Ever lovingly taken the time to prepare a healthy, delicious meal and our children flatly refuse to eat it? We’ve all been there. Frustration, disappointment, anger, worthlessness – food refusal really strikes an emotional blow.
And what do you do when children refuse food? Should you make toast? At least you know they’ll eat that!
We all want our kids to eat with as little fuss as possible. We want to cook just one meal and all sit down at the table and enjoy it together. Dinner times should be fun, peaceful places; a chance for families to chat about their day, not a battlefield. So let’s make it happen!
Remember, some fussy eating is a normal part of a child’s development as they try to exert some control over their world. You are not alone, but how can we get through these fussy stages as calmly and healthily as possible?
It can be done, and the answers lie within ourselves, not in our children. Change our attitudes and we can positively influence our children’s behaviours. After all, we want to raise healthy eaters who can make their own decisions, not force-feed our kids.
As parents, we naturally believe that it is our responsibility to feed our kids, but we are taking on too much! The pressure, extra stress, and heartache will, in the long run, prove detrimental to our children’s eating skills.
Here are our suggestions.
Stick to your responsibility (the division of responsibility in feeding)
The parents’ responsibility is to provide food at regular intervals (you choose what is on offer, where and when).
The child’s responsibility is to choose whether to eat, and how much.
Ever been privy to a tantrum-throwing toddler, an indignant preppie, a screaming seven-year-old? Of course you have. Kids yearn for control. In a world where they spend much of their time being told what to do, food is one of the first things they can control. Try all you like, you cannot get a child to eat if they don’t want to. In fact, we shouldn’t even try.
Stick to your responsibility. As a parent you have the responsibility to offer food at regular intervals. That’s it! It is your child’s responsibility to choose whether to eat and how much of each food to eat. They may choose not to eat at all and that is OK. You need to trust your children (of any age) with their responsibility.
Kids are better than adults at realising their hunger and fullness signals. By forcing kids to eat, eat three more bites or to finish everything on their plate, we are overriding their natural instincts.
By fulfilling your own responsibilities and stepping out of your child’s, not only are you giving them the control they desire, which will encourage them to eat, you also don’t have to worry if they choose not to eat! In time, they will learn to eat a variety of food. And more importantly, it will be self motivated.
This division of labour has made me much calmer at meal times. Being calm also encourages children to eat and overall the whole experience is SO MUCH more pleasant.
While children choose to eat or not, they don’t get to pick what goes on the menu (they can assist under guidance for sure) – that’s the parents’ domain. When planning your menu, be considerate to your children’s food inexperience but don’t pander to their “likes” and “dislikes”. Be considerate but not catering. Make sure each meal has a SAFE food, which is a food your child has already learned to like (this might be bread or rice or cucumber). This safe food lets children satisfy their hunger with a food they already know and trust and makes the new or not yet liked foods less scary. Rather than change the whole meal, just make sure to add some safe foods as sides to the meal. That way everyone eats and enjoys the same meal but can choose what goes onto their plates.
Give your child the chance to take control, make decisions and impress you. Remember, your role is to offer the healthy food at regular intervals, in a pleasant environment. Let them get on with the eating. Role model healthy eating and table manners and they will follow your lead. They might not be filling their plates with veggies at first but have patience as learning to eat takes time.
A note on timing
Once a child is over one year old, the timing of meals is also your responsibility. Being in charge of timing means offering children meals and snacks at regular intervals. This is different to grazing. Between meal and snack times, only offer water. We need to make sure there is enough time between offering food so that kids can experience hunger and fullness. A hungry child (we didn’t say starving) is more likely to eat. As a guide 2-3 hours is a good time frame between meals.
With practice, you will reach the stage where every dinner at home is as enjoyable as going out for dinner with a group of friends.
This blog is based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responbility in feeding model. Find more about it here.