Monday, January 11, 2010

Avoiding Food Struggles

Before I get started, I'd like to mention something, which is that the very first child I nannied turns twenty this spring. As in, years old, which makes me a little bit old. To my credit, I was fifteen at the time. He was freshly one. And I knew a whole lot less about kids then than I do now. How on earth did I ever get that job? I guess I knew enough to feed him things he wouldn't choke on, play with him, and put him down for a nap. I also knew how to watch MTV. I was really, really, really good at that.

Over the years, as it became more and more clear that helping families raise their children would be something I would do as a profession, I began to pay a lot more attention to whatever information I could get my hands on that would expand my understanding of children, their development, and their needs. I read everything I can get my hands on in order to do my job better. I try things out, and I'll be honest if they work or are a pile of crap. There are many things I've found to be consistent with children across the board. Of course there are exceptions, particularly if a child has special needs. However, particularly in the case of food, I've found that there's a method that is recommended again and again and that has worked for me again and again over the course of my career as a childcare professional. If you'd like to end food struggles with your kids, here it is. I've added my own insights as well as sticking to the basics that you'll hear from many a pediatrician and child development expert. Here are the basics:

1. Depending on whose article you're reading, children require seven to fifteen presentations of a food before they'll even taste it, and in my experience, often require that many tastings to decide if they like it.

2. Your job is to decide when and what is available to eat, your child's job is to decide if and how much.

By presentations, I mean that it is simply showing up on the plate. When I present a new food to a child, I usually note what it is and what it kind of tastes like if it's close to something familiar. And that's it. If the kid decides to try it, fantastic; if not, that's fine, too. There should be no cajoling or asking if they'll try it or anything. Just put it on the plate, tell them what it is, and let them decide if they're ready to try it. If they have questions about it, of course you may answer them. If they express that they don't like it, say, "Okay, you don't have to eat it," and leave it at that. Some children may be bothered by the new food on their plate and protest, but just remind them that they don't have to eat it. Keep it light. If they don't taste it the first time, that's fine. Just keep presenting it until they taste it. If they taste it and express they don't like it, you may try presenting it a few more times to see if they change their minds, but if not, don't waste your delicious food. Some children find foods to have strong flavors, even if you think they are crazy, they might be right. I speak from experience here, as the child who insisted that lettuce tasted bitter and was not believed until it was later discovered by actual scientists that some people experience bitterness far more intensely than others.

Now on to the second item. It's just like it sounds. You decide what food is available when, and your child decides if they'll eat it and how much they will eat. Generally, when it's up to me, I offer food five times a day: breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. I find that if dessert is something the family goes for, it's best to have that as part of the routine as well. For example, dessert is offered after dinner but not after other meals. I also find that routine is my best friend when it comes to getting children to eat; if they know that food is offered at certain times of day and that certain types of food are offered at each meal/snack, they are more likely to make a good choice about whether to eat or not and how much. You both have the assurance of knowing that another meal is coming in a few hours. This way, you won't freak out if your child refuses the meal, and your child won't be confused about whether or not there will be another option before the next appointed mealtime (after all, who isn't sometimes tempted to see if a better option will come along if you just wait a bit). And that part about not freaking out if your child refuses the meal? Is key. Also key is not giving in to pleas of I'm huuuuunnnngggrrrrry before the next mealtime.

When you present a meal, if the child refuses it, simply remind him or her that there won't be more food until the next meal or snack time. Offer one reminder, and then remove the plate. Don't make a big deal out of it; if you do, it signals a power struggle, and most kids like to try to win, and that it not pleasant for anyone. If the child immediately cries out for their plate to be replaced, do so once and only once. if they do this consistently three meals in a row, don't offer it back after it's been removed; this signals that it's likely become a power play and that your child is not really interested in having the food back (or, possibly, didn't really want it to be taken away in the first place). Kids love to be in charge, and if this is one way they figure out that they can be, they'll take it. (This is much like the "game" in which your baby throws something on the floor over and over again because he or she enjoys having you pick it up.) Do not be concerned if your child eats two bites and expresses that they are finished. Remind them that there won't be food until the next meal, and remove his or her plate. If, before the next mealtime, your child expresses that he is hungry, tell them when the next mealtime is. The one exception to this is if they ate well the meal before and are possibly going through a growth spurt. I've rarely run into this issue when I am offering three meals and two snacks per day, and when I do, I like to perform what I call a "boredom test" to make sure that they're actually hungry and not just looking for something to do. I tell the child that I'll see what I can find, as it's not a normal mealtime and I need to consider the menu for the rest of the day, and if they show back up in five to ten minutes (no less than five, and be sure to send them off to play) reminding you that they're hungry, they probably really are.

Of course there is a lot of fine tuning you can do to meet your own family's needs. If you prefer to offer three major meals and allow certain healthy snacks in between, that's probably okay. However, if you notice that your child is eating a lot of those healthy snacks and then skipping meals, you'll need to make snacks routine as well or else you may end up with a child who only eats grapes. I also find it is helpful to make available in your home mostly foods that are good and healthy for your family to enjoy. Of course it's fine to have dessert from time to time, and there's nothing wrong with an occasional treat, but it's much harder to encourage your child to eat a healthy meal when they know that there's all manner of chips and sugary snacks sitting right there in the cupboard. (It's also harder to encourage yourself to eat a healthy meal when those things are present. Why not do your whole family a favor?) I'd also recommend offering milk at meals and only water in between. Juice is fine from time to time, but I know a good many children who would prefer to get all their calories from juice, and so it's best not to give that opportunity. Juice contains vitamins, but it's lacking in a lot of essential building blocks, so it's best to offer the whole piece of fruit as opposed to juice.

One thing that I'd like to make sure you take away from this is that you need to keep it light in order to avoid a power struggle. Allow your child to learn that they get pretty hungry if they refuse a meal. Don't let them know that it bothers you if they refuse food, even if it gets under your skin like nobody's business. And finally, never, ever, ever, ever, ever beg your child to eat or negotiate food choices in order to do so. To make food a non-issue will insure your success, and, by extension, the success of your child as they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

Questions? Comments? Did I leave anything out?

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