Reduce the Picky
It’s important to understand that picky eating is normal for young children. A child eats a whole lot of one food, one day, and the next day they are all about another food. Children use intuition to pick the foods they eat. Maggie explains this and offers methods using supporting research to reduce eating struggles.
with Maggie Perkins, MS, RD, LDN
I’m really excited to welcome Maggie. Maggie is a Registered Dietitian. She is one of our HER Ambassadors, we have a lot of extra love for Maggie.
She really knows her stuff. She comes at food and mealtime with a unique approach that is backed by science and research. It is a more calming approach, I feel, as a mom.
I’m just going to turn it over to Maggie and let her dive in. I hope you all will find this as helpful as I have, especially in this past month. It’s been a big help.
Thank you Crissy and I’m so glad to hear that positive feedback that it helped you. I love to hear that from parents. Like Crissy mentioned, I’m Maggie and I’m a HER Circle Ambassador.
Before CoronaVirus I was helping to host some events with HER Circle. My role has changed but you will see me a lot in these events, I am very active. I’m so thankful for HER Circle right now, being able to connect with people, events for the kids and mom’s mental health. I’m so grateful for Crissy and Cindi and the work that they do.
I am also a mom. I have a 10 month old and a 4 year old. I’m in the thick of this as well with the picky eating and family feeding. I’m also a Registered Dietitian and I focus on Family Nutrition. I work with parents who have questions about nutrition and work with parents that have a lot of anxiety or guilt around the way that they feed themselves or their families.
I also work with clients who have binge eating disorder or orthorexia. I do Baby Led Weaning. Pretty much any questions that parents have about feeding themselves or feeding their children, I’m here to help.
Which brings us to today’s class which is “Reduce the Picky Eating Struggle.”
Let’s talk about, “What is Picky Eating?” It’s important to understand that picky eating is normal for young children. Children are strange eaters in general. You may notice that your child eats a whole lot of one food, one day, like they are into the crunchy grains and the next day they are all about their protein foods and want chicken, beans.
So they really are strange eaters to adults. All children are born Intuitive Eaters, which means they use intuition to pick the foods that they are going to eat. That’s very strange for adults because even though we were born Intuitive Eaters it is quickly taught out of us that we need to listen to some external things in choosing the foods that we eat.
Children do a really good job of listening to their cues for hunger and fullness. They are going to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. You really want to embrace that and help them grow up into that Internal Regulation or Intuitive Eating.
Just know that some picky eating is normal for toddlers in particular. It is how they are learning to be themselves. It can be a power struggle because they are saying, “this is who I am and this is what I want to do.” Just to test mom and dad and figure out who they are.
It’s also important to understand that everyone is allowed to have food preferences. You are as an adult, some foods that you may be drawn to and some that you do not like. Same thing for kids. For example, my four year old, I have offered him beans in this method hundreds of times. The child doesn’t like beans. I just have to understand that maybe it’s the texture. It’s his food preference and that’s okay.
Now, finicky eating is a little different than picky eating. That is when there is extremely limited food acceptance. It’s usually when there is a lot of stress in the family around food time because the child is not eating foods, or that it can affect the child/parent relationship. So, finicky eating is a more extreme eating.
It’s good to understand that there are a lot of us out here that have children with picky eating. It’s very common. 25-45% of children have feeding issues. It’s important to know what we can do about it because food acceptance is a vital piece to our nutritional health.
We are going to talk about what those food acceptance skills are in just a moment.
Now, with picky eating there’s a nature and a nurture part. Nature being genetics, there’s a genetic predisposition to being a picky eater. Some children are just genetically more cautious with new experiences in general. Some children have a very sensitive gag reflex which is going to make eating a little bit different for them.
Some children are supertasters, which means they taste more bitter in foods. Specifically, broccoli and cilantro. Those are going to taste really bitter. Some children have Sensory Processing Disorders which also can play into being a more cautious eater.
There is also the nurture piece, that’s how we approach meal time. There are some things we can do to help children get over picky eating on the way we approach mealtime.
