For the most part, children's mealtime behaviour happens behind closed doors. However, whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas or a feast day from another cultural tradition, big family meals mean eating in front of many people - often a time when parents of fussy eaters feel judged. Many parents tell me that they avoid revealing the full extent of their child's restricted eating because they are embarrassed about it or feel that it's some kind of reflection on them. At big family meals, there's nowhere to hide.Read More
My last post was all about what research tells us about the importance of eating together as a family whenever possible. When I came across a study earlier this week about the impact of feeding children the same meal as the rest of the family, it seemed like the ideal follow on. Eat together - eat the same.Read More
Since ancient times, eating has been a communal business. We celebrate with food. We use food to mark significant cultural occasions. We re-group at the end of the day and share a meal along with our news. In recent times, however, there are so many demands on our time that the family meal is no longer the institution it used to be.
It was a huge pleasure to work with Michelle - I wanted to share this video so that other parents can understand that they are not alone with their concerns about picky eating. It is a really common problem and can cause a huge amount of stress to parents and children alike. Luckily, there are some straightforward changes that you can make to family life which will make an enormous amount of difference.
I have a two year old. This means that a lot of my time is spent picking food up from every visible surface (and some less visible ones... it's amazing what the underside of a booster-seat can harbour). Sometimes this is frustrating, sometimes it's plain disgusting. It is, however, essential. Here are three reasons why messy mealtimes are so important:Read More
Ever stopped to consider the myriad ways you try to get your child to eat? In this post, I'll be looking at what we do to encourage our kids to eat, why we do it and what effect it has.Read More
I love it when readers get in touch with their questions about picky eating. It's funny how the same things come up again and again... It might feel like you are alone, but believe me, you're not. Despite unique situations and cultural differences, parents thousands of miles apart are going through the same things. When I got the following email from Sheila and Lisa about their two sons (aged 8 and 10) and then a client asked me the same question the very next day, I felt it deserved a blog post.Read More
Rewarding with food is standard parenting practice - for example, many parents use sweet treats to encourage their child to use the potty, or to recognise good behaviour. This gives the child the following message: "I approve of you, and so you can have sweet food" . To take it a step further, from the child's point of view, it equates eating sweet food with feeling loved. EAF is all about separating food from feelings so that children eat for physiological rather than emotional reasons.Read More
This EAF principle is all about the importance of your emotional reaction to your child's eating. Why is it important? Well, because your feelings have a profound effect on your child's eating behaviour.Read More
This month I will be publishing a series of posts summarising the EAF rules. If you don't have time to read my book about picky eating, or you prefer your parenting advice in small bites, this series is for you. Although it is based in psychological theory and research, EAF is a straightforward and practical philosophy that can be reduced to a few simple rules and principles. Here is the first :
'Never praise or criticise how or what your child is eating'
Mealtime criticism comes in many forms. It's very easy to compare your child's eating to that of siblings "why can't you be a good eater like Isobel?" This makes your child feel labelled and will actually make picky eating worse. It's amazing how children will live up to your expectations, both positive or negative.
Sometimes parents criticise manners - it's fine to work on the finer points of eating behaviour like finishing a mouthful before talking or improving cutlery skills when your child is eating well and enjoying meals. Until that point, concentrate on making meals as relaxed as possible. This is not achievable if you spend a lot of time telling your child what they are doing wrong.
If you give your child attention that is related to how or what they are eating (whether through criticism or praise) you are conveying a message that eating is a behaviour you want your child to 'perform' for you. This immediately gives them an opening to use it as an emotional lever. You can read more about why this is unhelpful here. Of course, if you are worried about your child's fussiness, your natural instinct will be to praise her when she eats well. Don't! It sounds counter-intuitive but ignoring both good and bad eating is one of the keys to solving it.
If you praise or criticise your child for what goes into her mouth, you are bringing the focus sharply onto her eating. This piles the pressure on. Let her make her own decisions about how much she eats (within the context of appropriate meals and snacks offered by you) . Instead of concentrating on what's being consumed, concentrate on the social side of eating - research tells us that the happier and calmer meals can be, the better your child will eat.
