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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?

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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

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

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

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L’appetit est la conscience du corps (The appetite is the conscience of the body).

— Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

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DUTY MADE LOVELY describes the real Pollyanna, and a good mushroom soup.

When my children were about six and eight, we listened to the original Pollyanna story on tape. Unlike the caricature of Pollyanna as a ridiculously blind optimist, we found the real Pollyanna to be charming and delightful. I was surprised and pleased to find that she managed to inspire us and stir our hearts by her sweetness. “We can be glad of that!” she would say. We still quote her, 14 years later. We all loved Pollyanna and her story.

Pollyanna and many other literary or real-life heroes are perfect examples of what educational reformer Charlotte Mason (1846-1923) called “duty made lovely” that can inspire a child’s conscience to love goodness.

A child’s conscience is not an “infallible guide,” according to Mason, but rather an “undeveloped capacity” to be trained and instructed through such examples.

In training the conscience of a child, she advised, give them “lovely examples of loving kindness that will fire their hearts with the desire to do likewise.”

The child’s appetite, like the conscience, is trained by example, lovely or otherwise, to lead him to right or wrong.

A Bad Example: Dutiful Eating

Of course we parents know we are the primary example for our children. But eating dutifully against our will is a bad example. It teaches kids that duty is anything but lovely. I’m not sure that dutiful eating is any better than just eating junk and enjoying it. At least you’d be enjoying yourself. In either case, the child is taught to see healthy food as unlovely.

A parent’s enjoyment of healthy food is the only good example:  duty made lovely and lovable.

I absolve you: If you don’t like mushrooms, don’t eat them. Don’t try to be an example by saying, “Look Kaylee, I don’t like mushrooms, but I am eating them because they’re good for me.” A far better example is finding a way to sincerely enjoy mushrooms. Then you can say, “Kaylee, I used to not like mushrooms either, but I tried several different recipes, and I’m excited about this soup I just made. It’s really good!”

Duty Made Delicious

That tasty mushroom soup itself is another example of duty made lovely. A delicious dish made with healthy foods is the best example in the world. It’s the loveliness — not the duty — of the experience that warms the child’s heart toward the good.

One day at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market, I saw a lady come up to the mushroom stand and ask for two mushrooms.

“I don’t like mushrooms, but they’re good for me,” she told the vendor. “So I put them in the blender with other stuff so I can’t taste them.”

I wondered why she bought the most expensive ones, the fancy $11 a pound ones. I wanted some of those, and more than two. I got the cheap ones. She might as well have swallowed a pill to get her nutrients.

How sad for her, with so many luscious ways to eat mushrooms. How sad, when duty can be so lovely.  And of that, we can be glad.

***

Related posts:

The Best Way to a Kid’s Stomach is through the Heart: How to Use Kids’ Emtions to Form or Deform the Appetite

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

Conventional Wisdom Versus the Truth about Why Kids Won’t Eat their Vegetables

The Inclusive Cavemen: You Gotta Love It

It Doesn’t Matter if She Likes Broccoli, as Long as She Eats It. Or Does It?

Foundations of Appetite Training: 12 Ways children learn to like or dislike healthy eating

October 18, 2011 4 comments

My son, Alex, helping cook in 1995.

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“L’appetit est la conscience du corps” (The appetite is the conscience of the body).

— Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo

Marissa and Jeremy were each born with an appetite — thank goodness! How else would we get babies to eat and thereby stay alive? Each baby cried for milk every few hours and latched on eagerly anytime they got something in their mouths, especially if it turned out to involve milk. They each certainly had a taste for what’s good for them. Each baby thrived.

As Marissa got older, she kept wanting the foods that were good for her. She would eat vegetables, fruit, fish, anything that came her way.

Jeremy, however, though he also kept getting hungry, developed the taste for french fries and candy and began to refuse to eat those good things Marissa continued to like. What happened to Jeremy’s appetite? It started leading him astray. As can happen with the conscience, something went wrong and the appetite quit working the way it should.

With temptations all around — cartoon characters singing the praises of  junk food, bad fats, sugar, salt and starch, artificial colors and flavors, decorations and promises of fun all appealing relentlessly to your child’s tender emotions, naiveté and vulnerable appetite — how can we protect their innocence, that first perfectly functioning appetite for real nourishment?