Specifically, two things that can be happening that feed into picky eating that can make it worse.
- Children can not be given the exposure that they need. Limited opportunities to really expand their menu.
- Extreme pressure put on the child to eat certain foods.
There is something we can do even for children who are genetically predisposed to picky eating using the method that we are going to go over today, will help those children to expand their menus.
What Are Food Acceptance Skills
Food acceptance skills include:
- Being calm around foods that they are unfamiliar
- Getting comfortable with your likes (children are usually comfortable with what they like. It’s usually adults that are uncomfortable with likes, feeling guilt with liking certain foods).
- Being able to pick from available foods. A child that can find something to eat from what’s available.
- Being able to settle for a meal that is just OK. Sometimes we just need to fuel ourselves and we are unable to choose exactly what we want to eat. We just need to eat because our body needs it.
- Experimenting with food.
- Add new foods into the rotation
The method may be different than what you expected so keep an open mind. Remember self-compassion if you learn that some of the things you’ve been doing have been fueling the picky eating. Know that as a parent you are coming from a place of love and caring for your child. You are here learning a new method that may be beneficial to them.
This method is evidence-based and is acknowledged by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The method is called, “The Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” This is the method that family feeding specialists use. As a parent, we are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding. Your child is responsible for how much and whether they are going to eat.
As parents, your feeding jobs include:
- Choose and prepare the foods
- Provide regular meals and snacks
- Make eating times pleasant
- Role model behavior by eating with your child and eating from the same foods as our child
- Not let our child graze for snack or drinks between meal times (except water)
- Very important that our child is allowed to grow up to have the body that is right for them. Research shows that we can not control our child’s weight and if we try to control their weight, the opposite is going to happen. Research shows that children who are pressured to lose weight and are restricted for certain foods are actually going to gain weight and are going to have a negative relationship with food the rest of their life.
A lot of people that I work with that have binge eating disorder, were put on diets when they were young. So we really want to accept that we can not control our child’s weight and that if we use this method the child will do their job of growing predictably.
The same thing is true if you are worried about a child being underweight. If you are constantly trying to get your child to eat more, and focusing on gaining weight, the same is going to happen, the child stays at a lower weight. Accepting that the child is going to have the body that is right for them and that may be different than what we expect it to be.
You child’s eating jobs include:
- Your child will eat
- Your child will eat the amount they need
- Your child will learn to eat the food you eat
- Your child will eat a variety
- Your child will grow predictably
- Your child will learn to behave well at the table (eating together and role modeling behavior).
I’m going to take a moment to stop and see if there are any questions or comments at this point?
That’s basically what we do and usually it works. My child will eat at least something even if it is just fruit. If he asks for more fruit I will give it to him however last night he refused to eat anything and refused to come to the table. After dinner the kitchen is closed. I reminded him several times that this was his last chance and there was nothing else to eat. He went to bed without eating anything. I felt terrible! He didn’t wake up starving. I feel like we did all the right things but the feeling of my child going to bed without dinner in his stomach is really hard!
Absolutely! You see that it was OK. He didn’t ask for food, he just wasn’t hungry. That’s the little intuitive eater.
We will be talking more about this, but dinner for children a lot of times they aren’t hungry. They’re done! They’re tired! That is not the time that they are going to eat a lot.
It can be really challenging. I’ve experienced my son saying that he wasn’t hungry and then an hour later he’s asking for candy. So I tell him, “No, kitchen’s closed and you will need to wait for breakfast. You know that we need to eat at meal time.”
My daughter is 2 ½ and she’s a pretty good and healthy eater. A lot of my questions are regarding second helpings, where do they come in? For example, say we do protein and green beans, and a potato or Mac and cheese. We try to say that seconds can only be had on healthy items but where do seconds come into play?
