3 in 30 Podcast
How to Teach Children to Eat
with Holly Young
Listen to the episode, and see the show notes here.
Rachel Nielson: I think most moms have at least one child who struggles as an eater. Sometimes we call them picky, other times it’s much more intense than that. When our kids aren’t good eaters, it can cause a lot of stress within a family. We might feel mom guilt and worry about our part in it. Our child might struggle with attention and behavior at school because they aren’t getting the nourishment they need. And family dinner might turn into a battleground of feeding difficulties when you really just want that time to be bonding.
I know from personal experience with my kids that it’s easy to feel super defeated as a mom when you deal with hard eaters day after day after day. Is this my fault? Why won’t they eat? It feels like there’s nothing you can do. But have you ever thought about eating as a skill? As something you can practice with your kids and help them to get better at?
My guest today is Holly Young, a mother living outside Boston, Massachusetts who has five children between the ages of 11 and 4. Four of Holly’s children were born with a gastrointestinal disease, which required elimination diets, special formula, dieticians, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, surgeries, and two of her children also had feeding tubes. So over the past 10 years, she’s worked diligently to learn how to help her children eat, and their gastrointestinal disease is no longer presenting and everyone is stable. Holly is a dear friend of mine, and I admire her for so many reasons, one of the biggest being what an intentional mother she is and how hard she works to teach her children the skills they need to thrive in the world.
She’s a deep and passionate thinker, and I’m so blessed to call her my friend and to have her expertise in helping me learn how to feed my family better, which is admittedly not one of my strengths. I’m so excited to learn from her today about how to help our children overcome feeding difficulties they will face. So Holly, welcome to 3 in 30.
Holly Young: Thank you.
Rachel Nielson: It’s so exciting to have you on and to be able to chat with a friend. I’ve been able to pick your brain and learn from you with my own picky kids. So I’m just so excited for the 3 in 30 community to learn from you. Your kids had some pretty severe issues within eating, but many of the tips that you learned going to feeding therapy with them can be applicable to any child. Tell me more about this concept of teaching your children to eat. Because I just always sort of thought that this was like an instinct. What does this mean that you can teach your children to eat?
Holly Young: Yeah, so I started doing feeding therapy with my oldest Kyle when he was three and a half. The type of therapy we got is called SOS Approach, and it was created by Dr. Kay Toomey. And one of the things that she talks about is how we think of eating as instinctual like you just said, but that’s with an infant because they have a natural instinct to suck and swallow. But by the time they’re about six months old, she said “starting around six months of age, children will do one of three things: either learn to eat, learn to kind of sorta eat or not learn to eat.” And that’s when feeding difficulties can start to present themselves again.
Rachel Nielson: And I love that cause I feel like my kids are in the middle like they’ve learned to kinda sorta eat. But we could do so much better with them learning to eat well.
Holly Young: It’s a process. That’s the thing that people miss out on, is that it is a 32- step process, and that’s my first takeaway is to remember that it is a complicated, 32- step process to eating. If you were to just go to the store and buy the most random vegetable or fruit that you could think of that your kids have never had–let’s go with brussel sprouts–and you went home and you steam them and you put them on the table in front of Sally and Noah. And you said, “Eat this.” What’s going to happen?
Rachel Nielson: There’s no way. There would be lots of fighting and tears and in the end they wouldn’t do it.
Holly Young: Yeah. And you can’t make them do it. You can’t physically force them to eat it. Right? That’s just like very traumatic for everyone.
Rachel Nielson: I’ve tried that before and yes, traumatic for everyone.
Holly Young: Yeah. And tears. And I mean it creates a battlefield at the dinner table, and no one looks forward to dinner and it’s stressful and everybody feels that way. So you don’t need all 32 steps. I’m just going to kind of break out for you kind of the general direction that they head in. So the first thing is that Noah and Sally would need to be able to be physically present in the room where there are Brussels sprouts. That’s the bottom level. And, and I think that’s pretty easy.
