20 Playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters

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When it comes to picky eating it can be hard to find a solution that is fun, connected and playful. On the one extreme we can simply let our child survive off yoghurt and spaghetti with tomato sauce, with underlying worries about their nutrition. On the other extreme we can try the ‘threat of starvation’ approach where we just put their dinner down in front of them and refuse to give any other options.

In desperation we may have tried either or both of these approaches, but never felt completely comfortable with them. Luckily there is is a third way that can help with the underlying root cause of picky eating.

Often when children are experiencing fears or anxiety, they may project it onto food. So when a child scrunches up their nose at broccoli, and seems fearful, it may not be the food that is the ultimate cause of their fear.

Children gather stress, and tension from the early experiences in their lives when they felt small and helpless. They use little everyday moments, to try and ‘tell’ us about these feelings through their behaviour.

When we learn to listen to our children’s feelings, we are doing the most compassionate thing possible, allowing them to express their upset so that they grow in confidence. That plate of peas won’t look so scary when it’s no longer clouded by a mind full of upset.

I remember one time listening to my daughter cry about separation anxiety. After that we had dinner, and she started eating potatoes and cheese, two foods she had never tried before!

It’s not just about the food. When we help our children with feelings in life in general we can help them be more adventurous with their food, and when we help our children with food we may see leaps and gains in their lives.

Where the laughter comes in. Laughter is one of the ways in which children (and adults!) release the stress, tension and fear that can get in the way of them enjoying food. We also want to give children a sense of freedom and choice in life. We don’t want to set limits every single dinnertime. which might quickly lead to powerlessness and resentment. We want to warm up the connection with our child through special time and playlistening so that dinner time is fun, and so they feel safe to tell us about the big feelings that can also get in the way of enjoying food.

Listening to big feelings can be challenging, and coming up with fun, playful ways to deal with it can be even more difficult!

So I asked my friends and fellow Hand in Hand instructors to contribute to this list of fun playlistening ideas to help children with their fears around food. These are a great starting point to follow your intuition, and see what makes your kids laugh while they are in the more powerful role. Your dinner might get a bit cold while you try these out, and if taken to extreme some of these can get a little wild.

But there’s a big advantage. When we invest the time to listen to feelings and fears, it means that in the long run, dinners go much more smoothly. Your child doesn’t need to have a gigantic play every dinner time, (thankfully because I wouldn’t have the energy!) but laughter sprinkled here and there helps a lot, and perhaps you can have a bit of extra fun at the weekends.

Sometimes as my daughter laughs and play games, she ‘forgets’ to be afraid of the food, and ends up eating it. We get closer to the food together in a connected, fun way that takes the pressure off. I wish you many joyful, laughter-filled dinnertimes!

