What does NO mean?
Parents often hear NO in regard to food, but I often wonder whether it’s a word that takes on a different meaning around eating than it does in other areas of our child’s life.
If a child doesn’t want to join the soccer club or the ballet school, parents often spend time supporting them around a decision. You lovingly explain that although none of their friends are there, they will build new ones. You discuss how it is something they love to do, and that yes, it will be scary to start but that they will have such a good time once they are over that initial discomfort. Or that they may not be the best at it, but that will come.
If it’s a NO to toothbrushing or bedtime we may empathise but the bottom line is that it does need to be done.
When it comes to food however, we are more likely to take that NO at face value and think “well there’s not a lot I can do if it’s a NO”. And to a degree this is sensible. Eating is something that everyone should have autonomy over. However, there is a difference between “I don’t like olives or cucumber” and “I don’t like anything you serve except the Shapes crackers”.
Also, for the food hesitant, NO can take on a whole host of meanings. Part of resolving fussy eating, is always being aware of what is happening for a child. The more a parent understands, the easier it is to help.
What does NO mean, for young children?
Children LOVE, NO. It is such a powerful word. When a child is first learning language and beginning to determine their place in the world and where their boundaries are, NO can be a big part of the repertoire!
However, when it comes to food, saying NO is not as simple as “I don’t like carrots, will never like carrots, so please stop serving me carrots”. It is important that you don’t take the NO as a request to stop offering a certain type of food.
NO can mean:
1. Curiosity. “I wonder what mum/dad/gran will do if I say NO?” Gauging what will happen in any given situation is an important part of learning for children. Testing the boundaries and seeing what the outcome of actions is is both normal and an important part of development!
If you are hearing lots of NO’s from your two year old smile and think “that’s a good thing” 😊
2. I am tired. A NO due to tiredness is super common for littlies, particularly at the end of a long day when dinner gets served. A child has often had a busy day and dinner can feel very late and so they are not in the mood for anything at all challenging.
3. I am bored. This can work on a number of levels. It may be the food. “I am looking at the same piece of toast I’ve had for weeks and although I don’t want anything else, I’m still bored with this”.
Or maybe it is “I’m bored with the way the day is going so it’s time to throw a spanner in the works!”
4. I’m not into it now. “I do not feel like whatever you are serving. I know I like bananas, but I really do not feel like them right now”.
5. It’s scary. “I’m not comfortable with whatever it is. I’m not sure about the food, so it’s much better to just say NO”. “I know you say it’s chicken, but it doesn’t look like the ones I like so, NO”.
What can parents do?
1. Power play. Often NO is just a power play, a testing of the boundaries. If this is the case, I would not be paying too much attention to the NO’s 🙂.
Yes, it’s important to respect a child’s wishes but it’s like an irrational refusal to brush teeth or go to bed, if the no is to bananas that are usually readily eaten then it is important to bear that in mind.
2. Being tired. When anyone is tired, it can make everything more of a challenge. If this regularly happens at night perhaps it is possible to reassess what time dinner is served.
If changing dinner time isn’t an option, then creating an atmosphere that is as relaxed and unchallenging as possible is always a good plan.
3. Boredom. One of the picky eating paradoxes is around boredom and food. A child only wants the same repeating foods over and over again, and yet then they start to lose interest in eating as it does become boring.
Part of helping a child to move forwards and avoid some of that boredom, is to show change. Children who are super selective are generally resistant to any change. However, it is still possible with the right approach.
When making changes, small is usually good. For the extremely selective, it may be just changing up the presentation.
Although this may feel like a bit of a waste of time, it really does support better eating over time as accepting changes helps to accept new.
4.Rollercoaster tastes. A child loving bananas one day and hating them the next is super common, and perfectly okay. The trick is to not pay too much attention to the NO’s and keep serving the food regularly. There are ways to do this gently and positively.
For example, no eat or starve. If you serve more than one option for most meals (as in a few things on the table a child is able to eat), then they are not forced to eat the banana. They can choose to eat or not. It is low pressure but means the banana is still ‘in play’.
If there are other options on the table, it also makes it easy to ignore the behaviour because everything is not invested in whether the banana gets eaten or not. In this way it also removes all potential power struggles.
5. No is habit. Anytime a child is uncomfortable about a food, it is naturally going to make it far more challenging to eat. What can happen though is that a child falls into the pattern of saying NO, without even thinking about it.
NO becomes the default to pretty much everything except slam dunk favourites. This makes perfect sense. If food is difficult, why not say no?
As a parent understanding this is important as it enables you to appreciate what is happening for a child and where they are coming from. It also means that when you hear the NO you think “ah, just what I expected” 😊
What does NO mean for older children
When dealing with older children the NO response may be for many of the same reasons as for the younger children.
1. The automatic NO. Years of experience have taught a child that new foods are not usually a favourite so why go there? This makes sense but it makes a parent’s job twice as hard.
It also introduces the biggest hurdle many parents face, a child who just does not want to try anything if it’s new. This problem is compounded, as first tries of anything new are probably not going to rock.
Understanding this, is a key part of moving forwards. It is also where change may be the answer to progress rather than something that is different.
When I work with parents, we spend a lot of time discussing how to introduce new foods in gentle and practical ways, particularly as what is going to rock for one child may be a challenge for another. Luckily, as the parent you know your child intimately so will have a whole wealth of ‘insider’ knowledge.
2. Boredom. Saying NO due to boredom is even more of an issue for older children as they have often been eating the same foods for far more years. Not only is there a risk of them finding meals less and less interesting and losing enthusiasm for food but rigidity often increases too.
When a child is eating a limited range of foods then it is easy to become hyper focused on those. This means, it is not only that nuggets are the sole dinner option, but that they must be a specific brand and cooked in a certain way.
The solution is often the same as for introducing new foods. Part of supporting a child to become more flexible around foods and to reduce the boredom, is to introduce change. Any time you can to do this in any way, is valuable.
Change of brand, change of presentation, mixing up what it is served on/with. What can you do that is manageable for your child?
3. Power. This is an interesting one. For older children there is often a lot of power involved in food and feeding. In fact, many children are totally in charge of what is happening around food and their NO rules.
However, conversely this is often not conscious. Over the years both parents and child have fallen into patterns around meals, and it is not really serving anyone (could not resist that!).
Being able to step back and objectively look at what is happening is very valuable, but often difficult to do when you’re in the thick of things.
The first thing I do when I work with families is to gently begin to put power back into the parent’s hands. If you are not in charge, you cannot make changes. Being in charge does also not mean draconian rules or no choices or autonomy for a child. Often shifts are subtle and gentle.
4. Habits. Saying NO is far easier than saying yes in almost all cases.
Over the years a child has built up protective routines around food.
Further, breaking habits for anyone around food is super challenging. But again, the key is to introduce small changes and to continually do this. To gently challenge the status quo.
What to do about the NO
Thinking objectively about why a child is saying NO is always a good policy. Understanding where your child is coming from helps you to respond more effectively. Even if it is only realising that a child is tired and therefore irrational! Remember this is as true of teens as it is of toddlers too.
However, not taking the NO as a never is the most important lesson to take home. Yes, it may be a NO for now, but that does not mean it will always be so.
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/