By Ann Brown/ Parenting consultant
I was reluctant to write on this subject, as I have no experiential reference for it. I don’t think I have even ever said those two words together. I come from a “happy to eat it” people; maybe it was those forty years wandering the desert that took the picky out of us. Oh, there were those who complained to Moses about the manna, day after day but they must have been from a different tribe than mine. My people get excited about each meal, each day, year after year. Manna with garlic, manna with lemon, manna on Ak-Maks, mannasicles. S’all good.
I have some opinions on kids who are picky eaters, however. My opinions are based on extensive research that consisted of standing in line at Baja Fresh and listening in while a young couple attempted to entice their five-year old to “just take one little mouse bite” of rice. It was a three-act tragicomedy that ended in tears. The parents’ tears. The kid was happy. She drank her lemonade.
The bottom line is this: when it comes to eating, sleeping, pooping, peeing, feeling their emotions and getting their periods, we are not in charge of our children. Oh, we can try; we can cajole, threaten, guide, educate, bribe with stickers, purchase 600 thread-count underpants for them and tell them about starving children in the world, but ultimately, we cannot actually get inside their little brains and force them to eat, sleep, poop, pee, feel an emotion or get their period.
This may come as surprising and bad news to some of you. But it’s really good news, because it means you can stop working so hard.
If you are worried about your child’s (non)eating, what you must do first is call your child’s pediatrician and have your child checked out. You cannot work on your own parenting and issues around food and feeding others before you make sure your child is healthy and growing. If the pediatrician tells you that your child is healthy and not too skinny, keep reading. If not, fix that first.
So. You have a healthy, growing child who is a picky eater. I’m sorry to tell you this but before I give you any actual strategies, you are going to have to listen to my treatise on the global, political, socio-economic implications of your situation. Namely: when it comes to food, we have too much. Too much choice. We are so fucking lucky that we have so much food from which to choose that our kids refuse to eat it. I do not think that in families around the world who barely have enough food to survive, there are a lot of fights around the dinner table because one child doesn’t like the chicken with fresh herbs and prefers the chicken in dinosaur shapes. Served on the blue plate, NOT the turquoise plate. THE BLUE PLATE.
We can’t talk about your child’s picky eating without realizing that we – fortunate parents who can afford to buy a lot of good food – have created the situation where choice of foods is a problem.
Okay. Do we all feel guilty? Good. Now we can move on. As I always told my kids, “the important thing is that you feel bad.”
If we are going to change the attitude towards eating in our families, we have to adopt a more global vision about food. You put food on the table. This is the food we have. This is food available for this meal.
That said, we also live in our current realities, and we really need our kids to eat.
A very smart way to begin the changes is to get rid of all food in the house that you don’t want your child to eat. When parents say their kids won’t eat, they often mean that their kids want only Goldfish crackers for dinner, or the kid will only eat snack food. So it’s not so much about lack of appetite than it is about preference for pizza.
Preaching to the choir, sister. We all know how that feels.
Having food in the house that you want your child to eat, and not having any other food, eliminates the power struggle. When your child sees pizza in the fridge, or crackers in the cupboard and you are telling her, “we have cheese and carrots”, you are the enemy. But if you can say to your child, “you can pick what you want to eat” because everything in your house is nutritious, then your house is the enemy. Yeah, I know that any kid over the age of, like, three months already knows that you can get in your car and go to the store to buy cookies, but it’s a very different fight when the cookies aren’t actually in the house.
Plus, it’s probably not a horrible thing for our own eating habits to keep only nutritious foods in the house. Oh, and plus, we can always hide the cookies in empty Dansko shoe boxes in our closet. I have huge feet, fortunately, so my size 41 Dansko shoeboxes can hold entire meals of unhealthy food. Yay for me.
The reason I stressed that the pediatrician should check out your child is this: when you serve food and your child refuses it, you can shrug and say, “I know. I wish cookies were healthy food – that would be awesome. But they’re not, so we don’t have any. This is the food we have.”
And then, when your child refuses to eat anything for dinner, you do not have to worry that you are starving her/him to death. And then you won’t be tempted to sneak a Red Bull and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos into his/her crib at 7PM when s/he cries, “I’m HUNGRY!”
This is a VERY different strategy from the one that says, “tough shit. You can go to bed hungry.” I know it doesn’t seem like a different one, but it is. Because it is not a punishment. This is key. Instead, you are compassionate. You can say, “I know. It’s hard when we want snack food but our bodies need growing food. Your body will be hungry for growing food soon.” We can be on the side of our child who is really jonesing for McNuggets. And your child will be hungry soon enough. And you will continue to be compassionate as you reiterate that s/he can choose what s/he wants from your options. Agreeing with your child’s complaint is huge when it comes to avoiding power struggles. But that’s an article for another day.
Are you catching on to the bad news? That the eating thing is really about us – the parents – changing our attitude about food? When our kids won’t eat, it scares us. We tend to panic; we want them to just try one tiny mouse bite of the rice, just to get something into their tummies. And when we get scared, we get mad at our kids because they won’t eat. Or we get mad because we have invested hours and dollars into the meal and they gag when you put it on the table. Or we get flipped out because we are worried our kid will wake up at 2AM if s/he didn’t eat dinner.
And all our fear and anger lead us to make some questionable choices. Like just fucking giving in and letting the kid eat the box of Goldfish for dinner, and then giving them ice cream because they finished their dinner. It can get pretty twisted in our heads. And, God knows, some nights we just have to do that to get through life. But most nights, we really shouldn’t.
Did you think this article was going to be about Foolproof Recipes to Get Your Picky Eaters to Clean Their Plates? Yeah, no.
Another thing with picky or non-eaters is timing. Most toddlers and preschoolers aren’t really down with the hours we set for mealtimes. Most of them are starving at around 2 or 3PM. Which is why we give them snacks.
When is your child really hungry? Can you identify the times of day? Good. Because those are the times you can give your child the food you want him/her to eat. If your kids will eat nutritious food at 2PM, you can stop forcing them to eat at 6PM.
I think that dinnertime – for young children – should not be about food or eating. Instead, it should be about conviviality, conversation and familial social constructs. If your child is not hungry – or over-hungry – at 6:30PM, none of that is going to happen. It’s all going to be about “eat this” or “no dessert until you eat that”. It’s going to be stressful. Which sucks.
If your child has eaten good food in the afternoon, invite him/her to sit with the rest of you at the dinner table at 6:30. Go around the table and ask one question about each family member’s day; tell one thing about your own day. Then (even if it’s five minutes later), you can say to your child, “would you like to be excused? Thank you for joining us.” Maybe your child wants dessert then. Or fruit. Fine. Great. The nutritious food has been eaten. Maybe your child wants to go play. Fine. They joined you for five minutes of conversation. No one is tense. No one is pissed off.
And peace will prevail in the world.
And there will be more chicken for you.
Photo Credit: David Goehring