your child to eat healthy–it’s more of a practice that our own mothers understood–well not the ‘eat-everything-on-your-plates’ ones. They understood that instilling healthy boundaries around food was as much a part of parenting as ensuring you wore your hat in the winter, went to bed at a reasonable hour and went outside to play for some exercise and fresh air.
Poor diet results in deficiency in critical brain nutrients which can result in various childhood disorders that affects learning, mood, attention, immunity and so much more. If healthy boundaries around food isn’t a part of parenting with love–I don’t know what is.
Permissive Eating Habits is as Detrimental as the Eat-Everything-On-Your-Plate Approach
Moms in particular struggle with creating food boundaries because feeding your children is primal and to deny your child a third snack in an hour has somehow become equated with neglect. As a society we generally avoid an overly strict approach to parenting. Yet somehow, this misguided approach has caused us to gloss over the importance of healthy eating.
We have heard the stories of the person who has a weight issue because they have ‘clean-plate syndrome’ and it’s common sense not to force a child to eat everything on their plate. But not to eat anything on their plate? To not even try three bites of each food on their plate at each meal?
I’ve seen parents only require three bites of an entire meal and then ten minutes later, the child is served a slice of cake. We all have days where we pick our battles, but regularly negotiating meals with a five-year-old is not the path to cultivating a healthy relationship to food.
My Top 8 Tips to Curb Picky Eating
Nobody wants their child to starve or to create meal-time battles–myself included. Starting slow, with simple changes is a great route. Other parents decide to make a complete overhaul, feeling like going slow will only drag out the adjustment. Regardless of what approach you take, you don’t have to force your child to clean their whole plate. Below are my top tips to reset your child’s taste buds and their brain and body health!
1.Start with What they Know – If you know your child hates Brussel sprouts, don’t start with that. Start with the veggies they like–or are more likely to prefer. Work your way into the other veggies that require more adapting. Mixing a small amount of a food that your child does not like into large amounts of what they love is a great place to start especially for really picky eaters.
If your child doesn’t like it–ask them why. Sometimes it’s as simple as the way it was cooked. My daughter is not a fan of overcooked broccoli because she finds it too mushy (and personally so do I). However, lightly sautéed or steamed and smothered in organic butter and she gladly ‘cleans her plate’.
2.Eat as a Family – This fosters an emotional connection with healthy eating. Turn off the TV and all other electronic devices. This is a time to teach table manners as well as appropriate communication like listening to others, not interrupting etc.
3.Regular Meals and Snacks – Kids know there is something up with parents and food negotiations. They know it’s our weak spot. I’ve met parents who set boundaries with every other thing–like technology for no more than 30 minutes, but when it comes to food–they can’t do it
Kids, like adults, gravitate to food when they are bored, down or simply because–eating is pleasurable! You might feel like a horrible parent for saying “no, you just had a snack–supper will be ready in an hour” or “have a glass of water” but I promise this teaches your child not to surrender to every craving and to stay in touch with the physical cues of real hunger. Many children have already lost their natural sense of hunger and satiety by the age of five because they are constantly eating.
Create regular meal and snack times. Ensure snacks are a moderate size and are healthy such as apples and nut butter, trail mix or yogurt. Trust that they won’t starve to death by dinner time. Trust that they will in fact have a healthier appetite and attitude to mealtimes with this approach.
4.Respect the Chef – Children may not like the food, but create the boundary that they aren’t allowed to complain about it–this creates a negative attitude around food and dinner time. Don’t allow your child to be that child who sits at the table complaining about how gross their supper is. This shows disrespect and is hurtful to the person who spent the time cooking. Involve your child in food prep.
Experts have been saying for years to involve kids in food prep to get them eating healthier–because it is true! Even if your child doesn’t want to help–require that they contribute in some small way: setting the table, washing the veggies, chopping (if they are old enough). This teaches them the responsibility that comes with chores and also shows them first-hand how much work is involved in meal prep.
5.Three Bites – Create an expectation that your child must at least eat three bites of each food on their plate. This is a standard practice in all homes and schools in France (where there is no such thing as ‘Kids’ Menus’ in restaurants). Even if your child doesn’t like the food at first—their taste buds will adapt the more often they try the food—the average is 20 exposures.
I have worked with numerous parents who never thought their child would take to avocado and broccoli and now they love it. Keep in mind that the healthier they eat–the more their palate will change. Picky eating isn’t just the result of a spoiled palate but one that is damaged from synthetic and over-flavored food. The more healthy food they eat–the more healthy food they will want to eat.
6.Don’t use Dessert as a Reward – This has becomes such a common practice in our culture that we aren’t even aware of the effects. Rewarding with food is just as damaging, if not worse than telling your child they have to clear their plate. It hardwires their brain to treat and comfort themselves with food rather than with richer more meaningful experiences and can result in serious eating dysfunction and disorders.
I can’t tell you the amount of adult women I coach who were rewarded or punished with food. Please stop doing this. We often don’t realise we are doing it because it seems so innocent. “Let’s go out for an ice cream because you had a good report card” translates as “You deserve sugary desserts when you work hard and are good.” Go out for the ice cream–just because. Celebrate the report card with a non-food related experience–like a friend can sleepover.
Avoid rewarding with dessert. Well-meaning parents often tell their child “just three bites of your vegetables and you can have dessert.” This teaches your child that the main meal cannot possibly be delicious and is an ordeal or punishment to be endured.
Bottom line–don’t bribe with food for the behaviour you desire. Reward and bond through experiences rather than food. Kids won’t remember their fiftieth trip to the ice cream store; they will remember an experience.
7.Keep Healthy Food in the House – The easiest way to shift picky taste buds is to only keep healthy food in the house. Even with regular meal and snack times, you will still have a hard time training ‘healthy taste-buds’ if your child can eat chips and sweets in between meals. Save treats for outings and special occasions and watch how quickly your picky-eater’s palate changes. You’d be surprised how quickly apples and nut butter or a bowl of fruit becomes dessert.
8.A Little Hunger is Okay – Nourishing our child is your first act as a mother and so not feeding your child when they say they are hungry feels wrong to your very core. Not only do you have thousands of years of hard-wiring to feed hungry children at all costs, we are also bombarded with images of a good mom and her always-happy-children. Ughh.
Being a little hungry at meal-times actually encourages a more curious appetite. Constant access to foods and ‘all-day-grazing’ can lead to issues with over-eating and obesity as children lose their internal cue for feeling full causing them to develop a habit of resorting to food to satisfy any type of emotional or physical discomfort.
Believe it or not–being a little hungry at meal times is actually healthy for your digestion and metabolism. In fact, a stomach that constantly has food in it is more likely to lead to gut flora imbalances such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Gut flora imbalances impacts the brain-gut axis which can seriously affect such faculties as learning, behaviour and even compulsive over-eating.
Nourishing – Motherhood in a Nutshell
What’s important to remember is that setting healthy boundaries around food is an act of love just as much as homework completion. More importantly, practicing healthy eating is your responsibility as a parent. Our laissez-faire parenting approach to meals is no better than the clean-your-plate approach.
Childhood brain disorders as well as obesity is an epidemic and the health issues associated with obesity like Type 2 diabetes are occurring at younger and younger ages. I see the effects of poor eating on the brains of my young clients every single day.
Every parent wants their children to be happy, healthy and successful and the first place that starts is with nourishing the brain and the body. Creating healthy boundaries around eating is in my opinion one of the single, greatest ways to mother your child. Ditch the guilt mama! You know what’s best for your child. Set those loving boundaries.
In Health & Wholeness,