Raising healthy eaters- Requiring children to eat foods they dislike: A discussion

Last week's post (about Feeding Picky Toddlers) brought up some interesting issues in the comments section!

I always enjoy comments that challenge my thinking and bring up great topics for discussion, and this post had several! 🙂 I thought that this week, rather than writing another post, I would post some of the points made and questions raised by others, and get some discussion going about the issue!

(Side note- I want you to know that I really, truly value your opinions, and some of these comments I am posting are from women that I have become friendly with, so this is honestly a forum for discussion and learning for us all!)

Mrs.Taft (who is a very dear, thought-provoking commenter!), said this:

1. Toddlers and babies have VERY sensitive taste buds. They taste
things far more strongly and variedly than we do. What may seem mild or
even bland to you may be overwhelmingly pungent or spicy to them. I
remember not liking raw onions because it burned my mouth. Now I eat
them fine.

2. To that effect, and sometimes in a greater measure, they often
have real aversions. Physical, psychological, or both. It's not always
a matter of obedience, it's a matter of ability.

3. We must always be careful of how we present food struggles,
because eating disorders are very real, and there has been research
done over the last decade or so that has shown links to both over and
under eating and tracing it back to childhood and infant experiences of
food… (you can read the rest of what she said in the comments section of the post)

Tami left this comment:

We have 3 kids (4, 2 and 7 months). I have always served the older two
whatever the rest of the family is eating. And, while my 4 year old has
an adventurous palate, like his daddy, our 2 year old is fairly picky.
We have not figured out how to make him take a bite without forcing it
in his mouth. He will sometimes put something in his mouth and then
spit it out. And we do use the rule that you have to take a bite of
everything on your plate. My husband and I are getting very discouraged
with trying to get him to eat.

And here's what Kimi had to say:

I do think that it is very true that young children's taste buds are
very sensitive. I remember there were certain things that I could
hardly eat when I was young. Sour cream tasted extremely tart and
disgusting (I hated it-

though I love it now), tomatoes were very strong, bell peppers were
also extremely strong to me, though now I think they are sweet!
Spinach, cooked, I really couldn't swallow because it would make me gag
so much. All to say, I think that children's adverse reactions to food
are very real, and not necessarily something one can always overcome
with mere obedience and repetition.

But on the other hand, I think that what my mother did was good. She
was always having us try new things, and we always had to have at least
a few bites. She didn't feed us our least favorite thing everyday, but
would have it on the menu occasionally. It worked great for me. I
turned from a very picky eater to one who always likes to eat new
things! So keep up the good work of having your children try new
things, I bet it will pay off for you and your children. 🙂

On the other side, I had a friend who's father would make him eat
something he didn't like once a week for 6 weeks. It didn't work for
him but only made me HATE the food with a passion. An example of
forcing food gone bad. I think my mother's way was better. Introduce
foods, but not force it all down.

Like I said, I think there is a balance there.

And now, I open it up to you! What do you think?

Do you require your children to eat foods that they particularly don't like? How much of an undesired food do you require? What about children with strong texture aversions, or gag reflexes? Do you believe it is ever okay to physically force a child to eat something? In your opinion, at what point is discipline appropriate (if ever!)?

Alright. Discuss. 🙂

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  1. I don’t think force feeding is the way to go because when my son was just first starting out on foods he would not even let anything go near his mouth and an older woman in our family told me to make him atleast take a bite. Well, I think this is the reason he is so picky today and has somewhat of a trust issue. So I would never make any young child to eat anything against their will. Now with older children I think it is okay how my mom told us we have to take three bites of everything before we got dessert. This worked well for us.
    My mom also excused us from the table if we threw a fit about what we were eating. She always put our plate in the fridge and we would eventually eat it later.

    I have read where people used food to punish their children. I think this is unacceptable. For example, telling their children if their room isn’t clean by dinner then the child doesn’t get to eat. I think this is a great way to lead to eating disorders. Using food as a reward for good behavior is a bad idea too. No child should experience hunger. I know personally it has devasting effects on eating patterns.