That’s a really great question! They get to decide how much and that’s with each specific food. The only time I cut a child off is, for example with potato chips and that’s all they are eating and they want more and more and more. If it is something with meal planning, that I planned to have the chips with dinner and also later in the week, everyone doesn’t get more potato chips because it’s for meal planning. It isn’t based on whether the food is “healthy” or “unhealthy” it’s based on needing to save the food for later. If you don’t have a plan for a certain food, it is your child’s job to decide how much they can have. It does take some time, especially if there have been lines between having these foods, but not these foods. It can take some time and the child may want to eat whatever that food is. They may test you and say, “Oh, that’s all I’m eating and I’m going to eat four servings.” That’s a learning opportunity that shows the child, “If I eat four servings of just mac and cheese, I might not feel very good.” It’s also going to take that food off of the pedestal. Eventually they’re just going to say, “Well, that’s just mac and cheese and I’m just going to eat the amount I want and move onto something different maybe.”
So if there are times when she just wants to eat Mac and cheese, just go with it?
Yes. Just go with it. Our internal regulators know what they need to eat. Maybe she just needs some calcium and carbs and that’s what her body needs right now. You’ll find the next day all she wants to eat is that chicken.
My daughter is 9 months old and we are still mostly doing purées even though we’ve started some finger foods. If we are eating the same foods as her but she’s still mostly on purées, how do we do that?
For children even at one year and younger, the idea is to pick from the same foods that you’re eating but alter them in a safe way. So, if it’s grapes, you will want to cut those grapes up. Sometimes you will need to alter foods, or some foods aren’t appropriate for a child to eat at certain stages. You do want to try and offer, even if babies, the same foods as the family is eating.
My 2 ½ year old will eat a lot of things but he doesn’t like them mixed together, so I’ll give him the same food we are eating but separately. If we are having chicken pesto pasta, I’ll give him the chicken, pesto as a dip and the pasta on the side. Is that acceptable? Or should we be trying to get him to mix them?
I would suggest slowly starting to incorporate foods. So, what we are doing is teaching them how to be eaters. If he continues to do that, he may want to continue having his food separated, which is that a terrible thing? No. Maybe that’s just how he’s going to eat. If it’s putting a lot of stress on you to separate and make it different then you can start working towards mixing his foods.
I do that for my four year old. There are just some things that he needs more broken down. I think that’s acceptable. The most important thing is that it’s the same foods as the family. It really comes down to what works for you.
Maggie (returning to presentation slides):
If you do your job of feeding, your child will do their job of eating. This method requires a level of trust. A level of trust in your child’s body, that they will be little intuitive eaters and eat the way they are supposed to eat. It requires a lot of leadership. It also takes some autonomy and letting your child make some decisions for themselves and how they are going to eat.
How To Implement
- The first thing we need to do is tell any other adult who is eating with us. If you are using this method but someone else in your house is not, it will not work. It needs to be consistent or it’s going to be confusing for the child. If your child is old enough for you to communicate with them saying something like, “You know how mommy is always trying to get you to eat your broccoli? Well, I don’t think that’s working and we’re going to try something different. You get to decide how much and whether you’re going to eat from the foods we have at meal time.” So, in a simple way you can tell the child about the change and they may do a little bit better with it.
- Structure your meals
- Expanding the menu to some other foods
- Sit down at meal time. This is important for safety as well as it being a formal meal. We don’t want children running around and eating while they are playing. It increases the risk of choking.
- Offer 3 meals and 1-3 snacks. That’s a big job and it’s hard but that’s usually the amount that children and adults eat.
- Be consistent and reliable. This is so important. We don’t need to be rigid, but if you choose to give a mid-morning snack, that needs to be something that is given everyday. If we pick and choose daily it becomes for a child, food insecurity. With food insecurity a child can start thinking, “I don’t know when I’m going to eat again. I better eat as much as I possibly can.” So, it’s very important to be consistent.
- Prioritize getting fed. Instead of focusing on making a meal the perfect most nutritionally dense meal, you just need to feed your child. We don’t want to over analyze and stress about making something perfectly nutritionally balanced.
- Avoid grazing. Right now research says that 50% of families are grazers. We want to try and avoid eating at any time because we want them to eat the nutritious food we give them. If we want them to expand to new foods, they need to come to the table hungry. If they are allowed to eat throughout the day, they are not going to come to the table hungry.
