I know, I know… the very thought that we might actually create fussy eaters of our children sounds terrible! Most parents work really, really hard to provide their children with healthy foods, so how do they become fussy?
Aside from autistic children who often self-limit their diet, children are not typically born fussy eaters. It is the first few years of a child’s life that establishes most of their dietary habits. This is good to know, particularly if you find yourself amidst the madness of parenting a few young children. Many times a child’s fussy palate develops as a result of weary, fatigued parents who lose their drive to be firm about what their children are allowed or not allowed to eat and how much of any one food (in one serving) is required to be eaten. Parenting is hard work and enrolling our children to “eat well” is even harder.
I was recently chatting to a girlfriend who has two small children and she asked, “Does it take a long time to feed any of your children, Jen?” Without having to think too long about this I responded, “Absolutely!”
I recalled for her how Simon and I experienced close to eighteen months of food issues with our second child, Nelson. When Nelson was almost two years old, he started to assert his strength and certainty to the world; most days he battled with a desperate need to accomplish tasks independently and he became very clear about he wanted—or didn’t want—to eat. Not a day passed without Simon or I having to muster up our intestinal fortitude (inner strength) to get Nelson to eat what we had prepared for him. He resisted trying new foods and argued about the quantity of different foods he was required to eat. Fortunately for us his older brother had been such an easy eater so we knew that our requests were not unrealistic.
One evening when Nelson refused to eat, he had to stand in a designated spot (using the “stand-to-decide” technique) for 45 minutes. He would yell at us every so often, “I’m not going to eat dinner!” It wasn’t until his brother started to watch a DVD in another room that Nelson came back to the table and proceeded to eat everything on his plate in a matter of minutes. He even stopped at one point to say, “This is delicious, Mumma.”
Time always gives us perspective. After raising four boys, three of whom have been easy eaters, and having worked with many, many families, I believe that fussy eaters are most often the by-product of a family’s core values around food. Even my headstrong Nelson went on to become a delightful food critic and a ravenous eater, eager now to try any type of food whether we are eating at home, at a restaurant or a friend’s house. I believe Nelson’s early food rebellion was to do with a broader developmental phase; he had not yet developed his full vocabulary and he became very frustrated and contrary about most things, including meals. I am now left marveling at his strength and determination during this period.
If there is one parenting skill I’m particularly proud of, it is sticking to my guns on what the boys eat. Not only does it make our life so much easier now—for they literally eat everything that is placed in front of them—but they are willing eaters. Alleluia!
Important Points to Remember When Establishing, “Easy Eaters”
1) Get on the SAME page. If you are raising a child with a partner it is imperative that you agree to demonstrate and instill the same values around food. It can be very hard if one parent won’t eat green vegetables, for example, or they will only eat porridge if it is served with cream, or eggs if they are fried, etc. I would encourage you to present a united front on the boundaries you have around food. One of you may investigate wholesome eating, set the boundaries and be the leader in health issues but you both need to agree to assert these guidelines.
2) Always try to remember, “monkey see, monkey do”. Children are keen observers and if we snack on potato crisps in front of the television to unwind when we get home from work, nibble on chocolate throughout the day, or if we drink juice rather then water then our children will soon demand to do the same. What they see, they will adopt. Therefore, model ideal habits by eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and drinking ample water.
3) Build your knowledge, build your conviction. It is paramount if we wish to raise healthy children that we build our awareness or literacy around what constitutes wholesome nutrition.
Sometimes we develop habits out of ignorance or comfort and we don’t stop to think about our health. For example, if you are someone who enjoys a glass of wine at the end of each day, then clearly in your mind the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks. However, if you did some research and examined the short and long term effects of drinking wine every day, then your risk-to-benefit ratio is likely to shift and you are more likely to become a social drinker rather than an every day drinker.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge creates conviction and we need to have both knowledge and conviction when explaining to our children our rationale behind our food selections.
Building food knowledge has to extend well beyond what the media would have us believe are wholesome foods. Too many of our foods are high in calories and fat and devoid of essential vitamins and minerals. It is easy to be misled by powerful advertising from dairy corporations, wheat boards and fast food chains. Instead we need to be diligent and independent when researching and building our health knowledge. The internet is a fabulous place to start looking for broad perspective on health and nutrition.
4) Link foods with their nutrition value. For example, you might say to your children, “Did you know that nuts are full of lots vitamins that our brains, muscles and hearts need to be really strong?” or “Did you know that that goji berries have more than 500 times the vitamin C than an orange, which helps you fight bugs. They also help you remember things, sleep well, and strengthen your blood. Now these goji berries covered in dark chocolate are better again because dark chocolate is so good for you, too!!”
5) STAMP out old habits we grew up with. When I was a child my parents used to say to me that if I didn’t eat all of my dinner then I couldn’t have dessert. Sound familiar? In retrospect I think this only built an emotional attachment to tinned fruit and ice-cream! Thank God I moved through that stage.
Today I still hear parents using these types of phrases without realizing that they are promoting poor food choices as “treats”. This sabotages any efforts to build our child’s nutritional wisdom.
6) Promote nutritional foods as TREATS instead. If I take the boys shopping and I know they are hungry then I will suggest that we can look for a particular treat to buy, such as a punnet of organic blueberries or some other delicious ‘nature-made’ food. If this doesn’t entice them then I sometimes take them to the health food shop where they can pick from a few items. I make sure that if they request a “nightmare food” that I tell them about the side-effects of the ingredients.
7) No means NO. Pure and simple.
8) Wrangle the grandparents. It is important that we up-skill grandparents as well so that our efforts won’t be undermined. They often see the offering of sweets and treats to grandchildren as their biological duty! They also raised us in a different era and often with different eating principles and knowledge, so we need to educate them too.
9) Cook foods simply and use fresh ingredients. As Julia Child says, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from quality fresh ingredients.” When we cook simply, we are encouraging our children (and ourselves) to enjoy foods at ‘face value’, rather than requiring the dishes to be exotic or entertaining. Of course, this does not preclude being creative and using a wide variety of ingredients.
These are great tips to bear in mind because as parents we establish the food culture of our children. They watch and learn from us. We set the guidelines and we instill the knowledge.
Having raised one very headstrong fussy eater, I do empathise with all parents who struggling with food issues. Take heart in knowing though that the battles can be won. When you’ve read enough about the chemicals and the rubbish that is hidden in most foods, I know you’ll rise to the challenge and that you will build a stronger conviction than any child’s temper tantrum. Be patient with your children—Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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parenting, please take a look at Well Adjusted Babies