Training a child’s appetite in favor of healthy foods begins with building a strong foundation on positive feelings.

12 Ways that children develop negative feelings about healthy eating

  1. Chaotic meals.
  2. Being over-controlled, with pressure, scrutiny and hovering at the table.
  3. Conflict at mealtime, or being scolded at the table
  4. Being forced to eat.
  5. Random snacking that causes them not to feel hungry for meals.
  6. Being allowed to eat junk food and acquiring a taste for it.
  7. Having to eat healthy food to get something they want, such as dessert. Studies show that getting a reward or bribe for doing something lessens the desire to do it, and decreases the chances of ever doing it without the reward. In other words, if you get a reward for eating broccoli, you will eat it that time, but you’ll like it even less and be less likely than ever to eat it if there’s no reward offered.
  8. Food used as punishment or being punished for not eating.
  9. Getting lots of attention and reaction for being a picky eater, and being allowed to misbehave because of it.
  10. Being served by a cook who is reluctant or resentful about having to cook.
  11. Exposure to junk food ads.
  12. Celebrations being all about junk food.

12 Ways children develop positive feelings about healthy eating

  1. Orderliness and good habits, including manners, for meals.
  2. Expecting enjoyable meals at around the same time every day.
  3. Coming to the table hungry and seeing and smelling attractive dishes.
  4. Feeling cared for through food.
  5. Being cooked for by someone who enjoys cooking.
  6. Learning interesting facts about food — where it comes from, what it’s like and how it affects the body.
  7. Getting to try a wide variety of foods that taste great.
  8. Being involved in choosing, buying, cooking or growing the food.
  9. A safe environment at the table, where no one is allowed to misbehave or be obnoxious.
  10. Enjoyable conversation, positive attention and good humor at mealtime.
  11. Having free choices about what and how much they eat.
  12. Celebrations around special dishes of healthy, homemade real food.
***

Mom’s Best New Year’s Food Resolution . . .

December 28, 2010 3 comments

RESTRICTING EATING to only the table at specified meal and snack times can improve children's eating in many ways.

. . . and the Top Ten Eating Problems It Will Solve

ARE YOU overwhelmed with the number of things you feel you should change or wish could change at your house starting January 1, 2011? Do you feel hopeless about getting your kids to eat healthier?

What if there were one simple new year’s resolution that you could make that would simplify your life and eliminate several problems at once in a powerful ripple effect?

If you are looking for just one simple way to improve the eating situation at your house, the place to start is with the number one foundational habit of eating: eating only at the table and at official mealtimes.

By establishing this one habit for your family, you can expect to gain considerable mileage:

1.  Picky kids will have a stronger appetite for whatever is served. No random snacking before or after a meal insures hunger for whatever you serve.

2.  Picky kids will become less so because their choices are narrowed if they want to avoid being hungry.

3.  Less argument or bargaining. The rules for when and what they can eat will be clear. If it’s on the table and it’s time to eat, they can have it. Otherwise, no eating allowed.

4.  Turns eating into a privilege: the thing they need to do, but don’t necessarily get to do and therefore want to do, instead of the thing they don’t want to do and are pressured to do.

5.   Not getting to eat is less glamorous for them than having the power to refuse to eat. Suddenly you are in charge instead of them.

6.  You’ll have a bargaining chip on their behavior at the table. If they misbehave, you can send them away from the table. They’ll be hungry, therefore motivated to be civilized.

7.  Their diet will improve as you control the food supply. Instead of eating whatever they want, they’ll have to eat what you want them to eat, or be hungry.

8.  Instead of pushing food on them, which only leads to resistance, you will be restricting their eating, pulling food away from them, which is simple, requires no cooperation on their part, and leads to their taking the initiative for their own eating at the right times.

9.   Food messes will be confined to the table instead of all over the house.

10.  Last but not least, you’ll have a time for getting to know your kids and sharing your life with them.

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Related posts:

11 Ways to Raise a Picky Eater

Push or Pull? When Picky Kids Pick Your Dinner to Pieces

How to force children to eat dinner

December 20, 2010 13 comments

Children should be forced to eat their dinner. Or at least forced to want to eat their dinner, and allowed to eat it.

