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Diet - health and power!

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
Hello girls, is this the right place for this thread? Please advise if it would be better off somewhere else!

My son is on the verge of turning 4 years old, and I am at a loss as to how to approach the dietary problems that we have. I'm sorry this is so long, but I would really like your feedback based on our exact circumstances

Character: Using the language of Mary Sheedy's Sprited Child, my son is very, very intense, very persistent, generally negative first reaction to things. While in general character terms I'd say he's not too far out there (though definitely "more" everything than average), when it comes to food he really is at the extreme side of the scale. He goes through phases in his general behaviour - more defiant, less defiant; happier, whinier - but with food there is never any let up.

Food - The only things he REALLY wants to eat are breads, plain rice, pasta (no tomato!), fries (no other kinds of potato, thank you!), with fried or grilled chicken or Asian-style pork. Anything else is a source of conflict. We started off okay when he was very little - he would eat all kinds of yummy pulse stews, broccoli, carrots, cheese, all kinds of fruit. Bit by bit, most of these things got dropped. Right now the only vegetable he will eat is broccoli and over the last couple of months even that has become a major struggle of wills. Fruit - only bananas, pears, apples, mango, mandarins and raspberries. And fruit always loses out if there are other options - it will simply remain on the plate. Yoghurt has been an advance, he now drinks a small bottle a day if the planets are aligned. Omelettes he eats, reluctantly. Cheese only if mixed into things and thus invisible, or parmesan on pasta. Milk, only in hot chocolate and oatmeal. That is the sum total of everything more more less healthy.

He also tends to be very restless at the table and would get up and down 20 times if we let him. Making him stay (as we do - he's allowed to get down only once) increases the conflict. We always try to eat together as a family, but sometimes it is tough, what with the staged meals and the restlessness.

I honestly believe that this is largely a power thing, rather than a matter of him really liking things or not. For instance, some days he will eat broccoli and tell me it was really yummy. The next he will not eat it come hell or high water. Fruit, yes he likes it, but he will always try to hold out for something "better". He sees that DH and I are anything but relaxed about this problem, and that is fuel for the power fire!

Approach: Some time ago we decided to start each meal with just the veg (broccoli, broccoli and more broccoli), so that he's hungry and has no choice. Then the protein, and then the starch. (Obviously this ruins the enjoyability of our meals!) Our pediatrician at the time, a cool kind of doc, supported us on this because his diet was so extremely poor, and it sort of worked for a decent time, there was not too much conflict. But in the last few months the conflict has increased, and fairly often we reach a point where he eats nothing at all. If he doesn't eat his lunch we will re-serve it at dinner. Often he will then eat it, but whimpering and whinging. Other times, he will eat nothing at all, lunch or dinner, and just hold out for bland, easy breakfast. (Then he gets us up at 5 am because he's starving!) By the way, we generally try to eat together, though it is often difficult with the staged meals and the restlessness.

My dilemma: I see the advice frequently that, particularly with this kind of intense child, one should never force them to eat anything, one should always serve a normal, nutritionally balanced meal, not one thing ahead of another, and leave it to them to ensure their own nutrition. We tried this for a week, and for a week he ate nothing but starch and a little bit of chicken, and we got desperate and went back to the previous approach. My concerns are 3: 1) that forcing him to eat things when he doesn't want to (even when it's power rather than taste) will turn him off them and won't want to eat them when he grows up; 2) that NOT forcing him to eat them will over-indulge his negative reaction to things, meaning that he never comes to understand that these things are really tasty (it is quite possible that he will NEVER try them); and 3) that he will suffer nutritionally, though we do supplement with vitamin drops. (That said, he is a healthy little guy, though pretty skinny!)

My query: What do you all think? Should I follow the advice of letting him choose 100% and just live with it if (as seems likely) he never chooses the stuff you need for a balanced diet, relying on the vitamin supplements instead. Or should I, in this extreme case (because it really is extreme), continue to give him the fruit and veg on its own and then progress to the rest when he's finished that? And what about the nature of the things that I serve? There are so many things that I KNOW he will not eat. Should I continue to serve them irrespective? It's less clear cut if, for example, I prepare a stew with things he likes but then with red peppers or mushrooms so we have to sit for an hour watching him pick them out. But he will eat the chicken and the rice. Should I prepare the same dish but without these things that I know are doomed? And what about other dishes that are totally anathema to him? Like, what if DH and I are having salad for dinner? I know that serving him the salad means no dinner for DS....

