Say you didn't read any of the information shared on last week's blog post, and you find yourself scolding your child, “You will eat this, or else!”
...or else, what?
Many new parents start out with eager little eaters who they assume will enjoy or at least try every food that they’re offered. Then, usually somewhere between 12-24 months, their child's preferences start to present more and parents find themselves offering foods as they did before, except this time they aren’t met with the same level of excitement and acceptance.
Instead, their child becomes oppositional. They may fight us for something us specific, avoid anything unfamiliar, or just flat out refuse this seemingly offensive meal we offered them.
If it is only one night of this kind of behaviors, parents would likely handle whatever happens without much stress or shame over if/whether their child went without the meal. However, when parents see this kind of food refusal meal after meal, day after day, I don’t know many families who can maintain a Division of Responsibility in feeding long term.
Often times, when we are faced with ongoing opposition at meals and snacks, bad habits and unintended feeding behaviors start to resurface. Even if you did read my article on parental feeding behaviors last week and have worked hard to establish a Division of Responsibility in your home, we can still hit a bit of a wall when it comes to how to handle the cycle of food refusal and constant force to get our children to eat.
So what is a parent to do?
While we don’t want to cater to our kids selectivity and only offer them foods we know they will eat, many parents wonder what that balance is between offering preferred versus non-preferred foods.
That's what this week's blog post is all about.
In this post, I will answer one mom's question:
"So wondering why it’s important to offer preferred and non preferred foods and not just non preferred foods and ya snooze ya lose?!"
I will also share my simple strategy for how the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework can accomplish the Division of Responsibility without all the stress of what to offer an oppositional child while still making only one meal.
Many parents think that if they offer a preferred food alongside a non-preferred “learning it” food that their child won’t eat the learning it food.
And you know what? That is more often than not the case.
Let’s dissect this a bit though to evaluate what alternatives options we have in the types of foods we offer at a given meal. We could offer only preferred “love it” foods (so these “learning it foods” don’t go uneaten anyways), offer only non-preferred “learning it” foods (and restrict preferred foods while forcing non-preferred foods), or offer a variety of love it, like it, and learning it foods (and strike a balance between the two).
Let’s evaluate how each of these scenarios usually play out, particularly with apprehensive eaters.
What happens when we offer only love it foods
This can create a dynamic that is difficult to break. Children grow to expect caregivers to overly cater to their wants and short order cook (or rather make two separate meals). Usually this starts because a parent just want to make meal times less stressful and not have to face fighting or forcing their child to eat from what’s offered. Instead of using an authoritative approach (like the Division of Responsibility), they indulge their child in their every request. Often times, parents hope that if they cater to the more particular child, their feeding issues will go away (at least in the short term). Unfortunately, more often than not parents end up facing the impact of innocently deciding to initially cater to their child’s requests (of “love it” only foods) only to later find themselves stuck with a child who won’t eat anything else they offer (i.e. “like it” or “learning it” foods).
Beyond having let the child decide what is offered (the parent’s job), the entire feeding dynamic has shifted to one with loose boundaries and unclear roles and responsibilities. Neither parent nor child are thriving when meals are offered this way. Rather, parents tend to exhaust from always having to make a separate meal and children become increasingly picky in their food preferences because they are rarely given regular opportunities to learn to like new foods. As addressed in this post, the long term repercussions of offering meals this way leads to compounded stress for the parent, longstanding nutritional deficits for the child, and a backwards feeding relationship between both parent and child.
What happens when we offer only learning it foods
Alternatively to the above, some parents assume that if a child truly is hungry, they’ll just eat what is in front of them with a “ya snooze ya lose” type attitude (as this mom called it).
I admit, this is kind of how I pictured I would feed my kids. I knew what kinds of foods that I wanted in their diets and was pretty set on providing meal plans to include such variety, vegetables, as well as very few “filler foods” (void of much or any nutritional value). Since I was well-versed in the Division of Responsibility in feeding, I assumed I could carry out the behaviors that went along with this best practice without much struggle.
Then I actually had a child of my own.
Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
I often say God apparently knew the amount of pride I had in being a parentless pediatric dietitian because it was all called out with my first kid. I implemented the Division of Responsibility from day one with her, well aware it was the gold standard approach for raising healthy eaters. What I couldn’t figure out though from my role and responsibility was the “what to feed.”
Everything I offered her by 13 months went untouched. She would literally hold out on snacks on Sunday mornings until Sunday school where she knew she’d get Goldfish crackers. Her cutesy lunchboxes came back untouched from school. She started refusing family meals in the evenings, and then would wake up overnight screaming because she was hungry.
And y’all, I was crushed.
I was a pediatric dietitian and I couldn’t get my own kid to eat.
That’s because when we serve only non-preferred foods (“learning it foods”), it becomes difficult to “get” our children to eat while also fostering a “no pressure” feeding environment (that’s reflective of a Division of Responsibility). When we offer them only foods that they knowingly are still learning to like, many kids won’t feel comfortable enough to try anything. Such neophobia towards new foods and anxiety around eating shuts down a child’s appetite. This often leaves children sitting at the table with an untouched plate, fighting us to be excused prematurely and a parent who’s tempted to use force, bribery, or other behaviors we want to avoid.
This all backfires in the big picture.
