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Suppertime

I have a question about the issue of suppertime rules/power struggles. I am a practicum student at a group home in Calgary, and the staff have been having difficulties with one 9-year-old boy for a week now about eating salad at supper. The issue is he needs to eat a balanced meal, and this includes veggies/salad. The boy detests veggies and salad, chokes down two small bites, and then refuses to eat the rest. This, in turn, leads to a heated discussion about how he needs to finish his salad because his body needs the nutrition, however he is stubborn, does not eat, and the issue turns into a power struggle instead of the salad itself.

Any ideas out there about how we can avoid this nightly routine as well as maintaining a balanced diet for this child?

Jackie Clark
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Jackie,
 
Have you asked him if he likes salads or what he might like in place of a salad? Power struggles over food should be avoided for the very reason you are writing. Telling a child what he "needs" is really your "need." Have fruit or nutritional snacks available for him and others throughout the day or evening. He is probably getting a balanced meal over the course of the day. In my experience, making an issue over eating will not solve the problem. Dining with kids is an opportunity for relationship building, casual conversation, and skill building. To have a meal end up in a heated discussion will push this young boy further from any of these important elements of childcare. Ask him what fruits and vegetables he does like and try to make them available. Put yourself in his place for a moment. Would you want to be forced to eat and then have your meal interrupted by arguing because of a rule you have to eat a specific food? Leave him alone and let him choose. The less a big deal is made over this the better off everyone will be, and this young boy can enjoy his dinners.

Jean Dickson
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It looks like the power struggle here is only serving to make him hate vegetables even more than he already does. Let's face it, most children don't like vegetables and sometimes we need to get creative in how we're going to get them to eat them. Have you tried having him assist with preparing dinner and putting him in charge of the vegetables. He needs to choose what will be served for dinner and then he needs to help prepare it. It will give him a sense of ownership and he may feel the need to try his creations. Another technique that often works with the younger one's is disguising the vegetables. Make ladybugs out of half an apple (cover with peanut butter and give it raisin or chocolate chip spots); ants on a log are good too. Also try putting sauces on cooked vegetables (ie. Cheese). When making things like spaghetti sauce or Chili, take the time to cook some extra veggies first and then run them through a blender and throw them in. If they don't know there are veggies they won't complain. Does he like soup that has veggies in it? Start him with that instead of Salad. Does he like fruit? Every second day give him a choice of having some fruit slices with supper instead of veggies? Try a reward system for eating all of his veggies? Reward him for the few that he did eat instead of giving him a consequence for the one's that he didn't. Hopefully these tips will help you get enough veggies into him to keep him healthy and get him on the road to liking vegetables. Good luck with this one as I have been down the vegetable road before too!!

Marisa D'Angelo
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What a great discussion. You and many more of us as well as parents of kids this age experience the same problem I have a house full of boys (6) with the same issues, natural, and foster. One ( my own) is showing obsessive compulsive traits particularly around food. Over the years and working in a variety of programs my husband and I have come to the following and I suggest these ideas to the foster parents that I work with as part of my job as a foster parent resource worker and as a play therapist intern and then encourage them to change the rules so to adapt to their own household needs. 1) Food issues for some kids have way more meaning than their like or dislike of vegetables or meat - 2) kids with deprivation, attachment or obsessive compulsive traits may not be even able to verbalize what the issue is and they are symbolic, very real and distressing for them. Such as eating worms at a staff meeting may be for you. Kids present the issue in a way that makes caregivers feel like they have to "hold their ground" with them when food really isn't the underlying issue for the child. 3) Our job as caring adults is to expose children to different foods, ensure that they are provided different foods and encourage them to engage in a healthy lifestyle. That is the philosophy -now the practice that works most of the time for us.

