Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child's Eating Problemsby Donna Fish
All foods are good. That is the message of this commonsense book that helps parents speak to their kids about food and nutrition. It is a message that is long overdue, especially when you consider that 81 percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat -- half are already dieting -- and twelve million American children are obese. There is a disease gripping our… See more details below
All foods are good. That is the message of this commonsense book that helps parents speak to their kids about food and nutrition. It is a message that is long overdue, especially when you consider that 81 percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat -- half are already dieting -- and twelve million American children are obese. There is a disease gripping our nation's children and it strikes early. Take the Fight Out of Food offers a cure.
This practical guide is filled with hands-on tools and in-depth advice for putting a stop to unhealthy eating habits before they begin. In Take the Fight Out of Food parents will learn how to:
• Understand their own "food legacy" and how it affects their children
• Keep their children connected to food in a positive way
• Talk to their kids about food and nutrition
• Recognize and deal with the six types of eaters --
including the Picky Eater, the Grazer, and the Beige Food Eater
With guidance, inspiration, and encouragement, this invaluable book helps parents to teach their children to eat for life in a positive and healthy family environment.
Gilberte Vansintejan, N.P., M.P.H., Ed.D., Administration for Children's Services, New York City
"Practical, sensible advice for parents concerned about their child's eating behaviors. This book helps parents teach their children healthy attitudes about food and nutrition."
Elizabeth A. Rider, M.S.W., M.D., F.A.A.P., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School
- Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter Three: Identify Your Child's Eating Style
One of my sons eats anything I put before him -- from sushi to tofu. He's a total adventurer when it comes to food. My other son is so picky he won't touch any food that has a strong color, texture, or smell. They couldn't be more different from one another!
--mother of two boys, six and eight
Does your child eat only white or beige food? Does she seem to graze all day, rarely sitting down to eat what you would call a "whole" meal? Or is your child the type who seems to eat nothing for days and then consumes three plates full of his favorite food? Over the years, as I've worked with kids and their parents, I've observed that children demonstrate six distinctive styles of eating that correlate to individual temperament traits. What is a temperament trait? Although we often use this concept loosely, a temperament trait is a genetically determined personality characteristic that both defines and describes the way an individual reacts to the world around him. When we say, for example, "He is so intense and demanding," we are usually referring to the temperament trait intensity of reaction; when we say a child is easily distracted, we are referring to the temperament trait distractibility; and when we say a child is overly sensitive, we are also referring to the temperament trait related to sensory threshold or degree of sensitivity. While these traits can and do change in response to life experiences and environment, they also remain biologically driven. For our purposes, it's useful for parents to know how such characteristics affect their child's eating behavior. Indeed, the six eating styles described in this chapter incorporate those temperament traits that affect eating behavior in kids.
The Six Basic Eating Styles
- The Food Demander makes incessant demands for a certain food (usually sweet) or keeps demanding more food. He tends to be temperamentally intense and strong-willed (as opposed to easygoing and compliant) and can end up using food for emotional purposes.
- The Trouble Transitioner has trouble either moving from a previous activity to the dinner table or has trouble stopping once he begins eating. He can be very intense and focused and can require a bit more help moving from one activity to the next. Basically, this type of child is highly reactive to change and needs a bit more help adapting to a new situation.
- The Picky Eater finds very little he or she likes and keeps changing her mind about the foods she will consent to eat. Kids in this category may, for example, love peanut butter one week and loathe it the next. She may eat only favorite foods. The Picky Eater can be sensitive not only to the colors, smells, and textures of food, but also to other aspects of her environment.
- The Beige Food Eater insists on eating foods that are white or beige colored because these foods also tend to be bland in taste. Again, this child can be temperamentally sensitive to his environment and will therefore try to manage this sensitivity by controlling his food choices by color or taste.
- The Spurt Eater barely eats for days and then chows down. He will show less interest in food than the more adventurous eater, and it may appear that he subsists on air, only to eat voraciously several days later, playing catch-up with his biological needs.
