Why we make changes to food
Sam – “I don’t like that”.
Mum – “But you haven’t tried it”.
Sam – “Yes, but I know I don’t like it”.
Eva – “I don’t eat that”.
Dad – “But I’m sure you’d like it if you tried it”.
Eva – “No thank you, it’s not food I eat”.
How many times have these conversations played out in homes across the country?
Fussy eaters by definition do not like new foods. New foods are NOT liked. New foods are SCARY. New foods are an automatic NO.
So, what can we do? If we do nothing we can’t progress. But if a child is steadfastly refusing to even taste a new food then how can we get past that? We can’t force a child to try a food, nor should we. But if we don’t, we’re stuck in the same position.
One of my biggest tasks when working with parents is how to overcome this challenge. And part of the way to do this is by showing:
The reason why we make changes to food
In fact, my first book, Creating Confident Eaters is totally focused around how to make changes to food, to the menu, and to the approach.
The rationale behind writing it, for picking this angle, is because change is really challenging for us. Whether a child or an adult change is not something that humans generally embrace.
Food habits are often really powerful, so change is particularly hard around food. However, the less we do it, the more difficult it becomes. Picky eaters usually do not relish new foods and therefore are often very resistant to change.
Unfortunately, the long-term effect of this can be a very limited diet over a number of years. It can also result in a frightening spiral where less foods eaten over time. Instead of a child ‘growing out’ of their fussy eating, it gets worse.
Funneling can become a factor, this means favourite foods get dropped through boredom, sickness, or negative experiences. A child therefore eats less variety over time.
Rigidity too, often increases when food choices are limited, which is a whole new level of pain for parents. Suddenly it’s not just chicken nuggets, but a particular brand and only if there are no dark bits … you get the picture. And it’s the principal reason why we make changes to food.
Because if we make changes we can start to move forwards. We can guard against funneling, and we can address the rigidity.
Why it’s important we make changes to food
The more we are able to accept change, the less scary new becomes. There are also many other positive side-effects that come from gently making changes to accepted foods:
1.Rigidity – It organically starts to help with the rigidity. Accepting change makes slight differences in regular food less concerning.
I know 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. Socially – Children become more socially flexible. If the bread is slightly different or the peanut butter a new brand it’s not as confronting when they at someone else’s house, a party, or a camp, for example.
3. New is 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. Supporting our brain – 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, can be okay though and this gently prepares the brain for new things to come.
5. Change is a skill – Accepting changes around food can also be positive in other areas of life. The skills learned translate to other activities.
How do we make changes to food?
We now know why we make changes to food. But the million-dollar question is how do we do this?
In some ways the answer is really simple, but I will add a major caveat to it:
– As with all other areas of feeding, our approach is critical. If food is a bit of a battle ground, if our child feels overly anxious around food and feeding, if even having a conversation about issues results in a meltdown. Then change is going to be far more difficult.
Fixing the approach so that everyone is more relaxed about food and feeding and so it’s possible to begin working with your child around changes is critical.
It’s the reason that ALL of my programs start with the approach and not “how to support a child to taste and add new foods”.
Even though this is what every parent of a fussy eater wants to know, it is never going to work as well if we are inadvertently making things more difficult for ourselves, or even shooting ourselves in the foot without realising it.
If you do not feel that food is fun and pleasurable in your house and if approaching your child with a new food is like approaching a cat with a pill, then I can give you the best strategies and they will probably not work.
In this case, taking a step backwards and working on the approach is critical. If you are not sure how to do this please check out our new program: https://theconfidenteater.com/creating-confident-eaters/ Or, get in touch and we can chat through options.
If you feel that feeding in general is relaxed and positive but your child is just struggling with new foods, then change is a great place to start.
How we make changes to food
Please bear in mind this is a topic that I wrote a whole book about so there is lots to say. We can, however, look at some key points:
1. Change appearance. The first change may not involve anything new at all.
Allowing a child, particularly a very food hesitant child, to start accepting change may be in the appearance only. They can dip their toes in gradually.
Perhaps it’s toast in squares not triangles or maybe it’s chicken nuggets on a skewer. It changes the way that the food looks and that is a change. It may make those favourite foods more interesting too.
It could also be something that is very challenging for a child. In which case there may need to be a lot of support around it. For example, allowing them to see other people eating the food presented in a different way.
I would also be careful, particularly with a particularly food anxious child, that we don’t spring changes on them at the table without warning as that may be upsetting.
2. Small is better. The smaller the change, generally the better. Particularly for children who are very anxious about food. It may be something as small as adding salt to a corn chip.
That may seem pointless, but it’s a change! A journey of 20,000 kms begins with one step. This is the same concept. Yes, we may want our child to happily chow the stir fry, but the first step, the one that starts the change process, maybe the salt.
3. Swap things slightly. Make tiny swaps to a food. Perhaps it’s having a new type of cracker, a slightly different chippy flavour, a new shape of pasta.
Changes, however small, are valuable and that is why we make changes to food.
Please share this with other parents who may benefit. Or perhaps you can share with relatives who just ‘don’t get’ your child’s eating.
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/