When I work with the families of picky eaters, I begin with an in-depth assessment. Parents are expecting my questions about how feeding progressed in the early days and about the transition from breast or bottle to solids. What they are not necessarily expecting are questions about their own food history.
Your food legacy
We all bring our own unique baggage to the task of parenting. Our attitudes and beliefs are very much shaped by our childhood experiences. Sometimes we unconsciously repeat how we were parented, sometimes we very consciously choose to do things differently. Either way, our own pasts are there in the background.
I call the thoughts and feelings associated with eating that we carry with us from childhood our 'food legacy'. Until you have spent time thinking and talking about your food legacy, you won't be able to fully appreciate how it impacts on your child's relationship with food.
Let me give you an example. In one of the case studies I did when I was researching War & Peas, I spoke to a mother who met my initial question about her relationship with food with surprise. She told me that she loves eating, she's a keen cook and has no issues with food whatsoever. After a little probing, however, she started to tell me about some painful childhood memories of meals where her very authoritarian father would make her stay at the table for hours until she had finished everything on her plate. She began to see that her attitude to her son's eating was coloured by this - she never wanted him to go through what she had and so if he didn't like his meal, she'd prepare him an alternative.
Another parent* I spoke to frequently went hungry as a child. As a result, she was very sensitive to her daughter saying she was hungry and would let her take biscuits to bed with her. Her daughter was a bright little girl and soon saw that she could pursuade her mother to give her snacks just by crying and saying she was hungry. Soon, she had no appetite at mealtimes and things went from bad to worse.
Three questions to ask yourself...
The following questions will get you started on the process of examining your food legacy. Take some time to talk through your responses with a friend or partner.
1) Was food used to punish or reward when you were growing up?
2)What food rules did your parent/s or carers have for you as a child?
3) How do these differ from the mealtime rules you have established in your house?
4) What is your happiest food memory?
5)What is your worst food memory?
Sometimes, your food legacy will be mostly positive - perhaps your parents were laid back about eating and you grew up enjoying food as a family. For others, food can be a life-long demon to battle. If you feel you have issues around food that you cannot manage by yourself, seek help. Eating disorders are really common, for example, a recent US study found that about half a million American teens struggle with disordered eating. There are many good websites in the US and in the UK , that can point you in the direction of further support.
Once you've gained some insight into your own relationship with food and have an understanding about where your beliefs and attitudes come from, you will be in a very strong position from which to work on your child's fussy eating. You will find it much easier to genuinely relax at mealtimes and to process the emotions that come up for you when your child refuses food.
* Note: Any cases referred to are reproduced with permission