For one, it doesn’t reinforce to our child that we will always keep them in mind when planning meals. It is important for children, particularly those with more extreme forms of picky eating, to know that there will always be something they enjoy at the meal. If they think meals are planned independently of them and their unique food preferences, it becomes more challenging to get them to even join in on the family meal. Some children may revolt (to which parents might give in) while other children might shut down (to which parents might give up). Either way, our choices over what to offer our family doesn’t reinforce the type of positive, productive feeding relationship we want and are attempting to establish in the first place.
That’s why I developed the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework.
What happens when we offer love it, like it, and learning it foods
Love it, Like it, Learning it is a simple, roll off the tongue type of strategy that translates what researches already advises but many parents miss: the importance of pairing preferred with non-preferred foods.
As fellow pediatric dietitians often say, “eating begets eating.” Feeding experts and resources like the book, “Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating,” share that the anxiety a child feels towards eating can keep children from eating altogether (affiliate link).
This is why offering safe, preferred “love it” foods alongside sometimes consumed “like it” and non-preferred “learning it” foods reduces the fear and eases the anxiety that often comes with the introduction of new foods. Familiar foods can also serve as a tool to elicit interest in new foods and combinations like chips (love it food) with guacamole (learning it food), yogurt (love it food) with granola (learning it food), or crackers (love it food) with tuna salad.
Using the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework reinforces a few key concepts that build trust and foster choice in the feeding relationship.
One, serving meals with this framework reminds your child that there will always be something offered that they enjoy. While it does not guarantee every meal in its entirety is something the child will love, it recognizes their apprehension towards new foods and fosters a feeding environment that gives them both the time and the space to learn to like such foods.
Second, offering foods with this framework sets clearer expectations for your child. They learn to trust you to not only provide options they prefer alongside others they don’t (yet), as well as trusting you to use pressure-free feeding tactics around new foods. This helps decrease their anxiety around new foods so that over time, they begin to open up to learning to like them.
Additionally, offering foods in this way allows parents to take their job back. By being in charge of the meal planning and what foods are offered, parents using this framework can begin to make one meal for their whole family again. While some find it does take a bit more advanced planning than winging each meal that is offered, parents who have applied this framework share that the effort put in pays off in lessening meal time stress and improving their child’s feeding success. One mom shared,
“Love it, Like it, Learning it is a game changer. There are less meltdowns at mealtimes for all of us.”
Next Steps to Offering Preferred + Non-Preferred Foods
Some next steps that parents might find helpful when thinking through this framework and figuring out how to effectively plan meals using this framework include:
Start out by having a good sense of what your child’s preferred foods even are. While the list may initially be very limited, you can still begin to use this practice with other productive feeding behaviors to gradually help your child accept more new foods and ultimately eat greater variety. You can get a read through the Beginner’s Guide to Love it, Like it, Learning it with a free download here. Or, for more helpful tools and templates to use when applying this framework, you can purchase the complete Love it, Like it, Learning it Starter Kit here.
Consider meal planning. This will help you to think through in advance the types of preferred and non-preferred foods you will offer at any given meal during the week. This will help you to plan only one meal for the whole family while also remaining consistent in your approach (to avoid short-order cooking). You can download meal planning templates including ones for Love it, Like it, Learning it here.
Cycle through meals that work. Once you have a handful or more ideas for family meals you can offer that include the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework, begin to cycle through those on repeat. Work on becoming more comfortable in how you present foods and creating a pressure-free environment before trying to branch out too much and include too many new meal ideas. This will give both you and your family time to adjust to this framework so it can be as effective as possible. You can use one week or the complete month’s worth of meal ideas from my Seasonal Meal Plan to rotate through as you familiarize yourself with how to offer meals in this way.
Share! I always love seeing how the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework is helping families achieve less meal time stress and more feeding success. Please make sure to tag @veggiesandvirtue on social media and use hashtag #loveitlikeitlearningit to share your mealtime success stories!
Seek Support, as needed. If you find yourself wanting someone to walk you through the steps of adopting the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework at meal times, I can help. Many families have found it helpful to have me walk them through this framework. See below for more on my six week E-series.
If you struggle to know how to implement or avoid the above behaviors, I can help.
I offer clear strategies, sample scripts, and real life suggestions for applying the Love it, Like it, Learning it framework in your family in my six week E-series here. Throughout this program, families find reinforcement for how to establish the Division of Responsibility in feeding, are given repeated opportunities to apply my Love it, Like it, Learning it framework to even the pickiest of eaters, and work through common questions and struggles that often occur when families begin to feed this way with me in my client-only Facebook group.
Parents can expect results like Katie, who shares:
I am encouraged simply because meal time is not a struggle. I still wish he would try more, but I know it will come - without bribery, battles, or tears. I know we can always find some kind of “love it” food regardless of where we are, and that is enough. He knows not to expect every meal to be his favorite. And I know that sometimes he will surprise me!
Or Leah, who after taking the six week e-series shared:
Our problem was that on the days he ate very little of what I prepared, I was constantly worried that he wasn't getting enough to eat (especially because he was already very low on the growth curves). Your framework [shared in the e-series] was the piece that we didn't know we were missing, which allows us to follow the Division of Responsibility without having to stress at all about whether they're eating enough, because there's always something we know they will eat if they're hungry. I truly can't say enough good things about the "love it, like it, learning it" concept!”
Although the results of raising a healthy eater aren’t instantaneous, I think Jennifer says it well here how her family’s relationship with food did change almost immediately:
This is super helpful. We’ve implemented your strategies this week, and ALREADY meal time is more pleasant. She’s not gobbling up broccoli or anything, but everyone is way more relaxed. THANK YOU for doing what you do!