I’m not eating that!
We’ve all done it. We’ve spent all day slow cooking and lovingly preparing a nutritious and tasty lasagne that smells amazing. You serve it up to your child to be met with “I’m not eating that! Yuck!” Looks like the dog is eating well again tonight.
You are not failing. You are not a terrible parent. Your child just does not want to eat that particular meal on that particular day. But why? Well, this could be for a number of different reasons.
Children don’t have a lot of control over their lives. They have all these adults making decisions for them. Telling them where to go, what to do and what to eat. Often children can refuse meals because they want to flex their independence and show they can make their own decisions.
As adults, we don’t look at a menu at a restaurant to see a list of meals that we love and are excited to eat every single one. Children have preferences too. Children are developing their palates and may need to try foods 15 times before they know if they like them or not.
Or perhaps they’re just not hungry. We don’t always eat the same amount of food every day as adults either. For children to understand when they are hungry or not is fantastic for their autonomy.
OK, but what can we do about it? You can make your mealtimes a family event. Use a highchair or booster chair to ensure everyone is at equal eye level and sharing the same meal. Keep the mood calm and maintain conversations with people at the table including children.
Food can be a fantastic tool for encouraging children’s independence and sense of agency. Where you can, involve children in the preparation of food. Perhaps they can make the wraps or decorate the pizza or can self-select their dinner from a buffet. Older children can also offer input into the week’s dinner menu in your house. Encourage children to feed themselves. For children that are learning to use cutlery (typically 0-3 years) this is going to be a messy experience. That’s OK!
Ensure you are giving lots of healthy fruits and veggies to your children but make sure your expectations are realistic. Having four different fruits on a plate for your child’s afternoon tea is fantastic, but don’t be disheartened if they don’t eat it all (or any at all!). If children need to try something 15 times to determine if they like it, encourage them to revisit foods without making them feel like they’re a hostage.
Surround children with healthy foods. When they open the fridge or open the cupboard, what can they see? As the adults in their lives, what are we snacking on when we’re around them? Do we grab a biscuit to have with our tea or are we grabbing an apple to crunch on? Whilst children are at Fit Kidz they are encouraged to eat together. I like to view this as positive peer pressure. If children see their friends happily eating rockmelon, perhaps it isn’t so bad.
Avoid using food as bribes with children. This can position children to view eating well as a chore as well as glorifying the very foods we are trying to encourage children to avoid. This is also not sustainable. We want our children to be eating well because they enjoy it and understand the importance. We want to encourage long term healthy relationships with food, not short term ‘fixes’.
So you’ve tried all of these things for a period of time, what now?
In order for children to have a healthy relationship with food, we want them to be exposed to as much as possible and to see what they are eating. But if after all of these methods they’re still putting nothing green in their mouth, you may want to resort to short term food smuggling. Disguising food isn’t ideal but can be an option if all else fails. You can add extra vegetables to pasta sauces, savory muffins and pizza toppings. Extra fruit can be added into smoothies and you can make your own healthy ice blocks.
In rarer cases, there may be a more serious reason your child has food aversions. These can come from things such as digestive disorders, sensory issues or oral motor delays. Have a chat to your GP if you have concerns as there is lots of support you can access for your children including occupational therapy, speech pathology, nutritional therapy and medical supervision.
Forming positive relationships with food is going to be a long process for children (and you!). Be kind to yourself and them. Celebrate any progress and respect the process.