This is my picky eating mantra. A child who is not served a varied diet will not eat a varied diet. Easy to understand - so much harder to act upon.Read More
This is the first of a two-part piece on throwing away the food your child doesn't eat.Read More
I recently wrote about menu shrinkage; how parents of picky eaters often describe themselves looking up one day and realising that the number of meals their picky child will eat has become smaller and smaller and smaller... until they are only preparing three or four meals on rotation. Exposure is the enemy of menu shrinkage, and the key to fostering a great relationship with food.Read More
Many people will advise you to feed your picky eater buffet style, in other words, to have several dishes on the table and let everyone take what they like. This is in contrast with the more old fashioned approach where the adult presents the child with their meal on a plate, including a bit of everything. This post is all about weighing up the pros and cons of both styles to see which best serves (sorry!) the picky eaters in our lives.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