Beth, mom of an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, wrote me with the suggestion that maybe moms of picky kids should simply offer them a “healthy” alternative, like pasta, whenever they don’t want what’s served. Good idea, right?
“I don’t want them to have to eat things they seriously don’t care for,” she said, noting that her kids don’t have medical, developmental or sensory processing issues or other such real problems. They just aren’t crazy about certain textures. Or probably, they just would rather have pasta than what’s served sometimes.
Thus far, I agree that no one should have to eat anything against his will.
“That being said,” Beth admits, “it upsets me that I have to make separate meals for them. It means we eat at different times and eat different things. It isn’t an ‘always’ thing, but it is an ‘often’ thing. I would love to have a happy medium, at least.”
Yes, there is a happy medium, Beth. Parents, there’s no reason to cook more than one meal. It’s enough time and effort to make one meal. Doing more for your kids is rarely better for them. Or you. There’s a simple solution to this problem.
No Hungry Kids: Who’s Suffering?
The sticking point for Beth is that tough thing of seeing her kiddos go to bed hungry because they didn’t like what was offered for dinner.
“I agree that they certainly won’t starve, but I’m just too sensitive, I guess. I don’t want them to ever feel hungry, sad, etc. Going to bed without finishing dinner, I just can’t abide it. Because while I get frustrated when my kiddos won’t eat certain things, I just can’t send them to bed without what I consider to be a healthy meal,” she explains.
So it’s OK for you to suffer repeatedly over your kids’ fussy choices, but it’s not OK for them to suffer in any way? At all? Ever?
Of course it upsets you when you have to make separate meals for your children. It’s unreasonable. It’s over-complicated. You should be upset. Other people of whom your children expect unreasonable concessions will probably also be upset. What you’re doing is a problem for your children as well as for you. If your children got a little upset just once or twice, though, neither you, nor they, nor the people around them would need to continue to get upset.
Offering alternatives to meals is not real life. It’s not sustainable. It’s coddling, a softening of life for your kids with artificial cushions. You’re enabling one of their their less admirable qualities by refusing to allow them to experience consequences. They are not so fragile and rigid as you make them out to be and as you are encouraging them to be.
You don’t have a real problem on your hands. The only problem is of your own creation.
You are losing the classic dinner time showdown for no good reason. Your kids’ hunger is not something to fear; it’s something to take gentle and loving advantage of. The happy medium is neither forcing them to eat what they don’t want nor supplying upon demand whatever it is they do want.
The Choices of Reality
You and your kids need a dose of reality. Starving kids aren’t fussy. But fear not: you need not starve your kids. You only need to shift your home atmosphere from one of over protection to one of normal and natural attitudes toward food. A shift from co-dependency to autonomy and self-management.
How to accomplish this shift? Giving your children the realistic and natural choice between being hungry and being a bit more open minded about the perfection of their food choices will help them take charge of their own eating.
You can gently press them in this direction. Let them feel the reality. Cut off the alternative meals. Let them know, in all loving, nonchalant sweetness:, with no cringing: eat what’s offered, if you’re hungry, or wish you had. They’ll learn fast. Why should they be open minded if Mom bails them out anytime they feel like turning up their noses? Where is the encouragement toward being a bigger boy or girl?
If they KNOW they WILL go to bed hungry if they choose not to eat what is offered, they will probably decide not to take that option more than a time or two. I’m confident that they’ll decide they don’t dislike the food THAT much. They might even be surprised to discover it tastes pretty darn good when it’s that or being hungry. It’s not cruelty, it’s just natural consequences. You’ll wish you’d done it years ago.
Then the problem of their own hunger becomes theirs instead of yours. Yet, the problem will probably cease to be a problem. They’ll give up the pickiness more and more. They’ll gain the gift of enjoying far more foods. You’ll be doing them a favor. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. You’ll be doing everyone who has to live with your kids in the future a favor.