In a week , kids are provided with foods they love and in our culture that is hot dogs, chicken nuggets etc,,, they are also provided with foods they may not love- roast beef, pork chops , salad. In our house the big reaction is always from foods that are mixed, lasagna, soup , casserole... The kids with food issues usually have a hard time with the control aspect of not knowing whats in the mix. Always have stand bys available for choice- in our house it is raw carrots...This means that sometimes there are raw carrots and salad as choice and other times just salad...Also the ocd child has a hard time with green vegetables for no understandable reason so salad consists of leaf salad and carrots ( peppers and other additions are on the side).

Sometimes there is something they absolutely hate and there is no choice of item like a full mixed salad( see how there is still variety here). We only expect two bites of each food group and if this is achieved they can have junk for desert or later snack... If it wasn't achieved then they need the food group they missed ( for healthy balance) which may therefore be an apple or protein item instead of pudding or cookies. No power struggle , just let me know how you want to handle this today.

My husband supplements their diet with protein shakes that they think are chocolate milk, vegetable additives from the health food store that get added to juice, protein bars in their lunches etc. We know that they really aren't going to starve.

They may appear to be manipulative by choosing from the onset to have an apple for snack however, I would argue that they are therefore learning about the food groups and though we are not running a restaurant there also has to be some modelling and teaching of respect that we need to be "in charge" of our own bodies...This symbolic learning through this processes will hopefully be a great baseline for other body issues they will encounter or be exposed to as they get older.

Sound like lots of work and some argue that in the old days we just put it in front of them and they ate it , like it or not.. For one of the boys we have( who spent his early years eating out of dumpsters)- it is healthy for him to say - no I don't want to put that in my body.. So a discussion needs to ensue to identify what will meet the needs of everyone...

I would be interested in this thread for my own learning to understand what others think....
Hope my ideas spur discussion too.

Theresa Fraser
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When I was a kid we had a babysitter who insisted that we finish every last drop of the milk from our cereal bowl. I remember being forced to sit at the table in tears until I choked down the horrid lukewarm, and too sugary liquid. To this day I will not clean my plate, always leaving a crust of bread or couple of peas etc. My best friend when I was a teenager would stand at the stove and finish off the left-over noodles from a 25 cent box of Kraft Dinner even though she was full, because her parents taught her it was a sin to waste food. Forcing people to eat something they don't like is abusive, and creates far more problems in the long run than missing a few vegetables. There are lots of ways to help picky eaters get the nutrients they need over the course of a day, but my sense is that there is a bigger issue at play here. Firstly, the YCWs involved need to examine their personal values and beliefs around food. Then they need to decide as a team how they will approach food issues, ensuring that this approach supports, and is supported by the program's Mission Statement.

Kim N. (Halifax)
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A child will seldom come to harm if he refuses to eat salad and making an issue out of it only compounds the problem. Try disguising the salad products. Jelly is one way; finely chop cabbage etc in the jelly. Another way is present it is other forms, ie hamburgers with lettuce and tomatoes already on it, or a favorite Tacos. If there are major dietary concerns, a multivitamin can be prescribed from the doctor.

Linda Windjack
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It is always useless to have a power struggle about food...the child always wins...I only ate corn till I was 21 but now eat everything except peas. Have the child eat a multivitamine and get the vitamins he lacks from other food groups....he is more apt to want to try veggies if you don't make it an issue. If he has a healthy appetite otherwise, don't sweat the small stuff.
 
Debi Cockerton
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Hi Jackie,

I have an interesting perspective to add to your dilemma. I took CYCC at MRC a few years back, so I know the context in which you are coming from. I would encourage staff to look deeper into this issue, as there is a chance it is not a power struggle, but a genuine eating problem. I'm not referring to a clinical eating disorder, but I am suggesting that there is more to the problem, for example, negative schemas regarding food. I worry that power struggles reinforce the child's negative association with vegetables.

