Fussy Kids, Power Struggles and Simplifying Family Meals

Health

I felt like I hit a new low last week.

After making my son a delicious, kid-friendly dinner, a meal I would have dreamed of as a four-year-old, he smiled and ever so politely said “No thank you Mum, I want pizza. Pizza is the best kid’s food.”

When I broke the news that we didn’t have any pizza, my resourceful little negotiator suggested that I order takeaway pizza. Seriously, I thought. Is this what it’s come too?

We’re a health conscious family. I believe food is the best medicine and strive to eat as cleanly as possible.

But, I do remember how it felt to carry the label of being the “fussy” kid. I remember the shame I internalized as a child. I remember the butterflies in my tummy when away from the safety of home and a strange looking meal was placed in front of me.

I’m committed to supporting my son as he develops a healthy relationship with food, as he finds the courage to step beyond his comfort zone and try new foods. I strive be patient and compassionate but I find it challenging when it feels as if he ate a wider variety of food as a two-year-old than he does as a four-year-old.

The difficulties surrounding food seem to trigger me like nothing else as a mother.

Why is that? If I’m being honest, when my son eats healthy food I feel like a success. I feel like a good mother. On the flip side, when he doesn’t I feel like I’m failing him.

Or, could it be more than that? Dr Shefali Tsabury, author of The Conscious Parent, says that we’re destined to be triggered by our children. These tiny Zen masters we share our lives with are our best teachers; they have a knack for churning unresolved issues from our past in profound and elemental ways.

And so perhaps, the actions of my perfectly normal, yet cautious and inquisitive son can heal the wounds I bear from being labelled the “fussy” child, if only I can find the courage to embark on this journey with him.

So, how do we do that? How can we find the balance between supporting our kids to step outside their culinary comfort zones, while being respectful, avoiding power struggles and honoring the fact that it is their decision what goes into their little mouths?

I asked one of my favorite naturopaths, Jessica Donovan, founder of Energetic Mama, that very question. Here is what she had to say.

How can we, as parents, make sure our kids are getting adequate nutrition if they don’t eat a wide variety of foods?

A great place to start with young kids is to look at what they already enjoy eating and add more nutritious ingredients to it. If your child loves pancakes, how about adding some flaxseed meal to the batter and topping them with antioxidant rich blueberries. If your kids enjoy cheese pizza add some grated vegetables to it. If they eat boxed cereal for breakfast, try sprinkling over some chopped almonds and walnuts. This approach helps kids get used to new tastes and textures while eating food they enjoy.

Can you explain your “This is what we’re having for dinner approach”?

One of the biggest mistake I see parents make when it comes to feeding their kids is preparing multiple meals to suit everyone in the family. This approach may prevent conflict at the dinner table but long term it narrows a child’s food horizons. You will never broaden a child’s food horizons by asking them what they want for dinner every night.

Children need to be encouraged to try different foods by being served what the family is eating. Having said that, I never recommend forcing kids to eat their dinner, but to instill an expectation they will try at least some of what is put in front of them (just as there is an expectation they will go to bed at night or have a bath).

As difficult as it may be at times, try to have a neutral attitude towards what your kids do and do not eat but make it clear that they will not be offered anything else as an alternative. And if you have a fussy eater make sure there is at least one thing you know they will eat on their plate.

Is it good to give kids some choice in what they eat though? 

Of course, not giving your children an endless choice in what they have for dinner every night doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t have a say in what the family is eating.

In fact, I encourage parents to get their kids involved in their food journey. If kids have been involved in the creation of a meal, whether it was planting herb seedlings and taking care of them, picking out the vegetables at the market, chopping, mixing, cooking or serving the meal they will be more interested in eating it.

But, don’t lose hope if your kids don’t eat what they help create – all exposure to new foods, including touching, smelling and even playing with different foods is a step towards them accepting more new foods in the long term.

 

Image credit to the talented Lea Wienard | Instagram: @mamaleancee

If you could suggest one changing one habit to help reduce fussiness, what would it be?

Modern families are busy. Parents work late and a lot of kids have busy schedules so it isn’t realistic to think that the whole family can sit down and eat meals together every single day. What I will say though is kids who sit down to family dinners are less fussy and more likely to eat what is put in front of them.

All too often, kids are getting their dinner plonked down in front of them while they are watching television and mum or dad go off to get the chores done. I recommend at least one parent sitting down with the kids to eat at least one meal a day.

The more meals you can enjoy with your kids the better, but I like to set realistic goals for busy families. Turn off the television, remove all technology and talk. Enjoy each other’s company. Meal times are the perfect time to check in with your kids, to find out how there day was and to tell them what you’ve been up to.

Do you recommend offering the same food over and over again?

Children often grow to like foods so don’t stop putting broccoli on their plate just because they say they don’t like it. Serve up a little bit of everything and encourage them to taste it.

Try serving foods in different ways. Your children may not like steamed pumpkin but may love pumpkin soup. Take notice of the kinds of textures your kids like and try to replicate those textures with vegetables. Soups, raw vegetables, stir fries, roast vegetables and grated vegetables all have different textures and your kids will most likely prefer some over others.

How can we get more veggies into our kid’s diets?

