When dealing with young selective eaters, it can sometimes be very frustrating when they again turn down the broccoli or the fish without having tasted just a tiny bit of it. Sometimes, we, therefore, resort to strategies that I have chosen to call mealtime manipulation strategies. Those strategies include food bribing, food rewards, punishing with food, or regulating emotions with food. But in this article, I’ll focus on when we sneak certain foods that our kids don’t like into a meal without telling them about it. Some examples are spinach in smoothies, cauliflower rice, or squash muffins. I’ll admit that I’ve engaged in this sort of manipulation, too: When one of my daughters declared that she only liked chicken, I would call pork “chicken-pork”, and it worked – she tried it. And I had it my way. But with time, I’ve also come to realize that this was not a victory. If I want to create a food hero and if I want my kids to be curious about food, manipulating them into trying it is not the way to go about it.
When I was a kid, I was a selective eater (and yes, most adults called me picky). Around the age of 10, I was invited to dinner at my aunt’s, and I could smell fish. To say that I hated fish back then is an understatement, and this was well-known in my entire family. I politely asked what was in the meal, and she replied, but without mentioning the fish. Most people would agree that fish does have a pretty significant smell to it, especially if you are a person who doesn’t like fish. So of course I knew about the fish, but this was back in the 90’s and the “Finish your plate” rule was very prevalent in most homes. I knew that the polite thing would be to eat it, which I did, although every bite was a struggle, threatening to come back out. When my aunt asked me if I liked it, again my manners told me to be polite and say yes (probably not very convincingly, though). When having finished the meal, my aunt revealed the truth and told me to stop being picky about fish as I had clearly liked this meal. Needless to say, I felt manipulated and cheated, but not only that: It took me 11 years to ever taste fish again! Conclusion: If my aunt truly had the desire of teaching me to like fish, this was clearly the wrong way about it.
This is one example of mealtime manipulation, but there are many variations of this, and a lot of parents engage in this strategy, one way or the other when trying to have their kids eat more veggies or try new foods. But there are several reasons why this shouldn’t be part of our mealtime repertoire. Most importantly because it’s manipulation. It’s cheating. And do we really want to teach our kids that this is a legitimate strategy? (And yes, they will find out sooner or later). Secondly, how will they ever know what veggies they actually like when they don’t know that they are even there? Finally, you are not going to be there to hide the veggies when your kids go off to college – and by then they haven’t had the chance to explore them so they will of course dismiss them.
So naturally, my tip is to stop sneaking and cheating with food. This doesn’t mean that you should never put together a course with healthy food that you know your child doesn’t like. But if they ask, answer them truthfully. Be honest with them. And let them skip it if they want to – or let them remove the mushrooms on their plate. This builds trust and leaves the choice up to them. Basically, this is where you decide which is more important: their trust in you or them eating today’s veggies?
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