When I was a child, there was one thing we did every July 4th weekend in Raleigh. We would put on our blue jeans, even though it was over 100 degrees outside and the air was so humid it felt like a sauna, and we’d go blackberry picking. My dad was the energy and excitement behind this annual outing. I think this was something he did with his family, growing up in Western North Carolina. My father, my siblings, and I would venture out in our jeans with metal mixing bowls and look for blackberry bushes in the rural land outside of Raleigh.
My mother would stay home to make pie pastry so we would have a culinary vessel for our blackberries when we arrived home. That evening, we’d enjoy a piece of blackberry pie with melting vanilla ice cream on top. It is a food memory that I experienced once a year for many years of my childhood. This reminds me of the family food traditions Elizabeth wrote about in her post about Peel N' Shrimp. Now, those wild blackberry patches are not there, and the land has been developed. However, my memory of this summertime ritual with my dad and the taste of hot blackberry pie, stays with me.
This past weekend, my family was in the mountains of North Carolina ahead of dropping my son off at overnight camp. Blackberries in Alleghany County, NC, tend to ripen a month later than in Raleigh during the first couple of weeks of August. Saturday was also my father’s birthday. Blackberry picking with my children felt like the perfect activity that day, their grandfather’s birthday.
An Empty Bowl Can be Low Pressure for a Picky Eater
As we picked blackberries, my 3 year old made sure to keep her and Dan's (my husband's) bowl empty. Each berry that went into the bowl went right into her mouth. It made me think, if I served her a bowl full of blackberries at home, she’d make the worst face of disgust you've ever seen. She'd act like I was feeding her dirt. However, this novel experience and the fact we are trying to fill our bowls with blackberries is a food experience that is the opposite of pressure-filled. I'd venture to say it's a "negative pressure food exposure." She’s not sitting at the table across from a big bowl of blackberries with people looking at her nor does she have a big mound on her plate. She certainly hasn’t been told that she must try them. Actually, she was told, a bit tongue in check, not to eat the blackberries out of the bowl because we need them for our pie.
Pressuring Picky Eaters Doesn't Work
There was a study published this month once again showing that pressure does not help with picky eating. We know this from previous research and clinical experience, but parents continue to use pressure as an intervention to picky eating because it seems like the right thing to do. Culturally, we are told it's our job to "get' our children to eat certain foods. It seems that our children eating (or not eating) fruits and vegetables is somehow a reflection of us as a parent. However, pressure doesn't work so we are often left not knowing what to do to help our children grow in their eating. Our blackberry experience got me thinking - what are other situations that children can be exposed to food in a pressure-free or even negative pressure environment.
Tips for Picky Eaters: 5 Low Pressure Food Exposures
- Plant a small garden, go to a “Pick Your Own," or visit a Farmers Market: These can all be situations where children are exposed to foods in new ways. They can see how the food grows and possibly even take pride in growing it. At a farmer's market, they may want to pick out a few items to buy, and there may be samples to try while they are there. By having a role in the gathering of the food, children may be more likely to try something new. However, just the exposure to the food in a pressure-free way can help with this food acceptance over time, even if kids who are picky eaters don't eat it.
- Help in the kitchen: I'll be honest, I don't have a ton of patience in the kitchen. So, it is not always my instinct to have my kids help me get dinner on the table. However, I do find, if I can put aside the worry about something looking right or there being a bit more of a mess, when one of my children helps me cook, they are more likely to try it at eating time. For kids who are picky eaters and kids who aren't picky, the exposure to the food while preparing it, smelling, feeling, and tasting it, also helps with future food acceptance.
- Serve meals family style: The action of a child choosing to put something on their plate can decrease pressure. I encourage the families I work with to serve meals family style so children can have a say in what they put on their plate and the amount. If you're worried about extra dishes to wash, serve right out of the pots and pans. Remember that seeing foods counts as exposure. So children who are picky eaters may not be eating the foods but seeing them is exposure.
- Cooking games or contests: As my children get older, they have enjoyed some friendly family rivalry with cooking contests. We were recently at the beach, and the kids conducted a guacamole making contest. Even the most selective eaters tried different ingredients to participate in the fun.
- Food at non-meal times: Food exposure at non-meal times can be pressure-free for our more sensitive children and more extreme picky eaters. This may be samples at a food store or a tasting tray of a few items served before dinner as you're getting dinner cooked. Sometimes, having food on the table at a meal with the idea that others are expecting you to eat it can feel like pressure. So, having a tray of veggies or a new food item out before dinner when a child is hungry and no one is right there staring at them, can be an opportunity to try something new.
I hope my children will grow up with fond memories of picking blackberries each summer. I hope they remember the heat and the thorn scratches. I hope they remember the taste of hot blackberries just picked from the bush and the special love-filled dessert served later that day at the house. I also love the idea that these traditional activities that involve food is a way we can expose children to food in new ways. Blackberry picking may not be an option for you, but you may have a family food tradition that would expand your child's food experiences. We'd love to hear about your food traditions and your experience with children being exposed to food in a unique way.