    To help overcome my son’s (He is three.)pickiness over food,(like I said I do think it is my fault for some of this) I started letting him help me prepare the food. I let him get his hands in everything, telling him what kind of food it is and healthy it is for us. And everything I eat I make a big deal about (‘Oh, how great this tomatoe tastes. So sweet. My tongue and belly sures enjoys this!’) He thinks this is funny but this has gotten him to eat so many fruits and veggies. He loves eating foods that he has helped make. So I think we should set an example and show them that we enjoy different foods and in time they’ll come along.
    Food isn’t something we merely stuff down us to survive; it is meant to be enjoyed. That is why we have taste buds, right? I think if we set an example on eating a variety of foods our kids will follow. Don’t they just want to be like us anyway? We should make things fun and not stressful. Another thing is with older children let them have a day to choose what is to be on the menu. We loved having our own day where we planned what we ate and helped prepare it. If all else is lost just pray and God will show you the way.

    Another thing is my son’s doctor says to go by what small children eat in a week and not by the day.

    I am sorry this was so long. I hope I’ve made some sense.
    By the way I love your blog. I have been reading it a few months. It is packed full of vaulable information.

  2. I do require my children to eat a new food at least a few times before they can give up on it.

    I never force feed my children. I’ve seen it done and I personally don’t agree that my child crying hysterically and getting spanked is what I want them to remember of thier dinner time experiences.

    My daughter doesn’t like mayo and mustard based meals. She has tried them on many occasions and really has demonstrated to me that she is consistent in her deisre to avoid these condiments. I am o.k with that.

    We are working on salad now. She doesn’t like fresh greens but she does attempt to eat them because we have agreed to only give her a little bit. We are teaching her the fundamentals of compromise.

    My husband encourages me to enforce the try it a few times rule. Prior to doing this I would just give another option.

  3. I’d have to agree with Mrs. Taft’s #2 point. Our middle son has life threatening food allergies and as a result he has severe food aversion. He is deathly afraid of trying new foods because he thinks they will “hurt” him. It is so hard for us to strike a balance and work with him without causing him any further undue stress. I also have a picky eater in the house and the two are entirely different.

  4. I have one picky eater and one very adventurous eater. We did nothing different in the way we fed them, the choices we offered, or the discipline we enforced. My dad and brother are both extremely picky eaters while the rest of us aren’t–leading me to believe that there might be a genetic component.

    There are some scientists that theorize that some people are super-tasters–they experience food tastes and textures more intensely than the rest of us. I think that might be true of my son. Food used to be a battleground for us and then I realized that I am punishing him for being who God made him to be. It wasn’t an issue of the will. It was an issue of torture.

    Our current policy is that I cook one meal a night (I refuse to be a short order cook). I serve small amounts of new or disliked foods to my son and make sure there is something (even if it is fruit and milk) available that he likes. If he eats everything that is served to him, he has the option of getting himself something else to eat. If he doesn’t eat it, there is no discussion, he is just done eating for the night. There are plenty of evenings that he happily chooses to not eat what he is served, he doesn’t complain, and he is excused hungry. Those are the days that I don’t have to drag him out of bed the next morning! He is up before I am getting his breakfast. 🙂

    A turning point for me was when I asked myself what do I want my children to be when they are older? Is it absolutely necessary to eat everything they are served? Or is it important for them to eat a healthy variety, be able to politely refuse food they dislike and make sure that they don’t offend the person preparing food for them?

    My son is 14 now and I won’t say that the toddler years weren’t difficult at times. I do think that we need to be careful to offer a variety of foods, encourage and praise them for trying new things, but ultimately to love them and not make the dinner table a battleground. There are plenty of other opportunities to teach our children about obedience and submission.

  5. I had a similar experience as a child having to eat everything on my plate. As a result, I now have to consiously push the food away when I’m full. I can easily sit there and keep eating without realizing it. So, I let my kids finish when they say they are. I also remember asparagus being a major issue. I couldn’t stomach it until I was 20. So I don’t make my kids eat what they don’t like – within reason. If I know that they have eaten and liked a food in the past, they have to eat it. If they are pushing food away because they are snacking too much or would rather have something else, it’s an obedience issue.

