“Oh Good, More For Me!” is what I say when my kids don’t want to eat what I have painstakingly made. (Violins being played, actually, I am not a very good cook!) But I hear over and over from families who love to eat well, one of the parents is a fabulous cook, and their kids will only eat 5 things, of course none of them being whatever the parents love to eat.
It can be demoralizing. Frustrating. Insane making. But is it a problem? Parents ask me: “How can we get our kids to try more foods? There must be something!” In this blog I am going to offer some tips, but they will not necessarily be directed to ‘getting your child to eat’ those foods if whatever you have tried hasn’t worked. I am going to help you figure out if in fact there is a problem here, and hope to reassure you, that this is one of the most typical ways young kids do eat.
Working with hundreds of parents in doing research for my book, I found that kids can have a particular style of eating, almost like a personality trait. These can change, but I found these 6 categories were typical in childhood:
The Beige Food Eater, The Grazer, The Trouble Transitioner, The Picky Eater, The Sugar Demander, and The Spurt Eater. This blog is dedicated to The Picky Eater. (I promise to follow with the others!)
It is useful to look at eating habits of younger children as partly developmental. If you think about it, food is the earliest thing our kids can do to control their lives. They can purse their lips, and shake their head: “No! I don’t want to eat that!” This is part of them establishing themselves separately from you. This is good, that they know what they want and don’t want, particularly that they may not be hungry or that their body is telling them not to eat that food. Some allergists believe that picky eaters are protecting themselves until they build up the immunity to the foods that they are staying away from.
Additionally, it is important to know that formerly adventurous eaters when this is most of their expanding world, can become very picky eaters, as they move on to building skills in other areas. It is way more interesting to chase that ball, than to try that new food, for example. These are the most important questions to ask yourself: Is your child thriving? Are they on THEIR growth curve? Is the doctor concerned? Most often, your child is fine, unless they have sensory integration issues which can affect oral motor development. (If you have concerns please consult with your pediatrician; I have a list of things you can look out for if you are concerned in Take the Fight Out of Food).
So ask yourself: What is the Problem? “Well, my child only eats the same five things over and over.” Are they getting a range of the food groups roughly, or are they at risk for scurvy? Usually those questions are yes, and no. But parents still pull their hair out.
Many parents worry that their kids will miss out on an enjoyable part of life. Like most aspects of parenting, “DON’T’ PREDICT THE FUTURE!. More often than not, this is a stage that is totally typical of childhood that your child is passing through. Most picky eaters grow out it by age 13 when biology kicks in, (growth spurts) and their senses fully develop. (Remember, eating involves the three senses: touch, taste and smell!)
But it can be a drag if other relatives, particularly at times, grandparents, might criticize your parenting either overtly or discreetly, implying that you are too ‘easy’ on your child. And, simply, it really gets boring when your child has a truly limited palate.
A word of reassurance: All of the pediatricians and nutritionist I consulted with in researching this, state that kids get their nutritional needs met on a one to two week basis, and are usually fine. They end up getting what they need. Even if it is one fruit, or one vegetable of that food group. Over and over and over!
But here are some tips to cope with your Picky Eater:
1) Have a “Oh good, more for me!” attitude. Model eating and enjoying theirs and your food.
2) If you have other kids, ‘leverage the siblings.” They can take the carrots from the little one’s plate which often makes that child want it more. If you have one child, perhaps you can do this.
3) You may subscribe to the offer it to them until they try it, or they need to try it once before they decide they don’t like it. You can pick what you prefer. I didn’t have the patience with my youngest, my pickiest eater and I wasn’t worried about it, so it was easy to do more of the reverse psychology method.
4) The less issue you make of it, the less anxiety you create in your child. Your child needs a calm mommy, not an anxious mommy, Besides, anxiety cuts appetite, or will create opposition. You definitely don’t want your child eating for you, to be ‘good’, or to use this for power struggles.
Continue to enjoy the beautiful food you make with your partner, wife, husband, and model your enjoyment with your kids. Continue to eat together. Take the stress out of the mealtimes, by all of you, relaxing and enjoying the food. Be dogmatic about mealtimes being about connecting and hanging out together, not necessarily about eating. Enjoy those golden moments. Now that can fill you up. Who knows? One of them might become the next Alice Waters.
Okay, okay, I know this is not a verb, like to “google”, but with the amount of press lately and converts to gluten free diets, it may enter our worlds as a verb in the near future!
I had recently been asked to comment on the ‘gluten’ question regarding kids and their diet, and I know that there are many families who follow the gluten free path for a variety of reasons.
