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.
You know how I’ve said that Daniel is a tank? Built on the square plan? Obviously likes his food?
He is. He does. All that. A boy as solid as he is does not turn his nose up at food. Put food on his tray, his big blue eyes light right up.
FOOD! He knows what to do with FOOD!!!!
Throw it on the floor! (Of course. Why? Did you have a different idea?) And then my job, see, my job is to pick it up and give it back to him! So he can throw it again!!!!
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!
Much as he loves to eat, he loves to toss even more. Doesn’t matter what it is: cheerios, apple slices, bottles (toys, books, a jar of cherries) … put it on the tray, and within a second or two, it’s on the floor.
Isn’t this FUN???!?
Wellllll… no. Not when you’re over two years old or so. I am a loooooong ways past two years old or so. So very long past that this game is fun precisely… never. Not even the first time. Because I’ve seen this game so very, very, very, very, very many times in my life, you know? And I know that for the child, it just never gets old. I’ve tried indulging them, doing it for a while, assuming that eventually the child will decide it’s time to eat. It just never happens. Well, maybe it would, but I sure don’t know how long that would take. I’ve never had the patience to find out. This game, it does not grab me.
I do remember playing fetch with my eldest. I was a new mother, this was my much-beloved first child, and for a while, it was fun! It wasn’t the game, of course, it was my Love For My Child. Her eyes just sparkled with glee! And that chortle, when I dipped down below the high chair tray and popped back up again with whatever it was. So cute!!! I loved it! Her excited flapping when I plonked the item back on the tray. Beyond adorable. I laughed, awash with fond maternal adoration. My.Child.Was.SO.CUTE!!!!
I loved it. For about six repeats I loved it. Maybe ten. And then (proving that adult attention spans are woefully inferior to that of a 7-month-old, or at least mine is) I got bored. I had wrung every morsel of fun out of this game, and now? Now it was just tedious. Yeah, she was still sparkling, chortling and flapping. But me, I’d had enough of bending and stretching, dipping and plonking. Bored. Bored, bored, bored.
You know what? This game doesn’t get any more exciting with the passage of time.
She’s 25 now, so I think I can safely say that the last time I enjoyed Mommy Go Fetch was 24.6 years ago. Moreover, I now have five under-threes ringed around my table. Do I want them re-discovering the joys of flinging food? I do NOT. Can you imagine? Lunch times five all over the floor? The dogs would love it, but me? Not such a fan.
Not all kids play this game, of course, but Daniel, he LOVES it. Loves it, loves it, loves it. It is pretty clear that in Daniel’s wee mind, high chair trays were specifically designed with that game in mind.
Yeah. Whee. Fun.
His level of persistence and enthusiasm suggests to me that his parents are not attention-challenged like me. I suspect they play this game and love it, right along with him. Isn’t that so cute? (Really. I think it is. His parents are lovely people, almost as adorable as their son, and the picture of them all laughing together with delight at this
mind-numbing simple game is truly a lovely one.) Sadly for Daniel, the game that is delight and love for the three of them makes my brain melt.
So here, when food is tossed to the floor, I sing-song, “No-no, Daniel! Food stays ON the tray. ON,” as I pop it firmly back on the tray.
Of course, Daniel greets the return of the food with glee, because I AM PLAYING THE GAME!!!! And then he dumps it on the floor again. Of course. And then, oh, poor, poor Daniel, then I say, “Oh, I guess you’re not hungry!” in the cheeriest of tones, and I lift him down and set him on the floor. “Away you go and play!”
He stands there, puzzlement turning to confusion morphing into dismay, as I continue feeding the others. You can see the thought process.
“Wait! That’s not supposed to happen! What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t she know the rules?!?! W.T.F???”
I give him a minute or two to wallow in all this before I pop him back in the high chair for round two. So far, round two goes pretty much the way round one did. Food on tray, food tossed from tray… only this time I don’t plonk the food back on his tray, not even once. No, this time we go straight to “I guess you’re not hungry after all!” No second chances on round two. Round three? There is no round three. After round two, he’s done with the high chair until the next meal or snack.
He’s still not quite sure what the hell is going on… except that it’s wrong. Just, just, just WRONG!!! The boy is flabbergasted. Gob-smacked, even. (And that? THAT I find entertaining.)
But, confusing or not, you know what? When you’ve missed out on morning snack because it was more exciting to toss it on the floor… by the time lunchtime rolls around, you’re much TOO HUNGRY to even think of tossing it on the floor.
Mwah-ha. My evil plan is working.
“I no yike green apples. I just yike red ones.”