Many cards and letters have come in asking whether or not children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The short answer is that of course children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The long answer is that they should be forced indirectly, not directly. We need to gently and in all cheerfulness block off all other means of eating and therefore, of survival, so that a child is forced to eat dinner in order to survive. It sounds more brutal than it need be.

The examples of two different little girls will illustrate:

When little Meredith, who is human and growing and therefore tends to find herself hungry every day, wants to eat, she eats. She finds food in the fridge, in the pantry, on the counter. She eats what she wants, when she wants. No one ever tells her not to eat. Goodness knows she needs to eat more, so telling her to stop is out. Her mommy provides the foods Meredith favors and requests, because otherwise she might not eat at all. When it comes time to eat dinner, Meredith isn’t hungry for Mommy’s broccoli and lettuce. So Mommy tries to force her, and makes her eat a few bites before she can get dessert. Meredith objects and even screams, but then eats a few bites so she can have the chocolate cake. When the dessert comes out, Meredith fills up on that. Before bed, she’s a little hungry, so she eats some more cake. Meredith starts over the next day, holding out when necessary to get her own way in various ways, and managing nicely. She survives and doesn’t suffer visibly. Visitors to her house feel awkward and are secretly happy when Meredith leaves the table and goes to watch TV. This is not the scenario of forcing a child to eat that I recommend.

Little Corinna, on the other hand, isn’t allowed to nibble and snack. She gets hungry every day, too, but isn’t allowed to eat anything at all unless she is sitting at the table when her Mommy says it’s time, and behaving.  Mommy holds out to get her own way. When Corinna gets to the table, she is forced to eat dinner, because she wasn’t allowed to eat anything else since snack time.  What choice does she have? She is hungry and finally she’s allowed to eat something. So, she goes along with the forcing with surprising good will.

The forcing is indirect: all other routes to meeting her needs and satisfying her hunger are cut off. She’s denied junk food, she’s denied random snacking. She’s denied food if she throws a fit or throws food or hits her brother at the table. She’s denied food if she complains and fusses at the table or picks at her dinner. She’s denied food left and right. The only food she’s not denied is the food her mommy wants her to eat and when and where and and how her mommy wants her to eat it. No one ever makes Corinna eat anything, and her mommy is sweet and gentle all along. And yet, Corinna is forced to eat her meals, because she has no choice if she wants to survive. The window of opportunity to eat is tiny. It’s narrow and restrictive. So she is forced to eat her dinner, and her lunch and her afternoon snack and her breakfast. It’s the only way she can get anything to eat at all. She doesn’t seem to mind, though. She wants to eat her dinner, every single day, unless she is sick or gets into an untimely snack somehow, because she would starve otherwise. She blandly goes along with her mommy, who never actually threatens to starve her. Corinna is generally cheerful at dinner, no matter what Mommy serves her. She likes all kinds of healthy foods. She’s pretty happy and her mommy is, too. People who find themselves at the table with her find her pleasant. They enjoy her company.

So yes, children should definitely be forced to eat their dinner. How they’re forced, however, is like the difference between trying to shove an alarmed cow into a trailer while leaving all the other gates open, or quietly closing off all escape routes and putting the cow’s dinner, at feeding time, in the trailer, and gently letting them figure it out.

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Related posts:

11 Ways to Raise a Picky Eater

Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle

Why some kids in England ate at school but not at home

November 12, 2010 1 comment

CAN MEALS AT HOME go as well as school lunches? -- photo by Anna Migeon

An English mom, Donna Lovett of Norwich, recently started her “fussy” son, Connor, on school lunches, sure that he wouldn’t eat a thing. She was surprised to see that he loved the school food. He even got into fish and vegetables, she noted. It’s opened the way to serving foods at home she didn’t think were “possible” before.

recent report from The Food Trust in England has revealed that four out of five kids who ate school lunches there started trying new foods at school that they would never have eaten at home. Half of those children also asked their parents to make some of the dishes that they’d tried at school.

This study came out to encourage parents to have their kids eat at the school cafeteria, following an earlier study that revealed that many parents were packing unhealthy lunches for their children, “because they worry that they are too fussy to eat anything else.”  Lunches from home proved to have considerably more sugar, fat and salt in them than a school lunch. Not surprising if kids are dictating the menu.

