I'm not a parent, but working with families over the years, I pick things up here and there. One thing I've heard again and again, all across the country, is the familiar story of the Picky Eater. While there are resources aplenty for techniques to get your kids to eat (and to eat right!) most are more easily said than done. At the end of the day, the situation often remains that there's too little time or money or energy to follow the experts' solutions. Yet our relationship with food and our children's current and developing relationship with food contain emotional, physical and spiritual issues that impact our lives and the world around us every day. How does one let one's Unitarian Universalist values guide them in this dilemma?
One More Step
Does your child refuse to eat sauce on their pasta? Does he shun any green food? Does she resist trying anything new? When there’s an objective we wish to accomplish, we don’t only want to accomplish it, we often want to accomplish it fast and easily. Whether it’s marriage equality, world peace, or for our children to eat something they don’t want to eat, it’s going to take perseverance. Even though it seems as if our children resist new things, that’s partly because in their daily lives, they encounter new things all the time. Though it may seem as if your request for them to try just one new thing is a reasonable one, by the time dinner rolls around, your child has probably encountered a dozen or more new things that day. Dr. Susan Roberts, co-author of “Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health,” offers the “Rule of 15,” arguing that it may take up to 15 times of a food being offered before your child tries it. Though it may feel excessive, you needn’t give up at 12 tries, when 15 might do it.
Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield
Not getting what we want is frustrating, whether we’re 8, 38, 88 or anywhere in between. We all know that feeling of being refused (again!) and deciding to resort to something that we wouldn’t when we were less frustrated. But every war has a loser and if there’s a food war in your family, sometimes that loser is going to be you. Though it may feel like a win to offer a reward to eating a particular food, it may be a case of losing the war for winning the battle. Dr. Leann Birch, a psychologist at Penn State, authored a study that indicated that children are less likely in the long run to eat foods they have been coerced to eat through rewards or punishments. Though remaining neutral won’t necessarily enable you to get what you want, it will lead to less losing, for both you and your child.
Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire
What is your relationship with food? As with most of the influences your child will encounter throughout their young lives, yours is the most significant. Specifically: not what you say, but what you do. Though they may not emulate your specific food preferences, they will, in the long run, emulate your behavior. As a wise man once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Most parents would say that they want their kids to live a long, happy and healthy life and want them to have a positive relationship with food and eating. Often adults strive to give the children in their lives what they do not have themselves, but it’s extremely difficult to give something we do not have. Take the time and energy to discern what kind of relationship with food you want to have in your own life. Food and eating is a vital part of our lives and it deserves our attention.
Touch the Earth, Reach the Sky
It’s not a secret that we grow to love the beings and things we spend our time and energy on. Your child may love cats, but none more than the cat that lives with them, that they care for and play with. Food that we grow ourselves or that we purchase directly from the growers at a farmers’ market tastes better partly because we have a connection with that food that we simply cannot get from the anonymity of a grocery store shelf. Providing the opportunity for your children to spend time and energy on preparing their food can create a natural bond and familiarity that predisposes them to enjoy eating that food. A Columbia University study found that when elementary school-aged children participated in cooking vegetables and other foods in a workshop, they were more likely to choose those foods at other times. We come to love what we know.
For All That Is Our Life
Food will be our companion throughout our lives. Food sustains us, gives us energy, livens our spirit and comforts us. The opportunity to eat together is a gift. Part of why it can be so difficult to deal with a picky eater is that it brings an enormous amount of tension to an otherwise precious time. Sometimes the knowledge that what is about to happen may be difficult is even more reason to take a moment to acknowledge the gift of eating together. This may look like saying grace or singing a song or checking in about your day over dinner or lighting a candle. Whatever this moment looks like in your own family, I hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunity to mark the occasion with something that acknowledges the value of eating, and of eating together. Life is short, and every opportunity we have to be grateful to be together is one not to be missed.