Monday, September 5, 2011

Dinner Time: A Time of Contention?

Hi, my pseudonym is Deltaflute and I am a picky eater.  I come from a long line of picky eaters.  My father hates bananas, brussel sprouts, and anchovies.  My mother doesn't like cheese on her burger, cranberry sauce, or mashed potatoes that come in a box.  My son is also a picky eater.  Am I surprised?  No way.  You see being a picky eater is genetic.  Let's look at some of the reasons why dinner time can be a point of contention between parents and children and some of the ways to relieve that tention. 

Genes
I mentioned that being a picky eater is genetic.  Yes, it's true.  There have been numerous studies with children and food.  One point of contention are foods that taste bitter like broccoli.  Some children will gobble it up and some children will absolutely throw a fit if you put it on their plate.  Why?  Well, there's a genetic marker in some children that make certain foods taste more bitter than to other children.  It's more pronounced in children than their adult parents because as a child ages some of their taste bud receptors aren't nearly as defined.  In other words, if you hated your broccoli as a child, chances are it doesn't taste so bad to you now especially if it's covered in cheese and butter.  Unfortunately, you child won't feel the same way.  They will most likely hate broccoli too, which explains why I hate bananas like my dad.

Eating Healthy
Ancient man was geared to desiring high caloric foods, namely foods high in fat and sugar.  The theory is that because ancient man required an awful lot of energy to run away from predators and gather food, it made more sense for ancient man to be picky and eat high caloric foods.  Modern man still lives in this mentality.  We're naturally drawn to fried foods and to sweet foods (craving chocolate).  Children operate the same way especially since they are usually more active than adults and are still growing.  Breastmilk is known to be high in calories so it's not unreasonable for young children to need high amounts of fat.  Older children need less of it.  They also need healthy foods rich in nutrients.  So parents try getting them to eat their veggies instead of that big piece of chocolate cake.

Autonomy
Children especially toddler want choice.  Parents want their child to eat well.  Unfortunately a lot of parents will force a particular food on a child rather than offering a healthy alternative or several healthy alternatives at once.  Toddlers should be feeding themselves, and that comes from my pediatrician not me. 

Change
I don't know about you, but adults typically don't handle change very well especially big changes or a lot of change at once.  Children are the same way especially when it comes to food.  A lot of children will request eating the same thing day in and day out because it's a comfort measure.  Parents want children to try a variety of healthy foods both for health reasons and to learn new foods.

Ways to help ease the tention of meal time
And yes, this does work because this is what I do at home

1) Treat children with respect.  If a child doesn't like the taste of something, then they really don't like it.  It's not because they hate you.  Children don't have the same tastes as adults do so why do we treat them like adults?
2) Don't force a child to try something.  The reason is it becomes a tug of war.  Children don't like change.  Children like to be able to choose to eat something themselves.  I remember very vividly which foods because tention foods and would dread them.  It had nothing to do with what they tasted like.  It had to do with being forced to eat it and my parents not trusting that I didn't want it.
3) Offer you child a variety of foods at meal time.  I try to offer something my child doesn't like along with something they do.  If he doesn't eat all of the stuff on his plate, I don't sweat it. 
4) Don't be a short order cook.  Some parents get upset because they make meals specifically for the child (especially elaborate meals) and then the child refuses to eat or even try it.  Make meals for the family.  If the child doesn't eat it, give them something else like crackers or have them learn how to make a pb&j for themselves.
5) Offer the same foods, even ones they won't eat, multiple times.  Studies shows that it takes 10-20 times of presenting a food before a child will even try it.  This doesn't mean during one meal; it means 10-20 different meals.  I first offered my child toquitos after we moved roughly a month ago.  The first time my child was more interested in swirling it in the salsa.  The second time, he wouldn't touch it.  The third time it sat there again.  Today he picked them up and ate two and half of them.  I never shoved it in his face.  I just kept putting it on his plate and eating them myself.  It really does work; you just have to be patient.
6) Don't make food a reward or a punishment.  Food is for nourishment.  When you make say candy a reward during potty training, you put candy on a pedestal.  It sends the message that it is better than yogurt or apple sauce (which are also sweet but healthier).  Young children don't understand that some foods have better value than others because of nutrition.  Making it a reward or punishment delineates food into categories.  Older children can be taught to make healthy choice because they understand the somewhat abstract concept of nutrition.
7) Feed your child what you are eating.  Parents truly are the best models of eating.  You really can't expect a child to eat something that you won't eat.  Nor can you expect a child to eat healthier than you.  If you enjoy an after dinner dessert of chocolate cake, then you child should be allowed to as well.  If you don't want your child to eat the cake, then don't go eating it either.
8) Don't bribe your child to eat something.  See number 2 and number 6 for the reasons
9) Don't force your child to clean their plate.  As someone in their blog mentioned, in America we already have an epic problem with childhood obesity and yet we want children to keep eating well beyond when they feel full to "clean their plate." That doesn't make sense and leads to bad eating habits later in life.
10) Dessert should not be a punishment or reward either.  See number 6 and 7 for why.

I know a lot of these concepts are contrary to the way the vast majority of us were raised.  But I look at it this way, I'd rather not deal with the aftermath of an eating disorder.  I also don't believe that anything done right is easy and quick.  In this "gotta be now" world of advanced technology, it's really hard for parents to keep trying.  But honestly, it really does work.  My little messy and happy cherub is testament to being patient at the dinner table.  Just hang in there moms and dads.  There are always vitamins if your worried.

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