Please help!

post #2 of 11
Hi there,

It looks like your 3 year old eats:

bread, rice, pasta, fried potato, chicken, pork, broccoli, bananas, pears, apples, mango, mandarins, raspberries, yoghurt, omelettes, cheese and oatmeal.

That's a diet that most parents of fussy 3 year olds would be thrilled with! It's a lot better than nothing but plain potato chips and milk, for example!

As a former fussy eater myself, I can't say strongly enough how important it is to back off seeing this as a power struggle/discipline issue. As parents we can get so worried about health; but I know that if I'd been served nothing but broccoli as a first course every dinner as a child, I would have literally thought I was going to die. And please don't speak to me about re-serving uneaten food!

Work with the great list of food you already have and try to make mealtimes more relaxed and enjoyable. I know that many people don't like cooking two meals, and that is a fair position to take, but personally I would suggest modelling healthy, enjoyable eating with meals that you both like. Then your child can be served some child-sized portions of things he likes, with a bite or two of something new on the side. The key is to serve a meal that looks healthy, so he knows what a healthy meal looks like, and not worry if it doesn't all get eaten. He is certainly not going to be starved or malnourished on his existing diet. And best not to keep an active 3 year old sitting at the table for a long time.

PS you might want to consider changing your thread name if you want more responses - it looks like you are advertising a diet!
post #3 of 11
Thread Starter 

Eating struggles!

Robinia, I appreciate your response so much. I was getting desperate, and I know the post was too long! (Unfortunately can't see any way to change the title now, though, lol!)

You are pretty much right about the list of foods that DS eats - but I would reiterate that it's only the starches that he consistently eats with no problem. All the other items are the source of conflict on and off , and he will never choose fruit or veg if there is a starch on the table. And he will very often completely leave the protein in favour of the starch as well, as happened with a pretty delicious Chicken Alfredo last night!

So while the list doesn't look too bad - you're right - the "good stuff" tends to depend on him having no other options. Fruit doesn't work too bad when he's hungry and when we give it as a snack, but we can more or less forget about him eating anything but the starch if we serve him a balanced meal at the table. And (thinking about it), if we let him overdose on starch at the table then he's unlikely to want the fruit as a snack later.

That doesn't change your perspective at all? Would your bottom line be that we should just chill and accept an overwhelmingly starch-based diet with sneaky vitamin supplements added in? That would certainly make our lives easier. But it's so hard not to worry about the nutritional aspect. And future eating patterns, which for me is the most important issue. (Part of my concern stems from the fact that my sister was and still is a fussy eater. She is a vegetarian who doesn't eat veggies! According to our mother, she could do nothing to change the pattern, and she never grew out of it. This is not something I want to repeat with my son.)

Tell me a little bit more about yourself, if you don't mind. You say you are a former fussy eater. No longer, not at all? How did things change, over what time period? How did your family handle your fussy eating, and how did it influence things?

Again, thanks so much for your response, I really appreciate it!
post #4 of 11
Are you using whole grain breads, brown rice and whole grain pasta?

If so, I wouldn't worry about it too terribly much.

If you're serving white bread, rice and pasta then, I'd be more concerned.

Personally, I don't like to make food an issue. At all. But, I also wouldn't serve large portions of starch either.

How about casseroles? If he likes pasta then mix whole grain pasta with some sauce loaded with pureed veggies, sprinkle on cheese and bake.

Same with rice - mix brown rice with broccoli and shredded cauliflower (shredding it makes it almost invisible when it cooks) and then pour a cheese sauce over the top and bake.

Or, how about just not having starch at every meal? How about just making a protein and veggies?

How do you cook your veggies? My kids won't eat plain, steamed veggies but, if I roast them, they'll suck them down.

Roasted green beans are a huge hit at our house. They almost taste like french fries!

My kids adore roasted broccoli, roasted sweet potatoes (again, these can be made into fries), roasted asparagus etc.... they'll eat anything roasted.

My kids will also eat veggies with butter - do you butter your veggies?

