I would never label my child as a picky eater (I don’t believe in labels) but at the age of three he does have clear ideas of what he will (fish fingers, spaghetti bolognaise) and won’t (recognisable vegetables!) eat; and though I know that his diet is largely ok there are definitely areas for improvement.
I’ve been thinking about ways of changing this over the past month or so, and recently came across a few techniques I’d like to adopt going forward.
Before I go any further, I should state that I usually hesitate to consider adopting any set “method” in parenting, or at least not 100%, choosing instead to trust my (and my husband’s) instincts about what we should do and how to handle different situations that arise. I didn’t follow Baby Led Weaning with Elliot, and my copy of Gina Ford spent most of its time gathering dust under my bed rather than being useful! It’s always good to have a couple of new ideas to try though so my google searching has come up with the following ideas:
EAF is a new approach to picky eating that challenges many conventional parenting techniques. It is based on scientific research and theory but is accessible and practical too.
I stumbled across the EAF site and downloaded Jo’s book and have read it in a couple of sittings. Much of the ideas contained within the book feel like common sense, and things we should have been doing anyway. For example, she says that the more we give in to our child’s requests for the same “safe” foods time and again, the more we are actually reasserting a likely anxiety in the child that says that any other food stuff is dangerous.
Some tips I noted from the EAF technique include:
1. No options- everyone has the same food in age appropriate portions (i.e. one meal for the whole family)
2. No praising or criticising eating, and no rewards (stickers or other foods/sweets for “trying” new food). In fact, Jo recommends becoming emotionally detached from what your child is, or is not, eating, and brushing it all off so they don’t ever feel like they are ultimately controlling the situation.
3. Child is allowed to leave whatever they like, but they should be made aware that there will be no unscheduled snacks or alternatives. This promotes an understanding of natural consequences – i.e. if you don’t eat your lunch, you’ll be hungry later.
There are a couple of things I’m not sure about here though. What happens if you have a really strong willed child who can sit in front of a plate of dinner and pick a couple of bits of chicken to eat, then we take the plate away (without criticising!) and move on to pudding where he eats the lot?!? Surely this just teaches “if I’m patient, I don’t need to eat my dinner to get my pudding”? Or maybe we just need to not have pudding at all, or at least make it fruit based rather than sugary.
Hard to do, yes, but generally most of what Jo teaches really made sense to me. If you can establish that mealtimes happen, ideally people eat food which tastes nice and is good for them, and if they don’t eat they know that there are no substitutes, then I can see how eventually this would result in a chilled out, happy, family mealtime which is what we all want really.
The Bento craze
Inspired by the bento – a box with different compartments – used throughout Japan, there is a growing trend of parents spending time and effort preparing beautifully presented packed lunches and teas for their children which quite frankly put the rest of us to shame. One glance at the beautiful creations from Capture by Lucy, or Eats Amazing, can make you feel inspired to put a bit of effort in and not just going for the age old triangles or squares when making sandwiches!
I can only dream of having time enough to make some of the more amazing creations (and a kitchen with a cupboard big enough to hold all the paraphernalia required more to the point!) but having said that, I am totally on board with making food look attractive for Elliot as he does tend to eat more if it looks nice. I therefore do tend to use cookie cutters or special dinosaur sandwich cutters to make sandwiches more fun and have recently taken to putting grapes, berries or yoghurt (with sprinkles!) in silicone cupcake cases. Invariably we get clean plates handed back, so in moderation, I think I can advocate spending just a bit of time looking at how food is presented, particularly if your child is a bit fussy.
A stalwart method for getting vegetables into meals that is adopted by most parents is hiding the nutritious good stuff in other foods, so you know it’s being eaten even if it’s not recognisable for the child.
We’ve taken to putting together recipes with extra veg grated in to the main component (e.g. courgettes grated into bolognaise sauce, carrots grated into meatballs) and I recently made gnocchi from butternut squash too.
While we wait for Elliot to realise he likes things, which apparently according to him will either happen “tomorrow” or “when I’m nine, mummy”, at least we know he’s getting some way towards the recommended five-a-day (or is it now seven? If so I give up!)
The Stop button in your tummy
I can’t remember where I read this (so apologies for not crediting it!) but the general principle is that children need to try something often up to 10-15 times before it becomes something they “like” or at least will tolerate. One way of encouraging them to try is to introduce the idea of a button in their tummy that sometimes says “Stop” before it realises that it’s food that is “yummy” and that they will often have to try a number of mouthfuls before they like a new food.
The idea is to get the child on board with “beating the button” – i.e. getting enough mouthfuls to know whether they like it or not – before the button says “stop!”
I’ve used this with Elliot to some degree of success. I explained that sometimes we need to try things a few times and that there’s a button in our tummy that sometimes gets confused and says Stop too early. After a few mouthfuls of a new food, we’d stop and ask him if the button is saying “Stop” or “yum yum” and more often than not it’s had a positive outcome!
We’ve been trialling a mixture of the above methods for the last week or so, and I have to report some success. We have been trying to serve meals as family meals (i.e. everyone eats the same thing, at the same time, and everyone has everything on their plate) and despite each time facing the “but I don’t like peas/salad/carrots [insert vegetable here]”, when we calmly explain that we all have the same, and if anyone doesn’t want to eat something they can leave it to one side without talking about it, we’ve had a calm meal. Ok so he’s not actually eating much of the vegetables, and generally these are still on the plate we take back into the kitchen, but we are using the EAF technique of looking at the long view and establishing good eating practices for the future rather than stressing over the number of mouthfuls of food eaten at any one meal.
I for one am a whole lot less stressed about Elliot’s eating, and know that with patience (of a saint, admittedly!) we will raise our children to be able to eat a varied diet and have a healthy attitude towards food as adults. Here’s hoping anyway!