- The Grazer loves to nibble throughout the day and avoids sitting down to a complete meal. This type of eater might be more than usually distracted by outside stimuli and easily engaged in activities other than eating. He might have trouble sitting down to a meal that requires too much of his time and attention. He is off and running, more interested in things other than eating to satisfy his hunger.
Look at these eating styles in the context of your child's individual stage of development. For example, at times it can be developmentally appropriate for a toddler who is excited by his expanding world to shift from being an adventurous eater to barely eating at all. Is this child suddenly developing a "problem"? No. He may simply be a Spurt Eater for several months as he gets used to his new motor skills and explores the world around him.
The same goes for the six-year-old who is just beginning to try to make his own choices but who sometimes wants his mother to make decisions for him. As you saw in the previous chapter, a child in this developmental stage is sometimes focused and intense, and tends to be a Food Demander. His wanting more, more, more may, in fact, be a sign of his new intensity and not a real desire for more food. So again, try not to label your child in a concrete or fixed manner but use the six categories as reference points for helping you to detect, prevent, and/or solve any eating problems that may develop. As you observe your child's eating habits, you will begin to identify her eating style, which will help you to find or implement the most appropriate solution. Or you may come to realize that your child does not really have a problem at all but is simply doing what comes naturally for her temperament and stage of development. Indeed, I call these traits eating "styles" because they are not necessarily problems.
The Food Demander
The Food Demander is often strong-willed, intense, and sometimes dramatic. These qualities, while wonderful in some ways, can also be challenging when you want him to follow the rules. Food Demanders want to make their own choices and test the limits of their power. By age three, such children tend to push for sweets if they sense there are limits to how much they're allowed.
Lily complained to me that her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Roger, who was ordinarily an adventurous and easygoing eater, had become a tyrant at the dinner table, demanding dessert before the meal even began. Not only was his behavior really getting to her, she said, but she and her husband had begun arguing about how she was handling it.
Roger had a strong need to feel that he had some measure of control, which meant that he also required strong limits. I advised Lily that the first thing she and her husband needed to do was to determine their individual comfort levels and the rules they wanted to establish with regard to mealtimes. They also had to decide how they felt about sugar. In other words, how comfortable did they feel about their son's having one or two desserts?
Lily didn't feel strongly one way or the other, and she certainly did not want to fight too much about it. But her husband, who had grown up eating a very restricted diet consisting primarily of healthful foods, was very opposed to "giving in" to their son, and he often accused Lily of being "too easy." (In chapter eight you will learn more specifically about how to manage partner differences.) Ironically, Lily noticed that their son demanded more cookies when he was with his father than with her.
I recommended that the couple decide on a particular portion size of sugar their son would be allowed to eat, and they agreed upon one dessert a day. Their next step was to explain nutrition to Roger in a way that a three-and-a-half-year-old could understand, such as by talking about the foods that would help build the muscles he needed to climb structures at his new school, or the bones he needed to grow so he would fit into his new roller skates. By engaging the boy's active mind in the process and giving him some of the responsibility, they were able to reinforce the idea that Roger was the "expert" on his own body, and it was, therefore, his job to feed and care for it. Once he understood that they respected his ability to make choices, Lily and her husband introduced the idea that sugar was fun food and important too, but that it didn't fuel Roger's body in the same way as other foods did. Using an analogy suited to Roger's interests, his parents compared the fuel his toy cars needed to run to the fuel his body required. (You can adapt analogies to whatever your child is most passionate about at the moment.)
Lily and her husband then introduced the rule that Roger could have one dessert or treat a day, and it was up to him to decide when to have it. The first day, Roger decided to have his treat with breakfast. His parents agreed but reminded him that having dessert at breakfast meant not being able to have one after dinner.
Later that evening, when Roger asked for his dessert after dinner, he whined and complained, but his parents remained firm, reminding him that it had been his choice to have it at breakfast and that he could make a different choice the next day. And, sure enough, the following day, Roger decided to eat his dessert after dinner, showing that he understood the consequences of his decision. The most difficult part of this entire exercise was for Lily to resist giving in when he put up a fuss. Within several days, Roger was more engaged in the process, felt proud of himself for being in charge of his decisions, and stopped persisting in his demands.
