Archive for March, 2012

Picky Eaters: How a cockroach helped a mom tighten up the snack routine, while a timer added some grease

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

PICKY EATERS sometimes respond well to having a way to save face when they are required to change their ways. - photo by Anna Migeon

I put some thought into my delivery and implementation of the new snack plan and today tried a new approach that totally worked,” Debra told me.

A mom of three, including one extremely picky child, Debra is a mom I’m coaching. I visited her home at dinner time a few weeks back, and observed that she spent the entire meal pressuring and manipulating the picky child to eat. As a result, nothing was getting better.

We looked at what ways she and her kids are “out in the woods” and where her fence posts are built.  She does have several fence posts in place: the main one being established meals at the table with the family. She does care what her kids eat and is willing to work hard for them.  The food she cooks tastes great.

One major problem in their routines was that there was no snack time: her children were eating their snacks anytime between after school and almost dinner time. It kept them from being sufficiently hungry for dinner. They also ate snacks wherever they wanted to, not just at the table.  It spread the mess all over the house.

So goal number one was to limit snacks to about 15 or 20 minutes, at the table only. It wasn’t easy. Her son gave her plenty of grief over it. But Debra was determined, and creative.

“As it so happens, yesterday afternoon there was a giant roach in the kitchen that had everyone screaming and carrying on,” Debra reported  to me. Here in Texas, we all have to worry about cockroaches.

“So today on the way home from pick-ups I announced that one of the reasons we had been having our snacks at the table now is because the old way we were doing it was spreading crumbs all over the house and the reason why we have bugs!  Everyone agreed that the new plan was best and came right in, no complaints, no arguments, no drama. After 20 minutes  everyone cleared up and went on their way!” Debra recounted.

Little ways to grease while you tighten

She also used a buzzer to keep the kids to a time limit.

Debra’s picky son, Jonathan, got a kick out of using the microwave timer, which shows the countdown by the seconds.

“Every couple of minutes, he would announce to everyone how much time they had left in minutes and seconds, creating an urgency in everyone to finish,” she noted.

She was pleased to report that she had completely enforced the new snack routine and everyone was complying.

I told Debra that I thought that for Jonathan, the cockroach reason and the fun timer may give him ways to accept the changes without losing face. It distracts him from the changes or gives him things to like about the changes without giving in, in a way.  It’s the idea of “grease and tighten”:  the screws are tightening but the grease makes it easier to accept.

Debra’s next goals:

1. Break out of the 10 meals that Jonathan will eat and COOK! Expose him to lots of new foods, so that even if he doesn’t eat them, he will see them, smell them, maybe touch them, thus improving the chances he will eventually eat them. Meanwhile the rest of the family gets to have a more varied diet.

Debra told me that she had been letting her picky child dictate meals for so long she had no inspiration for new meals. She went on spring break at the beach with six cooking magazines, to find new recipes for different meals for every day the week after.

2. Stop hounding Jonathan about eating, and start having real conversations at the table.


Categories: Advice Column

Emerson and the Calf, or One Good Reason Kids Refuse to Eat

March 16, 2012 1 comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson was smart, but researchers now suspect he tried to make his son eat green beans.

One day,  Ralph Waldo Emerson  and his son, Edward, needed a calf to go in the barn. So the elder Emerson, the great Transcendentalist writer and philosopher, pushed on the calf’s backside while his son grabbed the animal’s head and pulled from the front. They pushed and pulled with all their strength, but the calf resisted with all of his might, over and over.

“How to get this calf into the barn?” Emerson wondered, with his deep, philosophical mind.  He thought about all the advice he could think of from his wide reading. He pondered his own ideals of self-reliance, muttering to himself his famous injunction to “trust thyself,” but could produce no insight on the subject.  He was stuck.

Just then a young kitchen maid walked by and saw the problem. With a little smile, she stuck her finger into the calf’s mouth. The calf began to suck happily on the girl’s finger, and she led the animal effortlessly into the barn.

Like a child who doesn’t want to eat, the calf didn’t want to be forced. It didn’t actually object to going into the barn, it just was reacting naturally against force.

Likewise, a child will want to eat, but pushing and forcing never works. If you push, he has to push back. Some children have physical problems or developmental delays that make it truly painful, difficult or even impossible for them to eat. These kids often react even more violently than other children to being force-fed. Who can blame them?

You can’t compel a calf to go or a kid to eat against their will (not with good long-term results anyway)  but you can arrange for them to be willing. Restricting a child’s access to food is the best way to arrange it.

