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.
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.