- Only water between meals and snacks. I’m not saying you can’t have milk, soda and juice, I’m just saying to have those drinks during meal time. Those drinks are going to provide calories which can fill up those little bellies. For example, my son would drink 12 cups of milk daily if I let him. He would probably not eat food and just drink milk. I need to be very vigilant with him just getting milk at meal time.
- Going to meals hungry but not famished. The main reason for that is that they can overeat and also that’s when the behavior issues start happening when your child can’t even eat because they can’t control their hanger. That means your feeding 2-3 hours between meals.
There is a lot of media coverage around the benefits of meal time. It is very important. Children who sit down with their family for meals will do better nutritionally, socially, emotionally and academically.
They are going to be resistant to dieting, eating disorders, drug use and early sexual activity.
Meal time is deemed the cornerstone of being a family. This is the time that you are going to nourish your child and nurture them. Show them that you’re taking care of them. Feeding them.
It’s also a really good time for communication. Without distraction, eating your meal and talking to your child in a pleasant way. So it’s a very important part of being a family.
We will not get the mealtime benefits if we are doing the following:
- The TV is on
- Reading at the table or looking at phones
- Traveling in the car
- If you are having a fight at the table
- If you feed your child rather than eating with them
I just said that you are offering your child food 4-6 times a day. Offer yourself food as well. It is really important as moms that we are getting enough food ourselves so we don’t get hangry. Listen to your body. If you aren’t hungry, you don’t have to eat but you can still sit with your child and try to eat with them, when you’re hungry, as many times as possible.
When you were talking about a child not eating at dinner if they are not hungry…our youngest daughter will wake up hungry and she is as mean as a snake! She’s so mean! Is there a way that we can avoid that?
Just consistently offering 4-6 meals a day. That’s the only thing that we can do. So if she’s waking up really grumpy, maybe having something really quick to give her. Cold cereal, oatmeal, toast. I need to put something in immediately too. You can also talk to her about it, “You don’t eat much dinner and it seems that you wake up really hungry.” Try not to talk to her about it at meal time but between meals when she’s not hungry would be a good time to explore. If she’s not hungry at night, she’s listening to her body.
What do you do if you have a little one who refuses to try something new. You think you know that they are going to love it, but they say they don’t like it and just don’t want it.
That’s a great question and I’m going to hold off on answering it because we will cover it in the next section.
Our struggle starts with just getting her to the table and sit in the high chair. Every mealtime is a battle so we need to entice her to the table. Sometimes food does work if she likes the food at the table but sometimes it needs to be a toy or a book that I’m going to let her hold during mealtime. While we are eating, it’s very distracting and then it’s hard to take the toy away. So, it’s very stressful.
How old is your child?
She is 22 months.
Is she hungry? Is she grazing throughout the day?
Yes. She does have snacks throughout the day. She was underweight when she was a baby so we have always just let her eat whenever she wanted to just trying to get the weight back up, so now it’s just become a habit and she just eats whenever. Whatever she wants basically and we will give it to her.
I would say structuring those meals. I’m not saying that you can’t still have those foods but just make it a snack time. Sit down and eat all the snacks and fill the belly up. It will take her some time to get used to the change. Really, at that young age, it only takes a few days. I would make sure that she comes to the table hungry to help with the distraction and then if the child wants to be really crazy at mealtime, let them get down. Teach them to play quietly and not let them get into your lap. It’s a process. Teach them to go get a book or play quietly while we finish eating. I think if she went to the table hungry then she would be more willing to participate in mealtime. Also, mealtime should last only 20-30 minutes.
(Laughing) Maggie when you were referring to no fighting at the table, were you referring to the parents or the children because our kids fight constantly.
I know we can’t always control that but it’s fighting anybody. It’s setting the ground rules that there is no fighting at the table. Get it out before you come, we’re about to have dinner but you need to figure this out before you sit down. Or, just emphasizing that the meal is a pleasant time for the family and trying to set those ground rules.
