Why it’s important to offer preferred AND non-preferred foods

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.

 
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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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-course (coming soon).

How to Handle Holiday Feeding Struggles

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Healthy Height. All opinions are my own.


The holidays offer one of “the best times of the year!” Between the food, family, friends, and festivities, there is so much I know we each find ourselves thankful for.

Inevitably amidst a season of gratitude and giving though, we parents too face a lot of stress when it comes to feeding our kids. Whether we have children who are apprehensive eaters or who eat everything, we are bound to still face holiday feeding struggles.

 
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That’s why this week, I have partnered with Healthy Height to bring you an article on, “7 Holiday Feeding Struggles and How to Handle Them.” In the article, I walk you through the following seven common holiday feeding struggles:

  • Struggle 1: The Child Who Won’t Eat What’s Offered

  • Struggle 2: The Child Who Doesn’t Like What’s Offered

  • Struggle 3: The Child Who’s Hungry Right After the Meal

  • Struggle 4: The Child Who’s Too Distracted to Eat

  • Struggle 5: The Child Who Throws a Fit at a Family Meal

  • Struggle 6: The Child With Relatives That Eat Differently

  • Struggle 7: The Child Who Handle Feeding Differently


No matter what holiday meal you find your family gathered around, I provide both simple solutions as well as practical strategies to set you and your family up for a season of success (so you don’t go into the holiday season stressing over these common struggles). Read the whole article here.

There is a reason they are considered COMMON! You’re not the only one wondering how to handle all the “what ifs” of if (or more likely when) these struggles happen over the holidays. Even as a dietitian mom I face these in my own family (did you read my reflection post from last week on Thanksgiving 2017?!). That's why I am honored for the chance to chime in personally and professionally with how to best handle each of these holiday feeding struggles.

For more from this article, visit my post:

7 Holiday Feeding Struggles and How to Handle Them

How to Handle the Halloween Sugar Rush

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Healthy Height. All opinions are my own.

One of the first things that makes parents skin crawl around Halloween isn’t the spooky decorations or costumes. It is the sheer amount of sugar their kids are eating

We all recognize that the candy consumed on (or near) Halloween is “too much” compared to what most on average. For many parents though, they don’t know how much sugar is technically “too much” when it comes to our children’s everyday eating habits.

 
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That’s why this week, I am sharing a post I wrote over on Healthy Height titled, “How to Handle the Halloween Sugar Rush.” With several tips that apply to the very day to day questions and concerns you are likely facing right now surrounding Halloween candy, I know you will find the information and insight in this article helpful.

We discuss:

  1. How much sugar do kids need

  2. The difference between natural sugar and added sugars

  3. Why added sugar isn’t always bad

  4. Four Tips for Managing Sugar Around Halloween

If you’d like to learn more about each of the above topics and how they can help you to handle the Halloween sugar rush, visit my post:

How to Handle the Halloween Sugar Rush

How to Handle Halloween Candy with Kids

Y'all, these videos by Jimmy Fallon each year crack me up.

Not because I am some sick dietitian who just loves to see kid's Halloween candy taken from them, but rather because they show just a glimpse at how much kid's. love. candy.

How to handle Halloween candy with kids isn't a new issue of parenthood, nor does it come to any surprise to dietitians. I know it is one that a lot of you are probably wondering about though as we sit here just days away from Halloween.

Before we jump in though to talk about 13 lucky little lessons for how you can handle all that Halloween candy once it makes its way into your home, I want to encourage each of you to enjoy the festivities (including some nutritionally-absent food options in candy) on Halloween. On Halloween night, don’t stress over the sugar. Just cherish the times with your kids. See the joy in their eyes. Embrace their sticky fingers. Teach them to listen to their tummies. Foster freedom around food. Brush their teeth. Tuck them in agreeing that the day was the “best day ever” (in their innocent eyes).

Then tomorrow, you can begin to implement the following ideas for how all foods fit - including all that candy they carried home.

How to Handle Halloween Candy with Kids

Want to know how to make Halloween candy with kids a little less spooky?
Read these 13 lucky little lessons from a dietitian mom.

1) Remember the Basics of the Division of Responsibility.

