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 favorite 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.
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 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 picky eaters surviving on a limited diet or one composed of primarily processed foods? When we permit this eating behaviour chronically in our children, we endanger their lives. 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 to cross the road safely, to wear a seat belt, and that smoking is bad! What would you say to your 5 year old if they didn’t want to wear their seatbelt? You would say that it wasn’t an option. You teach your child about how dangerous the road can be so that they can cross the street safely by themselves someday. Every parent watches their child do this the first time with bated breath and a sense of pride. Why then, do we say yes to fruit loops for breakfast? Or pogo sticks for lunch? Or McDonald’s for dinner? The consequence of this decision is the same as if you told your child to take their chances and run across 4 lanes of traffic. The consequence of eating poorly is disease and death… it just takes longer than getting hit by a car. If you eat well (and many of you reading this blog do) then you know that a processed food diet robs the child of the experience of a life full of energy and vitality – a natural consequence of a healthy diet.
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 from the other room. They know when you are wavering and they know when you’re not. Remember, 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 negative comments. 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. Don’t get drawn into dinner-time drama. If you don’t make a big deal about it, neither will they (eventually).
Involve children in food preparation 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. Let your children take turns choosing healthy meals in a meal planning meeting.
Lead by example. Children carefully observe their parent’s eating behaviour. If you commit to eating well and trying new foods, so will they.
Eat together. There is absolutely no reason for children to eat separate meals from their parents. Once a toddler moves beyond pureed food, they can be having the same foods that their parents eat. You may have to tone down some of the spices, but the variety should remain.
Get out of the dessert habit. Once young children have a palate for sweets, it can be very difficult for them to enjoy other tastes. Restrict sweets and treats to once a week and you will notice a willingness to try more exotic tastes.
Skip the pre-dinner snack. Is the after-school snack sabotaging meal time? Hungry kids are more willing to try a variety of foods when they come to the table.
Be patient. This can be a big change for your family. Understand that it will takes months to possibly years of effort to fix a fussy eater. Remember that good health and preventing disease is worth it!