Picky eaters are made, not born… or are they?
Living in the Midwest all my life, a common family meal consisted of meat, potatoes and at least one vegetable… fairly balanced nutritionally and hearty. In fact, my husband’s and my favorite meal is roast beef with potatoes and carrots. It makes my mouth water just to think about it! When this meal was offered to each of our four children when they began to eat solid table foods, all four of them literally gagged on it! ALL FOUR! What’s a parent to do? Were my children becoming picky eaters?
Because of their reactions, we could have determined our children did not like our meal and not offered it to them again. We didn’t do that, however, because it was our favorite meal and one we often made for special occasions or a Sunday dinner after church. Fast forward ten years and that meal is now a favorite of our children… yes, all four. The smell of it wafting through the house brings thoughts of family, warm conversation, and unhurried schedules.
How can you prevent your children from becoming picky eaters? Is it a food issue or a character issue? Consider the following:
Don’t put words in their mouths.
Parents are solely responsible for the nutritional needs of a newborn. As our babies grow into toddlers and their little personalities and preferences develop, it can be both fun and frustrating. Many babies make negative faces when new tastes are put into their mouths, causing parents to make the comment that the child ‘doesn’t like it’. Since the child cannot yet speak to tell you precisely that, it may not be the case; it may be the surprise of a new taste or a new texture. Be careful about speaking ‘for’ your child. Keep offering nutritious foods, regardless of the child’s first time response; it may one day become his favorite. Also be careful about making comments out loud that the child can then decide to embrace. Babies, toddlers and children are constantly listening, observing, and picking up on more than you think.
Persevere while partnering with your spouse.
Perseverance is needed in parenting… including with food issues. It’s helpful to keep in mind what is going on in your child’s life that may be manifesting itself at the table. When a food issue arises, agree with your spouse about what to do and together have the gumption to make it happen. Think practically about your child’s nutrition and how you can accomplish a healthy balance while offering a variety of tastes and textures. Also keep in mind that you’re training for the future: Your child will one day manage her own nutrition, the nutrition of her own children, or be a guest in a home for a meal where courtesy should be demonstrated.
Questions to consider when dealing with food issues:
- Is what I’m asking my child to eat unreasonable – weird, odd, unusual, or uncommon?
- Is the portion size too much?
- Is the texture new to the child or difficult to chew?
- Does this happen at every meal, no matter what is offered?
- Do I frequently offer a food alternative to my child?
- Do I often allow snacks that offset a hearty appetite at mealtime? Or do I provide an after meal treat to compensate?
- Am I working to establish my parental authority in this child’s life when not at the table?
- Is the food issue that’s troubling me actually an obedience issue which just comes to my attention at the table?
Table trial or character issue?
Many times, food issues do not begin at the table, but reflect other areas of freedoms that go unrecognized. Training your child to obedience will help you with table and food issues. If you have trained, or are in the process of training to first time obedience (child coming and responding ‘yes, mom/dad’ to the call of her name), your child’s verbal commitment will serve you well at the table also. When children hear themselves verbally commit, they are more likely to comply and keep their word. Consider the possibility that some of the food issues you are dealing with are subtle forms of rebellion.
Address, rather than avoid, the issue.
One of our children had a texture issue that involved some gagging and noticeable food preferences. Knowing this helped us create menus which took into consideration the child’s preferences while still keeping nutrition in mind. For a time it meant we needed to cut the food into smaller pieces (or mash it up); we increased the texture little by little. We also gave smaller portions of difficult foods at first, which allowed us to praise our child when the portion was finished. We made a point to encourage what was going right with our child’s daily intake while still persisting in working through the texture issues. Textures quickly became a non-issue.
Expectations are important
GKGW says that “Children will rise to the level of expectation of their parents. Many parents expect little and receive exactly that.” When you expect little, or allow your child to manipulate, you ultimately neglect to train your child to be an adaptable adult. Children are not old enough, wise enough, or have the life experience to manage their own diets (or their lives in general). What happens at the table is often a telltale sign of character weaknesses in your child that need to be addressed.
- Is my child characterized by obedience in other areas of his daily life?
- How often am I dealing with this issue? Once a month? a week? daily?
- Have I resorted to threatening, bribing or negotiating related to eating?
- Am I consistent with the standard I expect as a parent or do my emotions overtake me, causing me to give in to my child’s whims just so the conflict is avoided or ended?
Without a doubt, dealing with the apparent picky eater is not for the faint of heart. All of parenting is hard work. What manifests itself at the table can be just as prevalent in other areas of the life of your picky eater. Observe your child for several days. Note positive areas to encourage while also noting less than desirable character concerns that show up. It only takes 2-3 days for you to see where you need to focus your training efforts. You will find better results at the table if you are expecting similar strong character to be demonstrated throughout the daily life of your child.