Of course, every day did not go perfectly, and at times Roger would fall back into his demanding behavior, but now his parents had a clearer framework within which to work, and they felt much more comfortable with their ability to handle Roger's "tyrannical" attitude (which was fairly typical of his stage of development, yet exacerbated by his willful temperament). They had to laugh to themselves when, just a year later, they overheard Roger saying to his cousin, "You're not really going to eat all that candy, are you? You need to feed your body healthy food!" (This was after a birthday party when they noticed that, in fact, he had eaten some candy and put away the rest to save for the next day and week, as he put it.) Lily and her husband are happy to report that Roger has also returned to being more adventurous with food, and that mealtimes are no longer a power struggle.
Tips for Dealing with Food Demanders
- Come up with one or two easy options from which your children can choose if they don't like what you have prepared for dinner. Yogurt, cereal, or a piece of fruit are things kids often choose. But don't worry if they don't eat. If they are hungry, they will eat more tomorrow.
- Since Food Demanders often insist on sugar or junk food, educate them about the fact that though these foods may taste good, they don't provide their bodies with fuel. (See more about dealing with junk food and sugar on pages 106-16).
- Establish clear rules about treats such as soda, junk food, and sweets. You may want to give your child some control by letting him decide when he can have his treat, but you control how much he gets and how often he gets it.
- Continue to reinforce your child's choices: does she want the cookie tomorrow as soon as she wakes up or would she rather wait until after dinner?
- Try not to say NO as a reflex. The Food Demander will only take that response as fodder for a fight.
- If you give in every once in a while, it is not the end of the world. Consistency need not be 100 percent absolute. Remind yourself that your child will eat more nutritiously tomorrow. You are still in charge; you are just choosing to make your life easier at that moment.
The child who fits into this category has difficulty moving from one activity to the next. He may, therefore, have trouble starting to eat or stopping once he has started. These are the children who put up a fuss and often say they're not hungry when you ask them to sit down at the dinner table. Or, conversely, after finishing one bowl of ice cream, they may want one more. After two giant slices of pizza, they'll say they're "starving." Trouble Transitioners can also get very focused on the tastes and sensations of the food and have difficulty transitioning from this stimulation, which can result in chronic overeating.
Stacey came to me for help because her seven-year-old daughter, Courtney, had begun to gain weight. Stacey was uncomfortable with the change in her daughter's appearance and her husband's apparent lack of concern about the issue. Stacey was a woman who had not struggled much with weight and who took pride in her fit body. But because her own mother was quite overweight, Stacey feared that Courtney would become like her grandmother. Although Stacey admitted she felt ashamed about her need and wish for her daughter to be thin and attractive, she also admitted that she was growing increasingly uncomfortable as Courtney was becoming larger than most of the other girls at her school.
In the past, Stacey had given Courtney a lot of freedom to choose the foods she wanted and had always believed that exposing her daughter to a range of foods with little or no restriction was the "healthiest" approach to use. But when she began to insist on more and more dessert, and then began to gain weight and change shape, Stacey started to worry that her hands-off approach might not be working.
First, Stacey and I discussed all Stacey's own issues with relation to food. It turned out that because of her reluctance to restrict her daughter's food she had not noticed that she actually needed a bit more structure. When it finally became clear that Courtney continued to ask for more food, even after having had second helpings, Stacey began to figure out that her daughter must be needing something else. The question was, What did she need? And how was Stacey supposed to handle the situation without communicating that Courtney didn't know how she felt if she was saying she wanted more food?
I suggested that Stacey use the following steps to help her daughter figure out if she was really still hungry, or if she really needed help transitioning from the activity of eating. Eating can be very stimulating. It takes the focus off everything else, and if a child enjoys eating, he or she may have difficulty shifting gears -- what I call decelerating -- and may, at times, need help making transitions. The key here is to help the child know that if she is truly hungry, she can absolutely eat. Many kids like Courtney, who are Trouble Transitioners, begin to lose their innate connection to their bodies as they become focused on the stimulation of the food in their mouth and they do not stop long enough to pay attention to the more subtle sensation in their stomach telling them they are full. This can lead to chronic overeating and a need to reset their satiety signal. (See Step Two, chapter five, for additional help in dealing with this issue.)