My standard tactic in this sort of situation is a chipper, “Oh, I guess you’re not hungry, then. That’s okay. Away you go and play.”
Because, as we all know, this is nothing about food preference, and everything about power struggles. I’ve waged this battle a gazillion times. My strategy is tried and true and really, puts the control in the hands of the child… while, at the same time, holding firm in my right not to become a short-order cook to the shifting whims of a power-hungry toddler.
Usually, before I’ve even set their feet on the floor, they’ve decided that, “Wait! I really AM hungry!!” They curl their feet up, even, so determined are they NOT to go and play but to EAT, thanks! But if they don’t change their minds, if they are perfectly content to leave the table, well, I’m fine with that, too. That’s their decision. When it comes to food, I follow Ellyn Satter’s guidelines: The child gets to decide how much — and yes, even whether — to eat. The adult gets to decide what, when and where they eat. I provide nutritious food at regular intervals, but it is not my job to get it ingested. That’s the child’s responsibility… which means I accept it if they choose NOT to eat. Because really, this is one a parent will win in the end: the child’s hunger is a good motivator.
But some days, some days it’s just nice to play with their heads a wee bit. Some days it’s nice to be devious. Some days, it’s nice to WIN that power struggle. And some days, it’s a whole lot of fun to win the power struggle they don’t even know they’re having. Well, it is for me at any rate. It could be that you are a person of higher moral fibre than me. No doubt you are, and never even have these urges, much less succumb to them. If you are such a superior soul, avert your eyes now, lest you be horrified and offended by the gross manipulation I am about to indulge in.
“You don’t like green apples?” I display mild, but supportive, surprise.
“You want a red apple?” More with the kindly supportiveness.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.” I take the chopping board and bowl of apples to the kitchen. And there I peel the apples (not something I generally do for almost-three-year-olds, who get their apple cut into smallish slices, seeds and core removed). I peel the apples, the GREEN apples, and return them to the cutting board, and thence to the dining room table.
“Here you go! No more green apples!” (Note how, though I am perfectly willing to deceive and manipulate, I do try to stop short of a direct lie. These are not green. Any more. They are white. I do have my scruples. Shallow though they may be.)
“I yike dese RED apples.” He chomps them down with gusto.
My smile, as I pat his wee blond head, is not tooooo smug.
Generally, the younger children will eat pretty near anything you plonk on that high chair tray, or poke into their mouths with a spoon. (Occasionally, yes, something comes blasting back out of that 7-month-old mouth, but not nearly as often/commonly as with older children.) Just let them get a little older, let them start feeling their “I’m autonomous!” two-year-old oats, and suddenly you have someone refusing this, refusing that, refusing anything that isn’t white, that isn’t sweet, that isn’t macaroni…
So yes, I see my fair share of tots who turn their sweet little button noses up at my delectable offerings. I work with toddlers, of course I see that!
But as I say, it doesn’t last. Why?
The key is knowing who controls what. Who’s in charge of your child’s intake?
Hint: not you.
YOU control what is served, when it’s served, and where. Your child chooses whether to eat, and how much they’ll eat (though you can certainly put a cap on it, you can’t really enforce a minimum).
YOU provide a range of healthy foods at set intervals.
YOUR CHILD decides whether to eat it.
So far, any of you with picky eaters are shouting at me. “I KNOW that! That’s exactly the problem, isn’t it??”
Sort of. But not really.
It’s only a problem if you try to take on the child’s role of intake, and let the child take on your role of “what”.
Are you following me?
You provide a healthy meal. Your little darling says, “No broccoli. I want macaroni.”
Well, no. YOU decide what is served, not them. And THEY decide whether they’ll ingest it.
“I know you like macaroni, but tonight we’re having broccoli.” YOU decide what. Your child decides whether. It may well be that they will decide not to eat the broccoli. That is their right.
Of course, that’s not how the child sees it. They don’t want to be hungry. They want what they want. And you’re saying “No macaroni, but you can eat BROCCOLI”????
So of course they throw a fit.
I know. It’s awful. And don’t you just want peaceful mealtimes? Don’t worry. You’ll get them… only not just yet. Fits are almost inevitable when you’re teaching new patterns, so let’s take a look at your reacton to a fit. If you change his meal because he’s throwing a fit, you are being bullied. You are being bullied into doing something less-than-healthy for your child. Your child may not intend to bully you — they just know they don’t want that damned broccoli — but in the end, you are teaching your child you can be bullied.
And once you start that, it never ends. So, if you cave in to a fit, are you buying peace, or guaranteeing ongoing strife?
“I know you prefer macaroni. But tonight we’re having broccoli.”
