How to prevent picky eating from ever starting, Part II
“We wonder how we get started doing these things, but we do them.”
My friend told me that as part of my babysitting instructions. Lunch for her 2 1/2-year-old, Kaylee, and her 18-month-old, Wee Man, was to include some cut up, raw red peppers.
“He’ll spit them out. So I started peeling them for him,” she explained, with some embarrassment. These kids hadn’t been picky; they had been the kids who ate everything a few months earlier.
Preparing for resistance: holding firm
“I do not get started doing these things,” I said to myself. I wasn’t about to start peeling raw red peppers to try to get Wee Man to eat them, because that right there is “how we get started doing these things.” But I said nothing.
When lunchtime came, I cut up a little bit of red pepper and gave it to him, unpeeled, with the rest of his lunch. I knew that worrying about what he “liked” or wouldn’t eat was counter productive. I, the grown-up, wasn’t going to get pulled into a pattern like that. Who cares if he doesn’t eat certain things? Let’s leave him alone. He’ll eat something.
What happened when Wee Man spit out his peppers
As foretold, Wee Man chewed on some of the red pepper and spat them out. As when his sister fulfilled the dire predictions moments earlier, I was annoyed. However, I did nothing. I thought, “Well, Wee Man, the worst is over at this point. You might as well swallow as spit out. The experience has been had.” But I didn’t argue with him.
I said only one thing: “You can eat those.” My intuition told me to say just that, nothing more. For some reason he thought he couldn’t eat them. They didn’t feel right to him. I knew he could; without telling him to eat anything, I wanted to reassure him that maybe they’re a little different, or not his absolute favorite, but that it was OK anyway and that they were normal and real food. So just to reassure him, I said it, calm and neutral. I was surprised that I even said that. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Otherwise, I ignored it, remained cheerful, and threw away what he didn’t eat.
I refrained from saying anything like, “Please eat those,” or “Put those back in your mouth and eat them,” or “You have to eat those or no applesauce.” Being force fed is profoundly repulsive and only increases revulsion toward the food being forced. How would you feel if someone tried to make you eat something?
Do we validate or trivialize pickiness?
Nor did I go to the extreme lengths of peeling the peppers. That is way too much work. Have you ever tried to peel unroasted red peppers? Furthermore, such measures show the kid that you are desperate, and you shouldn’t be. You should be calm and dignified and in control of the situation. It makes children think they are right to spit them out if they’re unpeeled. It validates and confirms their silliness, pickiness and immaturity, instead of trivializing it as it deserves. Desperate measures show kids that they are in charge, and can control you and jerk you around.
An important fact to notice here is: Wee Man tried the peppers again that day with me. He gave it a fair shot. He’d probably try them again next time if there were a next time. If given the chance to try unpeeled peppers again, he’d forget about it and give another try, if he doesn’t learn that such issues are Big Deals. He has no reason not to try them again. He might find them familiar enough with another try to swallow them. If we make a big deal out of it, he’ll dig in his heels and it becomes a big deal.
What does it matter if he doesn’t like certain things? It’s really OK. He doesn’t have to. He’ll be OK. What does it accomplish if we peel them? He hasn’t learned that unpeeled red peppers are perfectly OK to eat. Instead, his belief that they have to be peeled is solidified.
There’s just no reason to get started “doing these things.”