Rachel Nielson: Yes. For me, for most children. I mean, but then you do hear about kids that have feeding difficulties like extremely strong food aversions or even food phobias. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that they can’t be in the same room, but I do have friends whose children literally can’t have the food on the plate. It terrifies them.
Holly Young: Oh yeah. And that’s a step– that is the current step that we are working on with our four year old, because you set the plate in front of her and she starts to pick off what she doesn’t want, and she’ll set it on someone else’s plate around her. Right? Because she cannot tolerate it on her own plate. That is the step we’re working on with her right now. And you just have to encourage them, “Okay, you got to leave the food on your own plate.” But beyond being able to tolerate it on their plate, they have to be able to smell it, to touch it, to lick it, to have it touch their cheek, their mouth, their tongue, all of that. And then the last eight steps or so are actually putting it in your mouth, but you still have to get through kids who put it in their mouth and then spit it out. That’s a step. And eventually you get to the point where they can put it in their mouth, independently, and swallow it. So it’s a long process.
Rachel Nielson: And I think one thing that I think about when I hear about these steps is that really acknowledging that they are steps forward and celebrating them and honoring your kids for being able to do them. Especially if you have a really resistant eater that, you know, when they put the food in their mouth and they spit it out, you might think, Oh, what a drama queen. Or you might think of that as a loss. But really that was a win. And that was a step forward in this hierarchy moving up when it comes to feeding difficulties.
Holly Young: And reward the behavior just like you would for potty training or doing their chores or anything else. This is a complicated process, and you have to reward them as much as you can. You can reward them with food, pennies, stickers– any type of reward system, encouraging them to continue doing it. And this process unfortunately starts over again with each food. You can’t make a meal of 25 brand new foods and have your kids eat them. It has to be a slow introduction. And I mean there are lots of tips and tricks to introducing new foods, but just remember it’s a process like potty training.
Yes. And you need to start at a low step and slowly move up vs. putting the steamed brussel sprouts on their plate and saying, “eat it or else,” which so often that’s how we go about it as parents, unfortunately.
So two years ago I really wanted us to eat soup. I was like, “Why don’t we eat soup? Soup is so easy for me to make in the crockpot.”
Rachel Nielson: And it’s delicious.
Holly Young: Yes. And so our youngest at the time was two and I thought, we’re at a place where everybody could eat soup. So I made soup every week. I have done that now for two winters, and winter in Massachusetts starts in October and goes through June. So it’s a long period of the year. And I made all kinds. We made taco soup and stew, chili, potato soup and all different kinds of soup. But I made it every week and we always served it with something that I knew my kids liked. So we always had rolls and sometimes the soup would have cheese. But I have taught everybody; I mean it’s still a process with my two littlest, but everybody now eats soup and we know how to do it. I drain the broth off for my two littlest guys and just give them a little bit and they try what they can and we move on. But in another two years, we’re going to be at a place where everyone’s going to eat soup with very little feeding difficulties.
Rachel Nielson: Yes. And what I love about this is just the patience required, the persistence, the consistency–that you’re really teaching your kids how to eat this new food. I feel like as moms, we can give up so soon and so easily and probably because we’re busy and we have so many things to worry about. But if we really feel strongly that we want our kids to learn how to eat a specific food, we can be persistent about teaching them little by little and celebrating when they take a step up in this 32-step hierarchy.
Holly Young: If you think about the way that a kid likes to eat– let’s say your toddler’s lunches.They like all of their things separated, right? They want their crackers and their cheese and their meat all in different places rather than having it as a sandwich oftentimes. And so when I serve my toddlers, I make a meal that everyone is going to eat, but I don’t present it the same way to every person in my family. So my little kids always get their noodles separated from their spaghetti sauce when we eat spaghetti or if we’re having tacos, they have their tortilla on one side, their meat somewhere else, the beans somewhere else, their cheese somewhere else. So it’s all spread out so that they can, interact with each ingredient individually, but also so they’re not overwhelmed by this mass of things that they can’t figure out. There are meals that they just have to deal with–like casserole.