I just want to say really quick…the information I shared about, “it’s not a meal if you’re watching TV and the rest of the list we went over.” I’m not saying you need to be perfect and you never can watch TV while you’re eating and you never can look at your phone at the table. I’m saying usually…what are you usually doing. It’s about looking back globally and asking yourself, “How are meals done usually?”
In my family, we do like to have a movie night and have dinner in front of the TV maybe two times per month. That’s really special for my son and we can do that. So it’s not about perfection or rigid rules, it’s about what you’re usually doing and your main patterns with how you are feeling your family.
Expanding the Menu
How do we get these picky eaters to eat more? The answer is Repeated Neutral Exposure.
Repeated…meaning over and over and over again. Neutral….meaning absolutely no pressure on the child to eat a certain food. You can not encourage, entice, applaud them. We want them to eat food because of what they are listening to in their own bodies, their internal regulators.
No reward for eating a certain food (eat your broccoli and you can have a treat) because that is forcing that child to eat a food and is affecting the child’s relationship with the food. If they feel pressure it will backfire. They will not want to eat that food on their own, so we are teaching children to eat these foods on their own accord without any pressure from the parents.
That is also going to include value judgements about the food (broccoli is good, chips are bad). We want to treat all food as the same. Labeling food as good and bad puts certain foods on a pedestals. If you say cookies are bad, your child is automatically going to say, “I want that bad food.” That’s what they are going to want, so we need to try really hard to not have value judgments around food and treat all foods the same. If we treat them the same, the children will treat them the same.
Can you imagine your child treating broccoli and cookies the same? That’s what we’re going for (giggling).
Also, we want to not have a nutritional lesson while we are eating (chicken has so much protein in it). As a dietician I have had to unlearn because we want that to be neutral. We want them to listen to their own bodies and decide what to eat based on what their bodies are feeling.
Pressures such as “One little bite. Lick it.” That’s also going to be pressure. Before saying something at the meal I ask myself, “Am I saying this to try and get my child to eat something?” If the answer is yes, then I’m not going to say it. We want it to be neutral.
Exposure…meaning offering it at mealtime. It can mean, having them help shop for the food. It can mean having them help grow the food, gardening. It can mean, helping to cook the food. It can mean, in between meals science experiments with foods. Any kind of exposure with food is going to help them to expand the menu.
Research shows that for a child to become comfortable with a new food it’s going to take 10-20 exposures or more. Continuously offering is important.
Research also shows that parents offer a food 3 times before they decide a child doesn’t like it. We don’t want to write off a particular food if at first they don’t like it. Continue to offer 10-20 times.
Look out for the steps of a child who is starting to expand their menu:
- Before they are going to eat a new food they watch other people eat it. When they see a parent putting a food in their mouths, chewing it up and enjoying it, that is the first thing they are looking for. If you are serving foods that you don’t like and are serving them so your child can eat them, they are never going to like that food either. So make sure you are serving foods that you enjoy as well.
- They will put it on their plate
- They might touch it, smell it, put it in their mouth. They need to be taught what to do if they put something into their mouth and they don’t like it. Having a paper napkin available for them to be able to spit it out and not make a big deal (like screaming to the trash can). There are a lot of times as adults we put things in our mouths and don’t like them.
- Swallow. It’s a very different thing for a child to put something in their mouth and be forced to swallow it. If they are forced to swallow something that they think is not pleasurable, they aren’t going to put anything new in their mouth.
Focus on variety. When you offer meals and snacks, you want to try and offer as many food groups as possible. You always want to pair a food that they are familiar with and you know they like and pair it with an unfamiliar food. Perhaps it could be a sauce. If you know they will eat a carrot stick, maybe you give them a Greek yogurt dip, or something that they are less familiar with and offer it to them.
WIth meals I like to recommend that you have at least one well liked grain. That can be what you fall back on if your child is hungry, there is something they will eat at the table. Maybe some bread and butter, if your child is unfamiliar with some of the new foods they will at least fill their belly’s.