I think it's hugely important not to make food an issue. Your child is so very young. But, you're also not a short order cook. I wouldn't intentionally make things he doesn't like but, I also wouldn't make separate meals. So, in your stew example. I would cut the mushrooms into minuscule pieces so that he doesn't even know they're in there.

But, in your salad example, I think it would unfair to not make him a separate meal if you know you're preparing something he doesn't like. And really, a salad for dinner isn't kid friendly at all - my kids are the best eaters I know and they wouldn't eat a salad for dinner. Do you really just eat salad for dinner?

They say a kid might have to have a food presented to them over 20 times before they'll try it. And some times they'll try it and not like it but a year later they will. You never know but, it's important to not make a huge power struggle over it - you'll drive yourself crazy and ultimately, you can't force feed him.

Getting up and down is normal - irritating but normal. We had an issue like that with DD - dinner could take over an hour and it drove me batty. What we did was set a timer for 20 minutes. I told her that when the timer went off, dinner was over and her plate was going in the sink. It only took a couple times for her to figure out she needed to sit down and eat or her plate was gone.

Good luck to you! I know figuring out food issues is so tough. You want to ensure a healthy diet but, you also don't want to create a struggle.

Just present healthy options and let the rest go.
post #5 of 11
Thread Starter 
Amcal, thank you also so much for responding!

Some really great suggestions there that I just hadn't thought of. No, I slipped off the wholegrain track a while ago - only whole grain pasta and bread, a bit sporadically at that. Unfortunately DH and I are not great fans (but we have pretty healthy diets otherwise). But you are right, I will definitely step that up again. I love your idea for the rice casserole with invisible cauliflower. He might just go for that. I'll also try the one with pureed veggies, but unfortunately he refuses pasta with tomato sauces, so I somewhat doubt that would be different. But you have to try, right?!

I laughed when you suggested cutting up the mushrooms really small so he wouldn't notice them! They were absolutely TINY in the dish I prepared (3-4 mm?). And still he picks them out. He is a real pro!

I steam and butter the veg, will definitely try the roasting (I love roasted veg). I dream of something like roasted beans or asparagus, but this guy sees anything green and that is that! I always chuckle also at the recommendation to offer as many as 20 times as, I swear, we have tried some things 100 times and it's just not happening. But I"m not being fatalistic here, I have to and I will try it all. I really appreciate your suggestions.

Ultimately, though, it sounds from your last line that you're in agreement with Robina that I can try (and keep trying) all of this, but if it doesn't work I should just let it go and accept that he will choose the starches and little else(with those vitadrops added!) rather than the greater evil of a major power struggle. Am I right?

Again, thanks so much!
post #6 of 11
Thread Starter 
Hi again, Amcal, just let me clarify something:

Originally Posted by amcal View Post
I think it's hugely important not to make food an issue. Your child is so very young. But, you're also not a short order cook. I wouldn't intentionally make things he doesn't like but, I also wouldn't make separate meals.

But, in your salad example, I think it would unfair to not make him a separate meal if you know you're preparing something he doesn't like. And really, a salad for dinner isn't kid friendly at all - my kids are the best eaters I know and they wouldn't eat a salad for dinner. Do you really just eat salad for dinner?
When you talk about making a separate meal if I know I'm preparing something he doesn't like - well I know there are so many things he doesn't like! With the exception of meat-and-two-veg-style meals where he can just take or leave the different items, our diet would be so restricted if we went with his flow. It's not about salad - I wouldn't inflict that on him as it took me years to learn to enjoy it! It's about the tiny tiny mushrooms and the slivers of red pepper and that kind of thing, that can just ruin a meal for him. He might pick them all out or he might just reject the meal completely depending on hunger and mood. But if we leave them out it is a problem for our diet and enjoyment. Stick with the tiny slivers even if I know what's going to happen?!

Also, it occurs to me that a lot of Important Experts say don't try to hide veg as if they don't know they are eating it they can't learn to like it. What's your thought on that? My thought is mostly - give me a break here!
post #7 of 11
I totally disagree about hiding veggies - I hide them all the time. But, I also serve them in their whole form. So, while I add shredded cauliflower to tons of dishes, I also serve cauliflower florets that I've roasted with butter and a touch of salt.

I hide shredded zucchini in tons of things as well but, I also serve it chip style - just slice it in thin rounds toss with a bit of oils, slat and roast until very lightly browned.