Rachel Nielson: Although if you have big chunks of chicken in casserole or something, you can pull out the big pieces, right.
Holly Young: You totally could. But if it’s a meal that’s simple for me to just spread out all the ingredients, I will do that for them.
Rachel Nielson: Like even with the soup draining off the broth–you’re kind of deconstructing the soup, but it’s a step towards them eating soup eventually and overcoming that feeding difficulty.
Holly Young: Yeah. Cause then they can see, Oh, I like the meat so I’m just going to pick out my meat or I like the potatoes so I’m going to eat the potatoes. I always try to make sure that there’s one food on the plate that each child likes. Rolls are hands-down winner for everyone in my family. But I do fruit sometimes– that’s a good one for four out of five kids. And so I just try to make sure there’s one food on the plate that I know he will like.
Rachel Nielson: I had a pediatrician tell me that once when I asked about Noah’s picky eating and he said, don’t stand up and make him something else. Don’t let him eat a hot dog instead of eating what the family’s eating, just make sure there’s something on the table that, you know, he’ll eat. So then he’s eating the same meal as the rest of the family, but he has, you know, some autonomy around exactly what he’s eating within that meal. Which, and I, but I have another question really quick before we move on to our next takeaway. Do you, would you automatically deconstruct the food for your toddler or would you put the sauce on the noodles too and see if they will eat it? Because some kids will just eat it and they don’t have to go through all of these steps. And so what’s your advice there?
Holly Young: I mean, I’d try it, but I know from experience with my kids that they prefer it deconstructed. And, you know, I have a middle child who just turned six and she finally got to the point where she told me I want my tacos folded up like everybody else’s. And so I started moving the food, you know, making her traditional taco. But I mean, if your kid will tolerate it, made, make it made. But if you have a child who’s struggling, one of the ways is to deconstruct it, to see where they’re at and what they like. Because when you deconstruct it, you might have a kid who you thought didn’t like tacos, but it turns out he just doesn’t like the tomatoes or the lettuce or something else.
Rachel Nielson: Yeah and one thing that I’ve noticed is I actually feel like my kids have gotten pickier with time. Like my daughter, when she was a baby, she was an incredible eater. She would eat pretty much anything we put on her tray, you know, from about six months to 18 months. She had no feeding difficulties whatsoever. And so it’s frustrating to feel like you used to eat the tacos altogether and now you won’t. And it feels like a step backwards or like maybe she’s just being dramatic and I can say, “I know you like this food cause you used to eat it.” What have you learned about that when in your work with food therapists?
Holly Young: There is something called a food JAG where they’re eating something really well and then they won’t eat it anymore. But they do come back to it eventually. Food loss is when they’re eating a food great–and then they won’t eat it anymore and they never come back to it and pick it up. And there are stages of development, particularly toddlerhood, where being able to eat new foods and just eating anything you put on their tray dramatically drops. But it’s just a developmental stage that should ride itself on its own with the right type of guidance like we’re talking about. If you have a toddler who’s only eating chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, which is normal because that’s toddler food, right?
Rachel Nielson: Which is my kids. My kids aren’t toddlers, but they still want to eat that way.
Holly Young: Oh, my kids do too, but say that you have a child who only wants to eat those three foods and instead of just continuing on with a normal diet and giving them those foods occasionally or for lunch or whatever, you come to a place where you’re only making them those three foods and they’re eating a different meal from the rest of the family for dinner. You are taking away their ability to try new foods at the family dinner table.
Rachel Nielson: And their ability to to practice new foods because you’re not giving them an opportunity to practice when you’re just giving them things they’re already comfortable with and used to. It’s so much easier as a mom to just say, “fine, whatever, eat this.” But how important for them to learn and gain this skill as children? That’s going to benefit them for the rest of their life.
