Generally, one of the very first things you are “expected” to do when you become a parent is to feed your baby. You have JUST (literally JUST) been through the experience of becoming a parent and before you know it, you are getting some sort of advice on feeding your new arrival. At the pinnacle of this emotional time we subconsciously adopt an expectation of ourselves. We begin to manifest this expectation along the lines of …. “I’ll be good at this parenting gig as long as I feed the baby.” The baby is then thrust into our arms. Eyes are upon us. Advice comes flying. We can feel like we’ve just joined the battle. The battle we must win at all costs. The sleep-feed-play-repeat battle. It’s no wonder that we can immediately attach nourishing our child with the illusive title of “being a good parent”.
But here’s the corker, being a “good parent” is NOT about a successful latch. A smooth transition to solids. Or raising a child that eats a rainbow and a wide range of food groups. In fact, being a good parent doesn’t have a definition relating to calories, colours or mealtimes. It is your path that you are travelling. It may find you realizing things that you just didn’t know that … you didn’t know. We can sometimes get so caught up in the fact that our inner narrative is telling us “you’ll be a good parent if you feed your child a balanced diet” that we forget to check the validity of that (incorrect) statement and we end up in a world of hurt and self-blame.
Ali wrote to me about her journey with her son’s feeding. She shows so much empathy for others that she wanted to see how her story could help. So, here it is. When others post on the parenting picky eater forum about their child, she felt like she can’t suggest the very thing that worked for her. “Because I don’t want to open THAT can of worms”. And yes, it would open up a can of worms. Why? Ali realized that with her son’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis and his feeding history, he was much more comfortable to try new foods without her in the room. She knew that she was not to blame for the food refusal, but that she could help him learn about new foods.
“For quite sometime if we were introducing new foods, it would happen on a night when I wasn’t home or I’d go to another room. I’ve also been known to sit in my car and eat dinner. Not as sad as it sounds, I’d have my iPad playing Netflix and a glass of wine :D.” Ali’s family dynamic was such that she could see her son was making progress. Making progress without her there. “We’ve made enough progress now that it’s not an issue if I’m home or not.” (This is the sentence that made me #fistpump and get a little teary as I can imagine all the hope and emotion that sat around this for Ali’s family.)
“About four months ago, there was a night I was home for dinner then I was going to work. My son wouldn’t eat the chicken and pumpkin pasta bake. He didn’t say “no” or get cranky, he’d just deflect or get up from the table. I’m usually pretty patient, but I was getting frustrated because I had to go to work. So, I left straight after I finished my meal. My husband sent me a text 20 minutes later to say our son had eaten the lot! A little part of me was offended, then I laughed because I was happy he ate and also, it was pretty cheeky.” Ali has great plans to use this chicken and pumpkin pasta bake for continued food chaining.
Ali and her family worked out that the contributing factors for her son to learn about new foods aligned better when she wasn’t there. They helped him work out how to approach new foods. And now Ali bears no impact on her son’s feeding progress. It’s pressure free. It’s got momentum. It’s got a sense of happiness.
“I am worried that others may be offended or think that I’m blaming them [if I told my story], it’s just that I know children behave differently for different people and it’s usually mum that’s allocated the most challenging behaviour!”
But, why are mum’s allocated the most challenging behaviours?
In a study on parental attitudes influencing eating behaviour (1), mothers were noted to be “of particular interest on children’s eating behaviour, as they have been shown to spend significantly more time than fathers in direct interactions with their children across several familial situations, including mealtimes.” Thus, pairing this with how a mothers symbolizes NEEDS for children. And biologically children are wired to associate the NEED for food and survival with their mother (2). Hence, this is why children will escalate their behavior to get attention (a connection) from their mother anyway that they can.
So it can be a factor of time spent in the role and biological wiring, that can mean when a child is with their mother they are “safe” to “let go” of maintaining their arousal levels, following the rules or simply focusing on getting through the task. Yet, I understand that this may not always be the case.
Going “Big Picture” For Your Kids
I commend Ali for wanting to share her story here. She has walked her path, reflected on what her family needed, been brave to make a change. She looked at the big picture and trusted there was a path to take to get there, even if it meant leaving the family meal occasionally for a period of time. I know that on behalf of other parents that have had to go “big picture” with their approach to helping their child with learning to eat, we really appreciate Ali’s desire to shine that torch down the path for other parents. Eating is very complex! There are many root causes for it. Yet, you know your child and how to advocate for them better than anyone else. You are not alone! Yet, to find the “why” for your picky eater, you have to open your heart and mind to exploring the possibilities and understanding the journey they are on.
As some examples of some “big picture” changes I’ve suggested to parents to improve their child’s ability to improve the scope of what the child can eat:
- Buying new seating for your table
- Rotate the dining table 90oC to avoid an antique knob that was tooooo distracting
- Moving dinner forward by an hour each night
- Adding peanut butter sandwiches to the middle of the table at dinner time
- Add pink frosted donuts to a smoothie
- Pick apart sushi with your chopsticks to model learning about it, but not to actually eat it
- I’ve written a letter to a day care centre to explain why a home made cake needed to be accepted as a healthy food option for a specific child. Also requesting that it be permitted without comment or pressure.
- I have designed meal plans around 8 ways to serve McDonald’s chicken nuggets so that a parent can enjoy the variety they were missing from their diet.
So you see, going “big picture” is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Feeding kids is never a one-size fits all approach… but you are never alone!
Essential Reading and Literary Reference
Jo Cormack wrote this article that I simply have to share with you about moving away, from blame as an unhelpful emotion when parenting picky eaters, “It’s not your fault.”
I also have this video bundle on how to navigate language at mealtimes to avoid pressure on children and encourage them to learn. Or read my article on encouraging a learning mindset here.
(1) Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour Silvia Scaglioni*, Michela Salvioni and Cinzia Galimberti. British Journal of Nutrition (2008), 99, Suppl. 1, S22–S25
(2) Why do kids behave differently when mom is around? A Q&A article by Dr Ann Corwin.
Don’t Feel Like You Are Alone With Your Picky Eater
If you suspect your family needs additional help with feeding, join Your Feeding Team for an affordable monthly subscription to access 3 feeding professionals and lots of bonus content modules. It is the perfect place to feel supported in a close-knit community of parents with evidence based information to help your family. You have access to me (a sensory play based nutritionist), Natalia Stasenko (pediatric dietitian) and Jo Cormack (counselor with specialism in feeding anxiety).
* – I have used a fictitious name for anonymity reasons