Wednesday, August 27, 2008

MOMS Help 911 - getting little ones to eat veggies

Kirstie is one of my friends from Basque Country - San Sebastian, Spain. I've had the privilege of spending time with this mom and on my last trip, she shared a new thing they've done with Mia that IS working. I begged her - pleased with her to write her story as I had this strong hunch that many other moms were in this same MOM HELP 911 situation. Kirstie is an American from the south married to a gentle French guy (a chiropractor) and living in Spain. She and our daughter Jenni have had times to share some play dates.

Hello, my name is Kirstie and Lylah has asked me to guest a blog about our experiences at the family table. Specifically how we engineered an environment conducive to a 3 year old eating all her vegetables.

The back story is that meal time in our house had become a nightmare. Nearly every lunch and dinner erupted into a scene from that Super Nanny show. (Which I've seen twice.) Our house was really affected by this, my husband dreaded coming home nervous awaiting a painful experience at our table.

My heart broke to watch his patient temperament stretched thin after a long day helping other people at his Chiropractic office. We reached the breaking point though when my husband, who typically comes home for lunch, left the apartment before we'd finished eating because of this battle of wills.

It was a horrible day and after the dust had settled with our daughter asleep we both said "This has to change". But what do you do when a 3 year old won't eat? Doesn't want to finish their vegetables?

There were times we said 3 more bites and you're done just to end the struggle. Mostly she wasn't eating her nutritious food and successfully getting a treat inducing pre bed hunger cries.

My husband and I sat down for about an hour and said what works for our family? We've had a few blissful mealtimes so what was different on those days? And we thought out a plan that's worked for our family going on two months. It works in restaurants and even at Grandma's house. Here's what we figured out.

First this new schedule and plan is posted visibly in our kitchen because we parents had a new routine. Rarely is the situation just fueled by a child; environment does affect outcome. We aimed for creating a meal time with consistency.

1. First on the list: set times for eating. We actually wrote down 1 pm for lunch and 7:45 for dinner. So now Mom has her task laid out. Before this our food was hitting the table with nearly 30 minutes difference every day, this inconsistency was a biggie.

2. We gave Mia a task, a job, to set her brain into table mode. Ten minutes before we sit down she sets the napkins out. It's a cue to her body and her mind and of course she's learning to work. She also helps make the meal.

3. She had been asking to hold hands, it got that bad, for emotional support to eat. That was on the list "No holding hands at the table." We were in a bad way, folks.

3. For dessert to be an option the meal must be finished. Now this will likely get some outcry so let me move on to the next point.

4. Mia size portions. That's my daughter's name and it's on the board for me to remember ; )

We have a partitioned plate so she's never getting too much food and also most mom's know how much their child can actually eat. We never require her to finish all her "meat" but veggies are never optional. She always has a tiny starter salad and "meat", vegetable and starch on her main plate. New foods have a one bite rule.

5. We know what's for dessert. Sometimes it's fruit with a little whipped cream or two tic-tacs but it's a motivator.

6. Here comes the rewards. Playtime with Daddy while mom cleans up. If she has received two smiley faces that day then she gets 10-15 minutes of a video and a story. If not it's only books, still not a bad deal. In addition to these things that we found list worthy we've created a chart with seven days of the week divided by lunch and dinner. If she eats her meal we draw a smiley face and if her attitude and table manners are proper she gets a round sticker. Whining means no sticker, more than one reminder of "it's time to eat" means no sticker.

We started with 3 reminders. This is for every meal. She can lose one sticker and still receive a special sticker for her collection book but to get a bigger prize she has to get all the stickers.

In eight weeks, it's happened twice. Still the real prize for us has been meal time itself. We went from gritting our teeth to anticipating casual conversation between the three of us. We are all more relaxed.

Some people are automatically not ok with making their child "finish the plate" but that's one of our components. I keep portions on the skimpy side as seconds are available and that divided plate makes it easy to see what is really on there. I've seen her polish off green beans, broccoli, steamed carrots because it's part of the deal. She's seen it set before and said I don't want "vegetable" and then still finished it with minor complaint.

By working in some legality we took out the ability for our daughter to "bargain" her vegetables. Our hearts were in the creation of this plan but if we flip flopped about the rules it wouldn't work! She would go straight back to bargaining. So are we really this fun, you might think.

The other night Mia really didn't want a normal meal and we allowed her to eat a rice cake with peanut butter and apple. It was a special option because kids are still kids. I had asked what she wanted and that was her response. Dad ok'd it and she was so happy and finished it all.

At restaurants the servings can be huge. We never require something like french fries to be finished, we usually see if there is another option, but again the rules apply. She knows we'll fill in the meal chart at home and we section off her required eating to gain access to dessert and get a smiley face. Or this weekend for example we went to a typical Spanish fish restaurant that doesn't really offer things for kids. Our daughter ate some bread, half a bowl of fish soup, a calamari, 2 bites of grilled sardine and a tiny apple and almonds we brought for her, all the while looking forward to sorbet. She got her smiley and sticker and we had a great time.

On weekends I can vary meal times a little. If it's going to be later than usual we give Mia some fruit and I count this towards meal time portions.

Snacking is something that can ruin little appetites make sure their tummy is hungry when sitting down to eat. What's interesting is after sharing this information with my mom she said it's similar to what they do at the group home where she works with severely autistic and other developmentally disabled people. It's really all about structure.

So, hopefully this helps some harried mom gain a little perspective. I didn't read volumes on this subject, I'm not a teacher by trade I am just a mom and housewife. I credit the Lord for His wisdom and how He answered my heart's prayer. We got fellowship back to our table and my kid is growing like a rose.

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Gina said...

Thank you! That is great advice. We too, have slowly been slipping down the slippery slope of dreading mealtimes around here. I plan on making more structure and implementing some of your great suggestions. THANK YOU!

Lylah said...

Hi Gina....THANKS for stopping by - I'm so delighted that Kirstie's story can encourage you.

blessings! Lylah