Holly Young: It is. And you know, it’s not like in my family, I’m working every meal, every day at teaching them new foods. They pick their own breakfast, they pick their own lunches, and I make a family meal with their help. Actually, you’ve brought us right in to takeaway number two, Rachel. And that is that children are fighting for autonomy. So let your children help make decisions about food. Allow them to have a space where they can be like, “I want chicken nuggets. I want hot dogs, I want macaroni and cheese.” So for us that’s breakfast and lunch, and then I make a family meal. But when I sit down and do my meal planning, I always say, “Hey, does anybody have any requests for dinner?” You could give each child a night where they pick the meal.
So say Sally had Monday nights and Noah had Wednesday nights, and they got to pick it. Or you go to the grocery store and you say, “Hey, we really need a fruit for lunches this week. What would you like to choose?” Or you let them cook. I know you let you and Sally bake. And so you know, that’s a good way to get them involved. They are more likely to eat if they are helping to prepare. All of things are a good way to help them have more autonomy in the kitchen, and then you can still be introducing things into their life and give them exposure and everyone’s comfortable.
Rachel Nielson: It’s been helpful with my kids when introducing a new food, to include something that I know that they like, say a fruit or a vegetable with peanut butter. They love peanut butter and they can try celery and peanut butter or apple slices in peanut butter. And this is something that you did a lot of with dips with when your children were in food therapy, right?
Holly Young: Yeah, my food therapist would have me bring one to two foods I wanted Kyle to try with three to four different sauces. You can do salsa, and it is a myth that little kids don’t like spicy. It’s all about exposure. So salsa, guacamole, sour cream, yogurt, ranch dressing, ketchup, hummus. There are a multitude of sauces, and then, if you really want to have fun with it, with toddlers, at a snack time, you lay out a couple of foods and a bunch of sauces and then the toddlers decide how you’re going to eat it. With Kyle, we would bring ketchup and mustard and different things and he knew it was gross, but because he was in control and myself and his feeding therapist a exactly what he ate, he would take the fruit and dip it in ketchup and have us eat that. And he thought it was so funny, but he got to control the situation and have ownership over it. We just did what he said, and it worked really well.
Rachel Nielson: I mean, it’s so cute. It makes it fun to try new foods. It’s a light atmosphere around trying new foods where the kid is in control. And so you could do something similar at the dinner table where you have a couple of dips or, or sauces and the kids decide how you eat the food. Or you could do it, like you said, as a dedicated like snack time during the day or something to introduce these new foods.
Holly Young: Yeah, you could do like a taste test. So my kids and I do it with M&M’s, we buy the different kinds of M&Ms and lay them all out, and then we decide which one we like. But you could do different kinds of crackers or noodles, or apples– there are all kinds of things that you could try a taste test when there are feeding difficulties in the home.
Rachel Nielson: Okay and then what is your third takeaway?
Holly Young: So my third takeaway is to teach your children basic nutrition. And you know, I’ve feel so many of your episodes, Rachel, one of the takeaways is to teach your child about sexual health; teach your child about sexual health; teach your child about pornography. With all of these episodes, that’s the whole takeaway, and this is no different.
Rachel Nielson: Get to the core– teach them why, don’t just command them. Which is so often the baseline of any issue.
Holly Young: Right. And this is absolutely no different. So for my kids, I started by going to the library and getting some kids children’s books on how the body works, or how the digestive system works.
And we had to go to some pretty advanced books because they don’t make a ton of books about nutrition for small toddlers. But we just took out the chapters that were important. So we’d use the diagrams and I would break it down to them. I talked about fat being good for our brains and our hair and our skin. And I talked about how carbohydrates are energy and fruits and vegetables help like our muscles work and protein for growth. Then we would talk about these things and we would look at pictures and ask, what is a protein? Well that’s milk and eggs and cheese and meat and nuts.
And so we got, they got good exposure to basic nutrition. And then I turn this into when we make a meal, we need to include protein, a carbohydrate, a fruit and a vegetable. So when they were making their lunches and I let them decide, I’d help them round out their plate because of course they’re like: crackers. got it. I’m good with the crackers. I’m good with an apple. And I’d say, “but you don’t have any protein.” So that’s our biggest struggle actually, is still like having my kids put protein into their meals.