How to Cultivate Contentedness and Autonomy
You want to cultivate contentedness, not fussiness and hard-to-pleasedness in your child. A little hunger edges out pickiness. It’s real, it’s normal, they can take it. Kids are resilient. Going through some hunger won’t hurt them at all. It will help them be happier, more mature, more enjoyable people. You’ll be happier. Because what’s good for them is good for you. Be patient. Be calm. It’s not as big a deal as you make it out to be. Your kids can adapt. They can eat more than they’ve been left to think they can, and enjoy it, and survive.
You must show confidence. Your kids need to see that you know what you’re doing. When they see that you are sure they’ll be fine, they’ll also be assured that they’ll be fine. Your attitude teaches them to be either resilient or fragile.
Remember, they don’t have a real reason to be fussy; they’re just being more hard to please than hungry. Shift the balance toward feeling that hunger you’re currently afraid they’ll feel, and their choices will open up. Let them worry about being hungry. Put it in their hands instead of yours. Encourage them to be in tune with their own bodies and be autonomous, not co-dependent.
Your primary concern should be about raising kids who are agreeable, sociable, grateful, gracious, open and happy with all the blessings they have instead of being demanding and fussy and particular. That’s already a lot to tend to. When you focus on those things that they don’t do naturally choose on their own, the natural process of eating generally takes care of itself.
Whether they’re hungry or not can and should be THEIR problem. They can handle it. Really, they’re the only ones who can handle it.
Anna Migeon of SacredAppetite.com on video comparing parenting styles for feeding picky eaters.
Want pickiness to become a way of life at your table? Here are a few tips to guarantee it does.
1. Make feeding chaotic. Feed your child whenever he’s hungry, or let him forage for himself. Let him eat whatever he wants. That’s more natural than being all structured and organized and strict about it. Don’t refuse him anything he wants. If he’s not hungry when an actual meal rolls round, just force him to eat anyway.
2. Allow your child to eat wherever he wants: on the couch, in front of the TV, running around outside or inside while playing, in the car, and not just at the table. Children need to be free.
3. Press him to eat if he isn’t hungry, or if he doesn’t eat something you’ve served. Not being hungry doesn’t mean you don’t need to eat. You always need to eat. The more kids eat, the better.
4. Pit foods against each other as you micromanage and manipulate. “You want a meatball? Well, you have to eat a carrot first. Want dessert? You have to eat all your rice.”
5. Adapt to your child’s eating. If he spits out a certain food, try giving it to him with ranch dressing, or cooked, if it was raw. Or peel it, for example. If he still won’t eat it, stop serving it. Serve him only the foods you know he’ll eat, and serve them the way he likes them.
6. Spoon food into his mouth or otherwise forcefully make him eat.
7. Worry about what he actually eats instead of how he is behaving. Make meals a filling station, focused on getting them to down certain foods in certain amounts, instead of making it a social time where you build a relationship and give your child social skills.
In response to my recommendations on how to get kids to eat instead of dawdling at the table, a mom named Laurie asked me:
“What about the opposite problem? I tend to be the last one to sit down and the kids are often done and gone before I’m finished. How can I entice them to stay a bit longer, or wait for me before eating and running?”
This problem is not so much a question of how to entice the children to do what you want them to do. It’s rather a problem of habits and training. And giving no choice.
For everything, there is a season. Sometimes it’s time to let a kid choose, and other times it’s not. Making a kid eat anything at all is out, but requiring a kid wait for others to begin eating, or to sit at the table and be sociable for a certain amount of time for a meal is right and good. Letting a kid choose what to put in his own mouth (among the good choices) is in — it’s his body, after all— but letting a kid choose how to act and treat others (unless they naturally make good choices that way— few do) is not. I’m sure your kids are nice kids at heart; they just need to be instructed here how to show it.
Laying Down the Law on Behavior
If you don’t like the way things are going, you should let your kids know. Tell them how it feels when they charge off after you’ve cooked for them. Tell them your vision for meal times. It’s not asking too much to require some changes. But don’t just nag. Lay down the law. It’s good for them and good for you.
Here’s the deal: We don’t start eating till Mom gets to the table. We wait and eat together. Eating is family time. We wait at the table till everybody is done eating. We ask to be excused. We don’t wolf down the food our parents made for us and then leave them alone at the table.
