This article was written by Cortney Modelewski, MA, LPC professional counselor at Cognitive Behavior Solutions and an active member of SMEDA.
For Parents of Elementary Students: Working to Create a Positive Relationship with Food
My daughter decided she didn't like jelly after coming home from a sleepover. Her friend declared hatred of all fruit-flavored spreads, and my daughter soon followed suit and has not eaten jelly, jam, preserves, or marmalade within the last three years.
She is eight, and she continues to struggle with the conflicts between her wariness of food, her environment, and her hunger. These challenges are typical of elementary age children, especially younger ones. Dovey et al (2008) provided a review of the research on children's eating behaviors. They outline the difference between what people call “picky eating,” which is having inadequate variation in diet, and “neophobia,” which is refusal or reluctance to try new foods. Environmental (i.e. home, school, and culture) and genetic factors play roles in how and why children develop these eating behaviors.
While you can't change your child's genetics, you can make changes to their environment. Here are a few tips from my household, which consists of a couple of vegetarians and a meat-and-potatoes guy, who collectively have food neophobia, sensory processing issues, food intolerance, and a food allergy.
1. Caretakers are role models. I am not a big fan of breakfast. My child has started to say she doesn't like breakfast. I decided to suck it up and eat some toast in the morning because I want my child to eat breakfast before going to school.
2. Enlist authorities. Our pediatrician gave my child the same speech I had given, but my child responded to the pediatrician because she's a doctor. She also started eating red peppers after a dietitian came to her school and talked about how vegetables are awesome.
3. Make food fun! Kids like to make their own creations, and also like it when they have surprises at mealtime.
4. Negotiate packed lunch menus. Say, “Would you like baby carrots or cucumbers in your lunch?” If my daughter has a better idea, such as broccoli, I am all for it.
5. Try to have everyone in the family eat the same things. My husband may throw some meat on his plate of spaghetti, but we're all still eating spaghetti. This ties into the first tip. Also, your family does not pay you to be a short order cook, so don't do it. It's more frustrating and reinforces problematic beliefs and behaviors your child may have.
6. It's okay to be frustrated when your child doesn't eat, but try not to fight. I have had many dinner wars in my time as a parent, especially after a cooked meal has followed a twelve-hour workday. Not worth it. Ask your child to taste the food – which doesn't need to include chewing and swallowing – and then drop it for the night.
7. Unless you have a specific diet due to religious beliefs, there is no reason to call food good or bad, and if a person in your family has a medical problem that restricts certain foods, giving the restricted menu to your entire family every so often may help the child and others in the family understand the need for meals.
If you are concerned about your child's eating habits, do not be afraid to make an appointment with their primary-care provider to discuss these concerns. UWHealth (2014) notes some red flags including weight loss, choking on food, frequent complaints about stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhea after eating, and moodiness. Your child may have a treatable eating disorder, anxiety disorder, or medical condition.
References and Resources
Terence M. Dovey, Paul A. Staples, E. Leigh Gibson, Jason C.G. Halford, Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review, Appetite, Volume 50, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 181-193, ISSN 0195-6663, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.09.009.
University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority [UWHealth] (2014). Health facts for you. https://www.uwhealth.org/healthfacts/parenting/518.pdf
We Can! Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/index.htm