In another of her so-interesting, well-written and thought-provoking posts, Carol asks: Was your baby a “good eater” who turned out picky?
I am about to make a sweeping generalization. I acknowledge up front that there are exceptions to every rule (and I’m sure you’ll think of one when you read what follows), but it is reasonably safe to say that:
Babies are great. They open their little birdie mouths, they swallow what you put in there. Yes, I’ve had a mouthful of strained whatever sprayed all over me when Little Birdie Mouth suddenly decided she really didn’t like that stuff, after all. (Mind you, when a baby does that, it’s more often because they’re simply not hungry. It’s their so-subtle way of saying, “I’m full now!” Stop offering the spoon when that happens.)
Babies are social. Whatever you’re eating, they’re game to try. They’ll bounce and wave their arms appealingly, and the doting momma or poppa will pop a morsel in there. What parent hasn’t enjoyed that game? Pop in the bite, then watch the expressions flow over their face: surprise, wonderment, delight… and sometimes disgust or dismay. But they’re always open to trying the NEXT bite!!!
That’s the thing about babies, I think, the critical thing. They’re always open to new foods. They don’t view new food with suspicion. They are “good eaters” not because they like everything — who likes everything??? — but because they’ll try everything once. They WANT to try it. They’re even excited to try it. Their working assumption is that food is a good thing, and that, until proven otherwise, they’re going to like it, and thus they like most things. That is a good eater. (Someone who eats as much as they can, at every opportunity, indiscriminately? That’s not a ‘good eater’. That’s a glutton.)
And then food is not about the social any more. Food, like everything else in their world, is about the primary pressing psychological need of the two-year-old: establishing their autonomy. They are their own person, DIFFERENT from mummy and daddy. They are also unsophisticated little people. The best way to establish themselves as an autonomous, independent, separate person in their own right is to SAY NO TO EVERYTHING MUMMY AND DADDY SAY. (Because it’s best to keep these things simple, no?)
This is where it gets confusing, because everyone has food likes and dislikes. I loathe, loathe, loathe liver and lima beans. If I can possibly avoid eating them, I do. If I’m served them in public (though, really, who serves that stuff to guests?), I’ll do all the masking tricks — cut it into teeny bits and hide it in the mashed potatoes so I don’t feel/taste it going down, feed it to the family dog, slip a piece to my husband, rearrange it on my plate in hopes of convincing someone I ate more than I did… Because those things? I gag at the very smell of liver. It’s just so gross. (You can love it if you like. I’m only talking about me, here. Though my poor husband has to order it in restaurants if he’s ever to eat it at all.)
If it’s like that, you don’t want to force your poor kid to eat something that truly makes them feel ill.
But more often with a two-year-old, it’s not a genuine food dislike. It’s the autonomy thing. “I am NOT you, mummy, so I DON’T like potatoes! I am NOT you, daddy, so I HATE green beans!” And at every. single. meal, there is some damned thing that he/she WILL NOT EAT. Every.Single.Meal.
Gets exhausting. Only made worse when it’s not consistent. The thing she REFUSED last week is happily ingested this week. But next week? Or next meal? She’ll HATE it again. Gah.
But if it makes them gag? That’s your cue, right! If it makes them gag, it’s a true dislike.
Nope. Not necessarily. Sometimes they’ll be so determined NOT to eat That Loathsome Thing that they will, in fact, gag on it, maybe even upchuck a small amount… and then eat it happily next week.
It helps to remember a few things:
1. This is not primarily about liking or disliking food. This is about independence and autonomy.
2. A normal, healthy child will NOT starve themselves.
3. A normal, healthy child MAY choose not to eat.
4. If a normal, healthy child chooses not to eat, this is your child’s choice. YOU ARE NOT STARVING YOUR CHILD.
This is where it all either falls apart, or comes together, with that realization. As Carol said, quoting a nutritionist who was almost certainly quoting Ellyn Satter, “The parent is responsible for choosing what, when, and where the child eats. The child is responsible for choosing how much, and even whether, to eat.”
Once you have that straight in your mind, everything else becomes clear. You provide healthy food at sensible intervals. That’s it, that’s all.
Once you understand that all you have to do is make the food available, once you understand that it’s not up to you to see that it gets ingested, then you can just relax and eat your meal. You won’t spend any time coaxing, teasing, begging, pleading. You won’t get anxious. You won’t make alternate meals. You’ll never fall into the fatal trap of feeding them meal after meal after meal of plain pasta (something! ANYthing!) nary a protein or a vegetable in sight, declaring “it’s better than nothing!”
Because you know what? It’s not. It’s not better than nothing. “Nothing” is better than “something!-anything!”. Yes, a child who is allowed to choose not to eat may choose to go hungry now and then. It won’t kill them. (It won’t kill you, either.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in order for a child to develop healthy eating patterns, it’s not only inevitable, it’s pretty much essential that they experience hunger now and then. So they know what it is.
Letting your child choose not to eat is mutually respectful. Where is the dignity in begging, pleading, threatening, and grovelling, trying to get your oh-so-stubborn toddler to open his mouth? (And then, even harder, to swallow!) It’s demeaning for both of you. (But mostly you.)
And all that begging and coaxing? That’s just feeding the beast. You — not your toddler, but YOU — have just turned the drive for autonomy into a bona fide power struggle. Your toddler is now in control and she knows it. And you’ve made that happen by buying into the myth that it’s up to you to see that the child eat. See what trouble that silly notion gets us into???
Imagine, rather, that you say, “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to, but this is what we’re having.” You say it nicely (but firmly), and you follow through. If she doesn’t want to eat it, she can either stay at the table and keep you company nicely, or she can get down and do something else. Until the next meal. And you get to eat your meal in peace.
(If he can’t do it nicely, if he expects something else to eat and is outraged that you won’t provide it, he can stay in his time-out spot until you’ve finished your meal.)
Once this becomes the normal pattern, the outrage will cease. It may take a while, particularly if you’ve trained him/her to expect alternate meals. But hold fast and they will learn! The child will learn that it really is her choice, that you really will respect her right to eat or not, but won’t be pandering to whims… then the genuine likes and dislikes will have a chance to emerge over time. You won’t pander to them, but you can take them into account.
And eventually, your child will out-grown and out-learn the knee-jerk “I don’t YIKE dat!” It won’t be necessary.
And when that happens, when you step out of the dinner-time push-pull and they learn they do have autonomy, they’ll probably discover that in fact they do yike most of it, after all.