“Mom, I don’t like the way these string beans taste and I don’t want to eat them.” – Benjamin, Age 4
Tonight my son spoke this sentence aloud at our dinner table. Yes, even when you are a pediatric feeding therapist with a healthy little boy, food refusals still happen time to time.
I didn’t cringe, I simply smiled at him. I smiled because I have heard this sentence spoken many, many times long before my husband and I hoped, wished and prayed our sweet son into existence. I’ve heard these words and many others just like them, not from my own child, but from the hundreds of children diagnosed with pediatric feeding disorders that I have been lucky enough to sit across from and help in my treatment room.
What made tonight different is that I wasn’t in a pediatric treatment room and my son does not have a pediatric feeding disorder. What happened at my dinner table is a perfect example of a normal, childhood food refusal. The type of refusal that occurs and often escalates for families struggling during mealtimes at millions of tables around the globe.
Can you relate to what happened at my table tonight?
To those of you that can, I know you’re out there struggling. You’re not alone. There are countless families frustrated and reaching out to me. I’m here for you. You can read on, because i’m here to tell you that my son happily ate every bite of those string beans without any further refusals and all on his own.
There is no greater thrill for a pediatric feeding therapist than when he or she watches a child pull out every trick in the book to avoid foods. Our greatest reward is in knowing that we can and will help that same child progress to not only eat those previously avoided foods, but to enjoy them and have fun with them too. These transformations are real and they happen in feeding therapy.
Initially a feeding therapist leads this change, but at some point, the reigns are turned back over to the parents. When children meet goals of healthy eating they are happier and healthier and their parents leave feeding therapy feeling empowered with the knowledge and the tools they need to meet food refusals at home.
This is what happens for families that seek help. These families, whose children qualify, get one-on-one help at the table, resources, education and a greater understanding of the underlying factors and sabotagers that contribute to broken mealtimes. But what happens to the families that are either unsure that help exists or who have children who don’t qualify for it? I often wonder about the rest of the families out there that I don’t get to meet. I honestly do care about each and every one of them.
I want to reach the parents out there taking a deep breath and saying a Hail Mary before heading to the dinner table. The parents that are ducking food refusals that are at times literally flying off plates and across the table. The parents that love their children so much that they are begging, bribing, yelling, negotiating, punishing, forcing and possibly even giving up – bite by bite – every night. The parents that dread meal time. The parents that are sick of the fight. The parents that have surrendered to hot dogs or anything that their child will eat. These are the parents I hope to reach. It doesn’t have to be this way. The mealtime stress, the anxiety and dread that were once the precusor to dinner time can be replaced with a tool box loaded with real, working strategies, smiles and an enjoyable meal together. There are a lack of resources and support networks for parents whose children do not have a diagnosed feeding disorder, but are still refusing foods during mealtimes and this is what my heart (& blog) hopes to change!
So now back to my son and his refusal of string beans. String beans. A vegetable that he once described as his “favorite”, “yummy” and “delicioso” had suddenly this night transformed into “gross-o.” Why? How did this happen? Is he testing? Is he looking to exert his independence? Is he deliberately trying to be disobedient? Is he bored of string beans? Is he just not in the mood for string beans? Is he tired? Is a cold coming on? Is he having growing pains?
I can pin point the reason for my son’s refusal, but the reason for his refusal isn’t important at all…because you can always find a reason. Yes, let me repeat, there is always a reason why a child refuses food, BUT the most important part of this refusal is how we moved past it.
When your child gives you a mealtime refusal — KEEP CALM & PUT ON YOUR POKER FACE. Trust me when I tell you that I understand how you feel when a refusal happens. I understand how frustrating they can feel when you are managing to multitask your work and your family and that perhaps getting a healthy dinner on the table was in fact miraculous, but you did it because you want the best for your kids. Then that moment comes, when they look at you and refuse to eat. I know it’s frustrating and that you may be inclined to dig your heels in and demand that they “take a bite.” Unfortunately, the problem with this strategy is that they will absolutely dig their heels in too and when that happens…it’s over. It’s no longer about the meal. Now its a battle of wills. You’ve already lost them.
So let me repeat. KEEP CALM AND PUT ON YOUR POKER FACE. Give this problem back to them and help them move past it. Here are the steps to getting past a food refusal at the dinner table
STEP ONE: Acknowledge their problem
It’s important that you hear them and that you let them know. I acknowledged that this was a problem for him, “Wow, i’m sorry that you aren’t enjoying the taste of your string beans tonight. That’s too bad, because string beans are the vegetable that mommy cooked tonight and they need to be eaten to keep your body healthy.” I said this in a sincere empathetic tone, not a stern one.
STEP TWO: Give reasonable choices (alter the refused food, don’t ever replace it!)
Give choices. I gave my son choices, “If you’d like we can add something to your green beans to change the way they taste. We can add some butter, some salt or we can sprinkle parmesean cheese onto them. Which one of those choices do you think will help you change the taste? You can choose or mommy can choose for you.”
STEP THREE: Give your child the power to fix the problem on their own. (let them choose and let them be the one to modify or change the food)
“I think parmesean cheese will make these string beans taste better.” said my son. “Ok, great choice, i’ll go get the shaker,” I replied. I handed the shaker to my son to let him do the shaking and make the change.
STEP FOUR: PRAISE! PRAISE! PRAISE!
Reward them for “making a good choice.” While my son was shaking the cheese, I gave him positive feedback and praise to reinforce his choice. “Wow, that looks really yummy. You really made a great choice. Nice work!”
And with that, we got back to dinner and he gobbled up every bite of his string beans while we talked about our day.
Why did this work?
This worked because I have a complete plan for handling normal food refusals and I am 100% consistent with it. It worked because this is just one of the many feeding “tools” that I have in my tool box to meet each meal with success. You can read about additional strategies or “tools” by clicking here, here, here, here and here.
Let’s be honest, some kids are awesome eaters right from the start and if you have one you are incredibly lucky (offer up some thanks right now), but many other children struggle, preferring processed foods over healthier choices and its absolutely no fun when battles begin at the table.
It’s not new information that children NEED to eat healthy foods for the bodies to function and for their brains to grow. What your child eats now is forming the adult body and brain that they will evolve into. Nothing is more important than nourishing them and setting them up for a healthy and successful life.
Children that are healthy eaters are happier kids and that makes their parents feel happy too.
For more about feeding disorders and the role that Speech Language Pathologists provide, please click here.