Picky Eaters and Power Struggles

kids cookA reader asks for help on “power struggles about food choices (I only like restaurant pizza; I want candy, etc.).”

When I was a group home therapist we would cook and eat with the kids, and it was one of the most important bonding rituals that we had.  One day we were planning to make burgers and my lead staff, Chandler, suggested that we make “ghetto burgers.”  I was game and asked him how a “ghetto burger” was different from a regular burger.  He looked at me and leaned in closer, a bit conspiratorial, “I’m going to tell you what my mamma taught me… you have to put love in the meat.”

And so we worked side by side in that dingy kitchen, consciously putting love into that meat.  And those were the best burgers I’d ever tasted.  Since then, even though I’ve drifted away from red meat myself, all of my cooking has gone up a notch because when you put love in you do a bit of magic. 

A key thing to consider about “power struggles,” whether they are around food or something else, is that we generally want to avoid them altogether.  Once we enter in, we have lost—because we have engaged at that level.  If we have power, we do not need to struggle.  Yet we do not have the power to make kids eat, and this is why food is such a great place for them to assert power, especially if we are perceived by our children as controlling (think of prisoners who go on hunger strikes, creating absurd scenarios where their jailer is forced to aggressively “nurture” them to keep them from escaping via death).

Rejecting our food is also a way of rejecting us, and our love.  This is best viewed as a way in which children primitively transmit to us their feelings of rejection or helplessness.  If we understand the underlying dynamics (and do not verbally dish this information right back out to our kids), we become the bowl that holds their overflow.  In this sense it is we parents who must “eat” the bad feelings of our kids, or at least hold them in our bowls, and trust that our kids will come back for these bitter greens because deep in their souls they themselves know that they are incomplete without them.  We might think of negative feelings as our kids’ emotional minerals:  bitter but essential for psychological health.  They dump by the truckload; we feed back with baby spoons.  This obviously takes a while.

While nutrition is a big issue and there is much available on it, I want to emphasize the love in the food.  On this note, striving for family meals where everyone is at the table, all devices off, is a bonding ritual that feeds kids a sense of family, love and belonging—whether or not everyone eats everything on their plates.  By gathering in a more accepting manner we may lose the battle and stop the war altogether.  There have been studies where kids offered a variety of foods ended up self-selecting a balanced diet—not at every meal, but averaged out over time.  Making healthy foods available, and limiting availability of truly unhealthy foods, combined with a bit of faith in our children’s bodies to know what’s good for them, may prove more life affirming than we had suspected.

Whether we say a prayer before our meals or not, eating mindfully can be a step up from just digging in.  If we talk to our kids about how the sun, and the earth and the rain can be literally found in a simple bite of bread, and if we ourselves slow down enough to eat mindfully and in gratitude, perhaps we will create an energy or an emotional environment where eating becomes a natural way for us to connect to the earth and to each other, in gratitude for the very life that we get from our food.

Eating and body image issues can be a serious matter, and if you suspect that this is an area of concern for your child, or yourself, see my link to Dr. Susan Krevoy’s Eating Disorders Clinic; however, no matter what else is going on, it will never hurt for us to try and deepen our empathy for our child’s worldview, feelings and choices.  Finally, taste is just that, and some of us just don’t like certain things.  Even if we can’t always give them candy, we can mentally and emotionally give them sweetness.  I’ll lend you some sugar, I am your neighbor.

Let’s dedicate today to appreciating our own food, and to sending love to those who are without food, or who are, for whatever reason, too upset to eat.

Namaste, Bruce

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6 Responses to “Picky Eaters and Power Struggles”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Hi I think this is a fantastic blog, keep up the good work…

  2. Gourmet Diet Says:

    The great Winston Churchill once said, “If you find yourself walking through hell, just keep going. Gourmet Diet

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, and maybe look around and take some notes or make some sketches while you’re there. The hero, as parent and otherwise, makes their rough quest in the service of the group. Churchill helped folks know that they were not alone, that their leader was not in denial. Perhaps we parents can be brave in the service of our kids and thus avoid perpetually creating hell on earth for too many of them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Namaste, Bruce

  3. Beth Kirk Says:

    Thanks for the column on eating. It is food for thought.

  4. EmilyAnnSmith Says:

    Very interesting – and dead on. I like your take on this subject. Keep up the good work!

  5. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Just clicked over from Lisa Belkin’s post at the NYT because we are currently engaged in eating power struggles with Big Boy. Love the suggestion about mindfulness while eating; having read much Michael Pollan of late, this mostly urban girl feels somewhat equipped to talk about the provenance of our meals.

    Why am I not surprised that my buddy Bruce has archival wisdom on yet another topic? Happy weekend to you and yours.

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