Let everyone pick and choose from what is on the table. The best way to do this is family style feeding which is putting the food out on the table and letting people pick and choose what they want. So, letting little ones put foods on their plate from what they want. We do that sometimes in my family but not all the time because it gets a lot of dishes dirty. I will plate everyone up with the same foods on their plate or I will show my child what is available and help him put things on his plate from the stove, but you want to be able to let them pick from what is available.
I just told you that you are going to decide how much and whether foods they will eat and to have well liked grains. You may be thinking, “My child is going to eat bread the rest of their life.” It’s not true. I guarantee your child will get tired of grains. Eventually, when they start trusting in this method and they know they won’t feel pressure, and there is a variety of foods being offered, eventually they will eat something different. I promise. They want to survive as much as you want them to survive. They are going to get tired of whatever that grain is and expand.
Children get all the nutrients they need between 4-7 days. We focus on, “Oh my gosh, they didn’t eat vegetables at dinner.” Really, one meal or day of eating is going to make little impact on their overall nutritional wellbeing. It’s really looking at it from a week of what they’ve been eating and the variety.
One of the most important things about nutrition and getting the nutrients needed is variety. So, offering your family as much variety as you personally are as an eater. Meaning, asking yourself what you like to eat. Thinking about what you’ve had a lot of this week and maybe change it up the next week. From the foods you like, providing as much variety as possible when offering it to your family. It is really how you are going to get the nutrients that you need.
Another really important thing about nutrition is enjoyment. We spend a lot of our time purchasing, cooking and eating. We need to make sure that the foods we are sitting down to eat are enjoyable for us.
Empower children to listen to and trust their bodies. When my child is done with dinner he says, “my belly is full” so he is really asking himself about his body and when he’s done. Like I said, they are born intuitive eaters.
As I said earlier, children are often not hungry at night. Putting a lot of pressure on that meal isn’t beneficial.
Think about snacks as mini meals so throwing as many food groups as possible during a snack. So, maybe offering a glass of milk or adding fruit or vegetable trying to make them as nutrient dense as possible.
I’m interested to know if this counts as pressure or not. When my daughter eats broccoli we call them “trees in the forest.” We have magic words for different foods. I’ll take a waffle, use blueberries and make a face. Is that impacting the relationship with food and putting pressure on certain foods? Or is that considered OK?
I think that it’s ok for a child to be encouraged to play with their food because touch is going to be counted as an exposure. So, if it’s something that your child enjoys because it makes meal time fun and enjoyable, then no that doesn’t mean there is pressure. Now, if you’re doing that specifically because you want them to eat that food and you’re very disappointed when they don’t eat it, then maybe you need to reconsider. I think playing with food is actually a step with getting a child to eat.
We do a lot of this stuff, but we do nutrition lessons at the table. Can you speak a little more about that? We talk about the vitamins the food has and the colors and textures that it has. Should we not be doing that?
We just want to do it outside of mealtime because that is a pressure. For example, if you are saying, “Blueberries are full of vitamins and minerals and they might fill their belly’s up on blueberries for reasons that they’re not choosing. We want them to choose the foods because their body’s are telling them what to choose. Any external reason that they are eating a food, it can backfire. They might fill their belly’s up on blueberries because they want to be strong and powerful and the next time there’s blueberries they say, “No way, I got sick last time I ate those.” So, just trying as hard as you can not to have any kind of external pressure on your reason during meal time. I’m not saying, don’t teach your children about nutrition, I’m saying just not while they are eating.
I have a quick follow up question about that. If you are at the grocery store and picking out food, would that be a good time for a nutrition lesson?
Sure! That seems like a great time! Absolutely!
My daughter is 2 ½ and doesn’t seem to like to drink a lot of water after her nap in the afternoon and she’ll come to the table thirsty, hungry and hangry. Unless we let her eat at 4:30 or something. We tend to eat as a family at 5:30/6pm because of my husband’s work schedule. Do you have any ideas for getting her to drink more because if she doesn’t drink anything she won’t want to eat anything either.
Having it available. Do you have water bottles around?
Yes! All sorts.
Perhaps starting to talk with her to help her understand what it feels like to be thirsty. Are you currently drinking juice, soda or milk between meals?
