Picky Eating: When Choices Become Chores

Have you noticed that even a small choice can equal a large amount of time and stress to make that decision?

As adults our lives are filled with choices, big and small.

I’ll give you an example. We used to frequent a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Missouri. It was close to our house, held several good memories and even better crab rangoon.

Though we ate there several times a month, it would sometimes take me several minutes to order. Stares from the waiter accompanied my face getting more and more red and my tone panicked…even though I almost always ordered the “beef and broccoli”, this small decision brought more than a little stress.

I’m an adult who weekly makes larger decisions than this, but it still frazzles me from time to time.

Here’s a question, when we give decisions to our kids like “What do you want to eat?” or “Where do you want to eat?” might we actually be giving them one of the biggest decisions they’ve ever faced?! Add this to the general pressure of the moment, and what you’d think is a polite choice, is actually often a burdensome chore that is setting both us and our kids up for failure.

But don’t we want our children to be able to make choices and be invested in the eating process?

YES, but not all of the choices and not until they are mature enough to make those choices.

YES, we want our children to be involved in the eating process.

I have an entire class that I’ve written from the insights I’ve used to equip hundreds of families, in how to raise up adventurous eaters. When we as parents gain an understanding of how to navigate, trust and remake our picky eaters (sign up to join my mailing list and be notified when the course releases) mealtime is made anew.

A major key in training up adventurous rather than “picky eaters” is clearly understanding the division of responsibility. As the parent or caregiver, you take ownership of the what, when, and where of feeding and your child is in charge of how much and whether to eat of what you provide. This develops trust in the feeding process and places an appropriate amount of choice within eating for your child. At different ages, the freedom and choices increase. Consistent (but not perfect) application of following your job duties allows for positive and less stressful mealtimes for all!

Here are 2 questions (jobs) parents ought to take responsibility of when it comes to meal time:

1. What to eat? When parents take ownership of this decision, children don’t have to stress about what they are going to eat! Sure, this means there will be occasional tears or complete refusal, but that’s their choice…not yours. I recommend providing 2 familiar foods along with the unfamiliar food(s). This allows some comfort but also exposure to new foods. This prevents the anxiety of the parents and the child wondering if they ate something at the meal. It’s as simple as adding some fruit, milk or bread to the meal. I go more in depth about providing each macronutrient in my class along with their purpose and meal ideas.

A child has only been exposed to a small amount of the foods that exist, so of course they will want to eat something they have had and liked before. By only providing children the foods they have liked, this stunts their ability to try new foods and likely find so many more they do like! This is what leads down the path of pickier and pickier eating and not even allowing new foods within arms reach.

I serve broccoli at least 3 – 4 times per month (my favorite!) to my two eaters and I can count on my hands the number of times my boys have actually eaten broccoli. It’s humbling as a dietitian when they politely refuse but they have learned what was and was not their choice. They trust me not to force foods and are open to unfamiliar foods being on their plate daily which has led to surprising favorites of my boys such as kefir, meatloaf, edamame, Indian food and green beans. It is all a part of the cost to building an adventurous rather than a picky eater, it’s worth it.

2. When to eat? “Mom, I’m hungry.” You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it. When we provide food outside our primary meal times (and appropriate snacks for certain ages) and based around our child’s pleas we communicate that they are in charge. More accurately, they learn that they can train us and it leads to a child not coming to the table with an appetite so they really only want to eat their favorite foods. They need to be adequately hungry but not hangry. You have already established that they are in control of “how much” and “whether to eat” so they can refuse the meal or snack. If they get hungry in between, due to a refusal or small meal prior to, remind them they will be able to eat at the next snack or meal. When we do this, our children will be more open to different foods at this next meal or snack. Invaluable hunger and fullness cues are learned with this method.

The most important part of the meal is the enjoyment of being together. Enjoy the food, enjoy the conversation and embrace your child’s choice of refusal.

Parenting and grand-parenting aren’t easy. Staying consistent in each of your job responsibilities when a child refuses food with a tantrum is also not easy. But, like a muscle, if you invest to gain the knowledge and put forward the effort, you will see incredible benefits sooner than later and so will your family.

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