I don't think it has to be one way or the other.

But, no, I don't think it's ok for him to just choose starches and little else but, I don't serve starches - or very rarely do I serve starches. I don't think they're healthy and if I do serve them, I would only do whole grain starches or sweet potatoes.

For us, a typical meal is a couple veggies and a protein. But, if I'm serving grains, it's casserole style so that the kids can't just choose to eat a starch.

How about a burrito pie? Something like this:

You can hide a wealth of veggies in a burrito pie I've made this with diced chicken and beef and my kids adore it. I use whole grain tortillas as well and they have no idea.

Also, how about raw veggies and fruits? Baby carrots or big stick carrots like Bugs Bunny? Some kids adore raw veggies dipped in ranch dressing.

For the mushrooms or the peppers - I'd run them through a food processor and get them as fine as possible.

Also, have you tried letting him be involved in choosing what's for dinner and preparing it? My kids are way more likely to eat what I'm making if they've helped to meal plan and cook.

Also, if all else fails, I'd just stop having white bread, white pasta and white rice. If you don't have it, he can't eat it. And really, it's not healthy at all. Now, if you were serving whole grains then, I'd say dont worry about some whole wheat pasta or rice or a slice of bread and butter.
post #8 of 11
What about smoothies? You can hide spinach or other greens in there with lots of fruit and it's yummy. We have fruit as snacks or before meals, it digests better on it's own, since you asked about the fruit. If it were me, and I felt uncomfortable with the amount of white starches in my kid's eating habits, I wouldn't make them readily available, you know? I would do quinoa, whole grain stuff. We weaned ds1 off some starches back in the day and it wasn't easy. He adjusted though, but was younger than yours. What about making yummy little dessert balls (really can be eaten anytime though) out of honey/nut butter/raisens, etc? They can be filling and are nutritious. Just thinking out loud. Good luck mama! It's hard to eat as a family when they are young and restless.
post #9 of 11
Originally Posted by martin18 View Post
... we can more or less forget about him eating anything but the starch if we serve him a balanced meal at the table. ...

That doesn't change your perspective at all? ... And future eating patterns, which for me is the most important issue. ...

Tell me a little bit more about yourself, if you don't mind. You say you are a former fussy eater. No longer, not at all? How did things change, over what time period? How did your family handle your fussy eating, and how did it influence things? ...
Hi again,

Yes, I did understand that he would only happily eat the starchy foods, but for me this is about changing your own perspective - that's why I listed everything he will eat, which is really quite a good list and suggests that this may not be a severe case of food refusal with underlying physical causes, but rather a 3 year old's limited palate.

I would not serve him only/mostly starchy foods; I would serve a kid-sized healthy meal (large portions can be very off-putting), but I would then leave it up to him to choose what to eat off his plate and I would make sure there was enough of something he liked ok, that he would not be too hungry. In my house, kids choose what to eat off their plate, and if they don't like it, they put it to one side and don't make a fuss, and accordingly don't get fussed at. My sister uses a "yuck" plate - if the kids don't like it, they can have one taste and then put it on the separate plate. I think that this creates a much healthier mealtime dynamic than what happened with a niece of mine - coaxing, bribing, threats, all attention on her all through every meal, and in her late teens she pretty much eats only fruit and is still getting that level of negative attention. So I would say for now, back off, give it more than the week that you previously tried, and introduce new things slowly after mealtimes have become more relaxed.

In relation to future eating habits, again I think this is about changing your perspective and not borrowing trouble. At 3, he's probably obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. If he's still obsessed at 13, maybe worry then. Food habits change, and they change more quickly if we haven't established entrenched positions through a power struggle.

In my own case, I was known far and wide to distant relatives and random elderly visitors as "the fussy eater". This did not make me feel more inclined to try a wide range of foods! Nor did the various attempts to guilt/shame/bully me into eating foods that made me feel ill. It just made me feel miserable.

What helped? Leaving home, leaving all of that dynamic behind me, and being able to cook food I liked in the way that I liked; reading a bit of research that finally clarified to me that things don't taste the same to everyone, especially children, and how our bodies are programmed to eat. Sugar, and the prospect of sugar, can really affect how appetite works, so personally I wouldn't have chocolate milk available. I would say that I now eat a reasonably healthy and varied diet, and am lucky enough to have kids who do the same.

