We all know that our kids require certain nutrients for proper growth and development, so when they refuse to eat, turn their nose up to new foods or request the same thing over and over and over again, we start to feel frustrated and defeated. We resort to techniques such as bribing ("if you eat three more bites of broccoli you can have dessert"), shaming ("your brother always eats his vegetables, so why can't you?!"), punishing ("no TV tonight for you because you didn't eat all of your dinner") or forcing ("you cannot get down from the table until you have had two more bites") which may act as short term solutions, but can negatively affect our kids' eating and nutrition long term. You are not a bad parent if you have reached the end of your rope and chosen the short term solution—you are actually a good parent. One who wants your child to reap the benefits of good nutrition now.
By doing this, though, you may be setting your child up for failure later on.
You are also trying to control something that you can't and shouldn't.
The biggest mistake that well-meaning parents make when it comes to feeding is trying to control if and how much their child eats. This is actually 100% the child's responsibility.
Child feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, created the "Division Of Responsibility Of Eating," which outlines the responsibilities of both parents and kids when it comes to eating. Parents are ultimately responsible for what kids eat, when kids eat and where kids eat. In other words, it is your job to provide nutritious, balanced meals and snacks at regular and appropriate intervals, in a designated, distraction-free (most of the time) area, such as the family table. Kids, on the other hand, are responsible for whether or not they eat and how much they eat. And I have to tell you, as a parent of a preschooler myself, one of the hardest parts of feeding is letting your child do their job. But once you do, your life will be a whole lot easier. The dinner table will no longer be a battlefield and the pressure will finally be lifted off everyone.
Mealtime CAN be positive and enjoyable.
One of the most common ways toddlers and preschoolers assert their independence is through eating and food choices. Kids this age yearn for some sort of control over their lives, and eating is one way they do this. After the age of 2, growth starts to stabilize and kids come out of their "critical nutrition period," which means that their food intake (along with their appetite), slows a bit.
We can relax as parents, knowing that our children will likely receive enough nutrition over the period of a week, even though it seems as though they don't eat enough throughout one day. As kids approach the age 2, they typically become more selective with their food choices (asserting their independence) and parents often get discouraged that their previously stellar eater is now rejecting many foods. This is completely normal and doesn't mean that your child is a picky eater. In fact, as explained in Maryann Jacobsen, RD and Jill Castle, RD's book "Fearless Feeding" (I highly recommend this book by the way), children have more taste buds than adults do, making them much more sensitive to bitter compounds found in foods like vegetables (this is one of the reasons your child may suddenly reject vegetables).
Bitter compounds, in historical times, signalled "toxic" or "unsafe," so this could explain why kids often reject them. Children also have a biologically-driven affinity to sweeter foods, which may be a protective function as well (sweetness signals "energy-rich"). Although this preference for sweet foods and tendency to reject bitter foods such as vegetables is common among little ones, most kids learn to love a variety of foods in their own time, as long as we continue to introduce them in a non-pressured way.
You may notice that your child refuses to try a new or unfamiliar food by saying "I don't like that food, it's yucky" before ever tasting it.
A common reply might be "but you've never tried it before—how do you know that you don't like it? Take a bite."
The reluctance to try a new or unfamiliar food is called a food neophobia and although proven to be extremely frustrating for most parents, it is a fairly normal eating issue for kids (food neophobias seem to peak around the ages two and 6). Some research shows that food neophobias are genetically linked. One study looked at 66 pairs of twins between ages 4 and 7 years old, and found that genes explain over 70 percent of the variation in the tendency to avoid new foods. So if your kid is always the one who shies away from new foods while other kids seem more adventuresome, it could very well be a hereditary trait. Some researchers also believe that food neophobias (especially when it comes to bitter vegetables) stem from hunter-gatherer times, to protect people from poisonous or toxic substance (which also tend to be bitter-tasting). Kids judge food by its appearance, so if they know that one green vegetable was bitter tasting (which naturally doesn't appeal to most kids), they may turn their nose up to other green vegetables.