    But if a new food bothers them, I just reintroduce it in a few weeks. For the most part, my daughter is consistant. She doesn’t like asparagus, peaches, tomatoes, onions or olives.

    We believe strongly in first-time obedience and are aiming for that in every area. However, food just isn’t an obedience issue to me. I’ve found ways to cook healthy and tasty and my family pretty much eats what I cook. If occasionally they don’t like something, it doesn’t offend me, nor do I think it is disobedient to express a desire to not eat it.

    There have been a few “showdown” times when my daughter has been defiant about food – throwing it, spitting it, etc. We deal with those issues like every other obedience issue. It’s not fun at the time, but she is a very pleasant two year old to take to a restaurant because of those times.

  6. I am really enjoying reading this blog topic and comment. I am a mother of a very picky 4 year old boy ( I also have a two year old girl who will eat or at least try anything). He has a super sensitive gag reflex too. I have tried just about everything to get him to eat more. If I make him eat something he doesn’t like I can pretty much bet that everything from the lat 4 hours is going to come up on the floor. It is a disgusting battle that I don’t want to fight anymore.
    I have reached the place where I don’t want meal time to be a battle or a place where the rest of us lose our appetites. I like Pieces in the last comment, have compromised and decide that I will only make one meal. He can take it or leave it and he often does leave it and goes hungry (I do always make sure there is something he likes to eat such as bread and fruit with dinner). This is working out very well with us and has eliminated much of the struggle and unhappiness that meal time had turned into. For awhile, we all dreaded dinner time and that is not what I want this special family time to be about!
    My husband is also super picky and had a very sensitive gag reflex as a boy. He grew out of the gag reflex but not all the pickiness. I can only hope by constantly offering different foods to my son and him watching us eat them he will slowly start to be more open to eating them as his gag reflex weakens. I too think there may be a genetic link between pickiness and gag reflex and the like . I look forward to reading more comments and would welcome any suggestions anyone has on ways to get my son to eat a better variety of food.

  7. After my comment on your last post, we have had a small success. This past weekend, our 2 year old actually ate his scrambled eggs and said “this is good”. Now, I am not sure he will do eat it the next time this food is served, but the perseverance of putting on his plate what everyone else is eating may be starting to work.

  8. Wow! Thanks for the high compliment about being a thoughtful commenter! That made my day. I hope I continue to present myself that way 🙂

    Anyways, I enjoyed all of the comments last time and have enjoyed the discussion going on this time. I agree that it’s a good idea to keep offering and encourage bites of new dishes etc. while keeping a kid’s personal abilities and such in mind.

    I’d also like to comment on something Rosemary said–how involving her kid in the process of preparing foods helped him accept the food more. I have also found that to be really helpful, and it has other benefits as well! 😀 And Tami mentioned perseverance with offering foods in a non-confrontational way. I have also found that to be helpful. A few times our 2 year old has absent-mindedly tasted something she normally rejects and ended up eating most of it!

    Healthy eating doesn’t necessarily come naturally, so we do need to help our children train their palates toward healthy choices. I think it’s important and even necessary. Feeding our growing, developing children healthy food is very important, as is teaching them to eat healthfully and to see the value of it. I do want to make that clear, that I’m not about making the child in charge or something, or that we have to pander to every whim of our children. I just know that it is important to balance all of that with what our children are capable of. 🙂

    I think I said it before, but I was a VERY picky eater with some true food aversions. At 26, only a few of the true aversions I had exist, and I am far more likely to try new things and appreciate old things that I could not stomach before. And that took some discipline on my part, but it also was just growing up. 🙂

  9. I am so enjoying reading all of your thoughtful comments- thanks!

    Reading some of your comments and stories, I think that we may have been blessed with a fairly agreeable daughter when it comes to food. She certainly has her likes and dislikes, and it has been a process to teach her to eat many new foods, but overall we are not dealing with especially strong aversions, gag reflexes, etc.