For me, the important things to remember are firstly, that it's only a power struggle if the parent buys into it. Secondly, that probably your kid doesn't think he has an eating problem, but rather that he knows what he likes, and people keep trying to make him eat stuff that he doesn't like. My husband hates mushrooms - should I keep serving them every meal and getting upset when he won't eat them because those B vitamins are so important?

Thirdly, kids learn best by example, so model relaxed, healthy eating.

Finally, I eat more starch when I'm stressed. And unpleasant mealtimes make me stressed!
post #10 of 11
The bottom line about food battles is: Your child will always win. You cannot force them to eat.

My feeling is that if you make sure he gets whole grains, and that the only things you offer for snacks are fruit, he'll be OK. I would serve a 'normal' family meal, but start with the broccoli/veggies. So, put those on his plate for him to nibble on while you get the rest of the meal on the table. Then, make sure that there is one thing each meal that he will eat. Then let him choose.

I have a husband with major sensory issues, and food is a huge issue for him. He eats no fruits and veggies, and it's because his parents forced the issue when he was a child. Because of that, I'm very very into letting my children choose their own foods.

Because of dh, I can't cook many mixed things. I also can't hide foods because he can detect infinitesimal amounts. Really. Once I added 4 oz of pureed carrots to the tomato sauce (the only veggie he eats), and he could tell. So, I've learned to cook things separately and combine them at the table. Over time, our kids have gotten more creative with their foods, though they still don't like a lot of stuff combined. A lot of kids don't.

You might get a little 'creative' for yourselves so as to mix things up. So, for example, you might serve a pasta sauce over spaghetti squash so that pasta simply isn't on the table. If you son chooses just to eat the chicken from that meal, OK. He'll get his carbs and veggies elsewhere. Or serve things over beans rather than rice. Again, your son can choose to try it or not.

FWIW, my dd has two veggies she'll eat: peas (cooked) and carrots (raw). She'll eat corn (which I consider a starch, not a veggie), and we just got her to eat mashed potatoes this year. (She's 5, turning 6.) She does like fruit and will eat it, but like your son, she's prefers starch and protein. Given that my dh eats no veggies and fruit, I'm thrilled that dd eats 2 veggies at her age. I figure as she gets older and her taste buds 'mature' (as my mother says), she'll add to her palate. Ds has added tomatoes and sometimes green beans if they come directly from the garden.

Then there's our ds. Every single day this year at school he's had the same lunch: 1/2 a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a few goldfish crackers. Some days all he eats are 1-2 bites of the sandwich, the apple and the crackers. He does eat a more varied diet at home, but apparently he needs the predictability of his lunch at school.

Finally, I'd recommend a couple other books:
Kids, Parents & Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka (I like this one better than the Spirited Child, probably because it's more updated)

Just Take a Bite -- this one is about food aversions (which I don't think you have), but it might give you some ideas/insights.

Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense

The Explosive Child: A new Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children -- I don't know if this applies to you, but it might be something to think about.
post #11 of 11
I don't have any huge experience to share, but wanted to second (or third?) the idea of just not serving much in the way of starch-- and making sure that what's there is whole-grain. As a sort of by-product of my own recent diet awareness, I've ended up serving FAR less pasta, rice, etc.-- some nights there's none at all, and some nights there is a small amount mixed with other things. One dish that we all love is a pesto pasta-- maybe 1-2 servings worth of whole grain pasta (for 3 people) mixed with a LOT of steamed asparagus and fresh pesto-- it's WONDERFUL! There are also several meals that my dd balked at originally, but has finally tried and decided are good (and several that she waffles on- one day it's great, the next it stinks- go figure) We try not to make a big deal out of it-- we ask her to try what I fix, but she also has a full shelf in the fridge of healthy food that she's welcome to get for herself at any time (the stand-by's are yogurt, cheese sticks, 100% juice, carrots, clementines, bananas) I'd definitely try to avoid the power struggle and, really, try to avoid the stress that you're putting on yourself as well. It sounds like he enjoys a fair variety of things-- if you offer fruit for snacks and a variety for dinner with some standbys that he can get himself (so that you're not cooking separate meals)- then I think that sounds fine.
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