March 21, 2009

Improving the Picky Eater Experience

Love your picky eater.

The perceptive parent knows by now that I will urge them to leave their assumptions at the door. Embracing the inner grandparent (‘well she has to eat something’) isn’t the right approach.

As the child’s need to experiment with control develops, it won’t take long for her to see how important her eating is for her parents. The perceptive child understands that the more emphasis you put on something, the more valuable it is for her to control.

Keep in mind that nobody can be forced to eat. There’s just no way without a hospital-type intervention. Once the child realizes this, the parent has lost all negotiation leverage. (Hey, the point of this series of posts about eating is that you never really had any leverage to begin with.) Think hard before begging or bribing your child, since this will often spiral into increasing demands for sweets or other things you might not want your child to have. Everybody is entitled to skip a meal now and then.

Try very very hard to have a family meal every day. Research has shown that in families who sit down together for dinner, there are fewer eating disorders, less obesity, even less delinquency. For just about everything, parents are the most important models of behavior for their children. Studies show that when the parents eat a varied diet, the kids are more likely to eat a varied diet. When the parents eat healthy, so do the children.

For the picky eater, that one string bean put on their plate can act like a fuse to an explosion. It’s a challenge to the way they have envisioned their mealtime. The perceptive parent will try to see this the way their child sees it, and not provoke him with a string bean. But if everybody’s eating together, and mom and dad are gushing with delight over their string beans, it might be natural for the 1 to 2 year old child to want to try some. Maybe you can tell them that it’s grown-up food and not for them! Mmm, good. This uses the child’s need for independence and control to promote interest in trying a string bean. If they do, make a big deal about how grown up he is and how proud of him you are.

Defusing the mealtime battleground is absolutely essential. When children are fighting for control, they are unlikely to relax and try something new. I always ask the parents, is it worth it? If the child takes one bite of broccoli, gags and cries, what did they learn? Certainly they didn’t get all the good nutrients from broccoli with that one little bite. What did they learn about food, about power, about their parents?

It’s interesting to ask parents about their own adult eating issues. Many of us still don’t like the stuff we refused as kids. We certainly didn’t learn to like it because our parents somehow forced us to eat it. Many of us vividly recall battles with our parents that we had while still in a high chair. Did those battles teach us to eat right?

Siblings and peer friends are also really valuable. When older picky eaters are asked, they will often say that they wanted to learn to eat certain foods because all their friends would eat it and they wanted to fit in.

It’s possible that the child’s pickiness is related to issues of anxiety and need for order. For these children, they will avoid certain social situations such as parties where they know a food they can’t stand will be eaten by everyone else. They may suddenly complain of a stomach ache or say they don’t want to go. It can be hard to distinguish social anxiety from food anxiety. Either way, however, the child is unusually sensitive, and the most important action for the parents is to be as supportive as possible of the child when they feel so vulnerable. Coaxing her into a traumatic situation won’t make her feel closer to you.

We might not be able to transcend the issues of genetic taste preferences and sensory intensity. We can, however, get through the control issues.

Giving them the sense of control that is one of their central drives in life at age 2 is a very powerful technique. Perceptive parents will use this to advantage. Start with asking for their advice. What shall we have in our salad tonight? Carrots or tomatoes? If the answer comes back ice cream, what will usually help is a gentle reminder that mommy and daddy will eat the salad too and ice cream in the salad is silly. Then take the child shopping. Remind them of their menu choices--not just for them but for the whole family. They get to pick out the tomatoes or the carrots. When you get home, they get to prepare the food they chose (maybe with some help and supervision). At dinner time, everybody gets to hear about how they chose the best tomatoes and how they washed them and maybe helped to cut them up and how really delicious the tomatoes are. This positive feedback cycle might work for broccoli, too, and for many foods that need washing or cooking or preparation. Children are more likely to try things they are invested in and already feel good about than things they feel threatened by. Doesn’t that make sense?

Giving the child a sense of ownership of their choices is a technique that perceptive parents will use in many different situations.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?