  1. Special Time – Roma Norriss Hand in Hand instructor in Bristol, UK  recommends doing it before dinner. In the rush to prepare food we probably aren’t thinking about connecting with our kids. If you can keep the dinner warm and then spend 10-15 minutes doing special time then this can give children the close connection they need to feel safe to try new food. Roma says, ”My very fussy daughter has been known to tuck heartily into her food and even exclaim “Mmmn delicious Quinoa!” when she has had a good dose of Special Time.”
  2. Yuck – In this classic game we simply reverse roles and pretend that we are scared of the food. Bring our fork up to our mouth, and make a suspicious face. Try it and make exaggerated yucky sounds. Run away from it. We might even encourage our child to feed us this disgusting food by saying, ”I hope you don’t make me eat this horrible food.”
  3. Mmmmmm Take bites of your food while looking a bit sceptical that it’s going to be tasty. As you chew it say ”mmmmm.”Gradually ramp up your surprise and delight at how delicious the food is with a big long ”mmmmmm” sound. Make some animated movement to express how tasty it is. Perhaps you run around around the room in a crazy manner, and then come back and say, ”oh sorry, that food just sent me a bit crazy for a moment.”
  4. Escaping Food. Roma Norriss says, ”One day my daughter wouldn’t eat her food, so I put some on her spoon and then zigzagged it away from her plate saying ”Help! Some of our food had escaped from our shopping basket. It’s rolling down the hill and I’m afraid that little stray dog is going to eat it. Quick save the tomatoes.” She immediately took me up on the game and started woofing after the food and trying to eat it. Then I changed tack and said, “Oh she’s a nice doggy shall we just feed her, I don’t think she has any owners, we could take care of her.” Soon she had eaten up all her food.
  5. Seat Glue Hand in Hand instructor Sarah MacLaughlin has a fun suggestion for children who are finding it hard to sit still. Pretend to spread glue on the chair before they sit. When they get up; act confused as to why your glue is not working, “that is so strange! I guess I’ll put some more glue on here…. Hurry, see if you can eat a bite of food before that glue wears off.” Lots of laughs, smiles, and “phooey” and “oh darn it,” when they get up again and again. Add “stronger glue” each time.
  6. Run Away From Your Seat Katalin Hidvegi, says, ”My eldest son is constantly running away from the table with food in his hands. One day we were playing, and he shared some “cakes” with me from his toys. I pretended to eat my cake, and hubby came to ask us to go to the table. My son and I started running away from him together. We pretend to sit on the coach eating together as allies. Hubby played his part well, complaining and insisting that we move to the table, then taking our cakes away. We would obediently sit down at the table but then jump up and run to the couch again. It was hilarious. My son laughed heartily and I enjoyed it too. Great healing laughter and togetherness. Great autonomy(rebellion) experience for both of us too!
  7. Missing Your Mouth I have to thank my mother-in-law for this one! Try to put food in your mouth but instead, ‘feed’ your ears, your armpits, the top of your head, your foot. Keep saying, ”oh no! That’s not right, let me try again.”
  8. Mis-serving Food. If the food is in the middle of the table to serve out, try mis-serving it by nearly putting a spoonful into your water glass. Catch yourself, ”oh whoops! That’s not right.”
  9. Flying Food – The food gets on a spoon or a fork (with a little help from us) and says, ”This is my aeroplane and I’m flying to Australia/America/Europe, and I’m not coming back!” We mock panic, and say ”oh no,” and ‘chase’ after it.
  10. Food Stealing – From Hand in Hand instructor Muftiah Martin in Santa Rosa California, I’ll say, “Ooh, I love eggplant (or mushrooms or beans) so much. I hope no one takes my eggplant when I’m not looking.” And she snatches it up!
  11. Food Robbers – Jessica says, ”I tell my kids that a robber is coming to steal their food. Then we look away and then they quickly take a piece and eat it really quickly.”
  12. Secret Eating From Hand in Hand instructor Skye Monroe in Australia.  Put their plates down with food at the table and say “ok I don’t want ANYONE to eat ANY of this food .. Please do NOT eat this.. I just want you to look after it for me for a bit while I grab something from the bedroom.” Walk away for a bit and come back and see they have eaten and with mock horror exclaim “oh no it looks like someone has eaten this food ?! That can’t be right ?!”
  13. Doll Roleplay – Stephanie Parker, Hand in Hand instructor in Stroud UK.says, ”I pretend Innes’s dolls and animals don’t want to eat their dinner and then Innes steps into being the parent and setting the limit and encouraging them to eat. She loves this.”
  14. Food Race – From Muftiah Martin, ”We do “who’s going to get this bite of food first?” as I lean in toward my daughter and pass the spoon near both of our mouths. She is always faster!” .
  15. The Wrong Seat – If each family member sits down in a regular seat, then you can get a few giggles flowing by sitting down in the wrong one. Take a fork and start to eat a mouthful of dinner then stop saying, ”hang on, something’s not quite right here. This is not my dinner. I’m in daddy’s seat!”
  16. Random Objects Instead Of A Plate – Lay the table, and put everyone’s dinner out. But put a funny object in your place. Then when everyone’s come to dinner and you sit down, say ”hmmm, why have I got a magazine for my dinner?” Try to eat it, and then act all disappointed, ”hmmm that doesn’t seem very tasty! I better go and get my proper dinner.” Repeat with objects, the more outlandish the better. Putting some toothpaste on your placemate, or a (clean!) potty, is bound to get your child laughing hysterically. You can even ask them to join in the fun by saying, ”Would you mind getting me my proper dinner?” And then mutter to yourself, ”I hope they don’t bring me anything silly,” literally inviting them to join in.
  17. Funny things on my spoon – I started this game when I was eating Minestrone soup, and every spoonful  would have a different variation of food. So when I got a spoonful of green peas, I would say to my daughter, ”oh dear. What’s this on my spoon. This looks a bit strange,” and pretend to be afraid of it. Then I would eat the spoonful and it would have a funny effect on me, making me jump around, or swing back on my chair, or make my face go into a funny expression. Then I’d say ”oh sorry, that strange spoonful turned my face funny,” and straighten it out again.” My daughter kept encouraging me to keep taking spoonfuls saying excitedly, ”go on, see what’s on your spoon next!” I tried this the other day when I was eating curry, and there was a green bit of coriander on my fork. I looked at my fork and said, ”what’s that? A leaf? Why did daddy put a leaf in my curry?” She laughed a lot.
  18. Eat me. Eat me. Have the food say  ”eat me! eat me!” to your child says Hannah Gauri Ma From Loving Earth Mama. Then the food pretends to get all sad if it doesn’t get eaten. I have also tried with this one with food that wants to get eaten by me instead. If you have some small items, like nuts or raisins, or peas, then have them come near your mouth, and then you take them away and put them down again. Act all annoyed and frustrated in a playful way, telling them that you’re not hungry, or don’t want to eat them, and then have them try to be eaten all over again.
  19. Aeroplane Game – This is a variation of the traditional aeroplane game of feeding your child. Load up a fork with food and have it take off to your child’s or your own mouth, But instead of landing there it lands in your mouth instead, or it flies and lands on top of the fridge, in the fruit bowl, or the kitchen counter. Act all muddled and confused and say, ”oh no, that’s not where I meant to land,” and try again, failing every single time.
  20. Food that doesn’t want to be eaten – Serve out your food, and then have it say, ”I don’t want to be eaten, I’m going back in the saucepan/fridge, etc.” Have the plate or individual pieces of food jump off the table, and jump back into the saucepan. Say ”hey, that’s my/my child’s dinner, come back here, we need you,” and act all befuddled as you keep trying to serve it but it keeps running away.