Like the calf, the child has natural desires and needs that clever parents can leverage. The calf likes to suck, and the child does like to eat, whether it seems that way or not. He has to eat to live. Those natural desires and needs can be understood and worked with.

If a child learns that the only time and place that food is available is at the table at meal times and a set snack time, he will become quite agreeable about going to the table at that time and eating whatever is available. If he knows that if he throws fits at the table or is disagreeable and disobedient, he won’t be allowed to stay at the table and eat for that meal, he will shape up in short order. Getting enough to eat will be become the child’s problem, instead of the parent’s.

But putting pressure on the child won’t make him eat any more than pushing on the calf made him go into the barn. Even if you do manage to get something down the hatch, you can’t make him want it. That tiny battle may seem to be “won” but the war is far from over.

The Push-Pull Principle: two rules to reverse the cycle of pushing and food refusal

1. Limit eating. Pull away. No random snacking to spoil the appetite outside of meals or a specific snack time. If a child only gets to eat certain things at certain times, he will eat those things at those times. If staying at the table and eating is dependent upon good behavior, he will both value the privilege of eating and will behave. Of course, making this plan work requires the parent to be resolute and firm.

2.  Never pressure a child to eat anything. No pushing. Pushing and force is a sure way to create a cycle of resistance.


Related post:

Serious Reasons Not to React to a “Picky” Toddler

Parenting’s no longer fun: bringing up bébé to be picky AND tiresome

March 11, 2012 1 comment

LEARNING TO WAIT patiently until meal time and getting good and hungry, as French children learn to do makes everything taste good. - photo of a French potluck by Anna Migeon

American moms find being around their own children twice as disagreeable as French mothers do, research shows.

We Americans would rather do housework than tend our own little darlings, according to Pamela Druckerman, in her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why French Parents are Superior.”  Druckerman is also the author of the just-out Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.

To rub more salt in our American parenting misery, I will add that just because we are self-sacrificially wretched for the sake of our children is no guarantee we’re doing a good job as parents. It may mean just the opposite.

We American parents would do well to remember that how we feel dealing with our kids is probably about how other people will feel dealing with them, now and later, just without the parental affection.

There’s a cycle I observe of American kids who are both picky eaters and badly behaved at the table; it seems to come as a package deal. It’s the opposite of the cycle we can see with French kids. As Druckerman describes, they eat and they behave. The American cycle is bad for kids and bad for anybody around them. How can we break the cycle?

Out of control while over-controlled

Marlena’s kids screamed like banshees, unchallenged, for what they wanted. They also snacked, unrestricted, on junk food all day long. But when it came time for dinner, Mom hovered, micro managed and pressured them over every bite, while they resisted.

“Two bites of fish before you can have another tomato,” she’d say, or “Three bites of meat before you can have your dessert,” or “You have to clean your plate before you can leave the table.”  The parents managed to ride the pendulum from over-parenting to under-parenting and back, all in the course of a meal. No one was enjoying themselves much.

The kids were resistant to good food because of the parents’ relentless urging to eat it, not to mention they weren’t hungry, due to snacking on bad food all day.  They were generally eating and doing whatever they felt like doing, or n’importe quoi, just as the French so often accuse American kids of doing, according to Druckerman.

Two Sides to the Same Dysfunctional Coin

This nonchalance where we should be strict, and arm-twisting where we should give children freedom, seem to come in one package like two sides of the same coin or the poles on a magnet. It’s a chain reaction. One part unravels and the rest tends to follow.  Parenting isn’t much fun for these parents, I notice.

Children who become used to getting whatever they want and accustomed to having those around them drop everything to serve them tend to become nobody’s favorite classmate, co-worker or family member. Children who get to eat junk food while being pushed to eat what their parents want them to eat generally eat pretty poorly. Two sides of the same coin again. More general lack of joy.

Yet, if we reverse the negative and positive charges, it can all work beautifully. The pattern of bad eating and bad behavior can be overturned by insisting on agreeable behavior at the table, which is enforced by restricting access to food if they misbehave, which is in turn reinforced by hunger that is caused by lack of random snacking.  The appetite, like a mighty river, is going to flow, but it doesn’t have to be the master. It can be directed to be your servant, and your children’s servant, by giving freedom within bounds, and no freedom outside of bounds.

I know how brutal it sounds, but it can and should all be done sweetly and gently, yet firmly: for the children’s sakes and for the sake of all those who must be around those children, including those children’s parents. What’s good for them is good for us.