I have to confess, I don’t totally understand what they are, but I am a big believer for adults, in the adage: “Whatever works.”
First off, a disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist. I am a psychotherapist with specialized training in eating disorders, child development, and human behavior. However, in the 25 plus years that I’ve been practicing, I have received a lot of information from nutritionists; particularly while researching my book “Take the Fight out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child’s Eating Problems.” As such, I will be commenting on the issue from this vantage point and I am happy to share some of the anecdotal information I have received from nutritionists I spoke with recently
while presenting at Harvard Medical School’s Eating Disorder Conference.
Basically in a nutshell, (gluten free, I might add), the message goes like this:
Unless a child has a specific medical problem that indicates the necessity to eat gluten free, it is not at all recommended.
That being said, there definitely are medical conditions that result in kids needing to have restrictions in their diet. I was just brought in to consult with the Mount Sinai Hospital Pediatric Metabolic Disorders team, as they were struggling with patients who have severe medical illnesses
requiring them to follow a highly specific and restrictive diet.
This necessity, while absolutely vital to a child’s development and even survival, presents kids and their families with very specific problems, and often results in major non compliance; rebellion, fighting between kids and parents, frustration, fear, and severe eating disorders.
A lot of great care and work needs to be done in order to help these families work out preparing restrictive diets, especially while kids grow, develop, have play dates, and only want to fit in and eat what other kids eat.
Obviously if a restrictive diet is an absolute necessity, this is a non issue. I have worked with many families and kids who have differing medical conditions specifically on the problems that arise when a child has to follow a restrictive diet. It is vital to help kids and parents navigate problems, with the goal of taking the stress and anxiety out of feeding, while at the same time empowering the kids to help them develop, grow, and be able to make independent decisions and take the best care of their bodies.
So take it for what it is and of course most importantly you need to do what you know is best for your child and their health, and for your family; but this is it in a nutshell:
PROCEED WITH CAUTION; If you think your child actually does have a gluten problem and you have seen great miraculous changes in his/her health, behavior, mood if you have taken gluten away and you are convinced that gluten is the culprit, continue.
If however, you are seeing gluten as the culprit based on your own health, or you have heard of links between gluten and moods and behavior, try to look at any other factors that may be impacting your child, and before limiting one thing in their diet, try other approaches that may make more sense.
There will always be fads in diets and information year after year that is popular. It is useful to make sure we don’t jump on bandwagons based on lousy science. You will always find one study or another to support what your beliefs are as well, so again, PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
You don’t want to create problems where none exist.
Yes, I appreciate everyone’s efforts to be the best parents possible, and it can be unbelievably frustrating when our kids thwart our best attempts to give, and do for them what we know is best, right?!
I do remember those days when my kids went from one birthday party to the next, eating what it seemed like nothing but cake and ice cream. I also saw the parents who would try to get their kids to not eat the cake, even forbidding it due to the sugar overload for that particular day.
Each parent has their own rules about sugar and I respect everyone to find their own way.
What I will say however, is that if you create too much restriction and are too ‘sugar phobic’, you run the risk of creating a compulsive overeater, an eating disorder, and/or weight gain in your kids because they are sneaking the treats from their friends’ lunch boxes or asking for more snacks at other kids’ houses on playdates; unable to move on from said treat or snack at the moment. (These are all outcomes I have seen at my house with kids on playdates, and worked with in my practice, btw.)
So most importantly, I don’t want you to overly worry if your kids go from one piece of cake to the next on one particular birthday party laden day!
More often than not, their own tastes and body needs win; they don’t end up wanting dessert after dinner, or they are certainly reasonable and don’t demand it if you point out that they’ve had plenty of treats that day.
If they don’t however, and they are constantly demanding sugar, you can find ways where they have the amount of sugar you are comfortable with for the day, or week, and then give them some leeway to decide when they are eating it.
Partly because of my work with eating disorders and my own journey coming from a dieting dancing background and curing myself of the ups and downs of on /off eating, I took alot of risks with my kids around sugar. When my 2 year old asked for one lollipop after another, I gave her the whole bag, which she dropped, looked at the lollipops strewn about the floor, exclaimed, “Oh my, oh my!” then was off to her next activity.
