Parents of picky eaters find meal times stressful. You want your kids to eat healthily but don't know how to teach them.
Food and eating become an area of stress and battles.
You want to enjoy family meal times and watch your kids eating the healthy food you lovingly cook. But it feels so difficult.
Today I chat about our family struggles with picky eaters and how difficult it was until I created a system that works for us.
Now our family meals are times to connect and enjoy each other's company. My kids eat healthily. And so can yours!
Hello and welcome to Fit and Fabulous with me, Dr Orlena Kerek. Today, we are talking about picky eating, healthy eating, and a little bit of a case study. And Hey, guess what? That case study is going to be me and my family. I want to take you a little bit behind the scenes and show you some of the struggles that we've had. The outcomes, and how you can help your children to learn healthy habits.
We'll dive into that in a minute. First of all, a few little what's going on in the background. It was my birthday last weekend. So happy birthday me! And in the name of self care. I have had some, um, lovely slippers from my mother “posh slippers”. I'm super happy about those.
And also I decided to treat myself. I don't normally celebrate my birthday much, but I decided I'm going to start looking after my skin better. So I ordered some goodies from Lush as a birthday present. I'm taking a little bit more care with myself and spending a little bit more money on beauty products. I have to confess I normally buy the cheapest. One of the things I'm starting to do is use that time to think I'm somebody who takes care of my skin and looks after my skin. We'll do another podcast on this. I have someone in mind who can come and talk to us.
So that will be super exciting.
What else is going on? I am still working on the Habits Challenge. The Healthy You Healthy Family Habits Challenge, which we taking place in April. I'm super excited. It's going to be amazing. And yeah. I'm enjoying putting it together. One of the things I am thinking about is prizes.
So there's going to be prizes for people who get involved and atten. I'm busy working out what all the prizes are going to be. Some of them are going to be fabulous coaching sessions with me. I'm also thinking, Ooh, some nice lush products would be a wonderful gift. I hadn't realized that lush is now a multi international company and extends beyond the UK where I've known about it for years and years.
I remember going into some of the first shops years ago when I first started working as a doctor. Now they’re everywhere. So wherever you are, you can get hold of lush. I'm also going to be having a little massage cushion as a prize because I love my massage cushion. And again, in the name of self care. When I was struggling with self care, I found it useful to have 10 minutes to sit and get my little back massage.
Having a big back massage is not only expensive, but it takes time out of your busy day. And it's a little bit more unachievable. So those are some of the things that are going on.
I am also doing Dr Orlena’s Office Hour. So this week we had the first Dr Orlena’s Office Hour and it was amazing and people had fabulous time.
Great comments left in the Facebook group. So thank you so much for that. People found it useful. Aha Moments, breakthroughs.
So first of all, come and join that Facebook group healthy you healthy family. Sign up for next week's or this week's tomorrow's session. It's going to be all about healthy eating for children, fussy eaters.
Sign up here for Dr Orlena's Office Hour
I suggest you listen to the podcasts on healthy eating. So this one is a great start because the podcasts give you the information and the Dr Orlena’s Office Hour is applying that information. So thinking about how you can apply it to your life. It's not so much about teaching. You can pick my brains, but there isn't time to go into all the depth. So I will leave in the show notes, a couple of other podcasts that are worth listening to as well as this one. And in the Facebook group, you can ask questions. That's the place to be, come and hang out. And it is super fun.
Okay. That's enough preamble. Let's get on with today's session. So. A little bit of backstory. I trained as a paediatric doctor. We moved to Spain in, oh my goodness, 2011. So nearly 10 years ago. At the time I had two children who were the ages of one and two. They’re just under two years apart.
So my oldest child turned three. And when I was a paediatric doctor, I was seeing lots of children with tummy pain. And this was before I had my own kids. A lot of those people who had tummy pain had constipation. They couldn't go to the toilet and I would diagnose, “Not eating enough vegetables”.
And I would say “You need to eat more vegetables. It's super easy. Go and check out Jamie Oliver. He'll tell you how to do some cooking. You can serve them vegetables. Super easy. Just put more vegetables out there!”
Well, in a nutshell, that is true. But what I realised when I had my own children was that this wasn't quite so easy.
