How habits help fussy eating
Habits are ways of doing things often without really thinking. The dictionary states that habit is a regular practice. It also mentions that it is a tendency to do something that is hard to give up.
That sounds like a negative thing, but it can also be a positive:
– Brushing teeth – we teach our child to do this twice a day and generally it becomes a habit. As adults we perform our ritual brushing without even thinking about it.
– Washing hands – again, you can spot the adults who had this drilled into them as children and *cough* the ones who didn’t!!
There is a lot of psychology behind building and breaking habits and much of this can be either a help or a hindrance when it comes to fussy eaters.
Habits and fussy eaters
When I work with families who have older children there are often very well-established habits in their eating. These may look like:
– The same foods eaten for certain meals.
– Foods served a certain way.
– Specific rituals around eating particular foods.
The more frequently we do something, particularly in a specific way, the more it becomes habit. Also the more often we do something the more it burns connections in our brain that over time make deviations from that a challenge.
When I work directly with teens I see all sorts of habits that have become ‘food rules’. For example, if it’s the pasta dish then only this or that can be served with it.
Knowing that pasta is always served in this particular way is lovely and comforting for the brain.
The brain likes to know what’s happening, which is why bedtime routines work so well. The cues tell the brain what is going to come next so it can relax and go with the flow.
With food it works in exactly the same way.
Unfortunately, you can see immediately how this creates problems. It’s lovely that breakfast is toast, lunch a sandwich and dinner plain pasta, but then introducing something new creates issues on many levels:
– Suddenly the brain is wide awake as it is shaken out of its slumber. The auto pilot that allows it to cruise gently through meals can’t be engaged when something new is introduced.
– The safety part of the brain is on high alert as change could be bad, so the system is sent into protection mode. This is why often you get a forceful “NO” to new foods.
– Habits are easy to sit in, and very hard to break, so the more we do the same thing over and over, the more that becomes just the ‘right way’ to do things.
But we can also use habits to our advantage.
How to leverage habits to help
Habits can be great. For example, exercise has been part of my daily routine for so long, I just do it no matter what without really thinking.
So, what can you do in the food sphere to support your child?:
1. Make it easy – Creating good habits is really no more difficult than forming bad habits. Anything we do repeatedly does just become part of routine and therefore is easy to perform and over time is comforting.
The easier we can make it for our child to do this, the better. For example, serving fruit more often helps a child eat more fruit. If it is always a part of breakfast, it becomes an expected part of breakfast.
The more we see something, the more comfortable we become with it. Even if you have a non-fruit eater it still helps to build good habits. Seeing fruit every breakfast means a child associates fruit with breakfast.
2. Build positive associations – We all have foods that evoke positive memories or make us feel warm and fuzzy. For example, you may always have a box of popcorn or a choc top at the cinema as it’s part of the ritual of going to watch a movie.
We all have certain foods that the smell of, the context of, or the thought of, creates cravings so we can return to those good times.
We can help create those for our child too. I have worked with many families where a child on a super selective diet eats one random thing that should be way out of their comfort zone. However, a specific set of circumstances has built a positive emotion around that food.
Perhaps it’s Grandad’s porridge as the connection with him allowed the first try of his breakfast. Maybe it’s a curry as it was braved one evening when out with friends at the beach after a long day and it was what everyone else ate (this happened with an 8 year old boy who had a diet of 6 foods).
We can support this at home by making mealtimes events that children look forward to and that do give them the warm fuzzies, even if to begin with it’s not in the eating department.
3. Rinse repeat – The psych also tells us that things we don’t necessarily enjoy become things we do enjoy over time.
When this is in the food sphere there is loads of research to support this. Have you ever heard you need to taste a food 5, 10, 15 times (lots of numbers bandied around) to get to like a food?
Well, it’s true. The more often we taste something the more we come to like it. Think of foods or drinks (wine?) that you didn’t like at first but now do.
Supporting a child so they can taste foods more than once is important to help them learn to like foods.
If you struggle to get your child to try things even once, join the club, this is often the key sticking point for parents. Teaching a child to have that first try can be done though. That is one of the key things I work with families around.
Watching other people enjoy foods and then having them anchored in tradition is also important. If I say what goes with fish? 99% of people from an Anglo/NZ background would say chips. That association is built over years.
Although your child may seem to be ignoring many of your family foods now, there will be all sorts of messages and thoughts getting through. It’s why children on super selective diets often desperately want to eat ice cream or pizza even though they can’t bring themselves to do so.
These are foods that are frequently connected with ‘treat’ and get served as something special at school events or parties, for example.
We can help our child build these positive associations ready for when they are empowered to eat them. It is part of the reason that involving our child as much as feasible in meals is important too. The more involved, the more they are likely to get the same ‘feels’.
If you believe this isn’t possible for your child, please feel to book in for a no-cost initial evaluation. You’ll be surprised how it can be done even for the child who eats 5 foods
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/