This approach worked less well with my second daughter who would love the taste of any food so much that she wouldn’t take a breath between helpings, and needed to learn to wait longer for the signal to hit her brain that she was DONE. I introduced a waiting game, helping her to become THE BEST BODY DETECTIVE possible. I say to the Food or Sugar Demander kids something like this: “All bodies are different and you are the expert on your own, but you may need to wait a little longer for the voice to be louder from your tummy to your head of how exactly your tummy is feeling and what it needs/wants. “ Do something with them, let them know they can check back in with their body and what their stomach is telling their brain in 20 minutes. Clear the table, play a game, let them do an activity they want.
This ‘Waiting Game’ I call help it, helps to flip the “Off Switch”. Nine times out of ten, kids are off and running and when they check in, or even forget to check in, it is because the taste bud excitement has died down, they get a more accurate reading, and they don’t need any more food. If they do want more, let them eat more. Then again, do the Waiting Game. Get them to listen and keep checking in. Or you can say that they can always have more tomorrow.
So a few tips to try, but by all means, “Let Them Eat Cake!”
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Of all typical childhood eating patterns, Picky Eaters tend to not only drive parents craziest, but also are probably the most common. So I decided to go back to the Q and A format, using one of the questions recently asked of me when I did my talk at the Harvard Medical School Eating Disorder Conference this past weekend:
“My 6 y/o son is a very picky eater, and despite the reassurance I’ve gotten that he is getting his nutritional needs met, I still worry that it is going to interfere with his social life or that he will get picked on by other kids at school.”
This is something that parents often worry about and it is true that kids who are picky eaters can get so extreme that it impacts on their ability to go on sleepovers, or even on playdates if they get more and more anxious about the kinds of snacks and food offered.
So here is an approach:
Try to see if he can find a reason it is getting in his way to not eat the foods you want him to try; you want to see if you can help to motivate him to go through the discomfort and perhaps fear when he does try new things.
Acknowledge that he is scared to try new things, maybe because they seem gross, or smell weird or whatever. Talk with him about some super hero of his that does things that they’re scared of. See if you can help him to stop avoiding something that is feeling noxious or making him nervous by increasing his motivation to be brave.
Validate and normalize the idea that when we have feelings of fear when faced with something that makes us uncomfortable, that we usually try to avoid feeling uncomfortable. And then by avoiding it, we give it power to scare us even more and it can get bigger and bigger in our minds and feel really scary, so we keep trying to avoid that feeling. Kind of like the boogey man! Let him be in control of the tiny steps to trying something that makes him feel gross, or uncomfortable and keep congratulating him on simply trying it. That it is so AWESOME to do something despite our discomfort and fear. You are so impressed.
DON’T use dessert as a weapon. It will over glorify dessert and is not fair if he is eating enough food that does nutritious foods for his body. Besides which it will totally backfire in the future and set him up to hoard and secretly grab desserts when he isn’t with you. Doesn’t help at all.
Now, I am not talking about the food that you are serving. Too often, we are focused on feeding our children and giving them good eating habits at the expense of paying attention to our own “food attitudes” that we bring to the table.
he reason this is so important is that it can have a huge impact on “what you serve up” when you are teaching, buying and making and serving food to your child.
These attitudes are what I call our own “tape loops.” They’re based on how we were either brought up around food, and/or how we’ve rejected some of the ways we were raised around said dinner table.
Example: I had a mom come talk to me and say: “I have an easier time talking to my kid about sex than food.” Her 7-year-old was gaining weight and his doctor told Mom to help him to watch his weight. She herself had been raised by what I call an ‘over-involved’ mom who was always making comments about what, how much and when she was eating; as a result, this mom swore that she would never do the same to her kids.
Now she really didn’t know what to do! Not because she didn’t care, but because she had sworn that she would never be in her kids’ faces about their food. It worked with her oldest, relatively thin, easily self-regulating child, but not with her second, who was a foodie, loved the sensory experience, had a big palate and didn’t like to stop after two even three servings. She ended up being under-involved, which wasn’t helping this kid with some tools that he needed to wait a bit longer to let the “party die down” in his mouth and stop telling his brain he needed and wanted “MORE! MORE! MORE”
Another example: A mom came to me when her 10-year-old was gaining weight and her doc said: “Is she getting enough fruits and vegetables? You may want to cut out the sweets.” She almost fell over, since all her and her husband eat and have at home are perfectly unprocessed health food with absolutely no sweets or junk. Unbeknownst to her, though, her child was eating treats from her friends’ lunch boxes She too, didn’t know how to handle this behavior with the rules she had about ‘no junk food.’ Both of their parents struggled with weight and addiction, so her and her husband had both decided to be highly athletic and controlled about their food. It worked for them, but these standards weren’t helping their kid with tools to manage the different foods that were part of her daily life outside of the home. I call this category “unrealistic standards.”
