“No pains should be spared to make the hours of meeting round the family table the brightest hours of the day.” Charlotte Mason in Home Education
One of Charlotte Mason’s favorite parallels for education is eating; she often uses the concepts of feeding, appetite, or digestion to illustrate her principles. Her main teachings—the importance of building good habits, of creating an atmosphere of respect and of presenting a broad, varied feast—apply as well to feeding children as to teaching them.
I discovered Charlotte Mason education when my children were small, in the late 1990s; by then I had already noticed how big a problem picky eating was in the U.S. The more I explored Mason’s teachings, the more they enriched our family life, and the more I realized how directly her principles address the problem of picky eating. Though bad advice abounds on feeding children, as in educating them, true authorities on feeding children consistently confirm Mason’s teachings.
I began a blog with advice for parents of picky eaters in 2008. Since then, I’ve offered parents support through workshops, home visits, and individual coaching. As a result, I’ve seen happier families and children eating better. I’ve had many exciting opportunities to share Mason’s revolutionary approach to child-rearing through the subject of picky eating.
Doing Too Much and Too Little
Almost invariably, I see parents of picky eaters following the culture, reacting desperately, and violating Mason’s principles of child-rearing. A child’s abnormal eating often triggers abnormal parenting. Parents become overactive in feeding their children. They pressure and manipulate, and meals turn into power struggles. Parents often resort to giving children anything they will eat (short-order cooking, in picky eating terminology). They don’t trust children to know how much or what they need; instead, they insist that their children eat certain amounts of certain foods. As in education, children’s appetites for what’s good for them are dulled through rewards, pressure, and inappropriate nutrition.
These parents are usually under-active in the three pillars of Mason’s philosophy: instilling the discipline of good habits, providing solid nutrition and creating a positive atmosphere. They’re often on their children where they should be hands-off, and hands-off where they should be taking charge. Parents lack solid guidance about where they should hold the line and where they should back off. When it doesn’t work, not knowing what else do to, parents do more of the same.
The Wrong Tools
I love to start out working with parents by asking them what tools they have at their disposal to get their picky children to eat. Invariably, they propose various forms of pressure: dessert, a video game, whatever motivates their children, or (less often), the threat of denial of a privilege. The goal is to get food into the stomach, regardless of the child’s feelings about it; few seem to have any illusions about getting a child to want to eat. One mom got her son to eat by having the entire family do the chicken dance after each bite. If she let him play a video game, he would let her spoon food into his mouth.
Such force feeding and disregard of a child’s personhood is the main way parents of picky eaters dig themselves further in the hole. Pushing results in push back. I tell several eye-opening stories from Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards to show that while this kind of pressure may get short-term results, it further erodes interest in eating. I give other illustrations about how pushiness naturally raises resistance. That these bad tools can be the problem is news to most parents. Many are convinced, but some react the way many parents do when it’s suggested that children would learn without having grades held over their heads: with skepticism.
The Right Tools
Having exposed their favorite tools as worse than worthless, I press them: “Can you think of anything else you have going for you? Any other assets or advantages against pickiness? No ace up your sleeve?” They answer with blank stares.
“What about hunger?” I ask. Generally these moms have never considered hunger a leverageable asset. If hunger is, like “knowledge-hunger,” what Mason calls “the quite sufficient incentive” to eat, why isn’t it happening at their house?
“What about really, really good food?” I ask. “That’s the problem: what kids think is good. What do you even mean by good food?” they respond.
“Mouthwatering,” I say. Piping hot, savory, aromatic, crisp, juicy, crunchy, and all the other mouthwatering words I can think of. Enjoyment is essential, I add.
Then I ask, “What about a happy dinner table? Is that a tool you could use?”
“We don’t have that one,” they say. How could that help? Inflicting misery and withholding happiness at the table are key weapons they’ve been using to try to change the situation.
Then I mention good habits. Some look at me as if I’d asked them to go dip seven times in the Jordan River.