I hope this list bring lots of laughter and joy to your dinner table. If you try them out feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you get on. If you come up with any games of your own, we’d love to hear them!

Diary of an imperfect mum

Aeroplane Games

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When my daughter was about 12 months old we went on a long summer trip and took quite a few plane flights. If I was lucky my daughter would sleep, but if not, she would be restless and frustrated because she couldn’t get down and crawl. I had a big bag of toys to try and keep her entertained but she never seemed that interested in them.

On this occasion, she was sitting on my lap. I pulled my cardigan over me to keep warm, and she grabbed it, threw it onto the floor and laughed. It became a game. I would make a big deal out of trying to put my cardigan over me, then she would pull it away, and delightedly throw it onto the floor. We played it over and over again, as she laughed and laughed. Then we enjoyed the rest of the flights as she sat contently on my lap, playing with a plastic cup.

When we travelled a lot by public transport, and when I saw her looking a bit bored and listless in her buggy I try to initiate a quick playlistening session with her. It could be tossing around her socks, and being surprised where they land, or begging her not to throw her toy onto the floor. The laughter helped us both to relax, and gave me more patience, so I wasn’t just focused on getting to our destination, but also enjoying these little moments of connection along the way.

Playlistening is any kind of play where are child laughs while we are in the less powerful role. It can help our child to release stress and frustration that can be common while travelling.

When we go on a journey we may focus on the ‘things’ we need to entertain our baby or toddler but often what they actually need most is a warm relaxed connection with us. If you are travelling this summer be sure to pack some playlistening games in your suitcase!

To find out more about playlistening read my post Giggle Parenting: The Best ‘Discipline’ Tool Out There!

Feeling and Thinking

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A few weeks ago my daughter R started at a German speaking forest playgroup. It’s a lovely group where they walk into the forest, build a fire, sing songs, and make crafts out of clay and natural materials. She looked happy setting off on the adventure for the first time without me, and returned happy and excited to see me again.

A few days later, my English friend told me she would be visiting the playgroup with her daughter K, (R’s best friend). They were thinking of starting in the next school year in August. A few days after that R said she didn’t want to go back to the playgroup. I wondered why as she’d seemed so happy with the whole experience. For a few days I talked about it with her from time to time, and she seemed adamant she didn’t want to go back, that she didn’t like the things they do there.

Although I was loving the time to myself, I didn’t want to go against my daughter’s wishes, so I sent a message to cancel her place. She had tried one forest playgroup before, that she hadn’t liked. It had been very different and much longer, but I became resigned to the fact that she just didn’t like forest playgroups!

I didn’t want to cancel the place entirely, as it really is a lovely group. So I asked R if she wanted to start in August instead when her friend K was starting, and she said yes. I then sent a message to the playgroup leader.

An hour later my daughter was swinging on the swing in our garden. I was pushing her really high, and she was having fun. Suddenly she said, ‘’I do want to go to the forest playgroup on Thursday!’’ I told her that I’d cancelled the place, that I wasn’t sure if she still could. She started to cry.