I was preparing what I considered to be healthy foods and my children weren't eating it. And I remember one day, Oh, horror of horrors. My second son, sitting on the toilet crying in agony because, Oh my goodness, what had happened? He was constipated.
I could see it was a bit of a wake-up call.
I could see what was happening was I would be giving him a healthy meal, a balanced meal of say pasta and vegetables. And what he was doing was eating out the pasta and leaving all the vegetables. So the amount of vegetables that was getting into him was not very much. Now on top of that, his older brother was was/ is a picky eater.
And I really, really struggled. We would have huge, great mealtime battles. I'm sure you've all heard this. You know, it kind of goes like this. “Oh, can you eat some broccoli?” Child says no. Parent feels hemmed in and powerless. You scramble around saying things like, “well, you can't have dessert unless you eat all your vegetables”. And the child then screams and shouts. “I don't want dessert. I don't care about dessert”. Whatever it was, and it created mealtimes friction, tension, stress.
Oh my goodness. Unpleasant times. And I remember this sort of taking over my life to a certain extent and me having to think, “okay. I, all I do is cook dinner for my kids”. That wasn't the case. But at this time I would say I wasn't looking after myself very well. And you know, a lot of those negative thoughts come out. And this was kind of what I was thinking. “What am I going to cook for dinner? I need to please my husband, who is quite frankly getting bored of pasta. But it also needs to please my children and I need food that is going to be easy. At the end of the day. All I want is to meet my family's nutritional requirements in a healthy way, but I also want it to be calm and tranquil. And what I want is bonding time. I want it to be fun. I want it to be that time in the day where we come together and enjoy each other's company and relax”.
And that's what food should be about. That's what sharing that food should be about enjoyment. And not stress and friction, but that wasn't what was happening. And it felt like I was in a hamster wheel and I didn't know how to fix this. So to cut a long story short, I did lots and lots of reading. I read everything out there. I spoke to about a zillion experts. Um, a lot of those conversations are in there happy, healthy eating for kids summit. So, you know, I got opinions from different people and luckily they all said roughly the same thing. So I'm not going to go into huge detail of how to do that, but I will give you a few nutshells of what I did.
I would say number one is looking at my own mindset. Stepping back from that battle and thinking, “okay, it's not about the battle. This is a power struggle. I want to inflict my authority over my children. I need to step back and allow them to take some responsibility for what they eat. But I still want them to eat healthily.”
It's not like I want them to eat cake all the time. So how can I achieve that without me going, “you have to eat your peas or you have to eat your broccoli”?
So creating what I call it a “happy eating environment”. And how do I do that? I go into more detail about that in the other podcasts that I will link to in the show notes.
Related Podcast: My Proven Method to Teach Kids Healthy Eating without the Fuss
Related Podcast: My Proven Method To Introduce New Foods to Kids Without the Fuss
So that was what step one. Another important key I implemented was thinking about the food I was offering throughout the day. Thinking, “okay, so you know, our diet, wasn't awful. I was presenting fruit and vegetables, but in a way that allowed my children to fill up on the goodies.”
For example, at snack time they would have biscuits or cookies. And instead of saying, “okay, you can have one biscuit or one cookie”, they would have several biscuits and cookies. And then when it came to dinner time, they weren't feeling hungry. Well, they would eat the pasta out.
So, although the healthy food was on offer, they were able to fill up on the, not so healthy food. The not so healthy food wasn't disastrous, but it meant that they were not choosing to eat the healthy foods.
How could I implement a system whereby I'm allowing them to take control of what they eat?
In a way that is presenting them with healthy food options?
And this really is sitting back and looking at the bigger picture. How we create food, how we prepare that food, how we present that food. And it's a bit of what I call tough love because a lot of people think. “Yeah, the way I present food is fine and my children should be able to eat the healthy food”. But children are children, children are humans, and that doesn't happen.
So that was another thing that I implemented and you know me. I'm all about easy and simple. And so now fast forward several years. And my way of preparing food is easy and simple. Now, my way of preparing food works for me. It's not the same for everybody else, but I don't spend hours thinking about what dinner is.
And we eat lots of vegetables. My kids eat vegetables. All four of them. Number four was the most picky out of all of them. So even more picky than number one. And on one level that made me feel, “Oh my goodness, it's all your fault. You have a picky eater.” But I knew that I was doing all the things right.