A trend that I'm noticing a lot lately is parents "hiding" vegetables in other foods. This sneaky trick may work short-term, but if it is done regularly, it is sending the wrong message to kids, who will eventually catch you and think "it's SO bad that she has to HIDE it?!" When it comes to food neophobias, your job as the parent is to continue re-introducing new or previously rejected healthy foods (up to 15-20 times), without pressure, knowing that your child will eventually learn to accept them in his own time.
One technique that I often use with my son is the "food experiment" where I say "why don't you put a tiny piece of that food in your mouth, and if you like it, you can chew and swallow in and if you don't like it, you can politely spit it out in your napkin." Sometimes he surprises himself (and me) by gobbling it up, and sometimes he cringes and spits it out. Either way, I give him a high five for trying and leave it at that. He's one step closer to eventually accepting it and that's all I can ask for.
Other tips that I often give parents of children who refuse new foods are:
- Let your child serve himself sometimes. Instead of plating his food for him every night, let him decide what foods he is going to eat and what foods he is going to leave. The goal is to let him feel like he has a bit of control and to take the pressure off.
- Always serve at least one food that you know he likes. This will make unfamiliar or unaccepted foods seem a little less "yucky" or scary.
- Keep reintroducing unaccepted foods in different forms. For example, instead of making baked yam like you usually do, make yam "fries" and serve with ketchup to make it more fun.
- Model healthy eating. Kids assume that what Mom and Dad do (and eat) is normal and healthy--they are watching you and will mimic actions that you take, such as eating healthy foods.
Another common eating issue with toddlers and preschoolers is the food jag, whereby a child requests the same food (or two foods) over and over again and refuses to eat anything else. It's important to know that this stage is very normal and may happen a times throughout childhood. As parents we cannot force our children to widen their palates during this finicky stage. And unfortunately, the easiest solution (giving in to your child's desire for the same food day after day) will only increase the severity and duration of the food jag.
Therefore, it's important to resist the urge to play "short-order cook" for your child and cater to his narrow palate and instead, continue to offer a variety of foods at meals and snacks (once in a while including his beloved food), leaving it up to him whether or not he eats it and how much he eats. The process of learning to accept and like a food can be tedious and tiresome but you will see that it is worth it in the long run.
At around the age of three, children become more vulnerable to external eating cues, such as mom or dad telling them that they need to have "three more bites" or that they "should stop eating now," or a television commercial advertising hamburgers from McDonalds. Before the age of three, kids rely purely on their intuition when it comes to eating—they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
As parents, we want to nurture intuitive eating by allowing them to choose if and how much they eat at a meal or snack, so that they continue to trust their body rather than relying on external and environmental cues. This, in turn, will lead to your child having a healthier relationship with food long-term.
If you found this helpful, you may also want to read about the 5 phrases you need to know to end mealtime battles for good as well as 7 ways to get your children to eat their school lunches. I also continually post free family nutrition resources and tips over on my Facebook page, so please feel free to check it out if you haven't already.
This recipe was one of those "throw together the ingredients that you have on hand" types of recipe, but turned out amazing. My family and I are currently in between homes right now. We sold our house—the one that we started our family in—about a month ago and don't take possession of our new house until July. So, we are living at my parents' house for a couple of weeks while they are on vacation and then we will be staying with my husbands parents until we take possession of our new home in the summer. Although not having our own home is tough in many ways, my kids are adjusting surprisingly well and my in-laws have been more than welcoming and helpful with the kids.
Living at my parents house has been great in many ways too, but what I've enjoyed most is taking advantage of my Mom's amazing kitchen and all of the food that she and my dad left behind for us to use. My Mom is the most amazing cook. We grew up enjoying delicious homemade meals every day. She is a foodie through and through and her kitchen is a reflection of that. I noticed that she had two packages of gnocchi in her pantry and realized that I had never cooked with gnocchi before (it turned out to be super easy). She also had a jar of pesto sauce as well as some frozen organic prawns in the freezer. I had purchased some arugula that needed to be used up, so I threw all of the ingredients together and our meal turned out to be much tastier than I ever imagined. The ingredients all seemed to "fit" beautifully together.