[The fit commences.]
“Oh, dear. I guess you’re not hungry. Away you go and play, then.” (Or, if the fit is too loud and ugly to ignore, you calmly — think robot — take them and deposit them in their room.) “When you’re ready to be calm and quiet, you can come back.”
But why would I go through that, you ask? So what if she wants nothing but macaroni and bananas? It’s better than nothing, right?
You have ONE thing going for you — in a big way — in this food struggle. (You have more than one, really: you have the fact that you are the parent, you are the chef, you buy the food. But for many parents, that isn’t enough.)
The ONE thing you have that’s really, REALLY on your side and will inevitably tip the scales in the favour of healthy eating?
Your child’s hunger.
“AHHH! She’s telling me to starve my child!!!” There you go again, taking on your child’s role in the feeding dynamic. YOU are not “starving” your child; YOUR CHILD is refusing perfectly good food. There is a world of difference here.
I find myself hauling out the same things that were said to me, many years ago… because certain parenting techniques just never, ever wear out.
“But mummy, I’m HUNGRY!”
“No, you’re not. If you were hungry enough, you’d eat your sausage.”
And of course, she was right. And when I GOT hungry enough, I did eat that sausage… because I knew there was nothing else forthcoming. It’s entirely possible (because I was a stubborn little thing) that there were some nights I went to bed without supper.
My mother knew that choice was my right and was willing to let me make it. I’m better for it, because now I enjoy a wide range of foods. There are fewer than half-a-dozen things I truly don’t like. (Liver and lima beans top that list.)
“Starving”? North American children have no idea, none at all, what it’s like to “starve”. This is a good thing! But let us be clear here: Starving children will eat dirt to ward off the hunger pangs. They would never in a million years turn their noses up at broccoli.
So no, you’re not starving your child. And be assured that your child won’t “starve” themselves, either. (Yes, there is a rare medical condition whereby a child actually will do that… but it’s rare.)
If you’re hungry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to expect you to eat. (And it IS!)
This is a process. It may take a few days (for stubborn children, even a couple of weeks) before they realize you are dead serious. What they see is what they get. No options. And you can’t waffle on this, not even once. As soon as you do, all that suffering has been in vain.
For particularly recalcitrant kids (I recall doing this with one of my own, I forget which one), I’ve been known to pull out the rejected lunch at snack time. And then again at dinner. (Told you I was stubborn. Push me too hard and I get downright ornery.)
But stubborn (and maybe even a bit of ornery) is necessary when we’re talking creating healthy habits for a lifetime.
Really what it is, is consistent. Stick to your guns, and your child will eventually learn to eat. You don’t coax, you don’t argue, you don’t indulge in long drawn-out negotiations at the table. You can go easy, and only put one or two bites of a new/problematic food on their plates. And then they can eat it.
If you can face the “or not”, you will produce healthy, varied eaters.
William is the world’s slowest eater. He is also picky. The pickiness is not a big issue, because (thank heavens) it’s never been pandered to at home. He may eat what he’s given or not, but there are no substitutions. Exactly my policy. It make take a while, but eventually they learn that being picky means being hungry, and they make other choices.
The slowness doesn’t bother me, either. I put him at the table five minutes before everyone else, and he’s there ten minutes after. No skin off my nose. If he’s still there when naptime arrives, he’s removed from the table. Some days, if he’s avoiding something he doesn’t want to eat, that’s fine with him; other’s he’s dismayed. And again: It may take a while, but eventually he will learn that if he doesn’t eat in a reasonable period of time, he risks being hungry. (Note: these days naptime is a full 45 – an hour after lunch. All told, he’s getting 50 – 90 minutes to finish his lunch.)
Apparently, the slowness bothers his mother. At lunch today, when I am teasing him for the tortoise speed — “What? That’s the same mouthful in there? Are you hoping it will melt so you don’t have to chew?” — he explains to me,
“My mommy goes like this.” And he strokes his throat with his palm. (I’ve seen this manoeuvre. It’s the one you use with an animal you’re trying to coax to swallow a pill.)
“Your mommy strokes your throat to help you swallow?”
There is a pause while we gaze upon each other. I picture lunchtimes from here on in, me sitting beside William, picture of patient duty, stroking his throat with each reluctant mouthful.
Yeah, right. I wouldn’t do that if he were the only child in the room. As it is, I have five or six. What would the other four or five children be doing while I coaxed him — the oldest child at the table — through his meal, micro-mouthful by micro-mouthful?
“Well, I don’t.” No snarkiness in the tone, just Firm and Clear Communication.