Step 1: Challenges in Specifying Expectation (continued)
Our children, four-year-old Celia and seven-year-old Malcolm, are very picky about what they eat, so I end up preparing different things for each of them. How can the program help me out of this bind?
Getting children to eat what the rest of the family eats is a common problem and may contribute to the alarming increases in childhood obesity. In my experience, it is not terribly difficult to modify eating habits in children up to age 11 or 12. After that age, many have convinced themselves that some foods are awful even if they’ve never tasted them. Fortunately, your children are young and your home program can help you deal with your concerns.
While your goal is to teach your children to eat what the rest of you eat, I suggest that you broaden your focus to helping them fit into your family’s whole mealtime routine. Plan to include in your program standards based on how your family handles mealtimes and work to reinforce each child for meeting those standards. For example, while some people may talk about the “dinner hour,” probably very few actually devote that much time to meals. You should set your own time limits according to how long you typically spend at the table – unless you happen to eat so rapidly that little children won’t be able to match you.
First define exactly what you expect of your children. Based on experience with lots of families, here is a prototype target behavior item that covers several very important elements related to cooperating at mealtime:
Malcolm, you are successful when you stay at the table and calmly eat all the food on your plate within X minutes (or, for four-year-old Celia . . . by the time the timer rings).
To help you tailor your own statements to your family’s style, I will discuss each element separately.
Expecting a child to “stay at the table” will be no challenge to one who already does so. Still, since it is important to the overall effort, I encourage you to include the phrase in your definition of success; at worst it will simply be four extra words and at best it will avoid your child’s testing you in a new area. If your child typically leaves the table and wanders back later to eat some more, I urge you to tell the child ahead of time exactly how things will work before you start using this item in the program. The message should very clearly state that in your family you stay at the table during meals, and that when you leave the table, the meal is over for you. I’ll come to the implications of that in a moment.
“Eating all the food on the plate” may be easy for some children, while many others, including your children, regularly complain about what they are served. Even if you were willing to continue cooking separate meals, it seems utterly unfair to you. Further, it cannot be in your child’s best interest to be so picky, demanding, and controlling since that style will be impossible to maintain at school or in other interactions away from home.
To change your children’s expectations, start by stressing to each child the new way things will work in your family. Next, carefully plan the first meals you will serve using the program. To assure that it is realistic to expect your children to eat the food on their plates, combine a small amount of the favorite food for each with small amounts of foods you want to serve but that have led to resistance in the past.
For example, suppose Malcolm likes only macaroni and cheese and hates vegetables, fruit, milk, and other nutritious foods. For the first few meals on the program, put a modest amount of macaroni and cheese on his plate, along with no more than two or three green beans and a slice of apple, and serve them with just a little glass of milk. The idea here is not only to make the first step relatively easy but also to assure that he cannot satisfy his hunger by eating only his favored food. Tell him that he can have more of what he likes when he finishes what is on his plate, so that he need not go hungry.
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The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn.
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Considering the extent of eating problems in our society, our expectation that Malcolm “eats all the food on his plate” requires further comment. Our goal is to teach children to participate more naturally in family meals and, in the process, to attend to their own bodies’ needs by eating just the right amounts of nutritious foods. To achieve that goal with your children, you must avoid associating mealtime and eating with power struggles or supporting the belief that the children can only tolerate junk foods. Take care not to press your children to eat too much – or too little – to meet their health needs. To assure you are helping your children to a lifetime free of struggle about food, maintain a matter-of-fact focus on eating to live and not on power struggles.
(This discussion of mealtime continues in Part 7 . . .)