An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
I am really worried about my son’s diet from a nutritional point of view, but I am also concerned about the techniques my partner and I are resorting to in order to encourage him to eat.
My son is four years old. I breastfed him until he was three and a half, although for the last six months or so, this was only one feed per day (to get him off to sleep). We set off with the best of intentions when introducing solids. We read up on baby-led weaning and gave my son access to a wide range of foods. I didn’t worry too much about what he was eating while he was getting most of his nutrition from me.
Things seem to have gotten worse and worse over the last few months. Our son now has an incredibly limited diet of things he will eat, mainly consisting of bread or toast, chips, omelettes, apples, grapes, crackers, and bread sticks, as well as puréed organic vegetables heavily diluted with apple. Even getting him to eat this now involves persuasion, bribery, threats, and promises of rewards. I don’t like what we are doing. I want him to eat lots of gorgeous, healthy, organic vegetarian food, and I want him to want to eat it. I can’t force him. My fears about being labelled a “bad mother” or being told to make him eat things he says he doesn’t like have prevented me from asking for help.
Any suggestions will be gratefully received.
Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
It can be worrisome when our children seem to become picky eaters. We want our children to be healthy, and picky eating can seem counter-intuitive to that endeavor. Someone once said that as parents, it is our job to provide our children with healthy foods; as the individual, it is our children’s job to eat and choose what to put in their body. It helps to alleviate some of that pressure we often feel, especially from well-meaning individuals, about what our children are eating.
You can support healthy eating by talking to your children about fueling their bodies and the nutrients in foods. Have them help pick out foods at the grocery store, grow your food in a garden, or choose fresh vegetables at a farmers’ market. Have them help you cook. Keep available healthy foods that are easy to grab. Try new things together. Add extra nutrients to favorite recipes. A period of pickiness during childhood is temporary. Know that you are giving them the knowledge and tools they need to be healthy in the long-term and the autonomy to control their bodies now. Together, these things will help them to grow up with a healthy view of food.
I don’t think anyone will think you are a bad mother! Plenty of young children are picky eaters and plenty of parents wind up using bribery and other methods to introduce nutrition.
There is an amazing woman named Ellyn Satter whose work is widely recognized in the area of power struggles and nutrition. It is the ground-breaking “Division of Responsibility in Feeding” page. She suggests that the following simple rules can help lessen the anxiety around feeding for both parents and child, and in my own parenting and work with many children I have found them to be valuable:
“The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether.”
Just as with sleep and potty, you provide plenty of opportunity as well as a healthy environment while the child gets to make choices. Knowing that your child will not starve when you quit the kitchen circus can help you relax. When provided with a wealth of opportunity for good and varied foods which the parent believes are healthy and part of the family culture, the child may go a couple of days eating less until he becomes hungry enough to eat more and try more. There is usually a hard two or three days as the transition is made away from the old habits. You could offer a healthy smoothie at the end of those days. Be sure he has at least one thing per day that you know he likes, then start switching out his usual staples for other things your family would like to eat. Provide him with your own chosen meals. Eat at the same time together at the table.
If you are worried that the pickiness may be from some sensory challenges, consult your family doctor about a possible Occupational Therapy consult. Otherwise, you can read some further thoughts and tips from my work with picky eaters in my article, “Don’t Hide the Veggies: Radical Tips for Preventing and Ending Picky Eating”.