In a perfect world, I would have made the gnocchi from scratch and whipped up my own homemade pesto sauce, but when you're a busy mom, 100% from-scratch dinners aren't always possible. This meal is still healthy and made with natural ingredients for the most part. When you do buy jarred sauces (such as pesto sauce) make sure that you read the ingredients list to make sure that you know exactly what you and your family are consuming.
Here's my super easy but fancy Arugula, Prawn, and Pesto Gnocchi Recipe:
Serves 4 or 5 people
Thaw prawns if they are frozen.
Cook gnocchi as per directions on package.
While gnocchi is cooking, heat olive oil in heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add prawns and stir-fry for about 30 seconds (until they start to turn pink). Turn burner down to medium heat. Add minced garlic, cook while stirring for another 30 seconds or so. Add arugula and stir until it starts to wilt. Pour in the white wine if you're using it and reduce heat to low-medium. Allow to simmer for another 30 seconds or so (shrimp should be fully cooked but not overcooked by now).
Once gnocchi is cooked, drain and add to skillet. Add pesto sauce and stir until everything is coated. Serve alongside roasted asparagus or another cooked veggie or salad.
This delicious and healthy Lemon Parmesan Oven Roasted Asparagus would be a perfect addition to this meal and if you feel like something sweet afterwards, try this yummy Dark Chocolate Avocado Pudding for dessert!
As a mom of a three-and-a-half-year-old, I am no stranger to mealtime battles. Although my son is a great eater for the most part, he is still a typical three-and-a-half-year-old, testing the boundaries at every turn and grasping at any opportunity for independence and control. Eating—something that we do multiple times a day—is, unfortunately one of the areas that preschoolers can and WILL control, and it can be beyond frustrating, and sometimes worrisome for us parents. We want to make sure that our kids are filling up on healthy foods and not eating too many "treat" foods. We want to make sure that they have enough energy for school and play and that they are getting all of the important nutrients that they need to grow and stay healthy.
Although mealtime battles seem to be an inescapable reality of parenthood, they don't need to be. As child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter teaches in her "Division Of Responsibility Of Eating" model, mealtimes do not have to turn into a battle ground, where there is a "winner" and a "loser." Eating can become much more enjoyable and less dreadful for everyone, and both parent and child can "win" if the communication before, during and after meals changes slightly.
Watch mealtime dynamics transform when you start using these 5 phrases:
Say this phrase instead of "Too bad, you have to eat—it's meal time!"
As Maryann Jacobsen explains in her Huffington Post article "End Mealtime Battles Forever With These 5 Simple Words," the phrase "you do not have to eat" is the most underused yet crucially important phrase parents should be using prior to mealtimes if kids refuse to come to the table. When preschoolers are deep in play, the last thing that they want to do is drop their toys immediately and run to the table for chicken and broccoli casserole. By taking the pressure off, and making mealtimes less about the food and more about family time ("you do not have to eat, BUT you do need to sit down at the table with the rest of the family"), your child will, 9 times out of 10, eat some (or all) of his meal once he sits up to the table. The rule in our family is that our son must sit at the table for at least 10 minutes before being excused. 5 minutes would be more appropriate for children under 3 years of age. Giving a 5 or 10 minute warning before meal time helps as well, so that they know ahead of time that playtime is ending soon.
Say this instead of "you better eat this now because you're not getting anything later."