If you want the most simple way to break down how I think we should handle allowing our kids to have Halloween candy, it all comes back to the basics of Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility. As a reminder, it is our job to determine what, when, and where our child eats. It is our child's job to determine if/whether and how much they eat. Connecting the dots between this and how it relates to Halloween candy, that means it is our job as the parent to set boundaries around what candy/treat is offered, when your child has it available, and where your child is allowed to eat it. Then, you can transfer the control and trust to let them determine if/whether and how much they eat (keep reading).

2) Don't make Halloween candy feel forbidden.

The more you can keep Halloween candy neutral, the better. Research is clear that kids who grow up in an environment where restriction, pressuring, and bribing is used (to get them to eat either a certain way or a certain amount), the more often they crave forbidden foods like candy. Maybe you can relate? If you were raised in a family where sweets and treats were overly off limits, you may find yourself struggling with self-control when it comes to common triggers like candy. Conversely, when approaches like the Division of Responsibility are used as the main form of food parenting, our kids learn how to self-regulate all foods, including candy. So even though it may seem as though a more strict food environment serves our kids well when it comes to Halloween candy, remember that the more restricted this highly appealing food becomes, the more your tactics may backfire.

3) Consider your kid.

I’m not saying to cater to the sugar obsessed kid and become totally permissive as a parent. What I am saying is to address their sugar obsession head on. Rather than forbid them from eating these preferred sweets more because you know they tend to obsess over them, consider creating a more liberal dessert policy in this season to help see it past. By offering these foods more often for a given period of time, you can establish an environment that shows you trust your child(ren) to listen to their bodies and make healthy choices. Kids in turn learn to trust their own intrinsic cues while still appropriately managing cravings and making smart food choices. While kids don't need added sugars in their diets (see the next point), a small amount for a given period of time can help take it off its preferred food pedestal.

4) Determine "enough."

While the Division of Responsibility deems it the child's role to determine if/whether and how much our child eats of a given food, there are exceptions to this when it comes to candy and dessert. This gets a bit confusing but in general comes back to parents finding smart strategies for what amount of candy is age-appropriate or rather “enough,” so that it doesn’t crowd out healthier options of food but also doesn’t restrict the sweet stuff so much that kids cravings for it increase (beyond expected). The dietitian in me would say no amount is necessary. The mom in me, however, realizes that a 90:10 food philosophy allows just enough flex room with food, especially in seasons like these. So if you are wanting a number of pieces of candy per day that gets the pass, you can review this calculation to find a general gauge for how much added sugar still falls within appropriate limits. You can also read more here for ideas on how you can determine healthy in your home, encourage pleasure, and promote self-regulation so “a little can go a long way” with candy and other foods that fall in the 10% (of discretionary calories).

5) Be clear and consistent.

Being clear about when your child can eat Halloween candy during the day (or scattered throughout the week) helps keep both of you sane until the candy bowl runs out (or gets forgotten about!). Amidst your child's frequent initial asking for Halloween candy, decide on a consistent answer for when they can expect to have it using a predetermined time of day. While this may differ from family to family in timing and frequency, it is important that you stay consistent. This makes it so candy isn't the dangling carrot in front of their nose that they always chase and yet never actually get to enjoy. It also makes it less tempting to use tactics like bribing (i.e. "If you eat all of your dinner, you can have a piece of Halloween candy). Instead, these clear and consistent expectations take the pressure off of you from daily deciding if/when to allow it and in what amount, while also freeing up your child's mental energy to focus on something other than an elusive forbidden food.

6) Determine the when.

Just as we talk about the aspects that fall under the parent's role with the Division of Responsibility, also comes the clear and consistent expectations around the when candy is offered. Just as we addressed above when each day candy will be offered, here I want to highlight the when in terms of how long it will be offered. Determine for your family the following: When is Halloween candy welcome in your home? For one day post-Halloween? One week? One month? Until it runs out? While some kids do forget about candy when it is kept out of sight and out of mind, other kids tend to do better with time limits that are set for the whole family. In our house, all candy is over my the time of my husband's birthday (which conveniently is November 6th). This helps us to enjoy it for the week following Halloween, but then get back to our normal eating habits and family dessert policy of desserts only on weekends and birthdays.

7) Include Halloween candy as a snack.