Lastly, a dad came to me for help with his child and he turned out to be what I call an overly-involved parent. His kid was a very picky and minimal eater, and he was raised with the old “starving children in China” routine. He himself had been a small eater, but became a member of the “Clean Plate Club.” This worked for him to some degree (he was struggling with his weight), but his kid was not buying it. Every meal became battle time, and this parent didn’t know how to let his kid eat less than what was served. He worried that if he let him eat the amount he wanted, that he was being too “easy” on him, and that he was being a “loose and lousy parent,” as he put it.
This is an example of the overly-involved parent. One of the dangers of this tactic is that you can inadvertently train your child to become a compulsive over-eater. You’re basically communicating the message that you know when they’re full, not them. They then lose their connection to their body’s signals, either fighting with you or overly complying; neither one helping them to stay connected to signals from inside their body that they will need in order to manage their food for life.
So, ask yourself: What category do you fit in? How are your own “tape loops” or eating history impacting your current attitudes and what you bring to the table? I can promise you that as much as the food you prepare, this will shape and have a profound effect on your kids and their developing eating habits.
Do you have a child who can’t sit still? Who you can’t get to the dinner table and when they finally do, she or he sits for a minute and then jumps up after eating two mouthfuls?
I recently came upon a wonderful book called “Sitting Like a Frog” ( Snel, E. Sitting Still Like a Frog, Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Shambala Publications, Boston: 2013. This book gives parents simple exercises to do with children that helps them to focus and actually sit still!
Working for years in the field of eating issues, I know that a huge influence on under or overeating is agitation. I always encourage people to sit for two minutes and use a breathing exercise to calm down before they eat. This helps slow down your eating, helps you to focus on each delicious bite,
and to notice how your body feels; is it getting fuller? Are you done? Satisfied? Stuffed?
Alternatively, some kids are so excitable that they barely notice that they’re hungry until they melt down. This exercise can also slow and calm them down enough that they learn how to practice ‘feeling’ their body, and their hunger, before it gets to a crisis point.
It’s not always easy to get kids to focus on their breathing, but I will give you a simple game to play with your kids before dinner which may help them to SLOW DOWN. (An adaptation from the book.)
1) Imagine a frog sitting on a rock by a lake. We know that frogs are capable of huge leaps and huge bursts of energy. They are also able to be incredibly still and sit without moving anything but their stomach that you can see moves up and down with each breath.
2) Now imagine that you are a frog. Notice if any part of your body is moving and if you can, let it be still.
3) You are that incredibly still frog that can when you need to, make that huge jump. But if you let yourself be distracted, you won’t be able to use
that energy that you can store up. So again, focus on letting any part of your body be very very still.
4) Notice your breath filling your body up and then down. Notice if you can see your stomach rise and fall.
Yes, you can teach your child to relax and practice slowing down. That keeps them connected to their body which is the most important protection from developing any eating problems.
All of you out there know that I treat a lot of eating issues whether it be compulsive overeating, anorexia, bulimia, you name it. Or simply the usual chronic dieting that most women subject them to, landing them up with an extra 10 – 20 pounds while eating the same amount of food.
If you have struggled with chronic dieting and weight that you want to get rid of and are sick of avoiding the foods you love, try these tips. Small bits add up when it comes to behavior change, and when you shift from thinking that you aren’t allowed to eat certain things and land up eating them, most likely you don’t eat them ‘mindfully’, and you more than likely take in more calories in one sitting.
This is a way to spread out your calories, increase your satisfaction and ability to stop after a certain point.
So good luck, and here are my Eating Instructions:
This is not a diet. This is a behavioral approach to eating that can be applied to all foods, all the time. The more you practice, the easier it gets to incorporate into your everyday eating, helping you to be aware of the more subtle signals of satisfaction.
Try to avoid letting yourself get too hungry but even when/if you are starving, you can practice calming down before you eat which helps your brain to register satisfaction.
You are not allowed to judge what you are eating as BAD or GOOD; No matter what you choose to eat, you deserve to savour and enjoy it. Why waste the experience of the food by rushing through it? These two exercises will help you calm down enough each time you put anything in your mouth.
1) Either before you sit down, or after you are sitting down to eat a meal, try to simply slow yourself down.
2) Notice how keyed up you may be feeling. Think of a gear shift; you want to be able to bring yourself down from 5th gear, (a place many of us operate from all day long!) to about 3rd. Try not to begin eating until you have slowed yourself down. IF you’ve started to eat already, try it as soon as you remember.
