Here at Your Feeding Team, you won’t find any quick fixes; we’re all about change that lasts. This means prioritising the long term over the short term, which is not always easy.
Let me explain. You may be feeling really anxious about your child’s nutritional intake. Maybe they don’t willingly eat a single fresh fruit or vegetable, but if you negotiate or insist, you can persuade them to eat half a strawberry or a few kernels of corn. Let’s take a look at why this is not okay.
Simone, our sensory food play expert, says:
“An interaction with a new or disliked food is only valuable if it is a positive, self-directed experience for the child. Relaxed and fun engagement with a food helps children to build positive associations with it. On the other hand, if they are tasting or eating something under duress, this will send them backwards. And by insisting they eat things, you’re giving them a strong message that the food in question is hard work so they are learning to fear and dislike it even more!”
Natalia, our paediatric dietitian, says:
“Trust me, the nutritional value of a couple of mouthfuls of veggies is negligible. The benefit of a tiny quantity of micronutrients is totally outweighed by the damage caused by mealtime pressure. If you are truly worried about nutrition or growth, make sure to seek professional advice from a dietitian. They will be able to assess your child’s growth and nutritional needs and identify potential gaps.”
Jo, our food psychology specialist says:
“As a parent, you want your child to be well nourished. This means that when they eat that half strawberry because you’ve told them that otherwise, they can’t have their ice cream, your anxiety reduces – at least temporarily. This reinforces your need to get them to take that bite next time: a groove is being carved in your brain whereby you’re anxious, you make them eat, they eat, you feel less anxious. So your brain tells you that this is a great strategy and that you should do it again.
But here’s the thing: every time you make your child eat the strawberry, they are not in control and they dread the negative experience. Their brain is learning that eating strawberries is really unpleasant and should be avoided whenever possible! So whose needs are being met here? I would suggest that it is the parents’ needs and not the child’s. You feel a little better, but their relationship with food is a little worse.”
The bottom line
So there you have it. The short term goal – getting a couple of mouthfuls of foods you feel your child should eat – is actually your enemy when it comes to the long term goal of raising a child who has a positive relationship with food. And this is true even when it feels good to you to have them eat that extra bite.
Between us, we’ve worked with many hundreds of families of ‘picky eaters’ and we know that if a child isn’t eating autonomously (THEY are in charge) and if mealtimes are not relaxed and positive, it just isn’t possible to help children expand their diet.
Research sheds light on this too. In a study exploring episodes of forced consumption retrospectively (asking college students how being forced to eat certain foods when young, had affected their eating long term) almost three quarters of the participants said that they choose not to eat those foods as young adults.
Our program teaches a responsive approach to feeding where there is no place for ‘making’ your child eat (or try) foods they are not ready to eat. We don’t just tell you what not to do though – we give you an alternative mealtime mindset which will gently empower your child to learn to eat a broader diet. There is another way! And actually, not pushing your child to eat feels great IF you have alternative strategies and an in-depth understanding of what you are doing and why.
So next time you are worried and you feel tempted to push for that extra mouthful, remember that it would be a short term win, taking you further away from the long term goal of bringing up a child who enjoys eating. Sure, not everyone is destined to be a passionate foodie, but to raise a child who is at peace with food and doesn’t experience mealtime anxiety, is a profound gift that you are uniquely placed to give.