Saying no to power struggles

How can parents raise healthy eaters without power struggles over food? Controlling your child’s food choices may not be the best approach.

Raising an enthusiastic and healthy eater has always been important to me as a mother. My initial approach was to follow the accepted wisdom, which goes something like this: Expose your children to a wide variety of foods. Have your kids eat what you eat. Involve them in meal planning and cooking. Make them try at least one bite.

All great advice. Except for us it never worked.

Things started out OK, I suppose. I have happy memories of my now-teenage daughter’s little face and hands smeared in dark Portobello mushroom juice, and the crack-of-dawn breakfasts we shared of millet porridge garnished with a tamari-roasted pumpkin seed smiley face. The list of foods she really liked was never long, but it was healthy. Then her list started to get shorter. And shorter, until it was cut down to only a few items she’d eat (noodles, avocados, carrots, and pancakes, essentially). Getting her to try something new was virtually impossible.

I was initially sympathetic because I was a picky eater myself (actually, I still am one — just a more sophisticated one). But my daughter’s food aversions became set in stone. I worried about how poorly and how little she ate. My attempts to have her cook with me were met with a resounding “No!” and taking her to the grocery store with me was a nightmare. This is the way it’s remained for most of our life together.

I was happy to read many years ago Harriet Lerner’s take on the issue in her book The Mother Dance. “Every mother has some craziness about food,” she writes, and she suggests that we need to let go of fixed ideas about our children’s eating behavior.

Lerner recounts how she and her husband tried an experiment with their two boys, in which they allowed them unlimited access to whatever they wanted to eat, whenever they wanted. At the grocery store, she told them they could load up on whatever they wanted, cringing inside as she asked, “Are you sure four bags of gummy bears are enough for you?” What she discovered, after the initial gorge on candy, was that when left to their own devices, the boys’ eating was just fine. One son’s preoccupation with sweets disappeared, as did the familial struggles around food and eating.

The idea behind this approach is that restricting certain foods will only make a child desire them more. When kids are given free access to all foods, junk food becomes just another food. Lerner’s belief is that most parents err on the side of excessive control when it comes to feeding their children, and that even though parents need not follow such a radical approach to eating as she tried with her family, they could create a healthier approach by creating an eating environment in which children can be trusted to make their own food choices.

A 2014 study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business supports this approach. Researchers found that parents would have better luck getting their kids to eat certain foods if they presented the foods with no “marketing” message — no saying this food is good for them or will make them healthy. The study’s authors proposed letting kids make their own food decisions; parents, however, can decide which foods to place before the kids.

After reading Lerner’s book when my daughter was about 6, I took comfort in this idea.  And yet for a long time it still felt wrong to me, as though I wasn’t doing my job as a mother if I didn’t educate my daughter about healthy food choices. Eventually the fighting over food created so much stress and negative energy around our table that I decided to take the long view — the very long view — and suspend the power struggle over food.

As much as my maternal anxiety allows, I have stopped fighting about food. I make sure to serve food she likes, such as chicken or pasta and a salad, without worrying (OK, not too much) about expanding her repertoire or having all the food groups represented. When I make something for myself that’s not on her usual menu, I usually don’t even offer it to her. The less I encourage her to try things, the more likely she is to ask to sample what’s on my plate, whether it’s Brussels sprouts, a potato radish gratin, or bitter salad greens.

I’d like to report that once I stopped the struggles over food, my daughter quickly became a great eater with a sophisticated palette. That hasn’t been the case. However, she does not eat poorly. I think our CSA experience has had a positive influence. I haven’t pushed the food on her, treating each week’s delivery as my own private treasure, but she does hear me ooh and aah over the beautiful produce. She may not eat all that I cook, but she’s grown up in a food-centric home, surrounded by a wide variety of healthy, whole foods and barely any processed foods.  Her own diet of choice, while still lacking a variety of vegetables and limited to foods she is familiar with, is now healthy and balanced, without much processed food or sugar. She’s branching out more and more to try new things. At a recent family gathering, she even tried an oyster–not offered by me, of course.

It’s been a long and hard lesson for me in letting go and trusting, but I’m starting to think that things are going to be OK, and I have raised, after all, a good eater.

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