What happens when you pair a health-conscious, vegan mother of two who has her own diet business with a husband and children who sometimes have other ideas? This blog is a chronicle of my journey to eat and live in a life-affirming way!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Picky Eaters: Just What to Do???

I was interupted by a loud scream this morning coming from the kitchen! As I ran in, my daughter started saying that something smelled just awful and she just could not stand it. I looked around taking in everything that I had layed out for breakfast- exekiel bread with almond butter, glasses of orange juice and then I found the culpret... a bowl of sliced banana! What, might you ask, is wrong with sliced banana? Well, my 7 year old daughter hates fruit!

Most of us have picky eaters in our family and the question is how to eliminate the mealtime food battles and make mealtime a pleasant affair! Proper nutrition is one of the most important influences on your child's well-being and affects every aspect of their development. It affects how they feel during the day, how well they can pay attention and how much information they absorb in class, how much energy they have, how well they play at sports and how well they interact with others.

We all want the best for our children and it is important to do what we can to improve our children's nutrition. The eating patterns our children develop in childhood will greatly influence, if not determine, their eating habits and overall health later in life. The earlier we encourage healthy choices for our child the better!

First let me say it is totally normal that your child is a picky eater and, as a parent, you should not beat yourself up if your child only scarfs down pizza or anything "white" and insidiously refuses to eat any sort of vegetable! According to a study led by Dr. Lucy Cook from the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London and published in the American Journal of clinical nutrition, our children’s eating habits are 78% genetics, and only 22% environmental.

Give up the parental guilt. We are all born with a predisposition towards and an aversion against certain foods. These rejections of new and unrecognizable foods at one time served as a protective mechanism in the wild. Dislike of bitter foods, for example, may stem from the fact that most poisons taste bitter. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say "we give up" or feel that we are not empowered to make changes.

Here are a few very helpful strategies I recommend to make mealtime easier and more enjoyable and to have your children start developing good eating habits. The earlier you start the better!

My number one rule is Serve one meal. Stop being a "short order cook" in your own house and make one meal for your children (and ideally you) to sit down and eat together. There is one person very close to me whose youngest daughter only eats a specific type of white pasta with a specific type of margarine and another child who only eats pizza and yet another who subsides on pb&j crackers. Serving each young person in the house with a tailor made meal does not serve anyone's interests. The child loses because they don't get proper nutrition and you lose because you are exhausted and worn out and feel like you are always trying to jump through hoops to make everyone happy. Obviously, you won't serve your child peas if you know he truly hates them but otherwise dinner is dinner.

Don't get emotional. If the child refuses to eat or is "not hungry", don't be upset. Just cover the meal up and save it for later. If the child becomes "hungry" later they can be offered this. It goes without saying no dessert until the child eats their dinner. You might have some whining at first but once they know you are serious and mean business, they will take what you are saying seriously as well. Believe me, your child will not starve and you are not depriving your child of anything by being firm with them eating a nutritious meal. Do not let your concerns about eating become a power struggle. If you end up introducing foods in a confrontational way you and your child will be locked in a power struggle. Mealtime should be about connecting with each other as a family. Serve your dinner then sit down and eat. Do not comment on whether they have or have not eaten something. When mealtime is a pleasant time where the family is together, children will be more open to eating healthy foods.

Encourage (but don't force) your children to try new foods. Don't offer bribes or rewards for eating but do explain how what they put in their bodies will determine how they perform in school20and sports, look and feel. My next goal with my children is to get them eating salads and we have implemented a star chart in our household with specific rewards for progress. So far, so good.

Try serving a new food over and over again. The key here is to remain calm and emotionally detached from your frustration if they refuse it. Studies have shown that children naturally reject new foods but the more you serve a food the more likely they will eat it. In my house anytime we go a period of time without salmon and I serve it they complain that they don't like it. When I begin serving it several times a week they begin to love it again! Do not take it personally.

Model behavior for them. This is a very important, often overlooked point. Children will be open to eating what they see their parents and other siblings eat. Eat with your children whenever possible and, if you do eat later, at least sit with them and catch up on their day. Talk to your children about nutrition. We often think that our children "tune us out" when we tell them that there is vitamin c in orange juice that helps build up our immune system and fight illness, iron in broccoli that makes us strong and good at sports or beta-carotene that strengthens our eyesight.

Do not harp but do explain why you make certain food choices and why you cook healthy foods for them. The earlier we begin talking to them about what makes their body strong, their brains smart, and what makes them feel good, the better choices that they will make. Believe me, your children are listening!

No snacks (including drinks) 3 hours before mealtime. This is a tricky because if your children are like mine and they come home from school ravenous and cranky you need to give them something but you don't want to ruin their dinner. My suggestion is to give them something light like an apple, or a cup of yogurt and something to drink right when you pick them up but then do not allow any more until dinner. We always have a crudite plate on the kitchen counter and a full fruit bowl on the kitchen counter when the kids run in from school. If your children are getting too hungry you might need to move up dinner hour a bit so they don't eat too much on a snack then refuse dinner then be hungry at bedtime- not a good pattern. When your kids are ravenous, they will be ready to come to the table and eat and they will be more likely to eat what is put in front of them.

Have a plate of crudite on the counter for everyone to snack on- carrot sticks, broccoli and other raw vegetables with dip and allow them (and you!) to munch o n those while you cook! Establish mealtime routines. Eat at the same time and the same place everyday. Young bodies will get into a pattern of eating and when they are in a good eating pattern everyone is more likely to come to the table hungry and ready to eat.

Shop with your kids. Encourage your child to help chose and shop for meals so that they will become invested in them. In our family we go to Whole Foods on the weekends and the children always get excited to try all the samples and we always leave with them wanting to choose a new food. A word to the wise, do not take them to a regular grocery store where they will exposed and tempted by a lot of junk food! Those kind of trips are always a nightmare! Cook with your children. I always cook with the children whenever possible. One of our favorite things to do together is to make pizza. All it takes is whole wheat flour, olive oil, and a little yeast to make a healthy, delicious dough then we top on tomato sauce and lots of cheese. We bring out any vegetables that we have and the kids make faces on the pizza- broccoli hair, carrot mouths, pea eyes. It is a fun activity and the children always gobble up their creations.

My final rule- everything in moderation. It is ok (and mentally healthy) for them to have french fries or chicken nuggets every now and then, or an ice cream as a treat during the week as long as they know that, while these treats are yummy and delicious and ok to have every once in a while, they are not necessarily healthy.

So, what are we doing with our daughter, you might ask, nothing for now. We are making sure there is a full fruit bowl on the kitchen counter at all times, encouraging her to try new fruits and not making a big deal of it. So far she is eating oranges and occasionally will take a bite of apple so we are moving in the right direction- but, definately no bananas!

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