If meals in your house are more tears and pleading than “More cabbage please, Mum” then you’re not alone. Jo Cormack, a therapist who writes at www.emotionallyawarefeeding.com, tells how to avoid “war and peas” during family mealtimes.
You’ve spent hours in the kitchen perfecting a nutritious and delicious meal for your family. You sink down in your chair and take a moment to watch your children tucking in appreciatively. Such a great feeling… and pure fantasy. Recent research found that two thirds of young children often refuse food, making picky eating one of the most common challenges parents face.
The good news is that in most cases, fussy eating is normal. Sometimes eating challenges are more complex and require specialist support, but on the whole, if your little one greets most meals with “Yuk!” and prefers to stick with familiar foods, this is developmentally typical.
There is so much you can do as a parent to help your child learn to enjoy a wide variety of food and how you respond to their eating is the key.
These three phrases are mealtime game-changers:
“If you don’t want it, you don’t have to eat it”
Radical, I know! We are conditioned to encourage children to eat more; try food; clean their plates. it’s what we experienced as kids and there’s a huge sense that getting food into your child is part of being a ‘good’ parent. In fact, the more you pressure children to eat, the worse their eating becomes. Try leaving the decisions about what they eat down to them. Not only does this lower everyone’s stress levels, it also takes away much of the potential for food to become the star player in a power battle.
“This is what we are having – there’s nothing else until snack time / tea time / tomorrow’s breakfast.”
When I said let them leave food they don’t like, the sequel to that is not you rushing into the kitchen to whip up a little toast and jam or whatever they might fancy instead of the meal you prepared. If children get used to the idea that what you have served is all that is available, they are far less likely to use food to test boundaries. This isn’t a kind of punishment; it’s psychologically (and physically) healthy for children to learn that they are responsible for deciding how much their body needs and if they choose to leave food, they may feel hungry later.
“If you don’t like it, you don’t need to tell us – just leave it quietly on the side of your plate”
This will be difficult for a child who is used to attention about what they do and don’t like. Children need to be taught how to leave food — it’s unfair to expect them not to react with “I’m not eating that!” if they haven’t been shown an alternative. Helping them to leave food without a drama is so useful because it reduces pressure and conflict; both of which make picky eating worse, according to research.
Give these phrases a try in your house and see what happens.
Jo Cormack is a child and adult therapist with a website at www.emotionallyawarefeeding.com. She lives in the countryside with her husband, three daughters and various animals. She works with clients around the world via skype as well as running her feeding practice at a busy clinic in Lincoln, helping parents prevent and solve picky eating. Jo is a trained (and registered) counsellor and her expertise lies in the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of food and feeding. She knows that most parents are well aware of what they want their children to be eating; what Jo helps them with is how to help children enjoy a varied diet. War and Peas, Jo’s book for parents of picky eaters was published in 2014.