As Ellyn Satter explains in her parent/child feeding model, parents are in charge of the whats, whens, and wheres of eating. Kids are in charge of whether and how much they eat. As the parent, you should be in charge of when meals and snacks take place. Otherwise, your house would turn into a food free-for-all and all-day snack-fest. My son often rushes through his meal, leaving more on his plate than in his tummy, because he is eager to return to whatever activity he was entrenched in before. Or because he knew that a yummy snack was coming later. Although kids are in charge of whether and how much they eat at meals, they do need warning as to when their next eating opportunity will be, otherwise, they may hold out for a snack later on. As a rule of thumb, in our family we offer a bedtime snack if dinner falls two hours or more before bedtime. If we have a later dinner, let's say an hour prior to bedtime, there is no snack offered, because dinner should provide enough food to fill tummies until breakfast the next morning. If my says that he is "done" his meal even if he's only eaten a little bit, I say "that is fine if you are done, but the kitchen will be closed after dinner and will not reopen until tomorrow morning, so you won't have another chance to eat until breakfast. Are you sure you want to be all done eating for today?" It may take a few days to adapt to this one if you've gotten into the routine of offering a bedtime snack every night regardless of dinner time or bed time.
Say this instead of "You must have 3 more bites before you're done."
The more you push your child into eating a certain food, the more you will turn your child off, increasing the "yuck" factor. Similarly, the more you withhold a food, the more appealing that food will become to your child, increasing the "yummy" factor. When you stay neutral with foods, keeping them on as level a playing field as possible, kids become more open to trying them and deciding for themselves whether they like them or not. Often, my son will take one look at an unfamiliar "healthy" food and say "I don't like that." My response is "You've never tried that before. Why don't you test it out by taking a bite, and if you still don't like it, you can politely spit it out in your napkin." 9 times out of 10, he will try it. Sometimes he is pleasantly surprised and says "Mmmm, I like this!" and other times he spits it out and says "yuck, I don't like that." My response is always "good for you for trying, buddy!" Whether he accepts it now, or accepts it later doesn't matter. What matters is that he doesn't feel pressure to eat it and he doesn't feel resentful because I forced him to eat it. As long as I continue to introduce it in a non-pressured way, he WILL accept it in his own time.
Say this instead of "no, you can't have that treat."
Instead of saying "no" to your preschooler when they demand a treat at a random time—let's say before a meal—which would most likely escalate into a tantrum or yelling match, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and say "Sure! You can have a treat, but you get to choose when you have it. You get one treat today, so would you like to have it now, before dinner, or would you like to save it for after dinner instead? If you choose to have it now, you won't have any leftover for after dinner." Or something along those lines.
A while ago, my son came to me holding a Valentines Day chocolate that he found in the basement. He said excitedly "Mommy! Can I have this treat!!??" How I really wanted to reply was "Absolutely not! It's almost dinner time!" but instead, I suppressed my frustration and calmly replied by saying "Sure buddy, you can have the chocolate with your dinner or after dinner, but this will be your only treat for the rest of the day. You get to choose when you have it." I dodged a tantrum and it turns out that he ate half of his little chocolate alongside his dinner and saved the other half for the next day.
When kids feel as though they CAN'T have something, they become frantic about having it NOW and ultimately, a breakdown ensues. But when you give them structured choice—"you can have this, but it will be under ___ and ___ conditions. You choose," the treat becomes a little less desired and because they know that ultimately they CAN have it (or a portion of it), the urgency seems to subside.
Say this instead of "what would you like for snack?"
Even though, as parents, we are ultimately in charge of what our kids eat, handing over a little bit of control can go a long way. Kids are more likely to eat something if they feel as though they have some control over it. Giving your child structured choice by saying "for snack, you can have an apple with peanut butter OR an orange with yogurt," you are still in control of what your child will eat, but they feel as though they have decided. It is a win-win. Where battles begin is when parents say "this is what you're having for snack, end of story!" (cue tantrum) or "what do you want for snack" (food free-for-all).
If you found this post helpful, you may also like:
Why You Shouldn't Bribe Your Kids With Food
The Five Things You Should Never Say To Your Kids About Food