Interview RNZ, Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan and The Confident Eater discussing Winner Winner I Eat Dinner, help for picky eaters
I was delighted to be back on air on RNZ, Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan on Thursday 25th March. We were discussing the new book Winner Winner I Eat Dinner, which works through the seven, simple, steps to success for parents of picky eaters.
Winner Winner works from Step 1, on the table through to Step 7, eating. Each chapter covers one step in a lot of detail, addressing the barriers to success and providing a raft of easy to implement strategies that specifically help a child to move gently and successfully through the steps.
The more comfortable our child becomes around food, the easier it is to get to that final step, eating!
I have typed out the key points of the interview and also elaborated on some points! You can click the link to listen if that’s preferable: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018789005/seven-steps-to-success-with-picky-eaters
I have paraphrased Kathryn’s questions to enable me to discuss the key points and expand on topics.
Kathryn: “Progress from Step 1 to Step 7 is rarely linear, in fact you state it’s more like a drunken monkey on a bike”.
Judith: Eating is a really complex process and so making progress rarely unfolds in a neat pattern.
Our child may suddenly be able to eat chicken but refuse a favourite breakfast. Or, they may add a new food and eat it for a few weeks but then stop eating it again.
All this is normal and to be expected. The more we understand about how it all works, the more comfortable we feel!
Kathryn: “There are many myths around eating, like a child won’t starve themselves and it’s just a phase, this can ‘do your head in’ “
Judith: Picky eating is enormously stressful for parents and the way that society treats fussy eating can make things far worse. If we feel we are being judged, it puts on more pressure. If we are not being taken seriously when we explain how challenged our child is around food, it’s very frustrating.
Many of the commonly repeated myths are factually incorrect. For example, there are many children who would starve themselves if they are not comfortable around the foods served. There are also many who will not grow out of picky eating without intervention.
Kathryn: “Let’s talk about phases, starting with the toddler years”.
Judith: Toddlers are pre-programmed to be a little more uncomfortable around food. It’s a hangover from evolutionary times when they would have been protected from ingesting dangerous foods if away from mum.
Unfortunately, that still applies today so children are more likely to stop eating foods at this age. This is also combined with the ‘no’ phase so it’s a double whammy for parents!
Of course, some children never enter this phase as they have found eating challenging right from the start, even as babies. Others enter the phase and then it seems to snowball. They go from refusing a few foods to eating less and less variety.
Other children have challenges that make food less comfortable, for example, ASD or sensory sensitivities. These create additional difficulties for parents, but do not prevent progress!
Kathryn: “There seems to be fear around the eating process”
Judith: There is definitely fear for some children and certain foods can seem like a piece of raw chicken on the plate. However appetizing we may think that food is, a child is looking down and seeing something as revolting as raw chicken or spiders.
Many children feel discomfort around food or specific foods. Our job as the parent is to support our child to become more comfortable around eating, which is where the 7 Steps come in.
Moving gently from Step 1 through the other Steps to Step 7 gradually breaks down the fear and builds that comfort for a child. Whether they eat 10 foods or we’d just like them to eat more variety, the process is the same.
Unfortunately, as a society we have almost set up parents to fail. We expect children to go from having a food on the plate to being able to eat it. For children who have a discomfort around food this is probably not going to happen.
Therefore, we are repeatedly faced with a losing situation, we serve a new food, it gets rejected and we feel it’s a fail. But if we think of eating as being many steps, we realize that going from serving to eating happily is unrealistic.
Kathryn: “What do we look for to see progress?”
Judith: If we know that just touching a carrot, for example, when previously this would not have happened is progress, it shows that what we are doing is working.
Any positive change in comfort, attitude, or approach to food shows progress. As a parent it’s important that we see this as valuable as our child eating a new food. As it will, over time lead to more eating!
If the carrot goes from ‘ew, get it away from me’ to being comfortably left on the plate, we have made steps forwards. Picking the carrot up and asking questions about it is more progress, as is putting it into the mouth – even if it’s not eaten.
Kathryn: “What are you doing as a parent to get through the steps?”
Judith: Winner Winner makes this really easy. Each chapter has a host of strategies and actions to choose from that gently take children through the steps in a fun and gentle way.
Many of these things are better done away from the table. Building that comfort can be done in the supermarket, the garden, or the kitchen.
Children can help to do things for the family meal, for example. Even an 18-month-old can contribute to making dinner:
They can pull off lettuce leaves, wash them in a bowl of water, rip them into pieces and place in the salad bowl. Then wash some cherry tomatoes and add those to the lettuce. Carrying the bowl to the table means that our toddler has ‘made the salad’.
Investment in food and the process does help whether our child is 2 or 12. It doesn’t mean they will magically eat a food but it helps to ease the discomfort.