Yes. We drink a little bit of juice and the rest of it is water. It is probably 5% juice but we try not to have straight juice and we don’t have soda or anything. We just try to make it a little more exciting by switching up the different juices.
It sounds like you’re doing everything I would recommend. Just making sure its available, making sure you’re drinking water. I would make sure you don’t have too much pressure on her to drink water. Talking about what it feels like to be dehydrated. Over time, maybe she can start making that connection that “I feel this way because I’m not drinking enough water.” Those are my initial thoughts but I would want to ask more questions and talk to you specifically but those are my general recommendations.
Ok, thanks! Can I ask you another quick question? During this time and when she was little, she was also underweight when she was little so we were just feeding her. She has never been a great eater. She will try a bunch of different stuff but she just doesn’t like to eat a lot and she likes to run around. So, to confine her and get my exercise, I would feed her breakfast while I was taking a run in the morning. She would look at stuff and eat. At preschool she also won’t eat with the other kids. She just doesn’t eat very much and I think it’s about overstimulation with her. If it is a little bit of low stimulation, she will eat very well. Is it bad to feed her breakfast while I put her in the stroller?
So, the recommendation is to be sitting at a table for safety. Sometimes strollers are leaned back a certain way. Again, it isn’t about perfection. If you need to have that run and it’s good for your mental health then that’s an ok thing to do. We want to look at overall patterns. We want children to focus on eating when they are eating and that’s the same for adults. When we are distracted eating, we aren’t paying attention to our cues for hunger and fullness, we can overeat or undereat. We want to try and focus on a meal while we are eating it.
High Fat, High Salt, High Sugar
I mentioned earlier that as adults we usually have some food acceptance issues with these foods because we are told continuously that these are bad. They are out there, we are allowed to eat them and we are allowed to enjoy them. We just want to focus on variety and we can add some of these foods into our menus.
If we heavily restrict children with any type of food, they are going to put that food on a pedestal and they are going to want to eat it more so than other foods. So, having some of these foods occasionally with meals (such as potato chips, croissants or whatever is enjoyable for your family that might be high fat and high salt). Occasionally giving them to children and teaching them how to have a healthy relationship with them. That you can enjoy them and you don’t have to hide that you eat them or never eat them. We don’t want to restrict children because when we restrict, we find that the opposite happens that they are going to want to eat a lot of them.
My next recommendation is specifically with sweets. I recommend that occasionally you give a child an unrestricted period of eating with a sweet. So, what I mean by that is you put out a, for example, plate of cookies on the table and you allow the child to eat from that plate of cookies until their bellies are full and you are not going to restrict them in any way.
Why do I say this? It is a recommendation because these foods are out there. This whole parenting thing is about preparing our children to be an adult. If we never let our child have this unrestricted eating period, then when they are adults they are not going to know how to eat and have a healthy relationship with these foods. A lot of my binge eating clients were never allowed to eat these foods, so when they became adults, that’s when they really started binging on them.
What will happen if you allow your child to do this? This is occasionally. I’m not saying to do it everyday or they will expect it. I’m saying to give these opportunities for learning how to eat these foods. What will happen is that your child will either surprise you by only eating a few. I did this once with Oreo cookies and my son said, “I don’t want to eat cookies.” I was thinking, “This is a weird situation.” Or, they might eat too much, which is our fear and that’s OK. That’s a learning opportunity. You are there with them, and showing them that it’s ok and can talk about, “Oh, is your belly too full? Did you eat too much?”
For me and my family, this isn’t even a thing anymore because if I put out the whole pack of Oreo cookies in front of my child it is just so normal and he only eats a couple of them. At first, especially if a child has been restricted, it might be a period of learning but eventually, they just have that healthy relationship with food and they know how to listen to their bodies. They are going to eat the amount that feels good to them.