While some kids don't want to stop eating, others go to the opposite extreme and won't go near a meal until they are practically starving because their trouble with transitions prevents them from paying attention to their bodies' hunger signals. One mother of a seven-year-old boy came to me asking for help regarding her son's refusal to come to the table and eat with the family. "He always puts up a fight. It takes him forever to sit down and eat. What should I do?" she asked. I explained that although there could be several possible reasons for her son's refusal to come to the table, more than likely he was having trouble transitioning from one activity to another. I suggested that she and her husband give him some tools to help him make the transition less stressful, such as signaling him that dinner would be ready in thirty minutes, then fifteen, and finally five.
Once his parents began to incorporate this strategy, their son gradually came to accept the rule that he come to the table and sit with the rest of the family during dinner. If he didn't want to eat what was offered, he had to acknowledge this to his mother instead of flat out refusing or pushing his plate away. He learned that it was okay if he didn't like a particular dish, but he had to take responsibility for what he was going to eat. The easier it became for the boy to make the transition, the less conflict there was at the dinner table -- for everyone.
Another way to make the transition less stressful would be to institute a very structured activity for the half hour before mealtime. This might be doing homework or setting the table, or some other activity that shifts a child's attention to the kitchen and meal preparation.
Tips for Dealing with Trouble Transitioners
- If your child has trouble knowing when to stop eating, tell him he needs to wait ten minutes because his brain may not yet have gotten the message that he is full.
- Make sure the child knows that if she is still hungry when she checks in with her body, of course she can eat more. Also, it's very important to respect your child's food choices; if she says she wants pizza, let her have pizza. Don't suggest an apple just because you think it's better for her. This is an instance where it's important to give your children some control so that you enable them to reap the benefits of the lesson at hand: how to tap into and pay attention to their hunger signals.
- If after twenty minutes, she has not asked for food and has continued with her new activity, you will have taught her a valuable lesson about paying attention to her own signals of hunger and fullness.
- Since Trouble Transitioners need your attention and help shifting gears, suggest an activity they can do with you: help you clear the table, wash the dishes, chat over a glass of water or a cup of tea, play a game, or read a book.
The Picky Eater
The Picky Eater has a very limited palate. These children eat very few foods and may consume either very small amounts or a lot of what they do eat. They are completely unadventurous when it comes to trying new foods, and yet they can suddenly and with no apparent notice change their preference. They may, for example, eat nothing but chicken nuggets for months on end and then decide they "hate" them. What's important to understand about picky eaters is that most of the time, they really are getting all the nutrition they need (see the next chapter for specific nutritional guidelines).
Keep in mind that picky eaters are not being picky just to drive you nuts, but rather because they are very sensitive to the sensuality of foods -- the taste, the texture, the smell, and the color or appearance of foods. Sometimes, the picky eater is also sensitive to things like the labels in his clothes. This same sensitivity to touch carries over into the realm of food. If you insist on picky eaters experimenting and trying to eat foods they won't tolerate, a struggle and fight will ensue. So before you go that route, stop and ask yourself, Why is this a problem? Is it a problem for me or my child? Recently, Margaret came to see me because her eight-year-old daughter, Sally, was very picky. In fact, according to Margaret, there was almost nothing Sally would eat. While the family had more or less figured out how to deal with this behavior, the girl's school was challenged by it, and her teachers were not sure what to do. In the back of her mind, Margaret confessed, she also had some worries about whether her daughter might be vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
Sally was the youngest of three girls, and both her older sisters had been very adventurous eaters; in fact, Margaret told me, they were food enthusiasts who sometimes struggled with their weight. Sally, however, had always been tiny, short, and very, very thin. On the other hand, she was maintaining her growth curve, never got sick, and had energy to burn. Clearly, she was very healthy, and eating very few foods was not a problem for her, just the people around her (although her parents were managing quite impressively).