Kathryn: “Are some children more sensitive to tastes, textures and smells?”
Judith: Eating involves all the senses so is a very complex process physiologically. It is common for a child to be uncomfortable about certain smells, tastes, or textures. In this situation it’s really tempting as a parent to protect a child by helping them to avoid that feeling.
Unfortunately, this can work against us. Avoiding something can actually exacerbate the sensitivity and create more discomfort for our child over time. It’s better to gently work on strategies that reduce the discomfort.
Winner Winner has many suggestions, for example, touching textures with our hands and feet – which is less concerning than eating – does help to reduce that sensitivity in the mouth.
Kathryn: “So playing with food is an important part of learning?”
Judith: Absolutely. Feeding experts recommend that even older children who have missed out on the playing with food phase go back to that. Learning to eat is a process and if we’ve missed a step, it can make things more difficult.
Obviously, there is also a call for not having the family meal table become like a zoo. Which is why focusing on this away from the table can be a great strategy.
Kathryn: “There are children who don’t even want foods near them, what can we do with that?”
Judith: This is done by returning to the 7 Steps, starting at the beginning, and working on that gradual desensitization.
For example, if we have a child that is really uncomfortable around bananas, what is a step that is okay for them? This may be carrying a bowl with bananas in it from kitchen to table.
As we become desensitised, we become more comfortable. Think of how we would gradually teach someone frightened of getting into the swimming pool to be less scared. This would not be throwing them into the deep end, but would probably start by just enabling them to dip their fingers into the water.
Kathryn: “So is there a place for modeling?”
Judith: Modeling is critically important. Veggie eating parents produce veggie eating children. They are more likely to follow our actions than our words.
Kathryn: “With modern eating styles children may not see their parents eating as they eat once they are in bed”
Judith: True. I say that parents are often really good at hiding veggie eating from their children. They may have cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, then when it comes to dinner and the big plate of veg or salad, the children miss it as they are in bed.
If this is something that is happening for you, there are ways we can better model the habits we’d like our children to follow. Maybe it’s veggies at lunch or sitting with them over dinner and eating a small plate of salad, for example.
Kathryn: “A child is starting to incorporate more foods but then it’s hit and miss, what do you do?”
Judith: If a child is doing more, then what we’re doing as a parent is working. If this is the case that’s great, we know we’re on the right track so keep going. Remember it is more drunken monkey than linear!
Kathryn: “How do you add a food?”
Judith: Think about interaction rather than eating. Focus on supporting a child to become more comfortable around food and the eating will come. We can provide lots of low-pressure opportunities for our child to take those steps towards eating.
For example, moving the carrot onto the plate, then encouraging ways to touch it and to interact with it. That may be, for example, placing some carrot and some cheese onto a skewer or even better having our child do this!
Kathryn: “How do you measure progress/celebrate?”
Judith: Measuring progress is all about those comfort levels and working through the Steps, rather than being hyper-focused on the eating. For example, if our child shows interest in blueberries in the supermarket, we know they have a level of comfort.
If they have independently asked to buy and try something new it is a big psychological step forwards. They will probably get the blueberries home and refuse to eat them, but that’s common. The first step is the curiosity and being interested enough to want to bring them home. That food is more likely to be eaten than something ignored!
Celebrating is critical. Resolving picky eating can be a long and frustrating process, so appreciating all wins helps to keep us on track.
Kathryn: “Sometimes the aroma is challenging and combining makes it easier, can you give examples?”
Judith: Smells can be a real challenge. Winner Winner goes through a series of strategies to help, or you could link to a blog on smells here: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/picky-eating-support/smelling-food-makes-my-child-gag/
Sometimes combining a favourite food with one that is less happily eaten can help. For example, a nano piece of broccoli with a giant glob of cheese!
Kathryn: “Talking through what’s going on can be helpful, like having mash inside a jacket potato”
Judith: Explaining things to our child to help them feel more comfortable is important. I often say, ‘much of it’s in the marketing’. One of my favourite marketing moves was with a dad who had a son who would eat chicken nuggets but not chicken schnitzel.
Dad explained that the schnitzel was just like a nugget that had been run over by his truck.
Kathryn: “The book talks about removing pressure away from the table and allowing it to be about bonding, it also compares feeding to reading”
Judith: Creating a relaxed atmosphere at the table does really help with eating. Similarly, thinking about feeding like reading helps us to create a great atmosphere around food.
I really enjoyed chatting to Kathryn, as usual. You can listen to the full interview here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018789005/seven-steps-to-success-with-picky-eaters
If you do have family or friends who have children who are fussy or picky, please share the podcast with them. Or Winner Winner I Eat Dinner makes a great present: https://theconfidenteater.com/winner-winner-i-eat-dinner/
I’m happy to consider interview requests. Please contact me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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/