And that it’s just him. That is his personality. And there's nothing that I can do about that other than to implement the systems that help him. But what I mean by, I can't do anything about it is I can't change his personality. What I can do is help him and be aware of how that impacts me and the rest of the family.
For example, child number four, not only does he have problems with what he eats, he's quite an anxious child, which is very common with picky eaters. He has problems brushing his teeth, getting dressed. So it's not just food. It's a lot of things about life. He loves quarantine. He would happily spend all his days in his pyjamas playing Lego, or the latest craze is Magic The Gathering. That's what he would do. And I can see that, but I'm not going to allow him to do that all the time.
He has to go to school or when there isn't school, he has to do his homework. He has to brush his teeth every single day. It's about setting those limits, those boundaries and allowing him to take back control within those boundaries.
He’s someone who goes much slower in everything he does than his brothers and sisters. He’s now eight and he has only recently been able to take charge of brushing his teeth. And what I mean by that is for years, we've had to have this little ritual where he has a little huggy, a little boost, and I start the toothbrush. He has an electric toothbrush and he brushes his teeth.
Now we've taken a step further, which is to say, Sebastian, you need to start brushing your teeth.
It's understanding where he is and getting a balance between where he is and how that fits into the family. So when it gets to that stage of, “Oh, for goodness sake, I can't take this anymore. You have to brush your own teeth.” When the time is ready. We addressed that, but in reality, much later than I would have liked to. I would have liked him to be brushing his own teeth at the age of three or four, which is perfectly possible for a lot of children. Physically he had the ability to do it. He didn't have the emotional confidence to be able to do it. So it's about getting that balance right.
I think it would be useful now to fast forward a bit and tell you where we are now. So if you have young children, you might be thinking, “Oh my goodness, it feels like I can never get out of this hamster wheel”.
One thing I’d say to you is it doesn't happen overnight. You can get rid of a lot of the stress overnight, but teaching your children healthy eating habits is a long-term project.
It isn't do it in a weekend. I wrote my book about feeding toddlers, and another about picky eating. People asked why I didn't call it “How to cure your picky eater in three days?" I understand the sentiment behind that. Nut it wasn't something I could do because it gives false expectations.
You can't solve this problem in three days. You may be able to solve some of the problem in three days, but the reality is it's something that you need to keep doing. Keep doing, keep doing, keep being patient, keep being patient. Keep thinking about how you present food. Over time, those habits get instilled into your family and into you and your child. Things get sorted out.
The reality is that picky eating is a spectrum. And if you look at all children who exhibit picky eating some of them are going to grow into what should we call them? Normal eaters. And some of them are still going to have elements of that picky eater left later on. My oldest child is 12 and he eats a large variety of foods.
Dinner times aren't an issue in that our meal times are relaxed and calm and we have systems in place. So for example, there's still a lot of foods that he doesn't like. Aubergines, I don't know what it is about poor aubergines. Kids don’t like aubergines. None of my kids like aubergines, but we tolerate them. My kids don't eat them, but they pick them out and I quite often will do them on the side rather than in the meals.
So we have systems that work for our family. And as I say, he doesn't eat everything. Now, one thing he does do is he's quite keen on cooking treats and sweets. So my family policy is I don't buy any biscuits or cakes or anything like that. And I have a policy which is “If you want it, you need to cook it”.
I love experimenting with healthy treats. And if anybody wants any healthy treats, wow. I could do another podcast on healthy treats. So many easy ways of using fruit. Different ways of cooking biscuits or cakes, but without loads of flour and sugar. I like playing around. I have several that my children accept and will eat enthusiastically. But I don't make them that often because I'm busy and it is extra work to be doing. So he likes to make cakes and he will make cakes for birthdays or at the weekend. He will often ask if he can do some cooking.
And I have to get that balance right again. So he will go to the recipe books that have like, kilos and kilos of sugar in, and I'm there going, “Oh my goodness, this has so much unnecessary sugar in”. But it's about getting that balance, right. Of encouraging him in the kitchen and allowing, you know, sort of developing these healthy eating habits.
So we have certain recipes that contain sugar and flour. There are others which are sort of double the quantity of sugar and flour. And he's also now beginning to contribute to evening meals. He goes to secondary school and he has a different time table to the other children. He gets home at 2.30 and that's the end of his school day.