If Sally's parents had been less able to live with her picky eating and insisted on their daughter eating more varied foods, they could have created some serious power struggles. In general, I suggest giving picky eaters a bit more control, so that when their appetite drives their desire to experiment and try other foods, they will do so not to please you and not to rebel against you, but rather because their biology is telling them to. And keep in mind that Picky Eaters are annoying not because they are at risk but because it's hard for parents to watch them eat so few foods!
Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters
- Reassure yourself that your child is getting adequate nutrition by making sure he (or she) is on the growth curve, has enough energy for all his activities, and is otherwise happy.
- Allow picky eaters to determine their own portion sizes. Even if they help themselves to only a little, try not to notice or comment. This way, children will feel less pressure to eat, tension will ease, and they will actually eat more.
- Continually model your own enthusiasm for different foods. Some families set a rule that everyone has to take one bite of a new food, but if they don't like it, they don't have to eat any more of it. This strategy seems to take the pressure off and offers children a way to get past their resistance to trying new things. If your child insists on not doing this, however, you may have to ask yourself, If she is healthy, is it worth the struggle? Very often picky eaters become less picky as they mature into young adulthood. Just keep reminding yourself that if your child is healthy, there really isn't a problem.
The Beige Food Eater is similar to the Picky Eater but eats only beige or white foods. They often start off eating everything, including vegetables, and then, when they turn two, seem to lose interest in any food with color. This preference for beige or white food can continue until children reach nine or beyond, but most Beige Food Eaters begin to expand their food horizons at about ten years of age.
Beige Food Eaters typically eat mainly carbohydrates, including breads, pasta, and cereal, although chicken nuggets and cheese are often favorites. Jane Guttenberg, M.D., says it is common for toddlers, who are just beginning to learn about their environment, to restrict their foods to those that seem bland or palatable. A young child is not making a conscious decision in this regard but rather, since food is yet another aspect of his expanding environment, he is trying to manage all these new stimuli. Here is a telling example. Elly, a mother of two children ages five and seven, stated that they had eaten all kinds of vegetables and fruits until they hit age two and a half; at that point, Elly tried every trick in the book -- usually mashing up the carrots, broccoli, and so on, and hiding the vegetables in casseroles, in tomato sauce, or in whatever else she could think of -- until, at age three, her daughter asked her, "Mommy, why is this mac and cheese green?" and Elly quickly realized that she was driving herself nuts.
The main concern for parents of this type of eater is whether or not their child is getting enough protein and/or fiber in his or her diet. But one pediatrician I consulted assured me that 99 percent of the time, the child is getting not only sufficient but plenty of nutrition. Again, if your child is healthy, on the growth chart, and doesn't seem to be lethargic (a sign of either low blood sugar or dehydration), you probably don't have much to worry about. Do, however, continue to offer your child access to all foods -- even red, yellow, and green foods! Eventually she will become more comfortable with her entire environment and begin to explore new tastes.
Tips for Dealing with the Beige Food Eater
- Remind and reassure yourself that your child is getting adequate nutrition and that she will most likely grow out of this phase. It is very normal.
- Continue to model enthusiasm for varied foods, showing the Beige Food Eater that you, his siblings, and his friends love carrots and green beans. Show interest in the carrots the Beige Food Eater is not eating with statements such as, "Oh good, more for me!"
- You can also make smoothies that include yogurt, soy protein, or fruit in the beige color she likes! Pears, yellow apples, and white grapes are fruits that don't add too much color -- who knows, she might like them!
The parent of a Spurt Eater often finds himself or herself tense with anxiety: my child is going to starve to death! He never eats! The Spurt Eater is the kid who barely eats for days and then chows down like there's no tomorrow. Unfortunately, most parents of such eaters fail to either witness or keep track of how much food their child is actually eating. If you are such a parent, I want to assure you of two things: first, it's practically unheard of for a child to starve if he or she is given access to food on a regular basis; and second, your child is probably eating much more than you realize.
The first thing I advise parents of Spurt Eaters to do is to take an inventory. Literally, begin writing down the foods you see or know your child has eaten each day. Remember those four or five raisins? The six pieces of dry cereal? The granola bar on the way home from school? Such little snacks provide not only calories but also nutrition.
