This might explain childhood pickiness at the table.

I grew up in a house where you ate what was on your plate or else. Which meant I spent a good deal of time staring at the brussel sprouts on my plate.  I would try everything I could to get them down. Take a bite, hold my breath and swallow with a large glass of milk. Swallow it whole. Stare at it for hours hoping for maternal mercy. None of it helped. It always made me gag and still does on most occasions.

My mom to this day is adamant she never served brussel sprouts. This I know is not true! Being that brussel sprouts taste something like broccoli on steroids my mom’s out dated rule ruined me for broccoli too. A dish I love, love, loved until the brussel sprouts battles began.

According to an article I found on the LA Times my lack of love for these cute little lettuce heads is due to genetics. Apparently some people taste bitter better than others.

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Considering I was always an eager eater as a child the stance my mom took wasn’t just utterly ineffective, it was unwarranted. The 9 year old knew this, but why didn’t my mom?

Here are some unauthorized tips and observations on how to deal with children and meal time. What could I possibly know about it? Well, besides having very clear memories of my own childhood experience, I have also had the privilege of working as a childcare “pro”-ha ha ha, for the majority of my adult life. So here it goes…

First thing I would like to mention. When referring to children try and think back to how you experienced the world at their age. Your childhood experience will help you. We seem some how to forget how we were and thought at their age. We also underestimate children and their abilities largely due to the fact they have a difficult time articulating their thoughts.  So be reflective, but be very careful not to project your childhood insecurities on to them. Children as adults are all individual.

Taste Buds

Children aren’t born with all of their taste buds fully functioning. Their tastes buds develop and change as they grow older, so what they may not like at 5 they may love at 10. Thus pulling a MY MOM on them and making a food they don’t like into a battle of wills will only hinder them from ever liking the food in the future even after the taste buds have grown into it.

Sweet vs Savory

This is a take it or leave it theory. Kids love sweet. We all know that. When starting a child onto solids keep them on the vegetable/savories for awhile before introducing the sweet foods. They will then develop a liking for the savories that will be less likely overpowered by the love for sweet. Quite likely the battle to get your baby to eat more than the banana puree will be easier won.

Presentation

Children in many ways react much the same way as adults do. The difference is they can’t articulate it. How overwhelmed do you not feel when someone puts a plate piled to overflowing in front of you? Food you like food you don’t. You know the Mamacita squeezing your cheeks and insisting you need fattening up. Well, children presented with a plate filled with adult portions will just feel overwhelmed. And what happens when we feel overwhelmed? We generally procrastinate or just plain don’t even begin. The child may not be able to say it’s too much, this is daunting. They will just refuse to eat. Even if you say eat what you can they will still be held up.

When making a plate for a child use child portions. You can always give them seconds! This also gives you an opportunity to teach your child how much is appropriate to eat at one sitting. Seconds are fine thirds are too much.

Personal experience: I have spent years working in family homes. More times than I can count I have seen 3 year olds presented with large portions even for an adult. They begin to eat but soon give up and decide give me the dessert or let me go play. Parent’s/caregiver (everyone makes this mistake) want them to eat more and nag at the 3 year old. Sound familiar?

Here is a simple trick. When you want your kids to eat a bit more DON’T argue with them. Make it more achievable for them. Slide the food to one side of the plate. Then slide a few small bites of what you deem most important for them to eat to the other side of the plate in very small portions. All you need to say is here you can manage this. More often than not the child will agree to the deal. You can often sneak in a couple more small portions as they finish them up. Or the kids just plain realizes they are hungrier than they thought. Trying to argue your child into eating is not a place to go.

Arguing over food

This is not where you want to end up. You will lose! The one thing children can control is how much food enters their mouth. They learn very quickly that they can exercise control over their parents, the situation by refusing to eat. It’s a power play and they will win. This might sound crazy, but ignoring their refusal to eat will lead to them eating better and sooner than it will if you engage in a power struggle.

Yes, you want them to eat at the table with everyone else. But, once you start this dynamic you will be hard pressed to end it. Every dinner will become a battle of wills. So have faith. Your child will get hungry and realize that eating at the table is preferable.