On Tuesdays he cooks meals and at the moment his meals are bean balls with pasta and vegetables. He’s going to do that meal over and over again until he's perfected it. He did have a meal which was pizza and he loved making pizza. In my mind, pizza is a treat food, and I don't want that to be something that we're eating on a weekly basis.
It's fine to have it from time to time, but I would rather have it less frequently than more frequently. So we're balancing that act. Him enjoying himself in the kitchen and starting to cook more healthy things. As well as cooking treats and sweets and exciting things that we all enjoy eating.
And none of these foods are forbidden in moderation. It's about getting moderation right. An important lesson to teach our kids is about limits. And saying, “okay, we are going to have treats, but we're not going to have loads and loads of those treats. We're going to have a little bit of treat”.
And that's such an important thing to teach kids and for ourselves too. So my other two children, number two and the female twin Celeste are what I call “adventurous eaters”. So they will pretty much eat anything. There are certain things that they don't like . And I notice at times that they like to join in the, “I don't like certain things”.
So they do have certain things that they don't like, but it's not a big deal. We manage that. And then number four is super, super picky, far more picky than number one, if that is at all possible, which it is. And he comes to the meals and we have a balancing act between some meals that I know children will eat.
So for example, vegetable pasta is a meal that the kids will have. And we'll have that, I don't know around once a month, but I know that it’s a meal that they’ll eat and I can cook. It's easy to cook and I combine it with more challenging meals. So from times, times we'd have meals where he will say, “I don't like anything”.
Now I try to always have a safe food on the table. Sometimes that doesn't work out. I use chickpeas as a safe food and he will say, “I don't want chickpeas today. Can I have green apple?”
And often I say, “yeah, that is fine. You go and get yourself a green apple”.
So as far as him having healthy diet, I'm happy with that.
He has lots of fruit and vegetables at breakfast. Sorry, lots of fruit at breakfast. He will take fruit for snack. He will have carrot sticks at lunchtime. So he's getting a healthy diet.
In terms of the stress at dinner times, has it disappeared? Not a hundred percent because he's still very anxious and it's not so much anxious about food. It may be, but it may be something else that he's anxious about, and that is his personality. So we have learned to deal with that. And part of learning to deal with that is looking after myself so that I have the energy to be able to address that when it happens.
For example, in the morning when we're about to leave and you think everything's going fine. Then huge, great stress about putting on shoes, as we're about to leave.
And that's that stress time when you think. “Okay. We need to be leaving now that added stress is not helping. If you've done this five minutes ago, we had time to deal with it without stress”. So it's again, a juggling act. So I hope that helps you see what life is like on the other side with systems and routines and habits.
Anxiety isn't an issue issue. It's never going to go away entirely. I suspect that my youngest son will always have a certain element of anxiety. I suspect he will learn to manage his anxiety far, far more than he does now, but I suspect it's inherent in him. And it shows up in terms of food, it shows up in terms of going to school, it shows up in all manner of things.
And I will help him and help him, but it's never going to disappear. But what does happen is we manage it better and better and better as we go on. As he gets older, part of that is a natural progression of being able to manage things.
I hope that gives you a little, a bit of insight into a case study of healthy eating for children. Healthy eating for children is perfectly manageable, perfectly doable. Your children can grow up eating healthy foods. And we can teach them healthy eating habits.
Wouldn't it be amazing if you could dial down your cravings for certain foods?
Or increase your like for healthy foods? Wouldn't that make healthy eating so much easier?
Well you can! In just 30 minutes.
Alea didn't like blueberries until she did the Magic Likes exercise. She was eating them and enjoying them by the end of the call!
Tory stopped eating pretzels after she did the exercise.
Find out more about Dr Orlena's Magic Likes and Dislikes Exercise.
(Psst... if you sign up for the "Overeating quiz" you can get a huge discount!)
Dr Orlena Kerek (MBChB from the University of Bristol, UK) trained as a pediatric doctor. She is now a family health coach. She helps busy mums who want to feel amazing by eating healthy food. So they can enjoy a healthy life, get back into their honeymoon shorts and teach their kids healthy habits. All without thinking about it.
If want a healthy family and healthy lifestyle without having to think about it. And you'd like help, book a 30 minute "Healthy Life Roadmap" call here.
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