Thanks again to Melissa who posted this question on my Facebook page.
Want to know how to get your kids to eat what you serve? Don’t teach them that rejecting food is a strategy that works!
Nobody deliberately teaches their kids to reject foods, but sometimes parents do it despite their best intentions.
- All toddlers reject foods periodically. It’s what they do. Consider letting these kids go on strike.
- But I know plenty of kids who practically think it’s their job to reject food. These kids literally scan the table to identify which item or items they’re going to reject. They need something, anything. And they do it everyday. While these kids are motivated by lots of things—i.e. control, the desire to be oppositional—their opinion of the food isn’t one of them.
In my experience, toddlers who habitually reject food, do it in response to 1 of 2 conditions:
- Persistant Parental Pressure — Eat this! Eat more! Eat now!
- Persistent Parental Permissiveness — What would you like? Let me get you something different? What will you eat?
Many parents vascilate between these two extremes.
If you’ve got an habitual rejector—someone who routinely rejects today food that she happily ate yesterday—you’ve got to find the middle ground: an environment that encourages your child to eat what you serve while simultaneously honoring and respecting her natural desire to control some of what she consumes.
Create an environment that encourages your child to eat what you serve.
If you’re struggling to introduce new foods, I’m not addressing that here. Though you need to create the right environment for that to happen too, getting kids to eat new foods is an entirely different subject, best saved for another time. I can’t leave this topic, however, without saying one thing: never make your kids’ sustenance and survival contingent upon consuming something new. In other words, don’t make new foods the centerpiece of a meal; make them an optional extra. Read The Happy Bite and A New Approach to Teaching Tots to Try New Foods.
Now back to the question…
Teaching kids to eat the food you serve boils down to three things:
1) Make sure there is always something on the table that your child can reasonably be expected to eat. What’s a reasonable expectation? Foods your child has eaten and enjoyed on a couple of occasions.
2) Eliminate grazing and eating-on-demand. (We’re talking toddlers, not infants.)
3) Redirect your child’s craving for control so it works for you, not against you.
Step 1: Set up a basic schedule for meals and snacks.
- Eliminate grazing. You want your child to know that food comes at regular intervals. If she doesn’t eat when food is served, she’ll have to wait. A little hunger can go a long way. Read The Upside of Hunger.
- Come up with a basic schedule for meals and snacks so you know when you are going to feed your child. This will help you resist the urge to feed your Regular Rejector whenever she wants. (You don’t have to be rigid about the schedule, however.)
2) Decide what you are going to serve.
- Provide 3 or 4 items at meal and 1 or 2 items for snacks. Every item doesn’t have to be a winner, but do make sure there is something on the table your child normally eats. (Even if she hasn’t eaten that item lately.)
- Consider following the Rotation Rule: don’t serve anything two days in a row (or twice in one day), except for milk. If your child has peanut butter toast for breakfast, don’t offer PB&J for lunch. And pay attention to all the ways in which you serve pizza. Read Pizza, Pizza, Pizza.
The Rotation Rule gets your child used to the idea of eating different foods on different days. This will establish a new routine for your Rejector (and it will lay the foundation for new foods). Read House Building 101.
3) Give your children structured choices as frequently as possible.
Structuring the choices you give your child is the key. Structured choices are different from open-ended choices (“What would you like to eat”) because they limit your child to choices you’ve already approved.
- Question: “Would you like an apple or a banana?”
- Answer: “I want grapes.”
- Your response: “You can have grapes this afternoon. Right now your choice is between an apple and a banana. Which would you like?”
- If your child chooses either an apple or a banana, great.
- If your child has a meltdown: Don’t give in to the tantrum. You’ll be teaching the lesson that tantrums work.
- If your child insists on grapes (or cookies, or yogurt, or anything else): Reinforce the choice options and then remind your child she can have the grapes (cookies, yogurt, etc.) at the next meal or snack, or even the following day. Do this once or twice only. Then end the conversation by making the choice yourself.
- Follow through! “Do you remember that earlier you asked for grapes and I told you that you could have them at snack in the afternoon. Well, now it’s the afternoon. Do you still want the grapes? Or would you like raisins instead.”
Don’t assume your Rejector still wants the alternative he asked for earlier. Check in and offer another choice. Remember, Rejectors like to change with the times.
- Offer as many other choices as possible: “The green cup or the blue cup?” “This chair or that chair?
4) Consider using a backup.
6) Don’t panic if your child refuses a meal or two.
This can be a painful and scary process, but remember:
- You are serving food your Rejector normally likes so you’re not asking for a big stretch.
- You are serving food frequently enough that your Rejector won’t have to stay hungry for too long.
- The calmer you are, the more likely your Rejector will eat what you serve.
- If you’re really worried, you can always move the next snack or meal time up. And if it’s bedtime, you can give your Rejector a small glass of milk.
- Kids need to learn the consequences of their actions.
- Feeding alternatives will only reinforce your Rejector’s resistance.
You’ve got to change the system if you want to change the outcome. Focus on shaping your Rejector’s behavior, not on fixing the food.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~