Am I too soft with my picky eater and is it just a modern problem?
As a picky eating advisor, I love sharing my knowledge. Often when I post publicly, I get responses from older people who say things like ‘in my day we just had to eat what was served’ or ‘if you didn’t eat, you just went hungry’.
I am sure as the parent of a picky eater you have heard all sorts of comments that range from unhelpful to guilt-inducing. Part of the problem is that when we hear these things, sometimes our inner insecurity kicks in and we wonder – even if it is just for a few minutes – about whether there is some truth in what others say.
What would happen if we were a bit more ‘old school’ and just served dinner and said ‘take it or leave it?’ I know many of the parents I work with have done periods when they do test this. Dealing with fussy eating can be soul destroying and often creates a desperation for us to fix it come what may. Even though things may go against our gut instinct, we try them anyway.
However, anything that does not sit well is usually not a fit for our family. Yes, resolving picky eating may require energy, change and some things that are a challenge, but it should not make us feel as though we are doing the wrong thing by our child.
Let us look at some of the more ‘old school’ tactics and see whether there is something to be gained by using them with our children. Are there ways we can learn from strategies that were used in previous generations?
Is it just us being too soft?
1. The first ‘old school’ strategy has to be ‘eat or starve’. This is a recurring theme and I historically there is a logical basis for this. If we were brought up in a time when food was not as abundant or whether previously or currently our parents struggle to put food on the table, then what is served is what we are expected to eat.
For competent eaters this is often a reasonably effective strategy.
For children who genuinely struggle to eat, it can be miserable.
I have spoken to many adults my age who dreaded the dinner table as they were faced with options that they struggled to eat. Dinners were not a place of happiness and joy but were often a trial to be surmounted.
Feeling relaxed and happy at the table is one of the key factors for enabling anyone to eat well. If the proverbial gun is to our head and we feel we are being forced to do something out of our comfort zone – or choose the alternative, which is feeling hungry – does this motivate us to eat pleasurably?
There are, however, times where eat or be hungry is appropriate. But it is to be avoided as best as possible. It is also only applicable to older children. Like many parenting practices, there are situations when it is important that we are in charge and that we set boundaries. If, for example, we have a child that is not eating their pasta (a food they readily eat) and is instead demanding nuggets, then this a time where eating the proffered food or not is the only choice.
2. ‘Sit at the table until you finish everything on your plate’. I have a few issues with this:
i) Clearing everything on the plate can inadvertently push our child to overeat. It can override their natural ability to determine how full their tummy is.
ii) It puts focus on achieving that arbitrary goal. The plate has to be empty and that’s what we are concentrating on, not the meal, not the company and not all the other valuable parts of the eating experience.
iii) It can become about us, the parent, rather than the child. We portion food, determine what is going to be eaten and then feel great if our child completes the task and not so great if they do not.
iv) Staying at the table when it is about completing an exercise can be miserable. Sitting there feeling pressured to finish the plate can become a chore. Also, studies show that, especially for young children, staying at the table for extended periods for the extra mouthful or two can burn more calories than it adds – wow, but true.
In all of this the key focus, for me, is always – how do we ensure that our child is enjoying their eating experience? How can we create mealtimes that everyone looks forward to?
3. ‘Look at how well x eats’ or ‘think of the starving children in Africa’. I know starving children elsewhere was a big thing in my childhood and that comparisons to siblings, friends or cousins is a common tactic.
Comparisons rarely make someone feel good, in fact, the opposite – they generally fuel resentment and even a need to dig the heels in and blatantly refuse to do something that we may be able to manage.
If we have a child that is really challenged around food, it can also knock their confidence. Feeling that they are letting a parent down, or somehow failing at this whole food thing is not a great way to build positive associations or give them the confidence that they are able to do something that is not easy for them.
4. “Eat this and you can have dessert’. Carrots and sticks are the cornerstones of much of ‘old school’ parenting and I know that only providing dessert if dinner is eaten is often used.
Long-term I question the messaging that this communicates. If it is necessary to force the broccoli down (the not so favoured food) so we get the prize, the ice cream, what does this say? Does it build a genuine appreciation of the food that ‘must’ be eaten?
5. I am in charge as I am the parent, so this is what you are going to do. I know that when I was a child my parents would say jump and I would ask ‘how high?’. But, that is not how I have raised my boys and that’s true of most parents today. Modern parenting is different and is about respect for our children as individuals and giving them a voice, a choice and autonomy.
This does not mean that they are in charge. In fact, the opposite, it is still important that we do set boundaries and parameters. These are comforting for our child and enable them to grow independently knowing that there is always a backstop. However, dictating is not the modern way and I am thankful for that!
Is picky eating a modern phenomenon?
This is a question I am asked quite frequently, and the simple answer is no. Given my role as a picky eating advisor, adults often share stories with me that they would normally keep private. I am shocked at the number of adults who admit how seriously restricted their diets still are. As this is often a ‘guilty secret’ too, they have also become adept at hiding it.
Adults also frequently share memories of traumatic childhood experiences. Being made to sit at the table until the had eaten the peas. Or being served the peas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. I always question whether this has given them a love of peas. I bet you will not be surprised at the answer.
Finally, a survey was conducted in the US last year and 24 percent of adults identified as a picky eater. Wow! To have that many people still struggling to eat variety tells us that there were a heck of a lot of children 20-50 years ago who were picky eaters!
On the other hand, in some ways, it is a yes. Simple and budget-friendly access to easy to eat alternative foods has contributed to the challenges for parents. As has ‘modern’ parenting that naturally allows our children more choice and more autonomy. It is an ongoing challenge for me to figure out how to do that effectively and where the boundaries lie. I know from my work on Parent Helpline that I am not alone in this.
Judith is mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. 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 internationally certified qualifications in picky eating. I am also schooled in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology as I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/