3) Try to sit somewhat still for 30 seconds. Notice your back against the chair, your legs against the chair. Feel your bones getting heavier, and the muscles around your bones releasing.
4) Even if you are sitting with people, try to notice your breathing and try to expand your breathing into your stomach.
5) Feel your ribcage and your back and belly expand with your breath. Take a few more deeper and slower breaths before you begin or as you have started to eat.
6) As you take mouthfuls, count at least 20 chews before taking the next mouthful. Don’t worry about being too exact, but try for a minimum of 20. Notice how it slows you down and how you can pay more attention to the taste, texture and feeling of satisfaction as you are swallowing and filling your belly.
7) As you begin to slow down more, put your fork down between bites but only if you want to do it. Notice if you can take longer in between bites. Even if you start out hungry, if you calm yourself down, you won’t feel as frantic and likely to ‘stuff’ the food.
Begin to notice when you start to feel satisfied. Stop and wait. If you want to eat more, do so, if you don’t, you can always eat more later or leave it for tomorrow
Try to do this with all foods, not just the foods you think are ‘healthy’. You want to savor and enjoy everything you eat, don’t rush the foods you think you ‘shouldn’t be eating!
If you Hate and Don’t Want to Count the Chews:
1) Slow down and breathe and calm down before eating, as much as possible.
2) Practice slowing down repetitively during the day, not even only before eating.
3) Make a rule that you will not put food in your mouth if you are feeling frantic and pressured, even if you are starving. First take 30 seconds to slow down and breathe.
4) Rather than count the chews, make sure to take longer to feel the sensations and tastes and textures of the food in your mouth even as you are swallowing and there is less food in your mouth.
5) Notice the diminishment of the amount of food in your mouth and remind yourself that there is always more to take and you are in charge of making the decision when you want to stop and either end the meal or take a break. Remember, you are in charge of that decision and only you can feel your way to it, based on what you want to do in that moment
6) Practice putting your fork down between mouthfuls reminding yourself that there is more. Slow down between mouthfuls.
Notice as you have less of a full mouthful again remind
yourself the food is not going away, (Old eating at your
dinner table loops and diet tape loops which tell you
need to stuff it because it’s either being taken away or
you shouldn’t be eating it!)
A recent question sent to me for the Q and A;
Keep sending your worries about feeding your kids to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: My 2 and a half year old daughter who used to be a pretty adventurous eater, now only eats white or beige food; I really worry about how much protein she is or isn’t getting!
A: Ah, the “Beige Food Eater” I call them; your daughter is precocious; this style of eating usually hits 4 or 5 year olds!
Most importantly, this style of eater is very typical of childhood, which is why I gave the them their own identifying ‘food personality’ along with the “Picky Eaters”, the “Sugar Demanders”, the “Grazers”, and the “Trouble Transitioners”. Like astrological signs, it is rare that one child fits one type perfectly; it’s usually mix and match!
But it is totally normal for parents of kids who only eat ‘white or beige’ food to worry either that their kid will never eat a vegetable, (no greens touching the plate, please!), or like this parent, that your child won’t get enough protein since all beige food seems to be carbs!
When I was writing Step One for my book, Talk to Your Kids About Nutrition, I consulted with Joy Bauer, RD; (nutritionist for the Today Show) who helped clarify exactly how much protein in fact, kids age 9 months to 9 years old actually do need a day. More importantly, how did that relate to real food, I didn’t only want to know the grams they needed. So here is the info in answer to the question posed today:
On average, a 1 to 3 year old child needs about 16 grams of protein per day. Roughly, it works out to .54 grams of protein per lb. of the weight of your child. Example: If your child weighs 29 lbs., he/she needs about 16 grams of protein per day.
This roughly translates in the following way:
An 8 oz. sippy cup of regular or chocolate milk contains 8 grams of protein.
1 ounce of cheddar cheese has about 7 grams of protein
1 TBLS. of peanut butter contains 4 grams of protein
1 oz. of chicken, even in nugget form, contains 7 grams of protein
8 ounces of yogurt contains 8 to 12 grams of protein
Pick the beige foods that your child will eat, (usually that includes white,) and lay them out on their plate. Perhaps you might offer the protein options first if you are truly worried that all they’re getting is carbs. Perhaps a slice of pizza with cheese, and a glass of milk. If you are worried about veggies, how about mashed up cauliflower with some cheese in it?
More than likely your ‘Beige Food Eater’ is already meeting their protein requirements and you can relax. Like most stages that they are going to go through, this too, (most likely), shall pass!