If they do ask you for food after they skipped their meal. Offer them the same food they got served to start. Don’t force them to eat it. Don’t force a child to eat anything they hate. You can even offer them a sandwich. BUT DO NOT make them a custom designed meal of thier choosing. You choose the meal. They choose whether or not to eat it. The point is to feed them without making a production of it either at the table or later on when hunger gets the best of them. If you goo goo and ga ga over them when you give them food after the dinner they will start aiming for that. Your aim is to get food into them period. Then to get food into them at the dinner table.

I have seen many, many children refuse to eat causing their parents all manner of worry. And in all cases, except one, the child ate just fine and with out complaint when the parents weren’t around. And in all cases when at the table the parent’s spent the entire meal talking about how their child wasn’t eating and oh what do we do, please eat can’t you eat. What are we going to do honey? How much do you think we should ask him to eat this time. Then proceeding to tell the rest of us at the table how little their child eats. This gives the child attention, unwanted attention, that reinforces the unwanted behavior. Kid’s learn very early on how to trigger their parents. They don’t differentiate between good or bad attention. Just attentions is their aim. So, again this situation is more often than not a control issue. And funnily the parents almost always refuse to believe that their child did in fact eat when they weren’t around. If I haven’t seen it it doesn’t happen. Get over it and trust in what people tell you.  Children do act differently around their parents than with others.

Hint 1: Letting toddlers make a mess while they eat as they feed themselves will give them a sense of control and they will be more interested in food and eating. They will also learn how to use their utensils faster. Just come to accept that a mess will be made. Getting all stressed about it and trying to grab the spoon out of your kids hand to save a mess is only going to make feeding time stressful and that will carry over. Buy a plastic table cloth and put it under their chair for easy clean up later. Get them some full body smocks for them to eat in or strip them down to diapers. They are small children they aren’t meant to handle the mess yet. That comes later and sooner if you give them a bit of freedom from the beginning.

Hint 2: Serve your baby/toddler the same food you eat, just cut it into appropriate sizes. Mashed up baby food while convenient isn’t  going to provide them with the variety of flavors your food will. The more variety they are exposed to at a young age the easier it will be to expose them to new flavors later on.

Hint 3: Get your child to help you cook. See below

Forcing a child to eat foods they hate…

..as I have already said will not get them to like it. In fact it will leave a long lasting mark on their taste buds. If they are eating everything else on their plate who cares. And if sibling complains, but why don’t they have to eat it. Just say cause they don’t like. Just like you don’t like… However, I usually have a rule that says you need to at least taste it. Especially if it is something new they are skeptical of. If you don’t force your kids to eat things they hate they can trust this rule. They know they can taste it and hate it and not be punished with it.

Snacks

Just like with us adults if  a child’s blood sugar drops they will get grumpy and impossible to deal with. Children need snacks, snacks that will help keep their blood sugar at an even level. Not white bread, not ice cream… Even if your child comes in to you an hour before dinner and asks for a snack you should give them one. The whole don’t ruin your dinner….A small snack will not ruin their dinner. They key is to not let them go wild. KEEP THE SNACK SMALL. If  a child gets too hungry eating will become difficult for them. How do you feel when your blood sugar drops. Well ditto that for children.

Temper tantrums at the table.

This is a sign of I want attention and as long as I am having a fit everyone is looking at me. It’s a hassle and you want to eat. But, if you just take the child away from the situation and sit with them for a few minutes (no games or playing, just sit) until they calm down and realize they are no longer the billing act. They will calm down and want to go back to eat. That is when you say ok, but now it’s time to use our table manners. You may have to rinse and repeat, but it will eventually work and dinner will go from being a nightmare to pleasant.

Have your child help you cook

By getting your child involved in the cooking you will find they will be more interested in eating the food. BUT! Even better this will be a time for you to spend quality time with your child/children even the smallest one.

If you have more than one child divide the cooking up. Give them salad duty. One to rip the lettuce into small pieces and the other to shred the carrot for example.

This is also a great time to teach your children the importance of good nutrition. I sound all hippy and overachieving, but honestly when I had 6 siblings running around my feet arguing, fighting over toys, you know the drill, I came to the conclusion I could get dinner ready faster by involving them than I did by getting interrupted every 2 minutes to break up the arguing and fighting. On occasion I would say not today. Today it’s my turn in the kitchen and they would accept that too. The kids learned to cook and to respect the dangers of the kitchen and we had fun doing it.

And in all things child. Be consequent!

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