My three-year-old daughter, who is very thin, tends to be a Spurt Eater. (She is also quite picky but at times will branch out if she sees her sisters eating other things and asking for what she has left on her plate. You can always leverage the siblings!) At times I notice that she seems to have eaten very little for three days, and just as I'm beginning to ask myself if I need to worry or do anything differently, she always has a day when she requests a second bowl of cereal with milk. On those days, she even eats certain foods she usually won't touch, including turkey, salmon, and tons of fruit! Then she returns to her normal picky ways.
During her low-food phases, I continue to make all foods available to her and encourage her to try them, but I never push her too hard. I know she will eat when she is hungry, and my job is just to make sure the food is there when she wants it.
Tips for Dealing with the Spurt Eater
- When it appears as though your child is hardly eating, remember the days he plays catch-up and eats voraciously.
- Write down what your child eats for two weeks, or have your babysitter do this if it is too stressful for you.
The Grazer is yet another type of eater who drives parents crazy with worry about whether or not she is eating enough. The Grazer is the type of child who always nibbles but never sits down to a meal. Typically, Grazers are toddlers and preschoolers who seem to be happier eating tiny bits all day long rather than sitting down for three square meals a day. They are also children who tend to be easily distracted or to have shorter attention spans.
One of my clients, Lynn, was worried about her two-year-old daughter, Emma, who never sat down long enough to finish a meal. No matter how painstakingly Lynn prepared Emma's favorite foods -- chicken nuggets with green beans, rice and beans, or pasta with red sauce -- Emma would take a few bites and push her plate away. When I asked Lynn what Emma did next, she replied that her daughter usually just started playing with one of her toys. Sometimes she returned to her food; sometimes not.
I suggested that Lynn try a new strategy: instead of taking away Emma's plate of food once she had stopped or interrupted her own eating, Lynn would leave the plate someplace where Emma could easily see and access it. Soon after, Lynn called to report that, as I'd suspected, when she made the food available, Emma finished all the green beans, all the chicken nuggets, and all the rice -- and she didn't seem to mind that her food was at room temperature!
Tips for Dealing with the Grazer
- If you're worried about your child's nutritional intake, write down what she actually eats for a two-week period (as with the Spurt Eater above).
- Allow mealtimes to extend a bit longer and do not expect her to sit for very long -- especially if your child is a toddler.
- Be aware of the size of the snack bag you take to the park or on car trips. Are you contributing to your child's grazing habits? Do you think he cannot be without food for more than fifteen minutes? Are you being held hostage by his whines and your own fears that he might go hungry? If so, try to experiment with taking fewer snacks and distract your child with other activities. You may see that he begins to eat more at one time, rather than spreading out through the day. Again, a child generally learns how to eat more at one time gradually as he moves through toddlerhood to preschool age.
- Even if your child doesn't eat much while sitting down for a meal, communicate that mealtime is not just for eating but also for enjoying one another's company. Continue to deemphasize your need for her to eat, but at the same time, don't let yourself be held hostage by the old "I'm hungry" routine just as bedtime arrives. I always say, "Come on, it's time for bed. You can always eat more tomorrow!"
As the last few chapters suggest, children's eating "problems" are usually not so much problems as they are side effects of their interaction with the world around them: their developmental stage, their temperament, and their eating style. What's important is to isolate the behavior itself and then consider some possible underlying factors. Here are some questions you can use as a guide:
- What age is your child?
- What is going on with the child developmentally?
- Which of the six eating styles is closest to your child's?
- Is this child different from his or her siblings?
- Is this child different from or similar to either you or your partner?
- Have you factored in your own food legacy?
- Are you worried about your child's becoming overweight?
- Is your child experiencing a growth spurt?
- Does your child have energy throughout the day?
- What does the pediatrician say about the child's weight in relation to his or her height? Is your child on the growth curve?
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Fish
Meet the Author
Donna Fish, M.S., L.C.S.W., is a licensed social worker specializing in eating disorders. An adjunct faculty member at the Columbia University School of Social Work and an affiliate therapist at the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia, she is also a consultant to many schools and hospitals in New York City. Donna Fish lives with her husband and three daughters in New York City, where she runs a private practice.
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