Feeding my children certainly did not start out as a recreational activity. In my list of mommy peeves, it was only second to putting them down for bedtime. In my journey as a mother and Wellness Consultant, I realized that it is not impossible to transform most children into good-eaters and have developed a method that has successfully worked for many children. Just like we have championed potty training or sleep training, let’s now champion meal training.
Obviously, the assumption is that the child has no physiological difficulty related to this basic survival skill. These problems could be anything from swallowing issues or chewing trouble to an unhappy tummy. But for the rest of the 90% of the toddler population, this technique works.
How do Little Minds Work
Let us first try and get into the shoes of our tots to understand what may happen at mealtimes.
I want you to think about someone you love and trust deeply. Imagine that the person invites you to dinner for a surprise meal (maybe even something you have never seen or eaten before). And when you reach there, he starts looking all nervous, rushed and anxious. He may be pre-occupied, sometimes on his phone and every now and then, his tone with you desperate and hasty. Then he brings out this awkward looking food item. You have no idea whether its warm or cold, sweet or tart or spicy or even how it smells. But you are strapped in and he starts forcing it down your throat. When you resist, he starts singing, dancing and showing you funny videos and books to distract you but still keeps trying to force feed you. He may even threaten you or look upset when you refuse to eat. And then eventually after the horrible experience is over, he keeps talking about it to everyone else. How you were not a good guest, and did not eat what was served. What does this do for your “experience.” Is it one you will want to have again?
This compares to the way a lot of our children are first introduced to foods, at least when they are babies. Ok, this may be a little exaggerated but you get the point. The world is a brand-new place for our kids and they trust us to support them as they begin to explore it. Young children are extremely connected to their parents’ responses and use the cues to measure how safe their own environment is. Anxious meal times or force feeding may get you through one meal but that meal will not do you much good.
Early negative associations can lead to lifetimes of food problems and eating disorders. Food can become that time of the day, when parent turns enemy, automatically developing a negative attitude towards food.
Another example can be seen when the fist instinct for many parents is to give a crying child something to munch on with the goal of shushing him. The belief is that the tongue is better off eating than screaming. The crying, however may be related to another underlying stress which is now stored elsewhere with the distraction of the food. When this happens one too many times, it becomes a conditioned reflex and thus is sprouted the seed of the adult stress eating order.
Establish a Respectful Relationship with Food
The first thing we need to understand is that food is a survival skill. No other species has to fuss this much over feeding their younger ones. All organisms, even those with 2 instead of 5 senses are able to satiate their appetite. They may not be able to provide the food for themselves but do not need to be pushed to eat. Hunger is an innate call and should not be a mommy call. I don’t mean that we should let our barely upright tots go and look for food in the refrigerator or wherever else it is stored but rather trust that hunger will be met appropriately when the onus is left on the children.
In practical terms, this begins by figuring out how many meals work for you and your tot. For me its 4; breakfast, lunch, late afternoon snack and dinner. Then decide timings for them. I roughly allocate one hour to every meal, even though the actual mealtime takes only 15-20 minutes. To give you an example-
Breakfast – Between 8-9
Lunch – Between 12-1
Late afternoon snack – Between 3-4
Dinner – Between 6-7
This whole hour gives you the flexibility to move things around if life takes over, as it often does.
Now, for very young children (below 4), offer one item meal at the mealtime. This is very important and we will talk more about this later. But try to consolidate all your proteins, fats and carbs in one bowl.
Create a fun routine before you actually get to the table. This does not have to be more than 5 minutes. I like the idea of setting up the table with your child while singing. This becomes his cue that mealtime is coming. And please, no screen time, more for the mom than the child.
Step A. I would then start by laying the food in front of the child. Make sure you allow him to touch it with his fingers, smell it and soak in the idea that he is about to eat. Rushing into the first bite is not the best idea. Smelling and touching activate the salivary glands and whet the appetite. Its the same feeling when you go to a restaurant and order and get a whiff of everyone’s food around you and then just cannot wait for yours to arrive.
And then, offer the first bite and the next and tada – there you go! Only if it was that easy. Most probably, your child, if used to being fussed over will throw a fit and refuse to eat. And that is fine and expected. At that point, take a deep breath and smile. And offer the morsel three more times, in the same calm demeanor. If the food is rejected three consecutive times, offer no more. Smile, give him a kiss and a forgiving look to go with it and accept that the child will go hungry for this meal. But its for the greater good. And one skipped meal killed no-one.
Do not offer a morsel of anything till the next meal. If you fall into the “oh! my poor child is hungry” trap and offer snacks, expect to be doing this and complaining about it till the teenage years.
And then again, during the next meal, do your little routine and then go to step A. This time too, once your child resists, offer the food only three more times. And then let go with a forgiving face. Do not offer a single bite of anything till the next allocated hour. When possible, re-heat the left over from the previous meal and offer it again. There is a great chance, that your child will go practically hungry on the first day. Do not compensate with a gallon of milk at bedtime. Let it go and remember what you bigger goal is. Also, do not talk about his poor eating or show your concern or distraught attitude to him or around him.
