Why make changes to food?
I know this is a crazy time, but it’s also a rare opportunity. Aside from parents who are both working full time from home, with young children, many people have unprecedented amounts of time. Even if working, there are no commutes, no pick-ups or drops offs and no external activities.
This could be a great time to work on the children’s eating – especially if both parents are home and that’s not the usual situation. Coming out of isolation with a child who does eat more widely would be amazing!
My book Creating Confident Eaters is all about making changes to food, to the menu and to the approach. The rationale behind writing it and picking this angle is because change is really challenging for us. Whether a child or an adult and especially around food. The less we do it, the more difficult it becomes. Picky eaters, by definition do not like new foods and often are very resistant to change.
The long-term effect of this can be a very limited diet over a number of years. It can also result in less foods eaten over time as favourites get dropped through boredom or negative experiences. Rigidity too, often increases when food choices are small.
But, if we are more able to accept changes:
1. It organically starts to help with the rigidity. Accepting change makes slight differences in regular food less concerning. I have many, many families who will attest to this. Their child has become so frustratingly rigid around foods that it’s difficult to even serve favourites. Once changes are introduced the rigidity seems to lessen by itself.
2. We are more socially flexible. If the bread is slightly different or the peanut butter a new brand it’s not as confronting when we’re at someone else’s house, a party or a camp, for example.
3. New becomes that much easier. Change is the precursor to new, so the more comfortable we are with change, the easier new becomes. I have seen this time and again with children who are not at all interested in new foods but when change becomes a normal part of their routine, new foods become less of a hurdle.
4. Our brain loves continuity, it loves routine and it loves predictability. It becomes very easy to fall into the trap of having only a set number of foods served. Making changes that are small, is often OK and this gently prepares the brain for new things to come.
5. Accepting changes around food can also be positive in other areas of life. The skills learned translate to other activities.
Often our approach to food can have unintended side-effects both negative and positive.
1. If we do not eat certain foods or groups of foods for a period of time, it becomes more difficult to consume them. Studies have shown that children who avoid certain textures can build up an aversion to them. For this reason alone, it’s critically important we don’t allow our child to stick to a narrow band of foods and textures.
If we do have a child struggling with textures, desensitising via the hands first is useful. Getting used to a slimy or wet texture, for example, does translate into more comfort with that in the mouth, over time.
2. Avoiding foods does make them more confronting. Our brain likes the comfortable, likes the familiar and so the more we build a comfort level around new foods on all levels the easier it is. This is not about eating, this is about getting comfortable with the look, the feel and the smell. If you have a food anxious child, it’s often easier to do this away from the table. Washing apples or using carrot “bricks”, for example.
3. Parents often ask why their child is able to eat new sweets but not even go near a new fruit or other food.
Our approach can have a huge impact on outcomes. If we decide that a slide is frightening and we’ll hate it, then that will probably be the case. Similarly, if we have had an occasion when we’ve put a fruit in our mouth, and it’s been an awful experience (or even if we just believe it will be) then that affects the outcome. Conversely, if sweets have always been pleasurable, we are approaching them with that at the front of our minds. Everything is saying “yep, this is going to be great” so it often is.
Supporting our child to have a more positive approach to food is always of benefit. An easy start is to focus on the language, both body and oral that we use around food and meals.
Getting used to slight variations of foods is the best way to begin supporting a child to eat more widely. It’s a long and often slow process, but it does work, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something that takes a lot of time, effort or contributes to wastage.
Judith 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.