Push or Pull: When picky kids pick your dinner to pieces

How to get kids to eat at the table: The Push-Pull Principle

Is your child a picky eater or a problem feeder?

THERAPY exists for children who have problems such as transitioning to solids food and textures. Is your child just a picky eater or a problem feeder? - photo by Anna Migeon

Could your child benefit from professional therapy to solve her eating problems?  Did you know such therapy exists? Some children are just picky, but others have more serious problems that can be related to development or physical problems.  These problems can be addressed through special pediatric therapy.

Toomey & Associates of the SOS Approach to Feeding (Sequential-Oral-Sensory) provides these signs that your child’s problems are bigger than just pickiness:

Red Flags

  • Eats less than 20 foods, especially if she stops eating food and never accepts it again
  • Not gaining normal weight
  • Choking, gagging or coughing during meals
  • Vomiting
  • Nasal reflux
  • History of traumatic choking
  • History of problems coordinating breathing and eating
  • Crying at meals
  • The child doesn’t eat any better anywhere or for anyone
  • The child avoids all foods in a texture or food group
  • The child is unable to:

1.  Transition to food purees by 10 months

2.  Accept any table food solids by 12 months

3.  Transition to a cup from breast or bottle by 16 months

If you think you have a problem eater, ask your doctor about options for therapy.


Related posts:

Serious Reasons Not to React to a “Picky” Toddler

Three Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children

Another source for solving feeding problems: Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems and Expand Your Child’s Diet

How to Get the Picky Eater to Eat: in the Woods or in the Pasture?

March 2, 2012 5 comments

Young children, like sheep, need some shepherding for their own good and their parents'. - photo by Anna Migeon


Getting kids motivated to eat is a lot like getting sheep to eat.

If sheep are allowed to run free in the woods, they are in danger. When they get hungry there, they will probably eat something harmful instead of the right things. Not much good grass in the woods.

The sheep might even fall in a hole or off a cliff, or be terrorized by a rushing stream. They could be eaten by a wolf, run over by a car, or shot by a hunter.

So the shepherd watches over the sheep and places them within limits. The shepherd selects the best pasture of green grass he can find, and builds a fence around it. He gently lures his sheep in and closes the gate.

If the sheep are safely fenced in a pasture of only good green grass, the sheep will naturally eat the grass. No one tries to force a sheep to eat because it would only become alarmed and struggle away. No one need interfere with their eating, because they’re hungry and green grass is all that’s available. It’s the best thing for the sheep and they do like it. They love eating it if they haven’t filled up or gotten sick on thistles and weeds in the woods. They only need to be allowed to eat, with no interference. It’s like water flowing down a hill. It just goes.  The sheep are content and secure in the pasture.`

Likewise young children, if their access to food is not limited, will eat the wrong things, not be hungry for the right things, and be at risk of numerous threats to their well being.

Out in the woods, we find dangers that deteriorate the chances of children eating well:

  • Random snacking
  • Kids without an appetite at meals
  • Battles at the table
  • Food resistance and refusal
  • Fear of new foods and being forced to eat
  • Bad behavior is tolerated in hopes kids will eat
  • Parents have no way to make kids behave
  • Junk food and sugar cravings
  • Parents comprising on what they let kids eat so they will eat
  • Kids treasure dessert and see meals mainly as the means to that end
  • Parents pressure, bribe, bargain, beg and plead in attempt to motivate kids to eat
  • Sleep problems
  • Health problems (tooth decay, obesity, diabetes…)
  • The attitude that we HAVE to eat

So what are the fence posts we can build to create the structure our children need to be motivated to eat when and what they should?

  • Eating restricted to mealtimes and snack time only
  • Eating restricted to the table only
  • No random snacking
  • A wide variety of foods served
  • Parents choosing the best foods for their children
  • Only good choices at the table
  • Children decide freely how much they want to eat of everything
  • No pressure to eat anything ever
  • Kids are hungry for meals and eat willingly and happily: healthy hunger alone motivates them
  • Kids make sure they eat enough at meals because they know they won’t have anything till the next time at the table
  • Good table manners & behavior or kids aren’t allowed to stay at the table and eat
  • Good conversation at the table
  • The attitude that we GET to eat

So is your child in the woods or in the pasture?  Many families seem to be clearly in one or the other. What if kids don’t want to go in that pasture, with limits and restraints? We want them to be free adventurers, not mindless followers—like sheep! Don’t we?


Related posts:

Duty Made Lovely: How to Train a Child’s Appetite

Foundations of Appetite Training: 12 Ways Children Learn to Like or Dislike Healthy Eating