This is in in continuation of last week’s article “Habits: Why We Need Ice Cream When We See the Truck“
I know it doesn’t seem like you reap anything but frustration from the fact that your child refuses vegetables, or won’t try anything new, or has a meltdown every night at the table. Whatever the problem, it’s absolutely driving you crazy.
Think of it this way though: your child developed his eating habits in interaction with you (or whomever his primary feeder is). If you are like every other parent on the face of the planet, you have been engaging in a fabulous balancing act: on one hand, meeting your child’s nutritional and emotional needs, and on the other taking care of your own feelings too.
Who among us hasn’t thrown a cookie at a whining kid to buy a moment of peace? Served up chicken nuggets more frequently than we would like so we know our child won’t go to bed hungry? Forked over another fistful of fries to avoid conflict? These are our rewards.
If you want to change your child’s eating habits you have to figure out what your child gets from the current system, what you get from the system, and what rewards would make you both want to change.
So for instance, let’s say you have a child who barely eats any dinner. She typically nibbles on a few items and then you start asking her to take a few more bites. Sometimes you then bribe your child with dessert (though you know you shouldn’t), other times you simply let her off the hook. Later, when she pleads hunger, you (sometimes happily, sometimes reluctantly) give your child a bowl of cereal, a sandwich, or just a glass of (chocolate) milk. At least she’ll be alive in the morning!
- How you know it’s a habit: the behavior consistently happens every night and your child automatically says she isn’t hungry or doesn’t like the food.
- Your child’s reward: control, the cereal or other food she prefers, attention (or maybe it’s just the knowledge that she’s driving you nuts).
- Your reward: the comfort in knowing your child is not hungry, joy at making your child happy with the food she loves, the end of the food struggle.
- How you can disrupt the trigger/behavior connection: serve up incredibly small (pea-size) portions instead of the medium or large ones your child expects. When your child looks surprised, giving her time to think instead of automatically react, tell her that you know she doesn’t like to eat a lot and that she can have more if she wants more.
- Your child’s new reward: she feels respected and in control, the pressure is off, she can make you happy by eating what’s on her plate.
- Your new reward: it feels delightful when your child asks for more, no more struggle at the table, as mealtimes become less stressful your child becomes more open to new foods and larger portion sizes, you realize your child won’t starve (and that’s a big relief).
- How you know it’s a habit: you stop having to plan how you’ll react at dinnertime, the system seems to be going smoothly, you no longer dread meals.
The good (and the bad) news is that every time you feed your child you are either reinforcing a habit, disrupting a habit, or building a new habit so you have lots of opportunities to get it right! But don’t be surprised if things go swimmingly for a while, and then there’s a backlash. Systems are surprisingly resilient to change. But you can change them. It just takes time and effort (and sometimes a little ice cream).
~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~
Dina R. Rose, PhD, is a food sociologist and author of the blog and upcoming book itsnotaboutnutrition.com.