Rachel Nielson: Which I can see because we all love carbohydrates. But getting that protein in is where they’re really gonna stay full and get the nourishment that they need.
Holly Young: Right. And now that Kyle, my oldest is 11, we talk about it, you know, even more detailed so they know what the digestive system is, where the esophagus is, where our stomach is; where their intestines go and how their colon works; and how the body extracts the nutrients from the food, and all of those things.
Rachel Nielson: And you know, one thing that I have found, there’s a website called Super Healthy Kids that sells plates that actually have pictures of the different food groups. So, they’re divided plates, so kids can see: I don’t have a protein, like I have these other categories, but I don’t have a protein. And the kids can kind of match it to the different sections of the plate. So that could be a fun way to teach them the basics of nutrition. But you’re not saying that they can never eat sugar and they can never eat anything that’s not on the divided plate, right?
Holly Young: No. I am very against teaching my kids that food has a morality. So you will never hear me refer to food as good or bad because it’s not good or bad–it’s just food. It just is. So we do dessert in our house; we do treats, and we do all of those things. My kids know that when they eat those foods, it doesn’t provide the type of energy that’s going to make them feel super good. For example, if they go out to recess, they’re going to get probably tired and sluggish. And we talk about how that food can take up space in our stomach and then we don’t have space for the other healthy things that we want to eat.
Rachel Nielson: That we need and that we want to eat, which I think is important. I mean, such a simple thing that you’ve reminded me about, is of course they’re not going to eat if they’re snacking too close to the meal. Or if they’re drinking something that fills them up too close to the meal. So if you want to improve your kid’s eating, maybe take a look too at when are they snacking. Do they have free reign to the snacks so you don’t really know when they’re snacking? And maybe reign that in a bit so that they will learn to eat at meals when you need them to be a little bit hungry.
Holly Young: And our family is on a very regimented meal time and snack time because of that. It’s just been what we’ve done for so long. It’s two hours between eating and also make sure that they’re not drinking their calories. Cause if you have a child who’s drinking 30, 40 ounces of milk a day, then they’re not going to need solid food because they’re getting so many calories through milk. So just to make sure to be aware of those things that can lead to feeding difficulties.
Rachel Nielson: Well, thank you Holly. This has been so helpful. I know that you have spent the last 10 years working through this and learning about this. So to really put everything that you’ve learned into 30 minutes and 3 takeaways is really difficult, but you’ve done an amazing job giving us three core principles to remember as we try to teach our children how to eat. So can you recap those for us?
Holly Young: Takeaway number one is remember that there are 32 steps to eating. So if you have a child who’s struggling, start with a low step and then move your way upward. Takeaway number two is that children want autonomy. So give them as much autonomy as possible and help them make decisions about food. Takeaway number three is, teach your child basic nutrition.
Rachel Nielson: All right, well thank you so much Holly, for coming on and sharing your wisdom with us. And Holly and I talked before the call about how she really wants to be a resource to other moms who may be struggling and may have specific questions that weren’t addressed in this podcast or that may be were brushed upon but needs to be addressed in more depth. And so Holly has offered for me to put her contact information in the show notes. If anybody wants to shoot her an email or a DM on Instagram and she can troubleshoot with you and brainstorm with you how you can help your children with feeding difficulties. And that’s something that she’s done for me with my kids. My inability to cook a meal, first of all, and feed my family and their picky eating and just lots of things in my life. She’s just such a good sounding board and helps me kind of work it and think of solutions. So thank you for offering that to the 3 in 30 community, Holly.
Holly Young: I’m more than happy to do it.
Rachel Nielson: So we’ll put her information in the show notes. And Holly, thank you so much for being on 3 in 30.
Holly Young: Thank you.
Links Mentioned in Today’s Show:
Other Episodes You Might Be Interested In:
- Episode 072: Making Peace With Food (And Yourself) Through Intuitive Eating // Taryn Palmer, Rdn, Ld
- Episode 047: How To Respectfully Advocate For Your Children (And Model For Them How To Do The Same) // Emily Orchard, Slp