Since I was a kid, I've had issues with food, mainly vegetables. I am a VERY picky and particular eater. I am very aware of the implications of not eating healthily, however, it is really difficult for me to eat many types of food. It's very hard to explain in few words, but it's almost like it's a phobia. It's very irrational and it doesn't make sense, but it's like a brain glitch when you put the food in your mouth. I find my self gagging if there are chunks of vegetables in my food. Believe it or not, I've met a few people who have the same issues as I do, and it usually has more to do with the texture of vegetables. When I look back at my childhood, it's been like this since I was very little, probably 5 or so. I engaged in power struggle after power struggle with my parents, but they never really explored the issue with me.

This issue has caused many problems for me growing up, and especially in my current life. Since the real issue was never addressed, I have never resolved my eating quirks, which makes it very difficult to eat other people's cooking. It's very hard to explain why one does not eat vegetables at my age. This has led to me having anxiety when I eat with people, to the point where I feel stress even when I am eating food I like. I would urge staff to explore the issue further with the child, and if it is a genuine problem, cognitive behavioral therapy may be beneficial. I really wish that I had resolved my eating problems when I was younger, as it is quite a draining cognitive process for me to try new things after this behavior has been so engrained.

Some things you can do to encourage the youth to eat properly is to find out what healthy foods he enjoys. The idea is to make positive associations with food, so I would suggest getting the boy to participate in cooking and recipe ideas. Another thing that is helpful for me is to have vegetables ground finely to incorporate into sauces, for example, pasta sauce.

I can tell you that no amount of coercing, consequencing, or power struggles ever got me to try vegetables, and I wasn't even the type to be defiant. In order to define the problem, I would use active listening. If you want to see adaptive change, the fastest way to obtain it is through positive reinforcement. You could try setting up a behavioral modification program (with the help of the youth.....he needs to actively participate in this process), which would set up goals and rewards/consequences (which, again, the youth actively decides with you), and within this you can also do contracting. When doing this, remember to take baby steps, and start with small goals within a larger goal. For me, it's a big deal to try even a bite of salad, and I'm 25 years old! But I'm definately finding that cognitive restructuring helps me. I'll stop babbling now, but I just thought I'd share a different perspective. If the youth is in the same boat as I am, then he's probably experiencing a lot of anxiety and shame around the situation, which would make anyone defensive! Either way.... active listening, positive reinforcement and contracts work....if you empower the youth with some autonomy, they are much more likely to work towards goals of change!

Good Luck!
Erin Stadnick
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Jackie,

I understand how frustrating it is to get children to eat sensibly, unfortunately you just have to be patient because like you said it has now become a power struggle. It is not worth the fight, trust me I have children and I have realized that 1. maybe they really do not like a certain thing and 2 the older they get their taste for different foods will grow. I think it would be sad if you destroyed a potential relationship with this child over something so minor as food. I think the reason for him being in the home is bigger than eating his veggies.

Diana Crisanti
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The replies have been interesting.

Ross Greene, in his book The Explosive Child, argues that some children have special problems with things that the rest of us take for granted--such as being overly sensitive to the feel of certain articles of clothing, or the taste, texture, or feel of certain foods.

I would like to offer a different perspective on Erin's experiences.

Like Erin, I too had major problems with vegetables and a very limited assortment of foods that I would eat. And I had a mother who could be very strict. However, I was spared power struggles over food from infancy because of my mother's fear of allergies and a wise pediatrician. Both my father and my mother's sister had food allergies and severe asthma that at times was life-threatening. My mother was afraid that I would develop asthma. When I was an infant, a pediatrician told my mother, 'If he doesn't eat something, it may be his way of telling you that he is allergic to it. He gets enough nutrition from milk and the other things he eats so there won't be a problem.' Without that advice, I'm not sure what struggles might have plagued my childhood and my relationship with my mom.

I know the story because my mother would have to explain to people why I would not eat certain things. We lived in a culture where children cleaned their plates, or else. I especially remember how I could not stand the taste and feel of certain vegetables. I could not even stand being in the house when mushrooms or cabbage were cooking. I got sick to my stomach just from the smell. And I could not stand the feel of certain things in the back of my throat when I swallowed them. I remember trying to choke down some frozen peas (I ate canned peas), but the shells gagged me when I swallowed. And they didn't taste like canned peas. I wonder today what role my chronic hay fever might have played, especially the post nasal drip and the constantly irritated nose and throat.