    The conclusion that I am seeing over and over again is one simple word- balance!

    Balance between offering and tastily preparing new and healthy foods, and yet not force feeding them. Doing your best as the parent to set the example, take the lead, and help to encourage healthy eating with your own positive attitude, but also knowing when to back off from a child who is truly having a difficult time with a particular food. And knowing the difference between a physiological struggle to eat (ie. gagging, or extreme aversion or fear), and a disobedience issue.

    It just reminds me of the fact that parenting is something that we do not have the resources or strength to do on our own, but only through the grace of God, and His spirit working in us. Very little in parenting is cut and dried- each child is different and so is each family, and God is faithful to provide what we each need to parent the children that He has given to us.

    I would like to add that I agree so much with the comments about including children in the food preparation process, and that is actually one of the next posts I plan to write in this series!

  10. Wow… this is a huge thing as nutrition and obedience are both very important. One of the ways we “get around” dealing with disobedience at the dinner table is to watch what rules we make. My son (14 months) is fairly open to most things. Still, there isn’t a rule that he has to eat any one thing. I make a point to plan out our days and even the whole week with a diversely nutritious menu (feel free to see my detailed weekly menus at http://babychaser.blogspot.com/search/label/Toddler%20Menus). If DS doesn’t like or won’t eat a particular food, he has plenty of healthy choices to fall back on. By not forcing him, I am hoping to avoid food battles that end badly for everyone and add tention to meal time. I’ve found some great strategies for getting our children to eat foods they may not originally like. You can find them here… http://babychaser.blogspot.com/2008/01/when-your-toddler-wont-eat-anything.html.

    Hope this is helpful! 🙂

  11. I was a very picky eater growing up. Still am for some things. I think it has a lot to do with a persons gag reflex. Some people just have a really bad one. For that reason, I’ve decided to serve my toddler what we eat, but if he doesn’t eat it, I’m not gonna force him. He’ll eat when he’s truly hungry. I also serve him new foods first as he’s more apt to try them when he doesn’t have his plate full of his ‘favorites’. By the time he finishes the foods he loves, he just plays with the other stuff.

  12. My daughter (3 yr old) tends to be a picky eater. She is not consistent on disliking many foods except onions and venison. One day she will eat something and like it, the next day, it is yucky. I have tried many of the above strategies with getting her to eat and continue to use some: she has to taste everything on her plate; she is not allowed to spit food out once it is in her mouth(unless she is about to throw up); if she doesn’t eat an agreed upon amount (her whole plate or half sandwich, etc). , there are no special treats; and, if she throws a fuss about the food in either actions or words, she is excused from the table for a short time, until she can apologize. Wow…there are more rules there than I realized. It’s amazing what our kids can learn even at young ages.

    These are my dilemnas, if someone could offer some advice. 1)Even when we follow all of the above “meal-time” rules, there are often times she won’t eat, and is asking for food with-in a half hour. I am not about to make her a full meal again, but I also don’t want her to just have a snack. 2)She is a slow-poke eater and sometimes takes 45 minutes to eat when the rest of us are done in about 20 minutes.

    I will definitely take the advice of the earlier comment and try to involve her in meal prep. Great idea.

    To offer advice for the one who doesn’t like salad greens: We had salad for lunch one day when some friends were visiting. My daughter refused the salad, like she usually did, which was okay with me at the time b/c I hated salad as a young child, although I did want her to learn to eat it. My friend said, “oh Abigail, it’s fun to eat salad, you can pick it up with your fingers and dip it in the dressing.” Now, I’ve never seen anyone eat salad with their fingers, but this hooked Abigail. She has eaten salad ever since and has finally progressed to using a fork. She loves the “red dressing” (catalina) and has even tried the “white” (ranch).

    And a side note with food aversions: I am much more lenient with not having abigail try something if I know I disliked it as a child. It’s a good reminder for me to be more patient with her when dealing with food, because food aversions are real, (I hated tomatoes!!! and raisins cooked in things. I still don’t like cooked raisins), and I need to remember that when dealing with her.

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