Unfortunately, there’s a major difference between American school lunches and their English counterparts. In England, schools are required to meet (maybe they do) reasonably nutritious standards (maybe they are).  In any case, school lunches are apparently healthier than the lunches a lot of parents were sending in with their picky kids. “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver succeed in bringing better lunches to English schools, as he tried valiantly to do here, so school lunches probably are considerably better than the average American school lunch.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe parents can do much worse than what most American schools are feeding kids.

Since we in America don’t generally have reasonably nutritious school lunches to leverage in getting our fussy eaters to eat more healthful foods and broaden their minds about eating, what can we American parents do? Can we learn something from the success of the English?

Let’s start by looking at some possible explanations for why Connor is willing to eat all kinds of food at school that he wouldn’t eat at home.

Why did Connor eat better at school than at home?

1.  When Connor found himself at lunch time at school without his narrow range of junky foods that his parents thought was all he liked, and since he was in school all morning and probably hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast, he was hungry. Mom wasn’t there to provide any alternatives to the school food. Crying would get him nowhere, besides being embarrassing. He decided to eat what was available, and discovered that quite a bit of it tasted pretty good. Especially after eating the same junky stuff all the time.

2.  The group dynamic: the other kids were probably eating it, and seemed happy enough, without much discussion.

3. There were more interesting things to talk about at lunch at school with his friends than what he was or wasn’t eating, so he was distracted from his fussiness. His friends weren’t concerned about whether he liked the food or ate it or not or stayed hungry. It was his problem alone, and suddenly not a terribly interesting problem.

4.  Absence of adult pressure and hovering to extinguish their desire to eat. The teachers didn’t care either about what or whether he ate, or how many bites he took. Even if they did care, which is doubtful, they didn’t have enough time to scrutinize and hound all those kids at once. So he figured he might as well eat what he felt like eating, all on his own. There was no one to fight about it with, so what good would it do to be picky? All he’d get out of food refusal would be immediate hunger, and probably the bored looks, or worse, of his classmates.

So how can we recreate the conditions of an English school lunch, at home? How can we make home more like school in ways that will increase kids’ eating of good food?

Related  posts:

Six lessons from the English School Lunch

“Stealth health” or “psychological nudges”? Getting kids eating better

The Codependent Mom: feeding your child’s food addiction

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part II

August 5, 2010 4 comments

This post continues from Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

Four: Keep them from eating: be out doing something fun. Distract them from eating at times you don’t want them to eat. Take them to the park, the library, anywhere where it will be easy enough to keep them away from food.

Then have a meal prepared ahead of time to serve upon arrival, and they will be too hungry to turn it down.

Marlena’s kids would be foraging in the kitchen all afternoon, after not really eating lunch.  So they would spoil their appetite for dinner, thus perpetuating the cycle. They would need a “second dinner” before bedtime, after refusing dinner, in order to stay asleep all night. She decided the only way to stop them would be to get them out of the house.

I know you can’t do this everyday forever, but it can help break a bad cycle and jumpstart change. If outright laying down the law is too much change all at once, this strategy can get you moving in the right direction more gently.

Five:  Do not give them anything to eat after meals when they haven’t eaten enough. This strategy gets more into the tough love area. Let their hunger teach them. The natural consequence of choosing not to eat is hunger. Let them choose to be hungry if they want, or not to eat if they are not hungry. This technique can be used indefinitely, as needed. But it won’t be needed long. Temporary hunger is a perfect teacher, a speedy teacher.

 

Six: Let them serve themselves. Say, “Only take it if you are going to eat it. We all want some and we don’t want to waste it.” Put the value on food.

Marlena’s kids responded especially well to this shift. They liked being in charge of what they ate–who wouldn’t?  And they ate more and stopped misbehaving at the table. Kids, like the rest of us, respond well to being treated as if we are capable and trustworthy. They are perfectly equipped to regulate their own eating if the situation is properly set up.  Like sheep, they only need to be limited and restricted from the wrong eating. Then the right eating is inevitable.

Related post:

How to Motivate Kids to Eat

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 5 August 2010 / All rights reserved