I’m so glad to have discovered the Parenting by Connection approach, and to know that when she does get upset, it’s a natural healing process, that releases stress and upset, and that it helps so much just to listen rather than fixing things immediately. So I hugged her and allowed her to finish crying, and said I was sorry I cancelled the place, I just thought she didn’t want to go. I didn’t rush off to sort out the issue immediately. In that moment I just concentrated on listening to her, as I felt that would help release whatever feelings were tied up in her indecisiveness about the playgroup. My mind was focused on listening rather than ‘’fixing’’ so it took me a few minutes to think about the fact that since I’d only just sent the message I could probably ask for the place back and it wouldn’t be too late, and Ruby was happy with that.

She finished crying, and as we walked back inside, she said to me, ‘’I think I should listen really carefully to what M says.’’ M is a German speaking girl she knows well from her dance class, and another playgroup they go to together. They seem to like each other a lot even though they can’t communicate verbally.

It always amazes me just how the brain works. That when we can release our emotions, in the natural process of crying, then we can often come up with new solutions to the problems we face. This was a perfect example of this. That the root of my daughter’s indecisiveness, was her feelings about being in an environment where she didn’t speak the language. The disapointment about the playgroup was like a trigger which seemed to release some of those feelings, so she could think more clearly and come up with a new plan – to listen carefully to her German friend, and start learning German.

Our children are amazing! They can often figure things out for themselves and come up with their own solutions, provided we are there, to help them through their emotional upsets.

After that my daughter was completely sure that she definitely wanted to go back. She enjoyed her second week at forest playgroup, and I’m so glad to have these tools, to help her overcome her anxieties, and worries, so that she can build confidence and resilience as she explores the big wide world.

What to do when your child ‘just’ wants your attention

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We recently got back from a three week trip to the UK. Lots of travelling, and stressful at times, even if it was fun.

One morning, I started tidying up the house, as a friend was coming over. My two year old daughter immediately started ‘untidying,’ pulling books off the shelves and putting them on the sofa, and putting pillows in the kitchen. Suddenly all sorts of random objects appeared in random places, and all my time was taken up, rectifying the mess she was making! I felt frustrated, and only hoped my friend would forgive me for the state of my house!

This behaviour was certainly ‘attention-seeking’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t for a good reason. I’d noticed in the evenings she’d take ages to fall asleep, sucking her fingers — a sure sign she was feeling tense. I suspected that the stress of the holiday was coming out in her behaviour. Making a mess became the theme of the next few days. She would pull all her alphabet letters off the fridge, and throw clothes onto the floor.

One mainstream response to ”attention seeking behaviour” is to ignore the bad and praise the good. But this doesn’t address the underlying upset feelings that are always beneath our child’s off-track behaviour. So these feelings are going to come up again at some point, possibly in worse behaviour, or our child will feel withdrawn and distance from us, angry, and hurt.

Attention is a biological need, the same as eating and drinking, and it literally builds a child’s brain, to have adults connecting with them. Contrary to popular opinion, children only ask for the attention they need, even if they ask for it in infuriating ways.

I responded by playing the role of the exasperated parent but in a very playful way. I’d exclaim”oh no, what are all these letters doing on the floor!!”, making sure she knew that I was turning it into a game, and not really annoyed. Then I’d pick all the letters back up and invite her to make mess again. Soon she was running around pulling books off the shelves, clothes out of my drawers, all the while giggling hysterically as I fumbled around making failed attempts to get her to stop.

Then when I sensed that my patience was beginning to wear thin, and the mess was starting to overwhelm me, I gently set a limit, and said it was time to stop playing. I asked my daughter to help clean up a bit, and she happily put books back on the shelf with me.

After a few evenings of playing this game, my daughter was back to her normal self, respecting our living environment and not making a mess just for the sake of it. She was always happy to help me clean up.

It might sound crazy to allow our children to do something ‘naughty,’ but this kind of ‘sanctioned disobedience,’ gets feelings out of their system, so it doesn’t result in larger off-track behaviours later on. If we can relax our limit of what is acceptable and have some fun, our children do understand it’s just a game. And afterwards, they’ll be more likely to co-operate with us, because they are no longer full of the upset feelings that were driving their misbehaviour. And they’ll be less attention-seeking because we’ve actually given them the attention they were asking for.

If you don’t want your child bashing up your favourite paperbacks, or messing up your clean laundry, then you can create a harmless scenario, and invite them to make a mess. You could put a stack of scrap paper on the table and say, ”I hope you don’t mess up my important paperwork!” in an inviting tone, or create a drawer of old junk, and say to yourself, ”I hope you don’t empty that drawer!”

Understanding the benefits can help us let go of those old ideas about behaviour being ‘just attention seeking,’ as can seeing the result of having a more co-operative child afterwards. Have fun, and monitor your own feelings, so you can end the game while you still have some patience left. Listening time helps too!