We've all been there. You put your child's plate down in front of them and they take one look at it and say: "yuk"!!! "gross!!!!" "Euuuughhhhh!!!". In this post, I'd like to talk about what 'yuk' might really mean, why it's a problem and what you can teach your child to replace it with.
When we think about children's behaviour, we are much better placed to help them manage it if we learn to see it as a form of communication rather than 'naughtiness'. Often, children act out because they haven't yet learnt a more mature and emotionally articulate way of expressing themselves.
Here are some of the things children might be feeling when they are faced with something new or disliked at the dinner table:
- The smell of that food is overwhelming to me
- I am very scared of putting that in my mouth
- I feel out of control - what if I'm made to eat that and I can't?
- I want to be sick - I feel physically disgusted
- I'm so hungry and I don't think I can eat that but I can't cope with this hunger either
- I only feel okay when I have my usual foods
- The sense data (appearance, smell, texture etc.) coming from that plate is too hard for my brain to process
- This isn't my usual routine! That's just too unsettling...
And what comes out of their mouths? "YUK!!!". Because all of these fears would be hard for an adult to recognise and articulate in the moment, let alone a child.
Hear "Yuk!" as "I'm scared of eating that". Whatever the reason for that fear might be, if you can begin to see food from your child's perspective, you are on the road to helping them access a more varied diet.
Sometimes, children can simply be habituated to "yuk!". Mummy or Daddy puts the food down... I say "yuk!", they make me eat it. That's how mealtimes go. Like a script that both parent and child have learnt their parts in. "Yuk!" in this context, can be a preemptive strike - a bid for control from a child who feels that they are out of control. If you are in the habit of trying to persuade your child to eat, read this post to learn about how to give your child a sense of mealtime control in a psychologically healthy way.
Why is "yuk" a problem?
Children's negative responses to food do two things. They paint the child into a corner where they have rejected their food and have therefore embarked on a battle of wills over whether it gets eaten or not. They also impact the mealtime atmosphere. You have spent time planning the food, you have gone to buy it, spent your hard-earned money on it and then prepared it. "Yuk!" is just rude. If you were to reject food served to you as an adult in this way, it would be the hugest social faux-pas.
So your feelings are affected when you hear "yuk" - you feel despondent, angry, rejected, frustrated (delete as applicable). Your child picks these emotions up and subconsciously mirrors them - the mealtime atmosphere has gone down the tubes before anyone has even taken a bite.
I have written before about why and how we need to teach children to learn to leave food in a polite, low-drama way. But replacing "yuk" is more about what you say than what you tell your child to say. Yes, you can ban "yuk" and teach your child to reject food politely. But here are some things to say in your general conversations about disliked food which will help your child re-frame how they view foods that are a bit scary at first:
- You haven't learned to like that
- Maybe you need to eat that a few more times before you get to like it
- That food's still pretty new to you
- That's quite a tricky food for you, and needs extra practice
- Maybe next time will be the time you like it
If you can use constructive language around food and let your child make their own decisions about whether they eat what you have served or not, they will feel less need to exert control by saying "yuk!" and will feel less of the anxiety that is usually driving "yuk!" in the first place.