So my techy husband set up our television at home to function as a digital photo album when the screen is idle (i.e. when my girls aren’t watching Calliou or Frozen for the 20th time). He’s also a photographer so I have the luxury of seeing beautiful family photos cycle through – photos that bring back mostly pleasant early parenthood memories.
Although, the other day I caught a photo that didn’t spark those fond memories in the slightest. It was a picture of Sienna looking unhappy at the table. What you can’t see is her anxious mother (me) sitting nearby and wanting so desperately for her to eat more.
Those were not my happier days.
That photo sucked me in and brought me back to ‘those times’…when I shed tears at the table and truthfully was fearful of mealtimes. I was a foodie and loved to cook/eat but living with a picky eater took the joy out of eating.
It saddens me to think that I spent the better part of time together consumed with getting Sienna to eat better and worried about her nutrition (being a Nutritionist, I knew what she needed). I worked so darn hard trying to expand her appetite and food favourites, but with no real plan…and no real results.
While our wonderful pediatricians were telling us everything was “fine”, my mommy instinct was telling it was not ‘fine’.
Sienna was far from fine (she was so unhappy at meals and not interested in food).
I was far from fine (I was worried and emotionally exhausted from the constant food battles).
I see and speak with so many parents who are in ‘my old shoes’ and I so desperately want to help them get out of those uncomfortable things! Addressing picky eating takes guts and commitment, which is why so many of us avoid making profound changes. Sure we’ll try the one-off tips (some of which can work, or maybe just temporarily) but making lasting changes is daunting for a busy family. So I’m writing this for parents like me (the old me) who resisted the change because it’s ‘easier’ to stick to the same foods and tricks at meals.
It’s easier to sit back and wait for it to pass….or is it?
Why parents should fix picky eating early
1 - The sooner, the better (and easier)
Research shows that the younger the child is, the easier and faster it is to turn eating behaviours around.
Because of their cognitive development, under age 3 a child has a primitive stress response vs. making a mental decision to avoid eating. After the the age of 3 they start to worry about what will happen in the future at a basic level (i.e. if it made me feel bad last time, will it happen again?). They are more apt to employ the fight or flight response by screaming or running away, refusing foods, and taking the path of least resistance by only eating easiest foods (i.e. packaged foods, sweets, etc).
If your child is 5, 6 or 10 it doesn’t mean it’s too late. The changes may just not happen as quickly as it would for a child who is younger.
2 - Stress is unhealthy (for everyone)
Life is stressful. Work, traffic, and finances all keep our anxiety levels high. Some acute stress is healthy and totally ok. It’s the chronic stress we need to address. Like the anxiety that ensues at most dinners, when you bust your butt to make a meal and your child says “no” AGAIN. Or when you’re worried about whether he’s getting enough iron or too much processed foods.
The constant stress is unhealthy.
- Our immune system is immobilized which means we get sick more often. “The steroid [stress] hormones reduce activity in parts of the immune system, so that specific infection fighters (including important white blood cells) or other immune molecules can be repositioned.”
- Stress reduces digestive activity, a body function that is not essential during short-term periods of hard physical work or crisis. Without optimal digestion our bodies can’t absorb essential nutrients – including the ones children are most often deficient in like iron and zinc (also the nutrients responsible for a healthy appetite).
- Stress kills appetite. Using the good ol’ analogy of being chased by a tiger…the body reacts similarly when under stress. Adrenaline spikes so we can run from the tiger as fast as possible. When adrenaline is high our appetite crumbles (why would we want to grab a bite while running for our lives!). Well, when we’re nudging our kids to ‘have one bite’ or they can sense our discontent with their eating, it can make our little ones feel stressed too. They want to please mommy and daddy so doing otherwise is upsetting.
- Children are actually frequent victims of stress because they are often unable to communicate their feelings accurately. Especially communicating their responses to things they have no control of (like what is for dinner or being urged to try a new food).
3 - Lasting impact on food preferences later.
Both in a good and bad way.
The good way: With the right mealtime environment, parental involvement and exposure to foods, 75% of kids grow out of picky eating. I’m simplifying here as there are other variables, but these are the biggies.
The not so good way: With the wrong mealtime environment, parental involvement and exposure to foods, 25% of kids do not grow out of picky eating.
For instance, the long-term effects of pressuring children to eat certain foods can result in avoiding that same food as adults.
A study published in the 2002 issue of Appetite surveying college students showed that 70% said they had experienced forced-food consumption during childhood. When asked if they would now eat the food they were forced to eat in childhood, 72% said they would not. The researcher’s explanation is that when a child finally gives in and eats something he doesn’t want to, he “loses” and the parent “wins.” So later in life, when he can freely choose the food on his own, he chooses to “win.” - Source
I also have lingering ‘food challenges‘ from my younger years which are quite mild. But for others, the way they grew up with food
4 - Obesity stats are scary.
Many kids gravitate to nutrient-lacking foods such as processed carbohydrates and sugar-laden snacks. They are easy to eat and a quick source of energy. So it’s easy for parents to leverage these foods as a prompt to get kids to eat more/better (i.e. saying they can only have a cookie if they try their beans).
It’s starts as a one-off strategy and, before we know it, it becomes THE strategy. It’s the best way we can get a bite in. They expect the dessert and end up having a ‘treat’ more often than we’d like. And more often than they need. Foods that do not promote health for our little ones.
The rise in children’s health issues and obesity are motivation in itself to make changes.
I have a sweet tooth myself so I’m the last one to bash desserts, but there’s a time and a place. Especially for little ones who are still developing their understanding and love for foods. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to rely on sugary treats to help our kids eat?
We can put our kids on the best path by changing how we feed them – today.
5 - Eating should be FUN, right?!
We eat 3 meals a day and 2 snacks. That’s about 3 hours of mealtimes that end up being unpleasant for many families.
Meals are meant to be a social time for famililes to connect over food. This is incredibly important to me, as a foodie with an Italian heritage (who covets our get togethers which ALWAYS involve eating). I would be so disheartened if my kids disliked eating and sitting with me at the table. It’s my happy place and I would love for it to be theirs too.
Yes – There are a ton of tips out there (I know because I tried a lot of them)…BUT there’s a difference between trying ANY thing vs. trying the RIGHT things to help our kids.
Yes - Picky eating is a phase for most kids…BUT for 1 in 4 children, it persists into their adult years.
So we can sit back and wait/hope for the phase to pass quickly. Or we can be proactive (and effectively reactive), by ‘fixing’ it now by making lasting changes at mealtimes.