This image popped up on my newsfeed yesterday, and it got me thinking.
What food would you refuse to eat? Mine would be oysters. They just don’t appeal to me at all. Never tried them. Don’t want to try them. Couldn’t pay me to try them. If I see someone eating them, I feel a bit queasy. But I’ve never tried them and couldn’t tell you what they actually tasted like.
But it’s ok for me to not like oysters (even though I’ve never tried them). If someone offered me oysters and I said, ‘No thanks’, they’d leave me be.
If they didn’t - if they berated me, punished me, humiliated me, or conversely tried to bribe me or promise me a reward, how would I feel? Embarrassed. Annoyed. Under pressure. Out of control. And probably sick if I ate it.
Now think about a child – maybe your own child - who refuses to eat a particular food (or if they’re anything like mine, refuses a huge variety of food). Who hasn’t tried it, and doesn’t want to. It just doesn’t appeal to them. How is it any different?
Newsflash - it’s not.
If we are free to have likes and dislikes without consequences - even if they’re foods that we’ve never actually tried - then our children should be too.
Plenty of people love oysters. That’s fine for those people. Plenty of people don’t (me included) - and that’s fine for those people too.
It’s not a problem if our children don’t like certain foods. It’s not a problem if our children refuse to try foods that they haven’t tried before.
What is a problem is the way that we might respond to these (very natural and very normal) eating behaviours – and the implications that our responses can have on their future relationship with food are huge.
Force them to eat something? They are not in control of their own food choices and their own appetites. Bribe / reward them with something sweet if they eat their vegetables? Broccoli is something that you force yourself to eat and reward yourself with ice-cream afterwards. Punish them when they don’t eat it? We don’t love them as much when they don’t eat what’s out in front of them. Just as rewarding them shows them that we love them more when they eat food that they don’t want to.
Linking food with emotions (which is what we’re doing when we punish / praise / reward / bribe) comes with its own set of issues – as does labelling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. Foods are not inherently 'good' or 'bad' or 'naughty' - just as we aren't inherently 'bad' or 'good' or 'naughty' if we eat those foods. Food is, quite simply, food. And the consequences of linking food with emotions? Raise your hand if you comfort eat when you’re stressed, angry, or upset. Or if a little voice inside your head berates you when you eat something ‘you shouldn’t’.
So if we don't punish / praise / reward / bribe, how do we approach tricky mealtimes with picky eaters? How do we encourage them to try new foods?
With no pressure, no punishments or rewards, and no consequences - just by leaving them to eat (or not) what they choose. It’s our responsibility to provide the food - just as it’s theirs to choose what and how much to eat from the selection we provide. Eating together as a family can help, as can serving food buffet-style and letting them pick what goes on their plate. If you want to talk to them about what they’ve eaten, try a sports-commentary style: ‘You tried a bit of carrot - what did it taste like?’ And relax – don’t make mealtimes a battleground. Your child isn’t refusing to eat a food to make your life difficult or to give you a hard time.
And newsflash number 2? As your children get older, their tastes will naturally change and they will eat foods that previously they wouldn’t entertain or even actively disliked. We don't have to do anything to encourage this, aside from having a variety of foods available for them to try if they want to.
I know this because this used to be me. I was a 'picky' eater right through until adulthood. Foods that I used to hate or had never even tried? Peanut butter, pepperoni, hummus, feta cheese, mature cheddar, celery, Thai food, Indian food, salmon (to name a few). What changed? My sense of taste and my likes / dislikes in terms of flavours. No-one ever pressured me to eat those things - I just tried them again one day and discovered that actually, I quite liked them.
That being said, I don’t think I’ll ever eat an oyster, but you never know...
written by Sarah Holmes
Director of Marketing and Communications at CalmFamily, and consultant at CalmFamily Jersey
Learn more about toddler eating
Find your local consultant: Find a class
One of the approaches described above is know as DOR (division of responsibility): Division of Responsibility in feeding
'My Child Won't Eat' by Carlos Gonzalez is a fabulous book: My Child Won't Eat
Interview on BBC Good Food with Carlos Gonzalez: What to do if your child won't eat