This is Part 5 in a collection of posts written in preparation for my book Fearless Feeding
At dinner on the cruise, the parents we sat next to announced that their four-year-old son will only eat three things for dinner — Mac and cheese, cheeseburger and chicken nuggets. This came up because they were going to drop both of their children off at the kids’ club for dinner that night but the meal was lasagna and their kids don’t eat lasagna.
I understand where they are coming from. They, like a lot of parents, weren’t prepared for feeding kids and the ups and downs it entails. Although what they say is true, I could tell that something very vital was missing from their toolbox of strategies that I want to share today: EXPECTATION.
Reading, writing — and Eating!
Most parents understand that teaching a child to love to read starts way before they can actually read. The same goes for writing — kids start off scribbling and that gets better and then one day they can sort of write a letter. Parents recognize that this is the learning process and generally expect that their child will learn these skills.
But when it comes to eating, we don’t share this same view, even though we should. Kids also need to learn about food and this takes time. This learning is enhanced greatly when we develop an attitude of expectation that they will indeed eat a larger variety of foods over time.
When we go out of our way to serve children only food that they are likely to eat or make a big deal about their limited food selections, we unknowingly lower the expectation. Our actions, and sometimes our words, are saying I don’t believe in your ability to become a good eater. Children, already apprehensive about eating certain foods, may lose confidence in their ability to move along food acceptance: if my parents don’t think I can, maybe I can’t.
But when we go to the other extreme and push too hard, we also let children know that we don’t trust them to learn about food on their own. In this instance, we risk pushing them before they are ready — and sending the message that we don’t have confidence in them.
How to Raise the Expectation Bar
Consider something you are reluctant to do, maybe even a bit scared. What kind of support do you like to get? Someone who shows they agree with you by expressing doubtful comments and taking away your opportunities to try? What about the pushy person who is always trying to get you to do this thing and totally disregarding your fears?
The type of support I like best is the person who tells me when you’re ready, you’ll do it. I have 100% confidence in you. This person continues to invite me to do the thing I’m not quite sure of, but most importantly, they model and enjoy the behavior, so I get to see what it is like.
This same thing goes for feeding. Model the behavior you want for your child in terms of eating, let them know you believe in them 100%, and then keep giving them plenty of opportunities to do it in a supportive environment.
It’s like the first time your child sounds out a word or writes his name: you will see progress. But that doesn’t mean one day they will suddenly eat everything, in the same way that they don’t start reading novels or writing short stories. Like any learning experience, it’s about baby steps.
The moral of the story is children will rise or fall to our expectations of them. When it comes to eating, let’s aim high.
Posts Included in the Series:
1. Announcing the Fearless Feeding Movement
2. The Only Guarantee I Can Make About Your Child’s Eating
3. Did You Make This Feeding Mistake the First 2 Years?
4. Expert Interview: Lucy Cooke, Ph.D.
5. The Feeding Strategy Every Parent Needs in Their Toolbox
6. Fearless Feeding Release Party! [Next]
7. The (No) Clean Plate Mom Comes Clean
8. Fearless Feeding 5 Years Later [Podcast]
It’s here! The most ambitious feeding book of our time: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
I would like to know what specifically you would do differently if you were in the shoes of the parents of the four year old with a selective diet. I would be nervous knowing that I was sending my child with babysitters and that he was going to be served a meal he wouldn’t eat. At four years old, hunger is a huge trigger for meltdowns. I’m not sure this would be an appropriate time for experimentation with diet. I believe that advice you’ve given in the past is to offer new or non preferred foods with something else that the child enjoys eating. Is that not correct? Please let me know how you would handle the situation.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thanks for your question Marie. Yes, I recommend always serving at least one thing (if not two) that a child is likely to eat. But there comes a time when cildren will need to eat outside of the home, especially as they get older. I have found that my children can always find something to eat most places we go. For example, we went to a chili part recently and I made plate of chili for them, knowing they don’t really eat this yet. My daughter tried it but both my kids mainly ate the tasty bread it came with. The main point of this article is to keep offering different foods with the expectation children will eat.
Now this mainly applies to normal developing children and may or may not be appropriate for those with feeding issues. So if you are working with someone, they can help you with strategies for eating outside the home. Does that make sense?