How to Pasture Your Child’s Appetite
I recommend a total reversal of what parents are generally doing: to give freedom where they’ve been controlling and to control where they’ve been giving the wrong freedoms. I use Mason’s image of placing lambs in a carefully chosen pasture of abundant food. Correctly set up the environment for eating, and then use “masterly inactivity”: a “wise and purposeful letting alone,” within that environment.
In the last few years, I’ve learned that numerous children have diagnosable medical issues, sensory processing issues or developmental delays that call for diagnosis and treatment, but my personal belief and observation is that even these children are better able to work through these issues when parents follow certain rules. The rules are the same for every family. Even a child on a feeding tube benefits from sitting at the table and being part of family meals.
To create the right environment, or pasture, parents need to do their job of putting the limits in place: what I call the “fence posts” of Good Habits, Good Food and Good Company. These rules or tools are the only legitimate, effective ones, the tools that respect the child, have no drawbacks, and set a healthy pattern for life.
The bad habits of chaotic eating and random snacking are among the biggest contributors to picky eating in our culture. As my mom used to tell us when we’d “piece” on food before a meal, “You’ll spoil your dinner.” The solution to this lack of structure is simply to set regular meal times and build the habit of eating only at those times and only at the table. For better eating, narrow the window of opportunity to eat. Parents of picky eaters in particular often have a hard time saying no to a child who wants to eat. They’re desperate to get food inside their children. They may feel it’s their right and duty as a good parent to force a child to eat, but that ever keeping a child from eating would be cruel and obviously not in their interests.
The appetite is like a river, I tell them. It’s a powerful force in your favor if you play your cards right. If it’s going in the wrong direction, it’s no use trying to push it in the right direction. Instead, you block it from going in that wrong direction. Restrict all the wrong foods at the wrong times, without turning it into a power struggle or being ugly about it, and the right foods take on far more allure, as if by magic. Pulling away with understanding is far more effective than pushing. It’s far less effort, because the child’s will engages in the right direction. It’s not all up to you. The solution for some families is as simple as moving dinner time a little later, or adjusting the schedule of the afternoon snack.
Once children see that you mean what you say and accept the new structure in the home, these habits contribute powerfully to more mindful eating and more enjoyment. When the appetite is strong, we relish meals. When children know that food is available only at meals, they get in the habit of paying attention to their hunger. They tune into their appetites and take responsibility for themselves.
Educating children’s tastes is a science of relationships. I encourage parents to aim at introducing their children to all nutritious foods, as many and as positively as possible. Set children’s feet in a large room, as Mason teaches. Don’t prejudice them against any proper foods. Expose them to only good choices: the tastiest, most nourishing dishes possible and the widest possible variety of flavors, colors, textures and aromas. Involve them in cooking and shopping. I encourage moms to learn to enjoy cooking and experimenting with new dishes, for the children’s sake and for their own. Open yourself and them to food as a sensual, cultural and scientific topic of interest. We learn to love what we are exposed to. That’s how children in foreign countries learn to love foods we find repulsive and how little Americans learn to love junk food.
I lose all credibility with some parents when I advise them to deprive their kiddos of all processed junk food and fast food, without apology, with no “choices.” Many parents believe children can appreciate only “kid food”: chicken nuggets, fries, pizza and junky sweets, substitutes for real nourishment, the equivalent of “twaddle.” They feel that denying them these fun foods would be to rob them of their childhood. Healthy food competes for our children’s hearts with fun food marketed with cartoon characters and engineered to be tasty and addictive. I wouldn’t go to bat against them with dry skinless chicken breasts and plain steamed broccoli. As “knowledge is delectable,” so should nutritious food be, as delectable as we can manage.
