I’m pretty sure there’s no research (yet) to back up the strategy my husband and I used to combat my young daughter’s desire to eliminate foods, but it worked so well I have decided to share it.
We let her go on strike. It was a fast and effective strategy that produced the right habits. Here is how it worked.
My daugther would announce she was done with apples and we would jokingly say, “Oh, so you’re on strike against apples?” And she would proudly say, “yes!”
Now, I’m sure she didn’t know what on strike meant—after all, we weren’t raising a little labor relations lawyer! —but she quickly got the gist. When my daughter was on strike she didn’t have to eat whatever food had suddenly offended her (newfound) sophisticated sensibilities, even though she had been eating that item with no problem for ages.
- Apples? On strike!
- Oranges? On strike!
- Potatoes? On strike!
- Mushrooms? On strike!
- Cookies? Not a chance!
We didn't urge, we didn't reason, we didn't discuss. We simply checked in and accepted. (Of course, we also always kept the offending item on the menu and frequently ate it ourselves!)
Then, one day I realized the on strike list had grown a little bit long.
And so the next time my daughter announced she was no longer eating something, I rebelled. Management had finally taken a stand.
“You can only go on strike against 5 things,” I said. (Actually, I don’t quite remember how many on strike items there were, but 5 sounds like the right number.)
“If you’re going on strike against carrots,” I continued, “you’ve got to bring something back.”
My daughter considered. We waited. Times were tense and I worried: would she accept my list of demands? Or would there be a total work stoppage?
“Ok. I’ll start eating apples.”
And with that simple statement a crisis was averted. Relations were normalized. A new contract was signed!
6 Reasons why letting your child go on strike is a successful strategy.
1) Strikes keep things light. It’s hard to ask tots if they're on strike without smiling. If you don’t take food jags seriously, neither will they.
2) Strikes honor your toddler’s feelings. Strikes empower kids by giving them a say over what they eat, without locking them into a battle of wills.
3) Strikes don’t confuse Not Eating with Not Liking. Strikes give toddlers an eating “out” that acknowledges their craving for control. Children don’t have to convince their parents (and themselves) that they don't like something to make their point.
4) Strikes enable you to set reasonable limits. It’s realistic to regulate little acts of rebellion. It’s not really rational to try to set limits on liking.
5) Strikes help your child save face. It's easier for kids to end a strike than to say they've suddenly started liking something. Remember to check in regularly with your child. "Still on strike against apples?"
6) Strikes always end. And knowing this helps keep things light. (See point #1.)
Food jags are a normal part of toddler life.
Don't take them seriously (unless you want to solidify them).
It's a shocking thing for most parents to hear, but young kids don't know what they like because they don't have what researchers call stable taste preferences.
Check this out: In one study, more than 50% of 3-4 year olds didn't like the same flavor of ice cream two days in a row.
I say, if kids aren't even consistent about whether they like ice cream, what does that say about more challenging foods like broccoli, beans, and bananas?
What kids know is what they're willing to eat. Today.
Strikes work by changing the dynamic at the dinner table.
Strikes help you set the overarching parameters for eating while giving your kids some wiggle room. It's the no-pressure solution to what seems like an intractable problem. Read The Pressure-Cooker Problem and The Goldilocks Approach.
So the next time your toddler suddenly turns his nose up at tomatoes, resist the urge to interpret this arbitary food refusal as an indication of his taste preferences. Think of it as temporary strike instead.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Liem, D. G., L. Zandstra, and A. Thomas. 2010. “Prediction of Children's Flavour Preferences. Effect of Age and Stability in Reported Preferences.” Appetite 55: 69-75.