Most people outgrow picky eating behavior. But some don’t. If you are one of those adults who still harbor aversions to many foods and feel most comfortable with eating only a limited variety of foods, you might be interested in strategies for not passing on your own issues to your children. To be clear, we are not talking about eating disorders here, but merely about parents’ food-related quirks that might get in the way of raising a healthy eater who is open to trying new and different kinds of food.
To get answers, we spoke with ZisBoomBah psychologist Beth Lonergan, PsyD. While poor eating behaviors might be less pronounced in adults, Dr. Lonergan distinguishes between the “overt level,” where it might be a lot easier to not transmit behaviors to your kid, and a more subtle level. It’s the behaviors you are less conscious of that you need to come to grips with. Eating issues like picky eating are “just like anything else that I don’t particularly like about myself. I am not interested in passing that on to my kid. I want them to have their own path to follow,” says Dr. Lonergan. “The first key is that you have to come to terms with it yourself. You have to acknowledge that you have an issue with some eating behaviors,” she continues. Some people have issues with texture; others are more sensitive to strong flavors. Whatever it may be, “you have to own that.”
Have you gotten yourself to that point? Are you ready to tackle these issues? Then, within that context, you can develop strategies for preventing history from repeating. You’re probably the one who controls your family’s diet. You’re the one who shops and the one who cooks. Our expert recommends, “really making an effort to develop a palette that is not too limited.” Maybe even buy some things you don’t necessarily like yourself. Because, if you are a picky eater and don’t like vegetables as a whole, for example, that’s going to be a problem, says Dr. Lonergan.
How you can get yourself to like even just one vegetable or find ways to prepare vegetables that appeal to you? Venture online to discover new recipes. Possibly consider seeing a nutritionist a couple of times. “Get an expert consultation,” says Dr. Lonergan. “Say, look, I want my kids to be exposed to those foods so that they will have more choices. How can I do that?”
Modeling good eating behavior
A nutritionist will not only help you with your own eating issues, but can help you devise a strategy that will work for your whole family. It does take both. Why you have to fix your own problems first? Because if you try to make foods that you will never eat yourself, it will become apparent to your kids – it’s about modeling good eating behavior. You want to find a way so your own eating behaviors don’t limit your children’s eating and their ability to form a healthy relationship with food.
Another strategy Dr. Lonergan suggests is to provide choices. For example, serve three vegetables: one that you do like and two that you might not eat. Serve the dishes family style and let them choose for themselves, with the message, “we’re trying a little bit of everything.”
Push yourself and your kids a little. Try to branch out, and be careful not to assume you don’t like something if you may never have tried it. “Encourage a little bit of experimentation,” Dr. Lonergan urges. Taking a little risk is not a bad thing. ”On the overt level,” she says, “don’t turn your nose up at things in front of your kids, or say you don’t like that or you would never eat that.”
In the end, you want to find the right balance between keeping the lid on your own eating issues in front of your kids and putting them openly on the table – or “owning them,” as our expert put it. It’s ok to admit you’re having a hard time with those Brussels sprouts. Tell your kids, “I want you to try them, so let’s try them together.”
Make if fun & find new ways together
Find new ways together to make vegetables more palatable, for instance. “Allow for that discussion,” says Dr. Lonergan. Don’t hide your eating issues from the kids, but don’t necessarily make a big deal out of them either. Everybody has some foods they don’t like. That’s normal. “Trying to keep it in the realm of normalizing it is helpful, because it provides modeling as well,” Dr. Lonergan explains. “They are going to have things that they don’t care for and choose not to eat. And that’s ok too.” Take the bull by the horns and find something you don’t like. Make it fun. Tell your kids, “This is a food Mom has never liked, but I found this really neat way to make it. Should we try and see if it’s good that way?”
Keep it light, recommends our psychologist. “If you get into power struggles or are too serious about it, that’s when kids begin to develop issues about things that really don’t need to be issues. Then there is all of this baggage attached to it.” Instead, tell yourself and your family, you know what, there is nothing attached to it. Either you like Brussels sprouts or you don’t.
That’s easier said then done. What if you were the kid who had to sit at the table for hours until the sprouts were eaten? Isn’t that where parenting mess-ups come from? Because of the way we were treated as children? “We tend to do two things as parents,” Dr. Lonergan says. “Either we overcorrect or do what was done to us, because that’s what we learned.” It comes back full circle. That’s why it is so important that we, as parents, own our eating issues. “By owning it, you have to understand the things that contributed to it,” so Dr. Lonergan. “That wouldn’t be helpful for you to carry forth.”
ZisBoomBah advisor Beth Lonergan, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist with broad experience in the mental health field. As a psychologist who is balancing both research and practice, Beth is a well-versed expert in human behavior, including how people change and why they don’t – and “what makes people tick,” as she puts it herself.