For most parents, the picky eater issue is one that’s close to home, or rather you have one in your home. (If your kid eats like a dream, and has the sweetest chubbiest cheeks, read no more. We are jealous and unhappy with you. *just kidding*)
As parents, our kid’s weight percentile reads like a report card on our competence as parents. Especially so, the younger they are. No one congratulates you on a skinny baby. Rather, folks look askance at you, judgmentally if not pitably, as if to say “Poor mummy/daddy, how did you allow your kid to get so skinny? Tried Pedisure yet?”
Other parents might not be at the receiving end of reproachful looks, but might still feel rather stressed because their paediatrician has declared them at the 2nd percentile (i.e. 2%) or worse, off the charts completely (negative percentile).
My kids are not very picky or very skinny, but I feel for parents who have picky eaters, because like most first world children, my kids can be pretty picky.
So I felt a wave of relief, and a sense of liberation, when I read this article, titled “It’s not my job to get my kids to eat“. A deliberately provocative title, but the article made a lot of sense.
…it’s biologically engineered into all parents to not feel contentment if their children have empty stomachs.
That’s why picky eaters are so frustrating. Not only are you angry that you made a dinner someone isn’t touching, but you feel like you aren’t doing your job as a parent and that there very well might be physical repercussions in the form of a malnourished child.
Great empathy there right? And it goes on to offer a recommendation…
I’ve found one surefire way to deal with my kid refusing to eat.
I ignore him.
Don’t eat? Don’t care. You’re the one that will be hungry later but that’s not my problem. Often, when he sees I don’t care, how quickly I’ll sweep his plate away, he eats. Almost as if I’ve called his bluff. But calling a bluff can’t be part of your plan or he’ll realize the game. You need to genuinely not care if he eats or not.
I know it feels wrong to you. You’re the parent! It’s your job to get them to eat, right? Wrong. It’s your job to present them a meal that they can refuse to eat. Once the meal has been presented, your job is done. The eating or refusing is their job. If they want to be hungry that’s their business.
What? Are they going to starve to death? No. As you’ve probably reminded your child when he or she doesn’t eat: there are real starving children in other places — but your kid isn’t one of them.
I suppose that might sound a bit extreme, but I’ve tried variations of this. Since “everything in moderation” is a good principle to apply to most things in life.
The main underlying practice is “genuinely not caring whether she eats”. This was the kicker thought I guess:
It’s your job to get them to eat, right? Wrong. It’s your job to present them a meal that they can refuse to eat. Once the meal has been presented, your job is done. The eating or refusing is their job.
I think it is particularly difficult for Asian parents to fully apply that, but I try. Allowing them to eat only carbs from the meal if that’s all they want. Don’t like green vegetables? Let’s not war about it. Let’s pick our battles instead. No point creating a life-long hatred and rebellion against leafy greens. Don’t like meat? Eat meatballs or fishballs then. So long as it’s not like they are not eating anything (which is rare because kids do get hungry), I figured I won’t be called up by the Singapore equivalent of Family Services. So sometimes all they eat is plain pasta and drink a milkshake (cos they don’t really like pasta sauce) for a meal. They don’t really get food from the “grow” and “glow” groups, but I guess it’s preferable to having fights at the dinner table all the time.
I try to give them fruits, and comfort myself that they get most of their fibre and vitamins that way, even if they push away all other greens. B loves watermelon, as you can see from the photos above. 🙂
When they chance upon a “grow” food that they like (salmon, for the elder, and meatballs for the younger), I just let them eat truckloads of it, hoping that it will slightly increase their monthly average intake of proteins.
Overall, I think the thought is useful to parents. Our kids are already so privileged, and parents are already so stressed and made to feel guilty about myriad issues. Why not tick one off the list. Prepare or make available a balanced meal, and if they don’t eat it, chill. Easier said than done I know, but I think it’s preferable to getting frustrated at every mealtime and creating lasting negative associations with dining for kids and adults alike.
Give them some vitamins to give yourself some peace of mind, to make sure that if they only eat one type of food consistently (say white rice), they are not nurturing some crazy vitamin deficiency. And because most children’s vitamins come in cute and sweet gummy forms, they are likely to take them regularly without issue.
Mealtimes are supposed to be bonding times, and I suppose if we eat our own food with gusto (as I do!), our kids will catch the passion sooner or later. : ) Therein also lies a good reminder, not to pick at our own food, or eat too-tiny portions of rice, since children always learn from what we do, not from what we say. So let’s model healthy behaviour, and may we have healthy, enthusiastic eaters!