You eat special food, food that no one else in the house eats. You eat alone, while your siblings and parents are off doing chores, watching TV, or playing. When your curiosity and your loneliness get the best of you, and you get out of your chair to see what your family is doing, you are told to get back in your chair until you finish your plate. That plate of food that is unique to you then becomes a punishment. Make it disappear and you can join in the family fun.
Now Picture This:
You eat the same food everyone else eats, and you have, for as long as you can remember. You eat when everyone else in the house is eating. You all eat together, at the table. You talk about your feelings, and what's gone on that day. You commune. It's quality time. The food on your plate has never been strange, because everyone else is eating it and enjoying it. For some families, this is the only time of day when everyone is together, when everyone gets to connect, and what's more enjoyable than eating while you connect?!
The first example is of course, extreme. Most families probably fall somewhere in the middle of the two scenarios. But my hope is to illustrate how a toddler sees our choices around food. When you are an incessently busy parent, getting a nutritious meal on the table is just one more chore, done best with quickness and efficiency. Or, is it? Reworking the culture of food in our homes to include cooking, eating, and cleaning together, as a family, not only increases our own enjoyment of the evening routine, but goes a long way toward converting your once picky eater into a wholesome eater.
You've heard me say before that getting your child to participate in food is a powerful tool in growing a healthy eater. It's much easier to enjoy something that you participated in from the beginning. Have your child, and the whole family, help you cook, set the table, and clean up after the meal. Make dinner a family event. And make it fun! I'm not talking about a list of chores (set the table, chop the cucumber, spin the lettuce) that has to be completed before TV time. I'm talking about the whole family in the kitchen, listening to music, having fun together while making a meal. See my other food participation tips here.
Do not allow yourself to become a short order cook. Cook one meal for the whole family. If you are dealing with a picky eater, be sure you always cook at least one dish you know she likes (not the same one every time). That way she's got something she can rely on for satiation, and other foods she gets to try.
Resist the urge to be emotional about food. Complements to the chefs and sous chefs should be encouraged. However, going out of your way to say "yummmmm" when your toddler takes a bite, is counter-productive. Children are naturally suspicious, so when an adult is over emphasizing the yum factor, they have to wonder why. On the same note, adults and older children should avoid saying "I don't like this" or "I hate such and such food." However, no one should be scolded for saying they don't like a food; just nod and say okay, and move on.
Getting Out Of the Chair:
When to let kids get out of the chair is a bit of an art. What you have to weigh is whether your child has eaten what seems like a fairly normal amount for him, at that time of day. If he has, then let him go - no need to force him to ignore his toddler instincts to play, play, play. This is yet another way to empower your child to make his own food choices, which helps remove the emotional restrictions from food.
If however, he has eaten only a small fraction of what he normally eats, and he just can't wait anymore to play with that shiny new toy that he just got two hours ago, it might be time to keep him at the table. Try a calm but firm reminder that this is his last chance to eat before bed, and you don't want him waking up hungry in the middle of the night. Again, this is about empowering your child with the information needed to make his own good choices. Consider negotiating a few extra minutes after dinner before bedtime to play with that toy, but do not make this a recurring event.
These distraction scenarios are best prevented in the first place, by creating a structured and positive food environment. In the case of the new toy, perhaps when you buy it, buy it in the morning, so he has all day to play with it. Or, buy it 2 hours before dinner, but only after communicating clearly and firmly that the toy will be enjoyed after dinner. And of course, make family meal time enjoyable, so it doesn't feel like torture to him. Consider other situations which may arise that may distract from the dinner table, and brainstorm ways to prevent the distraction, or plan ahead for how best to handle it.
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A food culture to avoid is the one where the toddler eats a few bites, gets up to play, comes back to eat more, leaves to play, and continues this for two hours. A meal is best eaten, warm, with the family, and in one sitting. Breaking the "up, down" habit is much harder than preventing it. In general, once your child has been dismissed from the table, he should not be allowed to return for snacking. If you're wondering how to break the habit, that's mostly a question for a parent coach. You'll need to establish the new rule with firmness and clarity that you the parents are in charge, but you'll need to avoid creating a negative environment around food, and sending him to bed hungry.
Making Sure She's Hungry
Have you ever eaten too many chips and salsa at the Mexican restaurant, and suddenly realized it only after your meal arrived? You end up with a delicious looking piping hot plate of food that you have no appetite for. Often, kids do the same thing. They get hungry in the afternoon and fill up on a monster snack, and then have no appetite for dinner. Watch what, and how much you are giving your child for snack. Also, watch the timing of snack - too close to a meal will almost certainly ruin the meal.
No Magic Bullet
Some kids are more suspicious than others. Some kids have a couple of years of less than ideal habits and ideas around food under their belts. Following my suggestions once or twice will not turn your picky eater into a foie gras connoisseur. However, reworking your family's food culture, while challenging, will, eventually, turn your child into a more adventurous eater and make meal time easier.