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
The no thank-you bite is everywhere. The concept is this: your child can leave whatever they wish, but they must try a bite of everything. If they don't like something they have tried, they can politely refuse to eat any more. This resembles EAF in that children are encouraged to be polite and respectful about disliking something on their plates. Equally, for the most part, it is up to them how much of their meal they consume. However, once you insist on a no thank-you bite, you cannot truly end the entanglement of food and feelings that is to blame for so many cases of picky eating. I would even go so far as to say that I believe that using this technique will make picky eating worse.
Eating is a basic bodily function
The key to solving picky eating (or at least, one key on a large bunch) is the idea that you need to stop making eating a behaviour you require your child to perform for you. In her excellent book Lets Get This Potty Started (it's about toilet training in case you hadn't guessed...) Dr Heather Wittenburg makes the point that natural bodily functions should not be lumped in with other desired behaviours. As she puts it:
"In most area of your child's life, YOU are the boss. You decide most of her daily happenings. But her bodily functions are different - you can't control those............ you can't force a child to eat, poop or sleep"
Dr Heather is right. The moment you start trying to force, coerce or even gently persuade your child to eat, sleep or defecate, she can begin to use these areas as an arena to assert the control and autonomy that young children strive for - you will have a fight on your hands. Instead, set things up so that the conditions are right ( the meals are appropriately timed and nutritious, the bedtime routine is in place and your child is tired... the potty is on hand and the environment is relaxed...) then leave the rest to your child. Think of the proverbial thirsty horse. You can lead it to water and IT will decide if it's going to drink. Your job is simply to make sure that the trough is full.
A child's motivation to eat should be her tummy not her mummy...
With EAF, eating is no longer seen by your child as something they are doing for you. They eat because they are hungry - when they eat (or not) because of how they think you will react, whether this is to please you or test you, you they are eating for the wrong reasons. In my experience, a huge proportion of cases of picky eating are down to children being in the habit of using food as a weapon in a power battle. Here's the solution: if you always let your child make her own choices about how much she eats and you remain emotionally neutral and relaxed about her decisions, she will learn to eat only because her body tells her to. Once you introduce the no thank- you bite, this separation of food and feelings has gone out the window.
This post by The Feeding Doctor explains that the no thank-you bite rule does not allow for children having different temperaments. For some children, insisting they try a bite of something will escalate into an almighty power battle that will not help your child's relationship with food.
So what's the alternative?
If you decide to ditch the no-thank you bite but you still want your child to have the multiple exposures that research shows are vital to the acceptance of new foods, what do you do? The answer is simple, but requires a little determination to carry out consitently. You regularly serve nutritious and varied food in a relaxed and positive atmosphere, taking all the pressure off your child to eat it. As author and founder of Chop Chop Magazine Sally Sampson writes (for the New York Times), when explaining why she advises against the no thank-you bite:
"Children who won’t taste don’t get nudged or judged. The 10th time you serve them, your child may, unprompted, take a bite."
If you'd like to know more about the importance of ensuring that a child's eating is not motivated by psychological, behavioural or emotional factors, you may find these posts interesting:
Join the debate
This is an emotive topic - many parents are unwilling to question the wisdom of the no-thank you bite, especially if it is a long-standing tradition in their house. Whether you agree or disagree, I'd love to hear from anyone who has ideas on the subject.
Gill Rapley a health visitor by training, came up with an approach to weaning where control is handed over to the baby during mealtimes. She noticed that weaning was much easier when babies were left to feed themselves and went on to do a Master's Degree during which she investigated this idea in more depth. She called this new way of feeding babies 'baby-led weaning' (BLW), a term that has caught on and is now very much in common parlance in the world of parenting.Read More
It's baby-led weaning week on the EAF blog and to start us off, I am excited to be posting an interview with Nutritional Therapist Kathryn Barker. Kathryn runs 'BabyBites' baby-led weaning and infant nutrition classes in the East Midlands, UK. Kathryn trained as a Nutritional Therapist when her eldest child was a baby. She is passionate about baby-led weaning and started teaching other parents about it when she realised that there was a huge demand for more information on the subject.