These are the basic manners that you would surely appreciate seeing in children who visit your house. You would probably like knowing your children would follow these rules at someone else’s home, when they are guests. You probably hope, if you have a boy, that he wouldn’t start eating before his wife got to the table and then run off and leave her alone to finish her dinner. If you have girls, you probably hope they are treated better than that by their husbands than you are letting your kids treat you.
It’s a question of habit. What you let them do every day for months and years becomes a way of life. For better or for worse.
Grease & Tighten
Laurie, if you want to have a particular way of doing things at your table, it’s up to you as the parent to establish it. The atmosphere at your table is important and the parent should be the one to lead it. It’s in the children’s best interest to make meal time a social time, when parents and children spend time together pleasantly. The table is where children learn to be humans, not just fill their bellies. So be firm yet cheerful, and lay down the ground rules. You’re right to and have the right to, even the responsibility to do so. What’s good for them is good for you, as is generally true with child rearing.
Trying to change your table from a chaotic, filling-station situation to a more civilized time focused on family bonding may cause some resistance in the troops. In that case, it’s time to both grease and tighten: make the change feel rewarding at the same time you stand your ground and enforce. Let them know you’re serious, and don’t back down.
According to Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, we Americans don’t teach our children to wait. That’s a major element of our parenting mistakes, compared to the French, Druckerman tells us. Instead we wait on them, hand and foot. Then we wonder why we don’t enjoy our children. Other people probably don’t enjoy them much more. Waiting for others and making meals social occasions is a ritual that can increase the enjoyment of a meal for everybody. The youngest children can be taught that they can wait, that they are capable of waiting. Waiting is good. It may even get them better scores on the SAT.
But also make meal times enjoyable. This part is where both enticing and enforcing makes good sense. Make great meals and make them festive. Bring out the good dishes, or set some flowers. Bring up interesting topics of conversation. Insist on kindness from everybody. Make it a time to model good conversation and loving relationships. I am confident everyone will see the value of the change eventually. It’s worth making.
Sacred Appetite’s Recommendations for the Eat-&-Runs
1. Make it a rule that no one starts to eat until everyone is at the table. If you begin your meals with a prayer, do that consistently and make it a rule that all wait until all are seated and the prayer is finished to begin eating. Or do as the French do, and say to one another, “Bon appetit,” as s signal that one can begin. Or create your own positive family tradition.
2. Serve your meal in courses, the French way. Make meals leisurely whenever you can. TV can wait. Video games can wait. Meals are some of the best times to build a relationship with your child. Start with perhaps a salad or a bowl of soup. When all are done eating that dish, bring out the main dishes. If you serve dessert (fruit salad with a little plain yogurt is a good one), wait to serve it until all are done eating the main meal.
Dominion Hills Plaza 21195 IH-10 West, Suite 2101
San Antonio, Texas 78257
Are meals a battle?
Having trouble getting kids to eat at the table?
Have you become a short order cook?
Do you make two different meals for one family?
Through this interactive workshop, you will:
- Identify which tools you are using to try to make kids eat that actually make things worse, and get equipped with the right tools — the ones that work!
- Find out how to cultivate the right atmosphere and habits in your home so children both eat happily AND behave.
- Discover how to practice “masterly inactivity”: do less to accomplish more.
- Learn how to leverage children’s natural appetites to motivate them to want to eat what YOU want them to eat.
- See how to have more fun in the process of feeding your family.
Presented by Anna Migeon, author of the blog: “Sacred Appetite: Restoring Healthy and Harmonious Family Meals.” She coaches small groups and individuals, offering Supper Nanny home consultations. For a recent San Antonio Express News article written about Anna and her methods, see “No More Battles at Mealtime.” For more information and to register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, LIKE Sacred Appetite on Facebook, or call (210) 785-9099
What some moms who’ve been coached by Anna Migeon say:
Your feedback has been the most tangible and helpful I have ever gotten on this subject and is really helping me to muster up the courage to tackle this.
