I was reading about the latest Picky Eater Project (Can Young Picker Eaters Reform? 10 Rules, and a Plan) on the NY Times Motherlode. If you’re not familiar, Sally Simpson and Natalie Digate Muth help a family struggling with picky eaters. A lot of the rules they put in place are sound and familiar: Eat one meal, keep it pleasant, have something at the table kids prefer, get them cooking, etc.
After reading the article, I peaked at the comments. Quite a few parents write about how they do all these things and their kid still isn’t branching out. And I realize the thing that is happening is the thing that is always happening. It’s the thing that makes feeding kids really, really hard.
Our attachment to outcomes
Let’s say you have a family, two parents and a five-year-old, who aren’t having family dinners. Instead, the parents opt to feed their picky son his own meal and then make their own later. When they finally switch to family dinners, they’re disappointed that their son still has a limited menu. After a few months, they inch their way back to the old way, figuring family dinners didn’t work for them.
The problem isn’t that family meals weren’t effective, it’s that the parents were only focused on one outcome: the child eating more foods. Buddha says all suffering is due to attachment, something I see happen with kids’ eating all the time.
This tunnel vision makes it hard to see progress
When we are focused on the desired outcome, we fail to see other benefits that come from what we do. For the story above, the child is now eating dinner with this family without complaints. That’s progress. The child is getting exposed to different foods. That’s progress. The child is feeling their parents believe in his eating enough to invite him to eat with them. That’s huge progress.
In one of the NY Times article’s comments, a parent describes her child as able to cook but still unable to eat a good portion of what she makes. But a child who can cook is an awesome thing, right? I’m sure more experimentation with food will follow, as long as she is not labeled “the cook that doesn’t eat.”
Most importantly, when we focus solely on outcomes, we fail to address the underlying issues causing them. In my e-book From Picky to Powerful, when discussing kids’ eating, I use the analogy of growing a plant. You need the right soil, seeds, and water/sunlight to make a plant grow. But each plant is different, some need more water and others need more sunlight. And some plants grow quickly, while others grow much more slowly. A plant that is slower to grow isn’t a bad thing, it just might need a bit more water and time to flourish. (for signs that picky eating is atypical see this post)
The how: intention and acceptance
Like any parent, I am vulnerable to this “outcome trap” too. Little D can drive me crazy with his picky ways. I have found that when I find this happening (first sign: I’m miserable), I check in with my intention and how that spills over to my ability to accept his present eating or not.
Let’s say I’m cooking something new and I invite Little D in the kitchen to check it out. I tell him what it is an offer for him to help or just watch as I make it. If my intention is to teach him about food, then that’s what I do. Whether he tries it or not, I’m okay with it because my intention was to teach, not to get him to eat.
But if I do the same thing with the intention of getting him to eat at dinner, he’ll feel the pressure from the get-go. That’s because I exaggerate how tasty the food is, giving him every opportunity to taste it. When it comes dinner time, I remind him again how he helped make it and when he refuses to try it at my request, I roll my eyes.
Which one do you think will have a more positive effect on his eating overtime? Which one better allows me to stay the course and keep things in perspective?
I’m all for sharing stories and advice to help struggling parents but I’m always cautious when I hear words like “reform” or “cure.” Because I want parents to understand that even when they make positive changes, not all kids will react in the same way but that doesn’t mean important learning isn’t going on. One child who learns to cook will want to expand his taste while another stays cautious. Children bloom with food in their own time, so we can’t stop giving them what they need to grow.
For more on how to handle picky eating, check out Maryann’s book From Picky to Powerful.