Here's how Kathryn answered my questions:
1) What made you want to train as a Nutritional Therapist?It was because of a personal interest in nutrition and wanting to learn more. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I went to University but as I got older I became more aware about what a difference having a good diet can make and how important it is to all areas of our health. When I had my first child I wanted to make sure I was equipped with the knowledge to ensure I could give her the best start in life in terms of her development.
2) You teach baby-led weaning classes - what is about baby-led weaning that appeals to you? Baby led weaning appeals to me for many reasons. When you look at it logically, it makes complete sense to let a baby learn to chew food before they learn how to swallow it. The fact that a baby’s gag reflex is much further forward in their mouth when they are young, and moves back as they get older, suggests that this is the way mother nature intended babies to move onto food from milk. It also helps to develop a healthy relationship with food because there is no pressure placed on the baby around mealtimes. It’s wonderful watching a baby develop the skills needed to eat different foods and enjoy a wide variety of tastes and textures.
3) If you could give one piece of advice to new parents about weaning, what would it be?
Try and relax about it and don’t panic if your child doesn’t want to eat at every meal or every day. That’s normal. It’s far better that you allow your baby to make those decisions than to force food on them. I think people worry too much that their baby isn’t eating what they expect them to but it’s important to recognise that every baby is different, and that everyone has days when they lose their appetite for one reason or another.
4) What question do parents most frequently want an answer to in relation to food and feeding?
The main concerns people have are what their baby can and can’t eat and when. There seems to be a lot of mixed information out there which can overwhelm people. Advice keeps changing too in line with recent research so it can be a bit of a minefield and people worry they are going to get it wrong.
5) Do you have a 'nutrition hero'? Which writers / thinkers have influenced you in your work?
I’m not sure I have a ‘nutrition hero’ but I find the work which they do at the Brain Bio Clinic fascinating. I watched a lecture from them about nutrition and mental health which was very inspiring. The effect that changing the diet can have on conditions such as schizophrenia can be amazing and far more effective than the traditional drugs often used. I wish there was more awareness out there for people with mental health issues (and also carers) that a more holistic approach might be effective for them, and have less side effects than some of the medication given.
6) What are you up to at the moment? Any interesting plans for 2014?
Until my youngest starts playgroup at the end of the year I don’t want to take too much on. I’m happy continuing with the classes and spending time with him. I’d like to get more into foraging though and get creative in the kitchen. I made some lovely elderflower champagne last year and loads of cherry jam. Hopefully we’ll get some sunshine eventually and we’ll be able to get out round the woodlands and hedgerows to see what we can find!
Thanks so much to Kathryn for generously sharing her thoughts and experience - you can find out more about her work and
classes via her
and you can also keep up to date with her on her
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that it is good thing to encourage children to try new foods. Even parents who don't put any pressure on their children to eat often tell them to "just try it!" . There is even an entire picky eating programmed based on the idea of trying small amounts of new foods - of which, more later.Read More
Welcome to the week of the New Year's resolution. What have you resolved to address in 2014? Looking back at months gone by, thinking about what needs to change then making a commitment to do things differently, is something that is familiar to so many of us.Read More
"Don't praise or criticise your child for what they eat" is one of the principles central to EAF. This may seem surprising. Most parents would agree that the way to get your child to perform a desired behaviour is through the use of sanctions and rewards, whether that reward is something tangible or comes in the form of praise.Read More
One of the time-honoured tools in the parental kit-bag is the reward chart. Often, parents reach for the gold stars when tackling picky eating. If your child eats well, you want to encourage that behaviour so you reward it. So why is one of the central principles of EAF the idea that you should never praise or criticise how or what your child eats?Read More