Crazy, right? Especially when I tell each of my coaching clients to use snacks to fill in nutritional gaps with non-traditional "snack foods." But that can be done here too simply by pairing the candy alongside a more nutrient-dense item like a glass of milk, side of fruit or veggies with dip, or handful of nuts (age permitting to prevent choking). When spaced appropriately with scheduled meals and snacks, offering Halloween candy as part of a child's snack makes it so it doesn't compete with more nutrient rich meals.

8) Find other nutritionally void foods to cut.

While it might sound crazy to offer candy as a snack, think of all the nutritionally poor options we default to offering out kids for snacks. From snack crackers to fruit snacks and roll-ups, it isn't the calories in these I am concerned about. It is the fact that those calories come at a valuable cost: the real estate in our kid's stomachs. So take this as an opportunity to become more intentional about when you are working to get in important nutrients. While candy isn't an ideal option to be offering, it can compel you to think through what other, everyday options you otherwise may have offered that also are nutritionally void. Start making a commitment to watch for added sugar in the other foods you offer, and gradually choose healthier, lower added sugar alternatives. While the new food labels are only rolled out on some food products so far, you can still look at the ingredient list to identify sources of added sugar. Then consider how you can make healthier choices to cut down the added sugar in your family's everyday favorites. This will create a habit that serves your family well far after the candy runs out.

9) Keep candy out of sight.

Just watch, and I think you’ll be surprised about how much more out of mind candy becomes if their pumpkin pale isn’t on the counter in plain sight. As mentioned from a study I shared on this post about five ways to curb sugar cravings in kids, keeping candy out of plain view helps keeps not to focus on it as frequently. The less they think about it, the less they ask for it, the less of a nonstop issue it needs to be from a nutritional standpoint. So put it away and wait until your child asks for it. Chances are that even before all of the candy gets consumed, your child will forget to ask for it at the set time (discussed above) and your family can just move on without it again.

10) Talk about the characteristics of candy.

If you want your child to wolf down their candy, help remove each piece from the wrapper and prepare to see your kid mindlessly go after it. Instead, let me suggest you try this. Use inquiry-based learning to slow down the eating process. Ask questions about a candy’s taste, texture, flavor, color, size, etc., to help your child slow down and savor their candy. Just as we as adults have to remind ourselves to do this, let's equip our children at a young age to be mindful eating. Not restrictive from any one food (no food allergies, permitting), but rather remind them to be mindful about each morsel they put into their mouths. Not only does this help our kids to learn to appreciate specific elements to fun “sometimes” foods (in these off seasons when they are offered), but this helps our kids to consume less as well. For more on avoiding labels around Halloween candy or other “forbidden foods,” read this article on Six Simple Takeaways on the Sticky Subject of Sugar.”

11) Look at behaviors beyond the candy bowl.

We obsess so much about if/whether our kids eat Halloween candy that we divert our focus and honestly our accountability from the constant, day to day feeding behaviors we have irregardless of Halloween. While it is of obvious importance to limit added sugars as an overall feeding principle in our families, we also need to keep in mind that there are likely many other feeding behaviors that we could improve on also. So rather than getting too focused on the candy at hand, let's also take Halloween as an opportunity to consider what other feeding habits we could pay closer attention to.

12) Consider other creative options.

Just as Elf of the Shelf took the Christmas season by storm, many parents are also adopting a "Switch Witch" for handling the candy after Halloween. Many local dentist offices also participate in candy swap out programs, so ask your child's dentist if they do something list this.

13) Transition into a season of Gratitude.

As October ends and a time for Thanksgiving nears, teach your kids to consider how they could serve others with their candy. This may be sending the candy to troops, donating it to Ronald McDonald House for sick children who couldn't trick or treat, or by making a visit to a local elderly facility to share it with them. From a work site wellness standpoint, I tend to not encourage parents taking it all to work with them as the alternative. Instead, engage your kids in community outreach ideas that will help others to enjoy the candy when they otherwise wouldn't be mobilized on their own to do so.


Final Challenge: Be Big Picture About It

However you choose to handle all of that leftover Halloween candy with your kids, remember the big picture. Our goal in even having this conversation is to instill in our children a healthy relationship with all foods - even those that we don't always love or want them eating a lot of like candy. By teaching them when it's appropriate and how to self-regulate these types of foods, we empower them to handle all of the Halloweens to come with confidence around candy. That is no costume, but rather a true eating competence to aim for within each of our families.

Happy Halloween to all of you, my favorite guys and ghouls!