In the last post I talked about Sensory Sensitivity, a condition where some kids are highly sensitive to some aspect of food — taste, texture, smell, appearance — and rejects anything that is unfamiliar. If you have a child like this you know how challenging it can be to introduce new foods. Most kids, however, don’t have this condition. There’s no big reason behind their likes and dislikes. In fact, when most kids say “I don’t like it” they really mean “I don’t want to eat that food right now.”
Children change what they like and dislike with amazing speed — sometimes right in the middle of a mouthful. I’m sure if you ask around, people will tell you lots of stories about their kids liking things one day, not liking them the second day and then liking them again on the third day. If you have a kid who does this, I’m sure you’ve already figured out that it can’t be taste that influences what he’ll eat.
This kind of erratic behavior about food drives most parents crazy because it keeps them guessing about what their child will or will not eat. But it’s really a blessing in disguise because it signals that you are not entrenched in a food struggle with your child. Instead, she’s just expressing her normal desire to have some influence over what she eats.
Think about it. If you never had a say in what you ate, wouldn’t you put up a fuss now and then? Wouldn’t you sometimes say, “no,” just for the sake of it? I know I certainly would! Especially if I was in a developmental stage where seizing control was my main mission in life.
Small children say they like and dislike things for a bunch of reasons, none of them having to do with like. In fact, a lot of what they’ll eat on any given day is based upon their need for control, or their feelings at the moment, or whether they’ve had an emotion reaction to the item being offered — i.e., it looks yucky.
So what should you do? For starters, don’t take your child’s likes and dislikes too seriously. The softer your approach, the easier things will go. More importantly, though, you don’t want to get it into your head that your child doesn’t like something because then it’s practically impossible to serve that item again. And remember, continued exposure is the key to food acceptance.
Consider why your child doesn’t want to eat something. If it’s a control issue – redirect her need for control into appropriate ways. Give her some say in what she eats. Even 1 year olds can choose between 2 options. Or let her serve herself from bowls (it’s a messy task, but it’s fun!). Or let her choose between the red bowl or the blue bowl. You get my point.
Don’t teach your child that the only way to refuse food is to say she doesn’t like it. “Just try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” can be rephrased, “Try it and tell me what you think.” Actively encourage your child to tell you if she doesn’t feel like eating something, if she would prefer something else, or if she is worried something will be awful. (Of course, if she would prefer something else, you shouldn’t hop up and make it; rather you should reply that she can have that alternative at the next meal. Then follow through.) Give your child alternative words and he’ll use them.
Most importantly, think about this as a key interaction that you need to shape.
Good luck and let me know how it goes.