Food For Thought (Part 2)

I’m going to share here a story I tell a lot of people: that for my mother, trying to force me to eat wasn’t a success. We could have sat at the table forever, and I still wouldn’t have eaten those vegetables. I was probably a picky eater then. I’ve remained a picky eater since. But my mum was one of those parents who believed you were going to eat what she fixed…and the portion she served up.

So we had this ongoing routine where she’d put the vegetables on my plate and I wouldn’t eat them. If she’d thought about putting that food into the refrigerator and bringing it out again like that scene in the movie Mommy Dearest, she would have!

And I can still see it so clearly because there I’d be sitting refusing to eat my vegetables, and everybody else would finish and leave the table. The whole family would clear the table, clean the kitchen, go into the living room and sit down to watch TV. I’d hear them laughing and talking and I would still be at the table not eating the food. Eventually, my mother would be the one to give in, and she’d be so angry because she couldn’t MAKE me eat what she told me to. I couldn’t have dessert, but I was okay with that. I’d already worked out that for me, it was more important to not be controlled. I was willing to sacrifice dessert just so I could retain a sense of being able to be in charge of what I would or wouldn’t eat.

All of which is a way of illustrating the theme of this blog, which is Part 2 of a discussion about how to deal with fussy eaters and problems around eating. (You can read Part 1 here.)

It’s a pretty fundamental human desire, to want to be in charge of what we eat. It’s as natural for a child as it is for an adult, but sometimes that’s a challenge if, for example, all a child wants to eat is ice-cream.

When it came to getting me to eat my vegetables, my mother just didn’t have the skills to do something different, or to rethink that situation. I’m sure she felt that she’d lost and I’d won when she couldn’t force me to do things, especially when it came to eating. (As for me, it created a situation where vegetables and I didn’t get on for a long time. Although as I always tell people, eventually I got hungry enough while I was at college to try some new foods. But the real point is it wasn’t just damaging to my relationship with food. It was damaging to my relationship with my mother, and to her relationship with me.)

In the first part of this blog, I talked about parents trying to force kids to eat. Now let’s talk about the other extreme, where parents just let a child eat whatever they want, whether it’s sweets or a whole new meal or fast food when something else has been prepared.

When parents acquiesce because it appears to solve the problem at the time, it’s a quick fix. The parent thinks — or sometimes they don’t really think, they’re just reacting because they’re busy and stressed — that if they just give in and let the child have a piece of candy or cake, or take them to the drive-through, then the child will stop all that fussing, and screaming, and whining, and pouting and all the rest.

Or maybe the parent becomes a short-order cook. Mum or dad only just sat down at the table after having fixed dinner, and their child is insisting that they won’t touch it and want their favourite meal fixed instead. (And it can be double trouble if you have more than child expecting this.)

Before you know it, the parent and the child get into a habit. Now every time, or maybe most times, when the child whines and screams, the parent kowtows to their wishes because it seems easier.

A parent may find it hard to recognise that they’ve effectively reinforced the exact behaviour they didn’t want. And now they’re frustrated with it.

Meanwhile, the child is simply doing what they’ve learned works, because they don’t know any different.

Whether parents are defaulting to either the “eat it or else” or “let me get what you want, instead” reaction to food fussiness, it comes down to them wanting to eliminate the problem in the immediate, short term—in the moment—but without realising it’s going to lead to frustration and more problems in the long run.

What many experts won’t tell you is that this parenting thing is going to require attention, time and consistency in order to actually change a situation and to teach a child new behaviours and skills.

And you’re the one who kick-starts the process by learning new behaviours and skills and ideas.

There might be some ways you can reach middle ground at meal times such as:

  • Having a rule that kids have to at least try something when it’s offered (remembering that new foods may need to be introduced gradually and offered again at different times, because kids’ tastes change as they grow).
  • Offering several vegetable or salad items and letting each person choose their portion size.
  • Encouraging kids to discover and mix flavours such as spices and seasonings, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, herbs etc to make salads and vegetables more palatable.
  • Having parents and adults role-model good eating habits by also trying new or different foods.
  • As children grow older, having some simple healthy alternative options they can fix for themselves if the family meal isn’t to their liking.

All of these things relate to creating some rules and boundaries, while being fairer and more inclusive of your child’s feelings, tastes and choices. It’s about creating the right balance, so both parents and children feel empowered about food and eating.

Regarding bigger issues of power and control, and things like the social aspects of eating a meal together or behaviour at the dinner table and encouraging children to cooperate…well, that’s a whole other blog, but please talk to your Triple P provider if you feel you’d like more help in these areas.