Tonight, I returned home feeling quite victorious. Our family had a successful trip to an Indian restaurant. Everyone found something they could eat! This was not the case even just six months ago. I remember the day I was fuming because I was feeling so frustrated and fed up. “I am a prisoner to my kids’ eating habits!” I fumed at my husband. “I am afraid to go out with other families to eat because I’m afraid that there won’t be anything for them to eat! Who wants to go eat at Denny’s all the time?! I sure don’t!”
Was it that bad, you ask? It felt like it at times. I have had to battle food issues with all my three kids at one point or another. I felt resentful. I felt controlled. I felt defeated.
How can food become such a huge battle that would leave me feeling so limited in my liberty as a mother?
I can already hear what some well meaning mothers might say. “You need to take back control! Don’t let them walk all over you!” “My mother made me eat everything that was on the table, no questions asked. It was just our rule at home.” “Don’t make three different dishes! (Which I don’t.) Have them eat whatever is served.” “It is a test of the wills. Who is going to win?” “It’s really important that you set good eating habits now, because it will get them started in eating healthy and right.” “You can do it mama. Be consistent.”
In my seven years of trying out different “how to solve picky eaters” methods, hearing a lot of good advice, and listening to others’ success stories, I have rarely encountered people who would actually take the time to ask me, “Why do you think it is so hard for your child to eat certain food?” If someone had asked me, “I probably would have answered, I don’t know.” This struggle was completely foreign to me – I wasn’t a picky eater. (Yes, it was a real life surprise for me!)
Furthermore, if someone had asked me, “Why is it so important to you that they eat what you serve?” I think it may have caused me to at least pause for a moment to ask, “So, why am I fretting over this issue so much?”
I remember the day my firstborn broke out in a rash after nursing. I had to go through a regimented process for figuring out what food was the culprit. I learned that it was cantaloupe. Can you believe it? Not dairy, nuts, but cantaloupe? It eventually went away, but I had to stop eating cantaloupe for months. The funny thing is that it is one of his favorite fruits now!
Then, one of my twins went through a very difficult season of refusing most of solid foods. Her only consistent foods were breast milk, yogurt and Cheerios. During this intensely difficult season of motherhood, we were living in India where there were no pouches, no baby food jars, and none of the plethora of pre-made baby food options to try out. I had to make everything from scratch. Either our freezer was filled with frozen baby food cubes or I threw out a lot of food. For a long season (until 2 years old), she lived on breastmilk, yogurt, and Cheerios. She didn’t gain weight for 6 months and we eventually had to return to the States to get help.
After a round to appointments and tests, she was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. The recommended treatment was occupational therapy. There were many other signs that should have been a concern, but I was so focused on getting her to eat, they all seemed like a secondary issue at that time. After receiving the proper help, she has become a great eater and she has learned to overcome some of her sensory issues and cope with others.
Her twin sister – she was a great eater as a baby and a toddler – but she has had the most difficult time with food (particularly fruit and vegetables) starting about age three. If you think about it, fruits and vegetables have distinct textures, taste, and smell. I remember the day she tried blueberries, gagged, and threw up the rest of her food – since then, she can’t stand the sight of blueberries. There is so much anxiety with new and unfamiliar food for her that she tries to stick with what she knows. Certain sights, smells, textures, and tastes literally cause physical reaction that it is painful for me to watch. We have made an unspoken truce that works for everyone. I make smoothies pretty much every day to make sure that vegetables and fruits get in our kids.
Some of you might be reading and thinking, “She is talking about my kid.” Others of you might be thinking, “This lady needs some help.” If you feel understood, I’m glad. You’re not alone. If you think I am in need of some major parenting tips, feel free to leave them for me ; ).
I never in my life I anticipated that I would be battling with my kids over food! If my recollection is correct, I ate everything as a kid! But, I discovered after getting married that my husband, my mother-in-law, and our children’s great grandmother struggled with sensory issues over food. They were extremely picky eaters. My husband didn’t like macaroni and cheese, pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and hamburgers as a kid! When he was a kid, he walked home almost half a mile to get his lunch (which consisted of a milk shake! Yeah, seriously!) because he couldn’t stand the smell of the food and the sight of what the other kids ate around him. He was so thin as a kid that his mother joked how she was afraid they would call DCFS on her for child negligence. She had been willing to do be accommodating to her son because she understood his food aversion issues. She had struggled with it herself. Her mother (our kids great grandmother) also struggled with picky eating. Because she understood her daughter’s food aversion issues, she was able to be sensitive and didn’t make her eat the stuff that she didn’t like. She shared how grateful she was that her mother had been sensitive to her need.
It took some time, but I finally came to admit that my frustration over their picky eating was more about me, than my kids. See, I had a vision of three children who happily ate everything I gave them. No fussing. No pickiness. I would be the envy of all the moms. They would make me look good – People would marvel at how well I taught them.
Instead, I became that parent with kids who only loved white-colored food — bread, pasta, rice, etc. I tried offering many different types of food bazillion times (yes, my kids influence my vocabulary)! This method did not work for me but failed. The harder I tried, the more they felt misunderstood. I was not bringing solution to their picky eating. I was exaserbating it by making it a big deal.
Instead of trying to pressure or coax my kids to eat the food they found repulsive, I decided to let go. In the process of letting go of my obsession that my kids ate healthy ALL the time, I discovered that I had to also let go of my obsession to be the mother that everyone aspired to be.
When I order my kid french fries at a Mexican restaurant for dinner, I thought people would silently disapprove of my choices and be angry at me for being such a bad example for their kids. I know that this is not how my kids eat every day, that I work hard to provide good balanced meals at home, but I realized my concern over how other moms would think of me as a mother propelled me to be less flexible and understanding with my children. My image trumped their needs.
I was surprised to realize how deeply I cared about my image as a mom and how the desire to maintain a good image kept me from being able to know, assess, and respond to my children.
These days, we willingly go out with our friends. I encourage my kids to try new things, but I also order french fries or whatever sounds familiar to them if there isn’t an option that won’t result in a food battle. We are now able to enjoy (most of the times) people’s company without the constant feeling of anxiety about food.
Here are a few steps that I take with my kids before we head out to eat at someone’s house or with friends at new restaurants:
- I give them a plenty of warning about the fact that we will be in a new food situation.
- I give them a small snack before we head out. I try to avoid hangry kids syndrome.
- I tell them that they need to find things they can eat, and eat them. No guarantees there will be things they like; they just have to find things they can tolerate. No complaining.
- If they’re hungry when we get home, they can make a quick PB&J or fix a quick bite to eat.
- I look at eating a balanced diet not in individual meals, but over the course of the day, or even the week. So if we miss vegetables one meal, it is okay – I know I can get them to enjoy some later at home!
Do you have major battles over food with your kids? Are meal times stressful? Ask yourself why? Why does it frustrate you so much that your child won’t eat certain kinds of food? What are you afraid will happen to you or to your child? Is your fear based on reality or based on something else?
The first step in ending the battle is to have it end in our mind and in our hearts. I know that one day, my children will eat vegetables and fruit. Some of them have already begun eating them without my pressuring or asking, “Do you want to eat this?” I know that they will continue to grow in managing and coping with sensory input that is difficult for them. When I look at the grand scheme of life, whether my kids eat that one vegetable tonight over 1095 meals that they will have in a year, I can let that vegetable go. I can guarantee you that they will eat balanced meals 80-90% of the time. I can let go of 10-20%. The amount of grief we cause everyone at the kitchen table because we want our kids to eat 100% of times what we want them to eat, in my humble opinion is not worth the battle. I think eating balanced meal 80-90% of time is pretty good, in my opinion!