REDUCE PRESSURE TO RAISE HEALTHY EATERS
Picky eating is a challenge that nearly all parents face. Myself included. From kids who are so distracted with the promise of dessert they rush through dinner, to those who refuse certain foods, full stop. Breakfast skippers, pantry raiders, all-day grazers – we all have our stories, and unique challenges. And, real talk … mealtime mayhem can make even the most unflappable parent want to run away from home.
Often it’s natural instinct to pressure, and persuade. As parents we simply want our children to eat, and grow well. We also carry food rules, and beliefs from our own childhood. This can affect how we approach feeding with our own children. Is anyone reading this from the “Clean Your Plate Club,” too? My hand is up.
But research shows that pressure is ineffective, and even detrimental to a budding food relationship. Pressure is interesting, and complex – it can be negative, positive, sound like good parenting, and downright hard to detect. “Eat your broccoli, or no video game.” “Three more bites, and you can have dessert.” “Good job, you cleaned your plate.” “Chew, chew. Chicken will help you grow big, and strong.” “If you don’t eat now, you’ll be hungry later.” All = pressure.
So, what if we reduced pressure, and tried a different approach? Would mealtime mayhem be reduced too? Could there actually be meals without squeals on the horizon? Wholeheartedly, I believe, and see positive examples every day – my answer is yes.
The good news is a lot of what we perceive as picky eating is simply – normal. All kids, on some level, are choosey when it comes to eating. From a child’s perspective unfamiliar foods can be intimidating.
Friendly broccoli floret → bumpy green villain
Baked chicken strip → impossible-to-chew sock
Colourful harvest soup → not-a-chance goop
Red beans & rice → bugs, and grubs
Can you relate?
Fostering, and growing a healthy relationship with food takes practice, patience, and perspective. To help our kids grow into healthy eating adults we have to find ways to reduce food pressure from high chair to high school. Here are a few simple, but powerful examples.
Practice. Imagine being 8 months old with one adorable tooth. Your Mom helps spoon lunch to your lips, and you enjoy watching her eat, and enjoy food, too. You’re just learning to hold the spoon, and love to eat with your hands. Most of your meal ends up on your lap, and hair but Mom doesn’t complain. There is magic in the mess. She lets you take the lead, helps when you need, and trusts in your ability to self-regulate. Her approach builds your self-esteem, and confidence. You anticipate mealtime as a happy time to play, learn, and share.
Cela Joy practicing her chopping skills, and braving sour lemons.
Patience. Mom blinks, and you’re four. Grandma is visiting, and she’s spent hours preparing a family dinner of traditional foods you haven’t seen before. You sit down with everybody, and your plate looks downright scary. You look to your Dad for guidance, and he smiles. He points to sliced apple to your plate – a familiar, and fun food that you enjoy. This makes you feel a little more relaxed. “Let’s try a bite together, he says. If you don’t like what Grandma’s made – that’s ok.” His calm demeanor reminds you that mealtime is family time, and your “job” is to visit, and behave well. Dinner can be a success with, or without eating. You notice others enjoying their meal, and decide to be brave. Sure enough you like it too! You feel proud of yourself, and appreciate in your own 4-year-old way what it means to be respected, and trusted.
Perspective. At the age of 12 growing independence means you’re making more food decisions on your own. You buy food at school, and prep after school snack without help. Nearly everywhere you go – local arena, shopping center, community playground… you are surrounded by the option of fast, ultra-processed, treats. Navigating these environments is super challenging for everyone, adults, and kids alike. And, real talk 2.0, healthy choices are not always intuitive, or easy to make. But, you have a plan that works for you. Your parents have empowered you to choose up to three treats per week – whenever, and wherever you decide. Essentially when you choose a treat, you spend an imaginary token. This approach is rooted in autonomy, and offers the bonus of perspective. The autonomy to trust, and honour your own hunger, and appetite, and the perspective to appreciate that being a healthy eater is about balance, and a cascade of healthy decisions, over time.
Take a few minutes to identify how you can reduce food pressure in your home. Give it a try. Small changes coupled with a more relaxed, trusting approach may just be the answer. Watch for signs of food joy, and get ready to celebrate meals without squeals.
Emily Mardell, RD
Emily, and daughter, Cela Joy.
Emily Mardell is a Registered Dietitian, Mama-of-two, and owner of Food First Nutrition Consulting. This avid vlogger is the head, and heart behind GetJoyfull; a movement that empowers families to reconnect with food, and each other. For tips, recipes, and inspiration follow @GetJoyfull, and getjoyfull.com.