I suggest doing this occasionally and at snack time. You don’t want to do this with a meal because the child will only eat the sweet. For desert with your dinner, I recommend serving desert with your dinner. Having a portion or serving that is the same for everyone and serving it with the other foods. It takes the sweets off the pedestal and they are just another food for dinner. For me, I’m always very surprised. My son sometimes doesn’t even touch the desert we serve. Sometimes he will go straight for it. I have a picture of him from this week where he has an Air Head in one hand and carrot in the other. He took a bite of Air Head then carrot, Air Head then carrot. It gets them started to begin eating the other foods.
I don’t recommend having a consistent desert time that is separate as a snack or after dinner. A child will expect that and they will know that at a certain time they get a sweet and save their eating time for the snack after dinner.
I’m going to take questions now.
Are you saying you should have a desert with every dinner?
No. You don’t have to. It depends on what your family wants. Maybe you aren’t big desert eaters, just because you don’t like those foods. That’s fine. You don’t have to but it is not wrong if you do.
Then put the desert on their plate so it’s just another food on their plate?
Yes. Just another food.
The unrestricted occasional sweet snack time, do you put the whole thing out? What if they eat the whole package?
Oooo! They’d feel bad. It would be a learning opportunity because if you eat that many Oreos, you’d be sick! It would be best if you were eating with them and showing them that you are eating the Oreo cookies as well.
Ok. When you say occasional, how often do you mean. Once a week? Once every few weeks?
That’s up to you. Once a week is fine. Like I mentioned, the learning opportunity turns into a child just being used to it and they eat the amount that they want or say that they don’t want that. Eventually it takes it off the pedestal.
Patience In the Process
Be patient in the process.
- Children can change if their parent’s change.
- Try to focus on one change at a time. Think about simple changes for your family. One thing at a time.
- The younger they are with making these changes the better. Toddlers can make these changes within 2-3 days. Preschool age children can take a couple weeks. School age children can take 6 weeks. Starting these changes soon is going to be beneficial.
- Any kind of change for a child can be hard so remember when you are making these changes there can be a period of “making peace with food.” Specifically if your child has been restricted with the types of foods they are eating. They just need some time to test you as a parent.
- It takes leadership so you need to be prepared to be the enforcer. These are the rules. “You get to decide how much and whether you are going to eat but I get to decide what, where and when.”
Just do the best you can! Lean into convenience. Convenient foods can be wholesome foods even though we are often told that if it’s convenient then it’s not healthy for us, but that’s not true. Offering as much variety as possible and making sure your mental health is ok when preparing all these meals.
If you start putting some of these things into place and you don’t see any progress in a month I do recommend at that time speaking to someone who specializes in family feeding. Or, if you have work to do on your relationship with food. It’s really hard to make changes with a child if you are struggling with your relationship.
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Reference and Resources were from “Secrets of Feeding A Healthy Family” by Ellyn Satter. It is my favorite family nutrition book and it goes into depth the information that we went over today.
Maggie, I heard that we should be selective on what we call the treat food…”treat, desert, fun food.” What is the best terminology?
I use play food, but as long as you are consistent and it is not negative. Something I’m trying to undo is to not call it junk food, or bad food because those have the negative connotations associated with them.
What if the parent had been or is a picky eater. For me, I didn’t eat seafood so I never exposed seafood to my daughter and she doesn’t eat it now. How do you stop that cycle?
You want to offer yourselves food that you enjoy. If it is something that you are trying to expand your menu, which adults do as well. I would just be upfront with your child and letting them know that you are trying a new recipe and I have a hard time with some of the ingredients as well and being open with the child, if they can communicate in that way. If there is a partner that might like it, having the child see one adult able to enjoy it. It’s ok to see your child not be a perfect eater either. That’s a learning opportunity as well. Being open to communication with trying different foods. Letting your child know, “This is a new food for me too” but not forcing yourself to eat it just because you’re trying to get your child to eat it. They are going to see right through that.
Maggie is a Registered Dietitian who has assisted people in shaping health behaviors for over seven years. She has experience in clinical dietetics, corporate wellness, and community health programs. Maggie focuses in Health at Every Size®, eating competence, and intuitive eating. She started her business, Tomata that assists individuals and families to be confident about nutrition while emphasizing food enjoyment and body respect.