As with anything in the roller coaster ride of parenting, so much of shaping our children’s behavior is all in the delivery. How we as parents deliver a message to our kids is the difference between real behavioral change and blatant disregard.
When our sweet, little, do-no-wrong children exercise their independence by suddenly rejecting a food they used to love, it feels like an act of war. It’s insanely aggravating as a parent when this happens, as there is usually no rhyme or reason to the sudden boycott. Yet here we are – dealing with the picky eating aftermath.
It is in these very moments that we are defined as parents. As long as they are under our roofs, their agenda is our agenda, and we must insist they follow our leadership. To help you in these moments of parental truth, we have created the 10 Commandments of Raising Healthy Eaters. Thou Shalt NOT:
Eating a healthy diet is a bare minimum expectation we as parents should have for our children. As such, consuming fresh fruits and vegetables should not require rewards or incentives or any kind. It should just be expected. Think of eating well as you think of homework – it’s something they simply must do. Children should not get rewarded for doing something that’s expected. Life just doesn’t work that way.
A guaranteed way to give your child a dysfunctional relationship with food is to punish them for not eating something. It’s a good rule of thumb to not discipline or spank your child for not eating in a manner you approve. We recommend reinforcing the desirable behavior with positive rewards rather than punishing the undesirable behavior.
3.) Force Feed
Force-feeding a child is one of the worst things you can do for two reasons. First, it creates a negative association with food. Second, it will never result in lasting change. Selective eating is one of the last bastions of control that children have against parental rule and by refusing to eat certain foods they are exerting that control. Testing boundaries and exerting independence is a part of their natural development and self-discovery. Your task is to stay calm and not bring any attention to their poor eating decisions. Ignoring undesirable behavior is ten times more effective than forcing desired behavior against their will.
4.) Withhold Love
We are a big believer in unconditional love. Even if your child does something that doesn't please you, never withhold your love from them. There is a big difference between the deed and the doer, and it is critical to a child’s socio-emotional development that they feel your love for them is unconditional. You may not love WHAT they did or didn’t do (the deed), but you still love THEM (the doer).
5.) Be Stingy with Praise
Positive feedback and reinforcement is one of the most powerful ways we can shape our children’s behavior. That means going overboard with compliments and attention when our children demonstrate a desired behavior. Each and every time your child does something that pleases you or makes you proud (and that you want to see them do more often), you should generously praise what they did (the DEED) and then praise it some more. “I’m so proud of you for eating your broccoli today at lunch! You’re going to be so strong/healthy/smart if you keep eating like that.”
6.) Give Up
Turning a picky eater around is never an easy task. Kids can demonstrate an unwavering persistence that leaves you frustrated and exhausted. Why do they refuse to cooperate? Because somewhere along the way, they realized what they need to do to win. As parents we must believe that creating healthy eating habits is worthy of our attention, our energies, and our will power. It may feel like moving a mountain, but with repeated bouts of persistence you WILL be victorious. Your child will thank you when she lives to be a centenarian!
7.) Forget to Have Fun
Part of building excitement in our children about anything we want them to appreciate is making it a unique and special experience for them. A special treat. Something memorable that gives them a strong sense of belonging with a group of people who unconditionally love and adore them. The strongest relationships with food are formed when accompanied by warm, loving, and happy moments.
8.) Talk Negatively About any Food
We as parents are the biggest influence on our young children’s life. Our kids listen to what we say and watch how we act. The moment your child hears you say, “I don’t like tomatoes” or “I can’t stand mushrooms” or “Yuk, that melon is slimy” is the moment they hear that it’s ok to have food aversions. In their minds, this one event gives them the green light they need to boycott food. As parents, we need to keep our food aversions to ourselves so we don’t pass along our biases to our children and, more importantly, we don’t inadvertently give them license to complain.
9.) Let Your Child Be the Boss of You
You are in the driver’s seat, not your child. When we give in to our children’s demands, the seat of power transfers from you to them. If you do let this happen, good luck getting it back! Keep control of the situation and you will retain the power in your relationship with your kids…..at least until the teenage years, anyway!
10.) Forget to Practice What You Preach
With children as with most humans, they learn more from what you DO than what you SAY. Be careful that you are not saying one thing and doing another when it comes to food. Your kids will notice the discrepancy immediately and call you out on it. You are much better off being honest from the get go about your eating habits but encouraging (always encouraging) your child to be the best eater they can be. We all know the list of reasons to eat well is long and compelling!