I was raised below the poverty line, so I learned young to eat what I was given or I would have to go without; there was no room for finicky eating behavior. Fast-forward to when my own kids were young, I went through a phase with one of my daughters when she had very dysfunctional eating habits. It was not pleasant; she’d eat like a bird at breakfast time and at lunch, then she’d sleep for four hours and wake up screaming from low blood sugar levels and extreme hunger, a situation that persisted for several hours until I was able to get her to eat at least a little of something. Snacking throughout the day was also not well-received.
Needless to say, I was worried sick and quite freaked out by this troubling situation that persisted for well over a year. She was not starving or anything and she was a bit of a lightweight for her age, but she never got overly thin – in other words, she was not starving or anything. However, the daily food struggle caused plenty of stress for everyone and even with 20+ years experience working with children and youth in every kind of setting imaginable, I was still at a loss for what to do.
I Had an Epiphany… I Think
One day, I had an epiphany of sorts. It seemed everyone, with whom I shared my problem, told me she had an eating disorder of some kind and that I should take her to see eating specialists and pediatricians, but there was something about the situation that just didn’t feel right in my gut. My instincts were telling me that something else was going on.
Time to Experiment
I decided to try an experiment based on the idea that her problem was behavioral and not medical. I decided that it was more than possible that I was the problem and it was a matter of poor parenting on my part as opposed to something being wrong with my daughter. To test my hypothesis, one day, I gave her some lunch (it was 10 very small bites of something she had eaten in the past). I set the timer on the stove to countdown for ten minutes. I told her she had 10 minutes to finish her lunch and if she didn’t, I would give it to the dog, I would take away her princess dresses for 5 days and she would have to go to her room for ten minutes and be alone.
Of course, she was far too young to have any concept of time, so I stayed with her and helped her understand that her time was quickly running out. It goes without saying that she did not eat the food. So, for the first time in my brief time as an actual parent as opposed to someone who just worked with other people’s kids, I followed through on my threat. I gave the food to the dog, who wolfed it down in seconds (this bothered my daughter immensely – she went nuts), I took off her fancy princess dress and put her in boring clothes (I did this for all five days) and she went to her room immediately and stayed their alone for 10 minutes. Of course, I felt like an evil parent, but I did it anyway.
Immediate Success… I Was Shocked!
The eating issue disappeared immediately and completely. I guess she realized I meant business. Choosing not to eat was an issue that was not open for discussion. It was amazing. She ate every meal from that point forward (not massive quantities each time), but she ate about every two to three hours or six to seven times per day. And, she never became a picky eater, either. She gained a few pounds, her blood sugar levels normalized and things seemed to get on a much better track in every area. So, I guessed my hypothesis was correct and for the most part, the results have remained to the present day, with few exceptions. In fact, both of my kids, ages 15 and 16, are regular eaters of healthy food.
At first, I thought I had just been lucky and I tried to find some other explanation for the outcome of my experiment; however, I was unable to find any. So, since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why changing a persistent problematic behavior had seemed so easy. When I look back on it, I realized that it wasn’t so easy. In truth, I changed quite a few things about my parenting in order to make my results stick because I wasn’t prepared to go back to her eating dysfunction and I wasn’t prepared to see my other daughter develop bad eating behaviors as well. I did not just leave it up to fate or luck.
8 Things I Did To Make My Results Stick
1. I became very diligent about ensuring food did not have mystery ingredients like onion and tomato chunks. I absolutely insisted on my kids eating veggies several times each day, but for a long while I made sure they were hidden in the food and covered with tastes and textures the kids had already accepted.
2. When we were out and about, I forbade friends and family from forcing or guilting my kids into trying new things. I felt the introduction of foods was my sole responsibility. I didn’t even let my husband have an opinion on the matter. I just told him over and over again until he accepted my reality that I was not prepared to deal with a daily war over food and that we were going to slow the process down a lot.
3. I began to sell the food to my kids – I made it colourful, fun, exciting, interesting, and even interactive.
4. I talked to them endlessly about how food works in the world. This was not to cause them any guilt, but it did show them a much bigger picture of food and it gave them a strong sense of purpose. They did not eat the food because there were starving children in 3rd world countries; rather, they ate the food because fell in love with the process of how food gets to the table. They became part of the process when they were just toddlers and food was no longer foreign to them.
5. They learned to plan, shop, cook, bake, assemble, display and enjoy food when they were toddlers and they are still learning today.
6. I explained my role in the family and I made sure they understood that it was not all about them. I insisted on an attitude of gratitude, I insisted on communication and I repeatedly reminded them that I am a real person with real feelings. I did not try to hide my sadness that stemmed from being whined at all the time about food.
7. I had very flexible food rules and I empowered my girls manage their own lives when they wanted to and how they wanted to. I always helped them understand consequences and cause and effect and then I let them choose. Because they had so much autonomy in so many other areas, they felt little need to exercise control and try to enforce personal boundaries around food. I was always careful to make sure that if their behavior affected me in some way that they were not artificially insulated from that consequence just because I was mom. It was not about me making them feel guilty, it was just about me reminding them I was a real person with real needs and real feelings.
8. As they grew and their pre-frontal cortices (front of brain area) developed more, I continually raised the bar about my expectations. Things that were OK to resist in the past were no longer OK. Of course, there are still some comfort issues that I still indulge, such as blending the salsa smooth in a certain casserole I make. Neither of my kids like tomato and onion chunks and I don;t blame them, because I don’t like them either.
Overall, I became a very engaged parent when it came to food. I realized early that I could get my kids to eat amazingly healthy food all the time just by removing the stress that is normally associated with food in kids’ lives.
Given my childhood experience with chronic disease (Asthma and Bronchitis), I think I realized that having access to good quality food was of paramount importance in my kids’ lives and I wanted to make sure there was nothing that would stand in the way of my kids avoiding chronic or acute illness. I became very willing to go to great lengths to make all this happen. I’d studied health and wellness for nearly 20 years and I guess I finally started to practice what I preach.
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