Just the other day my daughter decided to hate (and push away) her chicken veggie taco (although she happily ate two servings of that meal last week, but it turns out that a 3-year-old gives no guarantees – surprise!). Having spent time and energy on preparing the meal, my husband, Jens, and I quickly fell into the all too familiar 3 step trap: entice (“yummy, it is chicken, you love that!”), distract (“look, an airplane is bringing your chicken! Wrooom!”), threaten (“if you don’t eat your dinner, there’s no dessert!”). And where did that get us? Absolutely nowhere! Yup, not even a tiny corn went into that little stubborn (and tightly closed) mouth.
Even for me, a child psychologist, it is sometimes hard not to fall into this pointless trap even though I should know better. And this situation illustrates how much pressure there is on parents to feed their children nutritious and healthy foods. And how sometimes our children strongly disagree with our wish. Often, we refer to this as pickiness. And so many families are struggling with how to handle their little picky eaters. I want to tell you more about this topic and why we should refrain from calling our children “picky” in the first place.
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Sometimes pickiness is not even about the food itself. My youngest daughter will sometimes announce that she does not like what is for dinner even before she knows what it is. Likewise, a lot of parents find themselves starting to make separate meals from a “better safe than sorry” standpoint which can seem like the easy way out. In many families that adds extra pressure to the witching hour. At our house, we for sure do not have time for setting up individualized meals. So once and for all we decided that dinner is what is served – for everybody.
Instead of giving in to separate meals, we try to encourage the tasting of new food and look at this as food courage. At our house, it is cool to be a food hero who dares to taste something new. The important thing, though, is not to expect them to love it right away, but that they taste it – if they don’t like it, we leave it at that and maybe say “I appreciate you tasting it – maybe next time you will like it better.”.
Nobody likes to be called names, and “picky” is a biased and negative label. It creates negative vibes at the dinner table and for the child it feels demeaning and humiliating. A new meal is just a new defeat. Having struggles at the dinner table every night, being called picky, being forced to taste and eat something you don’t like will be nothing but counterproductive. Bad food experiences and bad food memories will last much longer than the actual taste they did not like. Try to leave the pressure out of the meal and make meals a good experience. Besides, calling somebody “picky” often can turn out to be self-fulfilling. If that is the narrative your child has about herself, it’s easy to stick with that instead of challenging herself.
As parents introducing new foods we must be patient and set realistic goals. Most likely your child will not throw herself joyfully into your broccoli quinoa salad just because you decided that your family needs more veggies. In our house, the compromise is usually to introduce new food with some of our kids’ favorites: like pasta mixed up with some fine chopped or mashed broccoli. That way they get to taste it while their all-time favorite pasta is still the main ingredient.
Don’t give up after your child’s first rejection. His taste buds will evolve throughout his life, and it takes time to learn how to appreciate new foods. Research suggests 12 (or more) exposures to appreciate or accept a new food.
Exposing children to food does not have to involve them tasting it: smelling it, touching it, seeing others eat it qualify as exposure, too. Also, you don’t want the food rejection to get too much air time – sometimes it can be about them wanting your attention. Positive attention will get you a longer way.
Eating together is proven to reduce the rejection of food, and there seem to be multiple mechanisms involved: the feelings arising from eating together are usually positive, which will impact our food experience, too. When seeing dad enjoy his codfish and potatoes, that makes children want to do the same – no kids wish to be picky. And when we talk about our day, the attention is not focused on how many peas the child eats, but about connecting with your family at the table.
When we fall into old patterns and traps, I usually remind myself of this: skepticism to food is a good thing – it is a healthy way for our children to set their own boundaries which is something we usually encourage. But helping them try to overcome their boundaries is our job as parents and something we happily do when our kids do sports: Imagine your child saying, “I can’t, mom” at her first soccer game. Would you settle with that and allow them to trade soccer in for tennis just because the first time was not a success? Probably not, right?
By Gitte Holm-Møller Nordic Family Table