“This training gave me the right to be calm about food. It has been a work in progress, but I have given up much of my anxiety about my kids’ eating. I have given my children more power (or so they think), which has freed up my time & emotions. They have more independence & a sense of power. They eat better when it’s time to eat. They are also helping to choose meals & getting more interested in the kitchen.”
“Since implementing your advice dinner time is much more pleasant! Before, my son would often be so hungry that he was grouchy and whiny by the time we sat down to eat dinner. It was difficult to actually get him to eat at that point. My husband and I mostly dreaded dinner. It’s a wonderful change! Now he is happy and pleasant at the dinner table, yet still eats a great meal. In fact, he’s eating dinner much better now! So thanks to your advice, he eats a great lunch, and he eats a great dinner. Awesome!”
“No screaming – just happy quiet eating. Henry even served himself a tomato!!!!! And ate it!!!! We almost passed out! Thank you again for guiding us. I really did take away some effective tools that have worked for us.”
Your child bangs her cup on the table and glares. Or she yells, “I hate beets!” and grabs a handful and rears back for a pitch. Or she may simply say, “Yuck! I’m not eating that!” to your sumptuous dinner.
Wouldn’t you do almost anything to have a little peace at the dinner table?
At such moments, wouldn’t it be great to have a way to keep a child on track without the usual yelling, threatening, arguments, lectures, punishments—all with limited effectiveness—and without misery (including yours)? Do you need a path to resolving conflicts of will where nothing’s broken, no one’s screaming and no food is thrown on the floor? Are you sick of meeting headstrong resistance head on and getting nowhere?
The good news is that nothing extreme is called for. The solution may be very simple.
How to Get a Kid to Do Something
When things are about to blow, try creating a diversion. Offer an alternative. In the book How to Get People to Do Things (1979), author Robert Conklin calls it taking a detour. It’s a simple, effective, low-key way to keep a situation from going where you don’t want it to go with a child (or maybe an adult). It only requires that you be alert and tuned in to your child, yet nonchalant and cool.
- When Serina bangs her cup, be quick. Interrupt the action long enough to calmly suggest another idea or activity that can become as attractive to Serina throwing a fit:
“Serina, could you please help me get watermelon for everybody?”
- Be quick again and intercept Serina’s little fistful of beets, saying only, “Food stays on the table.” Remove the beets, but not too far away. Then say:
“Serina, did you tell Daddy how much fun you had playing in the creek this afternoon?”
After Serina has her resistance neutralized, she might just forget how much she hates beets. You might see her end up reaching out for them (they’re still nearby), in the glow of getting to tell about her fun.
Old School Magical Mind Control
Creating a diversion is a parenting technique that was recommended some 100 years ago by a British educational reformer, Charlotte Mason, as described by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in her 1984 book For the Children’s Sake: Educational Foundations for Home and School.
This way of “changing children’s thoughts,” as Mason calls it, lets a child save face without a parent giving in: “Where she cannot yield, she diverts, she does not crush with a sledgehammer.” A new idea diffuses the battle while giving parents an action to replace the pushiness and direct control that are so unhelpful at the table. Getting pushy over what a child puts in her mouth is the last thing you want to do.
“It is a happy thing that the ‘difficult’ children who are the readiest to resist a direct command are often the quickest to respond to the stimulus of an idea,” Mason states.
So next time your child challenges you to a battle over what she won’t eat, maybe acknowledge her feelings, then try giving her something better to think about, and see what happens:
- “OK. I guess you’re not hungry. Did your teacher announce who gets to play Alice in Wonderland in the show?”
- “I know you wanted to keep playing, but it’s time for us all to come to the table together. Did you hear what happened to your sister today at school?”
For more examples of how to create a diversion at the table: Taking a detour: One Good Way to Neutralize a Kid’s Food Resistance
Check out Debi Pfitzenmaier’s blog post on Sacred Appetite’s free San Antonio workshop for parents on May 5!
The workshop, “How to Shepherd Your Child’s Appetite,” will be held at La Altura Pediatrics from 9-11 a.m. Space is limited. To register, email anna at annamigeon dot com.