Your kid will not starve themselves, I promise. Parents concerned about their child’s eating habits is probably the number one concern I have heard in my 14 years of teaching early childhood. Parents surveyed once their children are older reflect that worrying about what their child ate was among the top three things on which they wish they focused less.
As adults, we have this lovely ability to eat emotionally. Got a new job? Let’s celebrate with tacos and margaritas until we’re so stuffed we can’t even move. Your boyfriend broke up with you? You have the right to gorge yourself on chocolate cake and ice cream. Have your children stressed you to the point of no return? Time to break out the Girl Scout cookies and wine. It’s what we do. Happy, Sad, Stressed we reward or comfort ourselves with food. Children do not have that emotional attachment to food yet; therefore, we don’t need to worry about them over or under eating. They eat when they are hungry. That’s it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, children can most definitely learn poor eating habits, and when we, as adults, use food as a constant reward or punishment, we are sowing the seeds of emotional eating. Food should be food. Food can be fun and engaging, but it is food, something our body needs to survive. If your child is presented with multiple options consistently, they will be more likely to try new things. When we, as parents, worry that Billy doesn’t like anything other than chicken nuggets and fruit snacks, and hence only feed him that, we are depriving him of the opportunity to grow emotionally and physically. I have seen it so often; a child brings the same lunch every day because mom or dad believes their child will go hungry unless they send the same five things known to be approved by their 4-year-old. Guess what? They won’t. If your child refuses to eat the food given to them, yes, they may be a little hungry. But they will remember what it feels like, that maybe they were a little grumpy or tired and after a few times of that feeling they will eat. They will not starve. They are not biologically nor evolutionary designed to allows themselves to.
Here is where the fun science stuff comes in! Metaphorically raise your hand if you have a picky eater at home… right, most of us have or do. I have one now, and I know the struggle. Now, what if I told you there is an evolutionary-based reason for this, would you feel better? Young children, specifically between the ages of 3-6, are designed to be picky eaters, so they don’t poison themselves. Back in the early human days of hunting and gathering, young children were often left unattended. They would wander and play with other kids, and to make sure the human race didn’t kill itself off, evolution made young children extremely wary of unknown foods. Hence, the creation of the modern-day picky eater.
No one likes to see their child upset, but when we regularly give in to the whining and demands and make them mac and cheese for the 4th straight night in a row, we are allowing them to be in control, and we’re the adults, that’s kind of our job. I get it, I’ve been there, I’ve capitulated too, it’s human. But the key is to make giving in the exception, not the rule. I had the battle of breakfast myself today. My nine-year-old wanted frozen french toast sticks with syrup and powdered sugar. I am okay with that; he’s a mostly healthy and adventurous eater. The problem was, he wanted to take that sticky and messy meal to sit in the basement and watch TV. I said no. I explained that the meal was too messy to eat down there, and the tirade began. I don’t trust him, and I never let him do anything, I am so unfair. I calmly stated, again, why he was not allowed to eat such a messy meal over the carpeted floor and said what would be unfair is not to allow him to eat at all. He stormed away, saying that since I wouldn’t let him eat, he was going to the basement. Not what I said, kid, but okay.
Fifteen minutes later, he contritely came upstairs and politely asked if he could have breakfast. See, it works. I didn’t enjoy it, it raised my stress levels, and I had yet to imbibe the delicious smelling coffee sitting out on our coffee bar calling to me. But, he was used to my consistency and knew it was a losing battle to push. My younger one could live on fruit and candy, and he’d be happy. That’s not sustainable, of course, but he is in the picky phase. So I keep the house stocked with the healthy things I know he likes: oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, grilled chicken, cheese, and granola bars. I also make new and non-favorites regularly and place them on his plate. When dealing with a picky eater, you should always make sure they have at least one thing on their plate that you know they like. That way they are guaranteed to eat something. Then consistently and methodically keep trying the unliked foods and encouraging one bite. That’s it—one bite.
Don’t ever force them to finish the whole plate; this is another way to create an unhealthy relationship with food. If they say they are full, then they are full. They will not starve themselves. If you served them their usual portion of chicken nuggets and they say they are not hungry, okay. Since you know your child likes chicken nuggets, let them know if they are hungry later, they will be having the nuggets before they have something else. I currently have 2/3 of a requested hot dog sitting in limbo.
In the end, you know your child best, and you have to do what you feels right for your kid. When parents come to me with this concern, I impart a cliff notes version of the above, and I ask them to speak to their pediatrician. If your child’s doctor is not concerned with their eating habits or weight, then realistically, neither should you. We all want happy, healthy children, and concern about their nutrition is valid.
Food should be enjoyable. We should certainly find times to celebrate our triumphs and share our sorrows over a meal. A staple in every major holiday is the food. So celebrate the diverse options we have in this world. Enjoy the night out with friend’s just because. I simply ask you to consider the science behind children and their eating and the benefits of creating a healthy relationship between your child and food as young as you can. You will make it through, and they won’t starve. Promise.