The moral of the chicken nuggets
Working with over 100 families a year as a Picky Eating Consultant, provides a lot of stories from the meal table. Some of them are memorable because they are amusing, some because they are the story of a 1,000 other families, and some because they teach us a really valuable lesson.
When I am talking to parents, I often learn new things or a new approach too. The relationship is definitely not only one way!
One of these stories is the moral of the chicken nuggets.
Eating only a few foods
Often picky eaters have a fairly narrow range of foods that they eat.
Because of this they tend to eat them every day, or at least on a very frequent basis. This leads to a few further challenges:
1. The more often we eat only a narrow band of foods, the more difficult it becomes to accept foods outside of those choices.
2. When we eat the same foods over and over again, it is quite common to get bored with eating them.
Often children who are picky eaters do not have a lot of enthusiasm for food.
How much of this is because they just are not that interested in eating, and how much because it is not interesting or exciting is hard to know!
This is one of the picky eating paradoxes. Children only want to eat a narrow band of foods, but then they are bored eating just those.
3. It is common to drop foods either because they are bored – if you ate a particular food day in day out wouldn’t you get bored, I would – or because they have a “bad” experience.
This may be something minor in the scheme of things but can put a food hesitant child off eating. For example, the sandwich goes mushy or the nugget is overcooked.
4. The rigidity around those foods can increase.
In fact, this is a really common, but rarely discussed issue. Often, when children are surviving on a narrow range of foods, they also develop a more and more rigid approach to those foods. It may be only accepting a particular brand, but it can also then extend to having only the ones that are, cooked an exact way or by a specific parent!
This can be really, really frustrating for parents, as you can imagine. It also makes things far more challenging for the whole family on a lot of levels:
i) Not only having only certain foods that can be served but also now having to buy/prepare/cook/serve in a specific way is soul destroying.
ii) It means our child is less socially flexible as they may go to a friend’s house and be served a favourite food, but be unable to eat it as it’s a slightly different brand or version.
iii) The family is limited in terms of travel, restaurants and socialising.
One of the mum’s I spoke to was in this exact situation.
Her son ate a limited number of foods and was becoming more and more rigid about the specifics of the foods he did eat. One of these was chicken nuggets.
The moral of the chicken nuggets
Mum was being driven crackers by the chicken nuggets. Brand A was the only one that her son would accept, and she was so frustrated as they could not go to a café or a restaurant as a different nugget was like a whole new food for her child.
Like most parents she found it really difficult to accept that there was a noticeable difference between brands, to the point that only one was OK and all the rest were rejected. She also got nowhere discussing this with her son as he refused to even contemplate eating a different nugget.
Mum was on a mission and decided that she was going to crack this, she was going to introduce a new chicken nugget however long it took.
There are of course gentle ways to do this, and this is the course she took.
From then on, every time she served chicken nuggets, she would serve a portion of the favoured brand and next to them, one piece of a new brand of nugget.
She did this week in and week out.
One evening after about two months, her son suddenly picked up the new nugget, bit into it and said “hey, these are OK”.
There were many emotions running through mum at that moment, I will leave it to you to imagine!!
What have we learned from the nuggets?
Probably not from the nuggets themselves, but from the story of the nuggets 😊
1. If we have a child that has a limited diet, adding new foods is not going to be easy. It will probably also be a slow process.
2. The more rigid around food our child becomes the more challenging things are.
3. We can make a difference. However, extreme or stubborn our child seems around food, we can support them to add new foods.
What can we do?
Learning from the chicken nugget story:
1. It takes confidence on our part that we can be part of the solution, that we really can make a difference, even if experience has shown us the opposite.
2. We will need determination and consistency. Mum in the nuggets story did not give up, even when faced with refusal over and over again, she was tenacious and kept going.
3. Our child is probably going to say or show “no” over and over again. That is to be expected. It is a question of continuing on anyway.
4. We can usually find a gentle way to help our child to add a new food. This mum did just that.
None of this was about forcing her child to eat a new brand. It was all about exposing him to it, allowing him to become comfortable with it and most importantly, giving him the opportunity to eat it.
The cure for food rigidity
The simplest way to prevent rigidity becoming an issue, is to ensure that our child sees changes as often as possible. These do not have to be big things, in fact, the smaller they are the better.
The same theory applies if our child has already become very specific around how food has to be prepared. In this case, perhaps picking a food where the rigidity is less extreme can be easier.
Some examples of small changes may be serving foods slightly differently. If this was a nugget, it may be cutting them in half instead of leaving them whole. Or putting them on skewer. Perhaps it is serving them alongside a dip or maybe it is having them on a cracker or a piece of toast.
Do you know someone who would benefit from hearing about rigidity?
If so, please share the article.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/