Every year, on Boxing Day, we go to our friend’s house with some other friends and enjoy a nice dinner together to celebrate Christmas. This year, my friend’s brother was visiting from overseas, so he was there too. He also happens to be a child psychologist who specialises in getting kids to eat.
Needless to say, I told him about Hannah’s fussy eating, how we get her to try stuff with a rewards chart, and how she only ever tries a tiny bite and that’s it, etc. etc.
And then, he blew our minds.
He told us a couple strategies to get Hannah eating. We picked the one that sounded most likely to work best with her, asked him a million questions about it, and then went for it, knowing that at first, it would be really hard and no matter how many tears were shed, we couldn’t give in. I don’t know what age range this strategy is suitable for, but Hannah is 4, and it has worked wonders for her.
Every night (we only do this at dinner time), we give her two options on her plate. She has to eat all of one of them. There is also a third thing on her plate that she likes. She can eat it if she wants, but doesn’t have to. It’s just there to make sure she has enough to eat.
At first, the amount of food in the “have to eat it” all pile is not very much, and the amount in the “already likes it” pile is substantial. Gradually, the amount in the “has to eat it” pile increases as the “already likes it” pile decreases.
The child feels like they have a lot of control because he/she gets to choose which option they eat all of, and the adult knows that no matter which option he/she chooses, it’s healthy and means progress has been made. We have been doing two options that the rest of us have on our plates anyway. For example, some of the chicken or fish or whatever will be one option, and then the salad or veggies the other (you’d be amazed at how many different veggies and different cooking methods there are. It isn’t the same thing every night).
The first night, we started Hannah off pretty easy as one of the options was peas, corn, and carrots. She likes peas, corn, and carrots, but only if they are straight from the freezer. These ones were cooked. I can’t remember what the other option was, but she chose the cooked vegetables.
Here is the catch: She can’t get down from the table until she eats all of one of her two options. If she’s still sitting at the table when bed time comes, she has to go straight to bed. No playing, no TV, etc. It’s sit there for an hour and a half not eating, or eat and get down and play with us.
On that very first night, Daniel finished his food, so he got down and played with Aaron while I sat at the table supervising Hannah. We told her that she couldn’t get down until one of her options was eaten. After everyone else was finished, I didn’t talk to her, or interact with her, I just sat there next to her. It’s not supposed to be an extra attention thing. As she screamed next to me while I read a magazine, I could see her slowly eating the veggies between screams out of the corner of my eye. I continued to ignore her and read my magazine.
Though screaming and crying, she finished those vegetables with about 20 minutes to spare before bed time. We made sure to do something fun, all together, just because we had time to before bed.
The second night, one of her options was roasted vegetables (capsicum, mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini, also with roasted feta cheese), or salmon. She sat there until bed time, crying, screaming, saying it wasn’t fair, etc. etc. Aaron and I took turns sitting next to her, but not engaging with her, just reading or doing our own thing. It was so incredibly hard, but we knew we had to do it for her own good. We had to be strong and not cave in. When bed time rolled around, we quickly got her ready for bed at the table, and then she went straight to bed.
She has eaten all of one of her options every night since then, mostly with no tears or fuss. Last night she told Aaron not to talk to her so she could just eat her food and get it done, while Daniel and I were still at the table eating, (and having family conversations to make dinner a fun family time). She now loves salad and most vegetables. One night, we had chicken burgers and one of her options was 1/4 of one. I’m not just talking about the patty either, I mean the patty, the wholegrain bun, the tomatoes, the avocado, the lettuce, the onion, the mushroom, and the cheese. She ate the whole thing, which for her, is pretty much a miracle.
Usually, she sticks to the vegetable option so we put heaps of vegetables for that choice (and if we have them, nuts and/or seeds), and for the second option, a little bit, maybe a couple of mouthfuls of chicken/fish/pork whatever protein we’re having, cooked however I cooked it and with whatever marinades/sauces/etc. for the rest of us. She still usually goes for the vegetables, but recently, she has been trying the other option just to try it. I’m happy if she fills herself with vegetables that are full of nutrients, and I’m happy if she tries some meat, so it’s a win win, no matter which option she chooses.
Every night she tells us that she is going to eat her dinner really fast so we have time to do something fun. Sometimes we go for a walk to the park, sometimes we play a game, or play in the sprinkler outside, but we always do something fun together after dinner. Not as a reward for eating, but because we have the time.
I’m still flabbergasted by the whole thing, I can’t believe how well it has worked. She hasn’t been traumatised by it, and actually seems to have more confidence now, and more interest in helping me cook. She keeps telling us how good she is at eating now, with a huge smile on her face, and she no longer dreads dinner time. Mind. Blown.
You can follow our progress on Instagram #hannaheats (user name sherismommyadventures), where I post a photo of her food and which option she chose every night.
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Copyright 2014 Sheri Thomson