Eat Your Veggies Child!
A friend recently sent me a link to a video montage that was going round Facebook of distraught children refusing to eat vegetables. There was crying, spitting food out, being sick and parents encouraging them to "have just one more mouthful".
It nearly made me cry. It definitely made me cringe.
From what I can gather, the purpose of the video was a cheap laugh at how 'funny' and 'difficult' children can be, but what came across to me was a whole host of children not being heard, being humiliated in a public domain (I mean expect therapy bills!) and having their innate hunger cues overridden.
We all know that children can be fussy. I mean really it's a given, and yes it's an absolute pain when you've slaved in the kitchen for an hour to be met with "I don't like that, I'm not eating it, it's yucky!" despite it being their favourite food just last week.
What a lot of us don't know though, is the science of what really goes on when a child goes through that phase and how we can either help it or hinder it.
We live in a world full of eating disorders, anorexia, body dysmorphia and bulimia. Even those who don't suffer from the more serious issues, tend to use food in an unhealthy manner. I mean how many of you binge eat at certain times, use foods to boost energy when in actual fact sleep is needed, eat a whole sharing bag of chocolate on your own in bed (just me?!), eat on feelings, don't eat on feelings? The list goes on. We are a nation who has forgotten that our bodies know best and what it looks like to have a positive relationship with food.
As humans, eating is not something we know how to do from birth. It's a learnt behaviour when we naturally move on from milk. As omnivores we have no inbuilt knowledge of what foods are safe. We learn to identify what foods are dangerous to us and along the way our taste buds are configured and we discover what foods we love and aren't so keen on.
We eat to stay alive and because we are growing or utilising energy. There are times we eat more due to a higher output of growth or energy and there are times we eat less for the opposite reasons. We eat because we are growing not in order to grow. It's the same for our children.
A child's appetite will naturally regulate itself depending on their individual needs, but how often do we override this system by enforcing the 'finish everything on your plate' or 'just one more mouthful'? Should we not maybe take a step back and trust that they will eat the amount that they need for that moment in time? Yes they may come back hungry quicker than we'd like, but we also need to factor in the size of their stomachs and their energy output within that time, which is very different to ours as adults.
Food neophobia (an active fear of trying foods) is experienced by all children, usually between the ages of 2-6 years of age. It is a completely normal stage that they go through in order to protect themselves from toxins. Our bodies don't realise we live in a modern age where the foods in front of us are generally safe to eat, so it compensates by aversions. It's also why babies and toddlers in particular prefer to eat the exact same food off our plates rather than their own, because it is deemed safe to them as we're eating it and 'testing' it for them.
A huge impact of neophobia is parental input. Forcing a child to eat something they may not like (even if they used to like it) can create negative connotations and make things even harder for both us as parents and our children. It takes roughly 15 times of being exposed to a certain food for a child to be more willing to try it, once they've tried it it can take roughly 15 more times before they decided whether they like it or not. There are also thousands more taste buds in a child's mouth than an adults. This means that they are super sensitive to certain tastes. Bitter foods such as broccoli and vegetables are usually the first to go. This doesn't last though as their mouths are ever changing and it's likely that if exposed to it often enough in a positive environment, that they will eventually start to eat it again.
So what do you do to overcome the mealtime battles?
Firstly let go. By allowing your child a degree of control will help them to learn to listen to their own hunger cues.
Secondly, keep up the exposure of foods offered. See what happens over time.
Thirdly, get booked onto one of my coaching sessions and I'll happily run through a whole host of solutions and science that can help get your family dinners back on track.