After I left home, I learned to eat everything. As I got older, my hay fever subsided. Social pressure forced me to eat things. And I was no longer so sensitive to tastes or textures. I like to cook and I love to eat. Now I'm not skinny any more and always on a diet, if only because I don't stick to it.

John Stein
New Orleans
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I wonder how many of us, say in the last month, have been heavily pressured or coerced to eat something we didn't like?

How about: how many times in the last month we chose to eat something we didn't like?

Conversely, how many times do we give kids food that we think is really crap? (either in terms of how it's prepared, or the fact that it's junk)? There was something quite perverse in going on in a former unit where we were expected to pressure the kids to eat overcooked bland vegetables that were served along side 'ribs' (which were actually mechanically reprocessed bits with added fat and chemicals).

I think we should be making good choices easier and poor choices more less desirable and difficult. This is the part for which we are responsible. A minimum of crap on offer, infrequently offered, and healthy food available in abundance. Negotiation and exploration as to how to get kids to buy into healthy eating and how to find healthy options they prefer. Addressing meaning made of food and meal times, and related underlying issues. But at the end of the day, I think there are dangerous implications for taking away the choice of children and young people as to what not to put in their bodies.

Laura Steckley
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My daughter saw another child get a key through her hand at school and has had some stomache problems ever since. Eating vegetables is a must for her, and guess what, she doesn't like most of them.. We have become very creative, in the summer we go to the market centres and buy big bags of fresh peas, carrots etc and eat them raw in the backyard while watching the stars and semi-wild animals in the backyard(fox, deer, bats, porcupines etc). In the winter, she helps prepare the soups, some traditional Russian ones which take us back to our roots..:). It has become a tradition. I use mushroom soup in my gravy instead of flour and incorporate vegetables into most of my other dishes as stated in the other posts.

Mark and Tracey Robinson
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I just wanted to say that I agree with getting the young lad to help create and prepare the food, and don't force food values upon him. Time spent eating should always be relaxing (stress can't help with digestion).
Funny story (by no means a suggested lifestyle!): My Dad's girlfriend has 2 sisters; one of them is a non-active, right wing woman who eats only deep-fried foods, no veggies, and the other is an active, left-wing health nut who eats only organic foods and herbal stuff. They both went to get their cholesterol checked the other day. You'd better believe the irony! Deep-fried had excellent cholesterol, while super health scored far worse! (No the results were not accidentally switched - they live on different sides of the country).

Stock the house with nutritious foods and let the youth pick their meals - can't go wrong.

Maddy
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Hi Jaclyn,

 I work with eating disordered youth, and we often are asked about similar issues by parents. Some really good resources to consider are by Ellyn Satter. She has been pioneering work with children and families and nutrition for more than 20 years. She has a really great description of what a healthy eater really is, as opposed to what society believes a healthy eater is. Two books that can be useful are How to get your kid to eat (but not too much) and Secrets of feeding a health family. Her website is www.ellynsatter.com

She also makes a distinction between eating and feeding. The following is a quote by Ellyn it may get you thinking...

"EATING... is more than deciding what and when to eat.
FEEDING... is more than choosing food and getting it into a child.
EATING AND FEEDING... reflect people's histories, their relationships with themselves and with others.
FEEDING A CHILD is about the connection between parent and child, about trusting or controlling, about providing or neglecting, about accepting or rejecting.
EATING is about the connection with our bodies and with life itself.
Eating can be joyful, full of zest and vitality. Or it can be fearful, bound by control and avoidance.
My mission is to help children and adults be joyful and capable with eating.
Ellyn Satter"

Lynn Lavigne and Dave Rieder
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