What does NO mean!
When we hear NO in regards to food, 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 we have a child that doesn’t want to join the soccer club or the ballet school, we will often spend time supporting them around a decision. We explain that although none of their friends are there, they will build new ones. That it is something they love 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. That they may not be the best at it, but that will come.
When it comes to food though, we are more likely to take that NO at face value. But I have found that NO can take on a whole host of meanings.
NO, when we have young children
Our children LOVE, NO. It is such a powerful word! When they are 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!
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 we don’t take the NO as a request to stop offering a certain type of food.
NO can mean:
1. 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 our children. Testing the boundaries and seeing what the outcome of our actions will be is normal!
2. I am tired. This is super common for littlies, especially at the end of a long day when dinner gets served. Our children have had a busy day and often dinner is late and they are just not in the mood for anything at all challenging.
3. I am bored. This could 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, I’m bored with the way the day is going so it’s time to throw a spanner in the works!
4. 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. Whatever that is looks scary. I am looking at my plate and I am not sure about the food, so much better to just say NO.
What can we do?
1. Often NO is just a power play, a testing of the boundaries. If this is the case, it is easy for us to just march on regardless. I would not be paying too much attention to the NO’s 🙂
2. Being tired makes everything more of a challenge. If it is possible serving dinner earlier can help. If this isn’t an option, then creating an atmosphere that is as relaxed and unchallenging as possible is always a good plan. Also remembering that dinner is NOT the ideal place to teach our child to eat.
3. One of the picky eating paradoxes is around boredom and food. Our 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 our child firstly to move forwards and secondly to avoid some of that boredom, is to show change. Small is good. Depending how food anxious a child is, will depend on what is possible.
For the extremely selective, it may be starting with just changing up the presentation. And although this may feel like a bit of a waste of time, it really does support better eating over time.
4. Loving bananas one day and hating them the next is super common, and perfectly OK. The trick is to not pay too much attention to the NO’s and keep serving the food regularly. If we have more than one option for most meals (as in a few things on the table they are able to eat), it also makes it very easy for us to ignore the behaviour!
5. Anytime our child is uncomfortable about a food, it is naturally going to make it far more challenging to eat. What can happen though is that our 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 us to appreciate what is happening for our child and where they are coming from.
NO, when we have older children:
The NO comes for many of the same reasons as we have discussed for the younger children.
1. The automatic NO. Years of experience have taught our child that new foods are not usually a favourite so why go there? This makes sense but it makes our job twice as hard.
It is also a challenge as first tries of anything new are probably not going to rock. Understanding this and enabling our child to become used to a new food is a key part of moving forwards.
2. Saying NO due to boredom is even more of an issue for older children as they have been eating the same menu 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 we are eating a limited range of foods then it is easy to become hyper focused on those. Now, 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.
Part of supporting our child to become more flexible around foods and to reduce the boredom, is to introduce change. Any time we are able to do this in any way, is valuable. Change of brand, change of presentation, mixing up what it is served on/with. What are we able to do that is manageable for our child?
3. Power. This is an interesting one, as for older children there is often an enormous amount of power involved around food and feeding. They are totally in charge of what is happening around food and their NO, rules. But it 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 really difficult to do when you’re in the thick of things. I do offer a no-cost initial appointment where I can have a look at the big picture and give an opinion as to what is happening, should you wish. You can book through the website.
4. Habits. Saying NO is far easier than saying yes in almost all cases. Over the years our child has built up protective routines around food and breaking habits for anyone around food is super challenging.
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
Having an idea as to why our child is saying NO is always a good policy. Understanding where they are coming from helps us to respond more effectively. Even if that is only realising that our child is tired and therefore irrational. Remember this is true of teens as much 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.
This week have a look at what happens when you serve a new food or offer something slightly different. If you have stopped doing this, maybe give it a go and let me know what happens!
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/