My motto is “love healthy food and eat whatever you want,” to paraphrase St. Augustine. Folks who view eating healthy food as a duty that calls for self-denial have a tough time sticking with it. Coercing children to eat healthy foods that are unappealing and that they’re not hungry for spoils children’s natural appetite for what’s good for them. It’s valuable to teach children the benefits of a healthy diet, but enjoyment is a stronger foundation. Just as you introduce a child to reading with great stories, not grammar lessons, it’s the only way to sustain a good diet for life
One study showed that the primary way to get a child to like certain foods is simply to “pair” those foods “with positive interactions with a friendly adult.” Such an uncomplicated, natural cure to picky eating, and within every parent’s reach, does sound too easy to be effective. Yet it’s harder than it sounds when you’re in the habit of battling over food. Most parents of a picky eater are waiting for the child to eat they way they want him to before their dinner table can become a happy place. I tell them to start by creating the happy dinner time and that better eating is likely to follow. Our children need us to be amiable and cheerful at the table, not controlling, worried and frustrated. Children need to learn how to behave pleasantly at the table, too. My refrain is, “What’s good for them is good for us.”
Just as “there is no education but self-education,” getting children to eat against their will is not progress. It’s counterproductive. Eating isn’t an issue of obedience or “being good.” I urge parents to give children control over what they put in their own mouths at meals. It’s a piece of control that’s nearly impossible to relinquish for many parents of a picky eater. Interestingly, dads, especially, often feel their role as a good father is to insist that a child eat. But eating should no more be done for duty than wearing a coat if you’re not cold or not wearing one when you are.
I advise parents to treat children with as much respect as they would an adult guest at the table. Expect no less from children. Outlaw fighting, complaining or insulting the cook. “Is that how you want your children to talk when they go to someone else’s house? Or do you want them to be rude to their spouses that way someday?” I ask parents. “Why would it be OK to treat you that way?”
Outlaw all boring talk about what you don’t like and all negotiations about eating, which get nobody anywhere. Neither are acceptable dinner table conversation. Don’t squander the daily opportunity to talk about what really matters to you. Get to know your children, nurture that relationship with them so that when you’re old and senile they’ll take care of you, I tell parents. Some moms smile at that, but others get tears rolling down their cheeks. Who doesn’t long for that kind of atmosphere at the table? Nobody enjoys power struggles at the table. Many parents are highly skeptical that such old-fashioned, low key, slow acting and indirect efforts could ever pay off for their picky eaters, but they do like the idea of it.
One Magic Tool
I try to reel parents in with a deceptively simple magic tool at the end, to jumpstart their efforts: serving family style. Parents of picky eaters generally fill their children’s plates for them and plop it down in front of them. Instead, I recommend passing around serving dishes; let children serve themselves. It doesn’t sound like much of a miracle to parents who want power and might and instant results. Since serving family style is such an easy experiment, many do try it. Invariably, they’ve reported back, that yes, it really did help. It is almost magical. One mom said her children had even eaten rutabagas when they were given free choice about it that way. One mom who was going to come to my workshop heard that tip from someone else who’d gone, and it worked so well she didn’t bother coming to my workshop. A victim of my own success, I lost $5 right there.
The results have been mixed. Most parents don’t tell me much about what they think or do about it. One mom told me her child wasn’t really eating better yet, but that dinner time had become pleasant instead of disagreeable. I call that a big step in the right direction. One woman took several years to come around, as circumstances opened her eyes and successes gave her reassurance in giving up the wrong kinds of control and taking more control where it was needed. Her son has since made enormous improvement in eating. The most exciting results are parents who begin to move toward a more mutually respectful and less manipulative relationship with their children.
Anna Migeon blogs occasionally at SacredAppetite.com and lives in San Antonio, TX. Her children (ages 21 and 23) are both adventurous eaters and pursuing higher education. They attended Charlotte Mason schools most of their lives and were most blessed and privileged to be taught by some of the world’s top Charlotte Mason teachers: Carroll Smith, Lisa Cadora, Nicolle Hutchinson and Rebekah Brown Hierholzer.
© 2014 by Anna Migeon