I’m sure you’ll agree that dinner time is the most challenging time when it comes to fussy kids. Kids are often tired at this time so it isn’t the ideal moment to ‘put the pressure on’ for them to eat their veggies.

The answer to easing the veggie pressure at dinner time is to serve your kids veggies earlier in the day. Perhaps they can have a tomato, spinach and cheese omelet for breakfast, some raw veggie sticks in their lunchbox and a green smoothie in the afternoon.

If they’ve already eaten a good range of veggies during the day, you will feel more at ease at dinner time and this can make a huge difference to the way you react to the ‘yuck’ comments at dinner!

What do you suggest when your child asks you to order takeout pizza for dinner or to have cookies for breakfast?

Kids will eat what is available to them, so if the kitchen is stocked with white bread, crackers, chips and lollies then that is what they will eat

On the other hand, if there is an array of fruits, vegetables, nuts and other healthy foods on hand their food choices will change. If your kids are used to having lots of convenience foods at their disposal there is likely to be some “there’s nothing to eat” complaints to deal with as you transition to a healthier kitchen.

But, it’s worth it because once they’re equipped with some fresh food skills they’ll be well on their way to a lifetime of healthy habits.

Developing healthy eating habits in your kids requires a long term approach and most kids go through a fussy eating stage. Take it easy on yourself, try your best and implement these strategies to help ensure it is simply a ‘stage’ and not a long term problem.

FINDING A PEACEFUL APPROACH TO NUTRITION

As a gentle parent, it can feel impossible to avoid falling into the trap of coercing our children into eating healthy foods. After all, we spend hours sifting through kid’s cookbooks and preparing nutritious meals only to be met with resistance.

But, therein lies our challenge.

Our children need us to be their guides. To give them the opportunity to try new things and to educate them on healthy ways to care for their bodies.

But, all we can do is guide. It is our children’s responsibility to decide what to eat and how fast they will progress on their journeys.

For me, focusing on the positive makes all the difference when I start to feel like a failure. When my son’s politely says “no thank you mum” to a healthy dinner, I need to remind myself that he ate a healthy breakfast. And that while he won’t eat avocado and spinach alone, he throws them into the blender with unbridled enthusiasm for his daily green smoothie.

What tips can you share for helping your kids choose healthy food options? What is your favourite kid-friendly meal or snack?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Donovan

Jessica Donovan is a mama of two, naturopath and holistic health expert who helps families thrive. She is the founder of the website Energetic Mama and is passionate about educating parents on nourishing their children with real food, helping to boost their health and heal naturally. Jessica combines her deep naturopathic knowledge with a realistic, empathetic, inspiring and down to earth approach to empower women to look after themselves and take charge of the wellbeing of their families.

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COMMENTS
  • June 26, 2017
    Megan

    My daughter ate no fruit and veggies, except potatoes and grape or cherry fruit leathers, between the ages of 2 and 13. This meant no pizza either as that had tomato sauce (no hiding anything in pasta sauce either). Smoothies – no she did not like yogurt. The doctor suggested popcorn for fibre – no she did not like popcorn. She did not even like fruit flavoured candy or jam! She lived off of meat,potatoes, bread, cheese, plain pasta and milk. She is turning 20 next month and now eats wide variety of everything! Last week she made chick pea curry and kale is one of her favourite vegetables. I too was a picky eater (and still have my dislikes), I never forced her to eat anything (as I was as a child), I made sure there was always something plain that she liked on the table, and didn’t make too big a deal about it. Peer pressure and body image were actually beneficial with a group of healthy, athletic and a few vegetarian friends she found her own way on her own timeline to a healthier diet. There is hope!!

  • June 26, 2017
    Lucie

    When reading the first part of the article, 2 things came straight into my mind; those two were covered fully in Jessica’s second and third answers. I like us to eat fairly healthily, but I am not as “natural” as I’m sure a lot of readers are. But the important things for me are that the kids have some say in planning our weekly meals, and preparing them, and that once we have planned what we’ll eat, that’s what we’ll eat; nothing else is offered. For example, when making the shopping list, we might say “let’s have a pasta salad one day this week”. The kids suggest what they’d like in it. If no vegetables appear in their ideas, I suggest some, and we agree on some. Then they help prepare it, and they eat it fine. I’ve never had a problem with fussy eating, and I know that this is partly luck! But I swear by the techniques above. Also I agree with keeping offering food they have previously rejected. For years my daughter picked the chickpeas out of her curry, but now she eats them. Same with peppers; it started with “Mum, if I eat my peppers, can I not eat the aubergine? I REALLY don’t like aubergine…”!

  • June 27, 2017
    Ilka

    Good article! I’ve found a few things which make mealtimes much easier for me personally: Have at least one component in each dinner which I’m sure my son will eat. If he only eats the chicken one night, that’s fine. Also, meal planning has been a life saver for me! And with that I mean the same type of meal (food theme) each night of the week, but variations of this meal. Such as stir fry each Monday, pasta each Tuesday etc, but then make different kinds of these dishes. Helps me to plan & shop (budget!) and my son knows what is for dinner. If he can help prepare it, even better. 🙂 There is lots about that type of meal planning on The Kitchn blog.

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