This post features the second scenario I have chosen for my series on spirited children. To view the rest of the series, please visit the following links:
- ADHD or Spirited?
- Spirited Children part 2: Positive Labeling
- Spirited Child part three: Understanding Temperments
- Spirited Kids Part Four: Sleep
I have a friend whose young boys will eat vegetables without a fuss. She’s never had a problem getting them to eat healthy foods. To her credit, at least one of them is spirited, but her luck is something many mothers would pay big money for. Everybody knows kids hate veggies, but spirited kids don’t just hate them; they will throw huge tantrums, refuse to eat for days, or willingly spend the entire day in bed just to avoid them. Hence my topic for today: how do you get a spirited child to eat healthy food?
Something I have found is that as children get older they naturally mature and may be more willing to eat healthy foods, but every meal prior to is an invitation for a disastrous battle. Doctors say kids won’t starve themselves, but I gave up when after three days of Buddy’s self-induced fasting over a bite of lasagna he started throwing up. We obviously needed to try a different tactic.
Each child has their own quirks and any method you try will need to be adapted to them for it to have a chance of working. Raising Your Spirited Child gave some specific examples of how temperment affects mealtimes:
- Sensitivity fosters strong opinions
- Intensity makes reactions forceful
- Persistence makes them want to do it themselves
- Perceptiveness leads to “grazing”
- Slow adaptability makes getting them to the table difficult
- Irregularity leads to erratic hunger pains
- High energy leads to a desire to eat on the run
- A negative first reaction leads to frequent refusals
If you have a good idea what is leading your child to battle you at mealtimes, understanding their temperment enables you to communicate that you care how they feel, and to seek more effective ways to help them eat. The following are some ideas I’ve tried myself or taken from The Difficult Child or Raising Your Spirited Child.
Breastfeed. Breastmilk is the perfect food for babies, and provides countless nutritional benefits, even to toddlers. These benefits last well into adulthood, but more immediately, they make transitioning to tablefood easier. Because breastmilk has everything a baby/toddler needs (except vitamin D which can be obtained through sunlight) there is no reason to pressure your young child to eat a lot of food. You can offer them the freedom to experiment until they decide they like food afterall. We did this with our third child; he went straight from breastmilk to tablefood (with supplemental breastmilk) around 8 or 9 months, and so far we’ve had the fewest diet-related challenges with him.
Introduce new foods gradually, offer them over and over again, and whatever you do, don’t take personal offense when they don’t like it! Especially if your child is sensitive, or slow to adapt, it may take a while before they’re willing to like a new food. Also, don’t challenge their threshold. If they don’t like it, ask them to label what is bothering them (color, texture, flavor, temperature, etc.), and if possible give them two choices you can both agree on. If that’s not an option, teach them how to refuse food respectfully.
Think variety, not quantity. Who knew you could learn something so crucial from a movie star’s wife! A cousin gave me Jessica Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious for Christmas. Honestly, I didn’t like the idea of hiding veggies because I thought it would reinforce my kids’ belief that veggies are yucky, but since the fight over them wasn’t working either, I did it. I blended up spinach and hid it in their bagel pizzas. Read here to discover their reaction. In her book, Jessica talks about the need to give variety to childrens’ diets, but emphasises that they don’t need to eat as much as we do. Four bites of a vegetable offer significant nutritional benefits for children, and if battles over food are a regular occurence, hiding them until the kids are a little older may give you all a chance to rethink how you address food. Whatever you do, don’t get into the habit of making two (or more) separate meals at a time, it’s just not worth it!
Let them snack, and eat how much they want. This goes along with thinking “variety not quantity”, but it is important to remember that energetic little people cannot sit down for three meals a day. You can make them, but they won’t eat much, and they’ll complain of being hungry just 20 minutes later. Grazing won’t spoil your child. Eating together is important for many families, but for the spirited child you will not ruin their appetite by offering them healthy snacks throughout the day. In fact, you’ll just help them to be healthier.
Involve them in food prep, and let them know what’s on the menu for the day. Some kids are more willing to try foods if they help make them. If you’re like me, you’ll want to be left alone in the kitchen, but inviting the kids to help say, at least once a week, will give them a great opportunity to learn and explore possibilities. If your child is slow to adapt, sharing the daily menu gives them time to adjust and mentally prepare for the meals, perhaps making mealtime easier for everyone.
Rewards. Some kids will eat their food if you offer them a reward. You might think this is bribing, but the reward doesn’t have to be dessert. Some parents have success using the star system, giving their kids a small gift or privelege after a specified number of meals eaten without complaint. If you try this, keep the child’s age in mind. A 2 year old, for example, will have more difficulty lasting a week then a 4 year old.
Vitamins. If your child refuses to eat, nothing is working, and their health is becoming compromised, you should make sure they are taking good quality vitamins with minerals until they are eating well. When Buddy was about 2 years old he started eating the strangest things, like dust and baby powder. I did some research and found that childhood pica is often associated with a mineral deficiency. I switched him to a brand of vitamins that included minerals and the dust-eating stopped almost immediately!
We still sometimes have problems with our kids refusing food, but the research we’ve done and attention we’ve given to their temperments has helped us to manage most of the challenges we’ve faced. If you have any other ideas that have worked for you, do share!
The last two posts in this series are: Disciplining the Spirited Child and Planning for Success. Stay tuned!