When my daughter was three, she decided that she wasn’t eating fish for dinner.  No way.  Not.  One.  Bite.  I decided not to force the issue and reminded her that there was no other dinner option. it was fish, or nothing.  She agreed and I excused her from the table so she could go and play.  Less than an hour later, she was complaining of hunger and was asking for an apple.  An apple is a healthy choice right? But I refused and told her that she first had to finish her fish (which I had saved) and then she could have the apple.  Well that didn’t go over well and she went to bed hungry.   The next morning I offered the fish for breakfast.  She cried, and went to the babysitters without breakfast.  By that evening I was starting to sweat a little.  Soon, I would have to throw the fish out, because it would only keep for so long.  So I made one of her favourite meals for dinner, and pulled the dreaded fish back out of the fridge.  I reminded her that she needed to eat the fish from last night first, then she could eat the rest of the meal that we were all enjoying.  She happily gobbled up the fish and ate the rest of the regular meal.   No fussy eaters in our house.

So what was the point of that exercise?  I knew that she liked fish, she had eaten it many times.  I also knew that if I had lost that battle, I may very well have lost the food war – and I wasn’t willing to risk that. The apple wasn’t a bad choice, the point was that she didn’t feel like fish and thought that she could choose something else.  Well, life isn’t like that.  Sometimes we have to tolerate things that we don’t like.  When I ask my young patients if they like certain fruits and vegetables, I frequently get the reply “well, it’s not my favorite”.  What if we only ate our favorite foods?  Would we be having ice cream for breakfast?

I firmly believe that picky eating is a learned behaviour.  I understand that this can be an unpopular stance.  It implies that the responsibility lies with the people who permit that behaviour to continue… usually the parents.  There are some exceptions to this rule of course – children with sensory disorders or autism, but these children also learn from their experiences with food and the people who serve it to them.  Why is this important?  What is wrong with living on a limited diet of processed foods?  When we permit this eating behaviour chronically in our children, we endanger their health.  Long term nutrient deficiencies and poor quality “beige” food diets are linked to every chronic disease that we know.  From obesity to cancer, asthma, allergies, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, bowel disease, autoimmune disease, diabetes, just to name a few.  I often remind parents that they teach their children about safety every day.  Crossing the street safely, wearing a bike helmet, using a seat belt, etc.  Eating a healthy spectrum of colourful foods is a major determinant of your child’s future health.  It modifies their disease risk directly, their mood, their enjoyment and pleasure in life and of course, their longevity.  It’s worth the early investment of time and attention.  

So how do you change the way you feed your family without tears and temper tantrums?  You don’t.  You accept that there will be some resistance, and you make gradual changes.  Try these strategies and commit to at least 6 months of effort:

Be absolutely resolute.                          

Kids can smell uncertainty in a parent like a dog can smell cheese through a closed

fridge door.  They know when you are wavering and they know when you aren’t.

This is a friendly dictatorship, not a democracy.

Serve vegetables at every meal.

It can take time to change the palate of a fussy eater.  Understand what vegetables your kids like and serve those first, gradually introducing their less favorite vegetables once a week.  Start with raw vegetables that tend to be more popular at first.

Ignore “I don’t like it”. 

Young children are fickle.  They change their minds hourly, sometimes more often.  One day broccoli is their favorite and the next day they hate it.  Don’t take it seriously and keep serving it over and over. 

Involve them in food prep and planning

Studies show that kids who cook and help prepare food are far more likely to eat it.  Even the youngest child can help in the kitchen.

Eat together.

We have all heard about the extinction of family meal time.  Eating in the car on the way to a game or in front of the television is now the norm.  This kind of habit around meal time leads to dysfunctional eating and lack of mindfulness around food.  Eating together has been shown to support happier, healthier families and promote healthy body weight.  Make a daily family meal a priority.  It could be breakfast, lunch or dinner, just ensure its together and without electronic distractions.

Avoid the sugar trap.

Sugary foods actually change brain chemistry.  They are highly addictive and light up the pleasure centres of the brain like heroin lights up the brain of an addict.  Daily sweets tune the child’s palate to sweet tastes which feeds cravings and reduces the  tolerance of other tastes – bitter, pungent, salty, sour for instance.  A spectrum of tastes and flavors sprinkled with the standard tastes of one’s regular diet will slowly expand their food IQ.

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