As previously mentioned, eating is a survival skill and by day three the child will begin to subconsciously realize that satisfying his hunger is his primary responsibility. The trick is to make him believe that it is really none of your business and will not affect your relationship with him. Instead of focussing his energies on getting through the anxiety laden, forced mealtime; he will learn to relax and be genuinely tuned in to his hunger. By day three, he will start responding and eating and eventually will begin to respect and develop a great relationship with his food.
Watch out for these common mistakes
There are some key factors to making this technique work.
“Let’s offer five options, he is likely to eat at least one” will not work. For a lot of kids, mealtime can be like attending a food tasting event where the winning item is to be selected. I have met several parents who plan two – three or even four back-ups incase the first offered food item fails. This will not work at all, especially during the training period. Imagine if you go to a restaurant and something is offered to you that you think is mediocre. In a few moments or after a little fuss, something a bit better is served and then eventually something even more appetizing. Each course better than the earlier one, and you are allowed to drop the earlier one. And if this began to happen everyday to you, even as an adult, chances are that we would get used to it. We would be spoilt and come to expect the fifth best course if a little bit of fuss is all it took to get there. Do you really want to play this game with your child? Setting the rule of “what you see is what you get” is a service to your child, even if it means eating less at a particular mealtime.
The second thing I would strongly encourage is to to start out with single foods (squash or rice or bulgur wheat) when they are infants and one bowl complete meals as they get older. The single foods allow them to get used to and appreciate subtle flavors in different foods. It gets the palate initiated for something better and bigger. The reason for the one bowl meal for a child 20 months and plus is that he can be picky and very easily select what he likes and wants to eat and what he wants to leave, if the food is presented as three different items. I know of many children for whom plain rice or just bread has become a staple. It can also confuse the palate and mind as the child at that age is not able to appreciate natural combinations. For example, instead of serving the hummus, pita and grilled vegetables as three different items on a platter, I would spread the hummus on the pita, top it with finely cut grilled veggies and consolidate it as one item. As far as possible, let your child witness this consolidation. Let him see the three different elements of his meal coming together as one. I make an exception to this during the 3-4PM snack. This is the time that my children eat soup and can then pick a snack of their choice afterwards. It gives them something to look forward to.
In between meals, no child really needs a snack. While snacks make great down time for mommies, they take away from essential down time that the tummy needs. Without getting into too many details about how our assiduous digestive system works, let’s just compare it to a sink of dirty dishes that you have to do. You put on your gloves and set yourself up to clean the mess. When you are half way into the task, someone comes and dumps some more for you to do. And then some more. Let’s say that when you are fully done and are heading out, there is another filthy spoon finding its way to the sink. Just a little spoon. Phew! You have to put on your gloves again, get the brush ready and finish up. The whole job takes much longer than it should have. It is the same with your digestive system. Every time you load it with something, while its still in the middle of its work, it has to kind of slow down. Even a little snack (the spoon in our example), after the job was completed, requires the system to start up again. Not cool!
Lastly, we all have our personal food tastes and preferences. And there may be foods that your child is genuinely having trouble with. If you as a parent think that the food is very important for the child, there is a simple technique I use to introduce such foods. This cannot happen without empathy. So I keep a bag of raisins or another treat (healthy and very small in size) on the side. I offer one raisin after each bite of the food that is not palatable. This is not a bribe as much as it is an incentive. It also gives the child something to look forward to after each bite, prevents him from stuffing food in his mouth while giving his taste buds a break from an undesirable taste.
For this technique to be successful, make sure you have at least 10 days set aside where most of your meals will be home. Also, if there are different caretakers during meal times, ascertain that each one understands the technique and the goal. In your absence, another person must be able continue what you have started. It is ideal to have a parent present during the training period. Additionally, it is very normal for the child to regress a little with every vacation, and it is ok to make exceptions with your technique when eating out with your child. As long as you stick to the technique at home, the training will be effective and the association with food will be positive. Remember, most value systems are developed at home.
Keeping Mealtime Happy is the Key to Nutrition Absorption
Even if this Food training technique does not work for you, I urge you to avoid anxious mealtimes. The body naturally goes into a sympathetic nervous reaction, better known as a fight or flight response when in stress due to an imminent or existing threat. The fight or flight mechanism is an evolutionary survival tool used when in danger. This literally shuts or slows down those functions that are not critical to survival at that time and diverts the energy to prepare the body to run or fight. Saliva production is reduced, muscles tense up, nervous system speeds up and the gastric secretions are reduced. If you can recall coming close or even thinking of a car accident, or forgetting your passport or another stressful incident, you may be able to recollect how your mouth may have turn dry with a sudden gush of energy and sleeplessness and the increased heart rate. Effective metabolism and digestion is not possible during this response. For effective metabolism, we need the parasympathetic nervous system to be working. No surprise that this is also called the rest and digest response. Keeping the meal times anxiety-free will ensure that the body is working on the right mode.
With a little bit of time invested, planning and tough love, any family can dream of converting the dinner table to a happy place!