On picky eating

Now, let me start this topic off with saying I’m reporting on a sample of one here. All of this is purely anecdotal, and may or may not work in your household. This is also probably better advice for avoiding pickiness in the first place, rather than working through it once it’s established, but who knows. And a warning that this is long, but I peppered it with a bunch of baby-enjoying-food pictures for relief/inspiration.

Our sample of one – Simon – is coming up on three and from what I can tell, is a pretty decent eater. With a little prodding, he will at least taste pretty much anything, and if we can get him to sit still, will usually eat a decent amount of his meal, though he shows obvious preference for non-meat things – bread/pasta and fruit especially (I mean, who doesn’t prefer carbs and fruit?). Whether he would have these eating habits regardless of any of our efforts is anybody’s guess, but in case you find any of these tips helpful, here’s what we did/do.

Absolutely no alternative meals or substitutions. He eats what we eat. Occasionally, we’ll cater to him a bit by offering otherwise assembled food dis-assembled, or setting some aside before adding spicy elements, but that’s it. He’s never been offered alternative meals, and doesn’t expect them. If he doesn’t like what we’re having, he can either eat the pieces of it that he does like and leave the rest, or wait until the next meal. If your kid is accustomed to getting alternative meals or substitutions, the transition here will probably be a bear, but, not impossible. Special conditions (like allergies or failure to thrive) aside, they may be grouchy, but they won’t let themselves starve.

On a related note, don’t be afraid to give them things. Contrary to what kid’s menus would have you believe, children can enjoy seafood, stinky cheese, rich pan sauces, pickled things, herbs and spices, crunchy vegetables, and other interesting textures and flavors.

You can have as much as you want of whatever we’re having, but you need to try at least one bite of everything. This often turns into one bite of chicken and four helpings of sweet potatoes, but whatever. Occasionally, it means trying a bite of something, like spinach, deciding he likes it, and eating his whole helping.

In slight contrast to the point above, and being the “rule” we most often fail at, no food-related games or negotiations. Ideally, this means no hand-feeding them, sending choo-choo-train or airplane spoons into their mouths, scrutinizing how much of what they’ve eaten, or offering bribes if they “eat two more pieces of broccoli.” This helps keep mealtime matter-of-fact (like, of course we just sit and eat) – there are fewer boundaries and arbitrary rules for them to test the limits of, they’re less likely to hold out for whatever bribe, etc. Like I said, we’re not always great at this one. The tendency to bribe and negotiate is strong when there’s an entire plate of untouched food. RESIST, friends!

We all stay at the table until everyone is finished with their meal. This rule applies mostly to dinner, since breakfast is usually had while getting ready, and weekend lunches are usually in the middle of errands. It’s also a bear to enforce, unless he chooses to use his booster seat and gets buckled in. We do let him sit on one of our laps if he wants, and do a fair amount of chasing him around the house, but, eventually (usually), he sits, and the longer he sits, the more likely he is to eat what’s in front of him. If he absolutely refuses to sit down, he forfeits his meal (no coming back and eating half an hour after everyone else finished).

Keep snacking to a minimum. We typically offer a glass of milk and a piece of fruit after school to keep him sane until dinnertime, likewise after his nap on the weekends. Otherwise, though, we largely avoid snacking between meals. In theory, this helps make sure he’s actually hungry when we sit down to eat, and he’s hopefully more receptive to whatever we’re having.

We don’t avoid foods that he’s claimed not to like or has refused to eat in the past. I read somewhere (lord knows where) that kids often need to be presented with a food DOZENS of times before accepting, eating, and possibly enjoying it. We have totally taken this to heart and continue to serve him anything and everything. Sometimes he eats things, sometimes he doesn’t – there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it, and had we removed from his diet those things he’s refused or avoided in the past, the kid wouldn’t have anything left but bananas.

Limit sweets, but don’t avoid them entirely. Everyone loves a good cookie. And, in moderation – why not? Ideally, if we offer sweets, it’s in the middle of the day (a scoop of ice cream on a warm day, a cupcake at a birthday party) so we’re not dealing with a bedtime sugar rush or empty calories right before bed. Sometimes, though, we’ll all split a dessert after dinner, so long as he’s eaten a reasonable amount of real food first. The idea here is by teaching him moderation and the importance of eating a variety of foods (not just the sweet ones), we’ll avoid the overcompensation tendencies that can occur when the answer is always “no.” For everyday limiting of sweet things, some alternatives we’ve used are herbal teas (raspberry, peach) and fruit/cucumbers/mint added to water in place of juice (he calls the teas his juice), and fruit as dessert (with or without whipped cream).

Get them as involved as possible in multiple aspects of food. For us, this has included gardening, meal planning, food prep, and cooking. If we could manage a full-fledged farm, we totally would, but for now, we have a small vegetable and herb garden, back-yard chickens, and bees. He understands well that eggs come from chickens (he helps take care of the chickens and collects the eggs) and honey comes from bees (still waiting on that toddler-sized beekeeper suit, but he watches the bees around the hive, and sees the comb we pull). He helps plant seeds in the spring and picks tomatoes and peppers in the summer, anxiously waits for the raspberries to ripen every couple days in the summer, and is more willing to eat things like spinach and radishes when they came out of the garden. He loves helping make grocery lists, giving ideas for food items (usually pasta), and coming along to the grocery store. We get TONS of use out of our learning tower (google if you’re not familiar), where he can help break apart cauliflower, season fish, cut avocado, scoop ingredients, stir batter, and divvy food onto plates. Actively participating in cooking is more of a challenge since it usually involves fire, but, with supervision, he likes to warm tortillas in a frying pan, stir sauce, keep an eye on things in the oven, and play grilling assistant. Generally, the more involved he can be in getting a meal together, the better he is about eating it.

Baby stuff: As a baby, we roughly followed a baby-led weaning approach. As soon as he was able to sit up well, we started offering him bits of (soft) food from whatever it was we were cooking (eggs, chopped tomatoes, beans, rice, green beans…). We avoided purees and did not shy away from seasoning, refused to be discouraged by funny faces (figuring everything must taste weird if you’ve never had food before), and tried to offer more savory (veggies, grains, & protein) than sweet (fruit). Again, we avoided snacky things (cereals, puffs, etc), and concentrated food offering during mealtime – trying our best to establish eating as a social thing, and maintain a relatively consistent meal schedule.

Hope this was more helpful than exhausting! In sum, in our experience, persistence pays, and with a little creativity, food can totally be fun. I’d love to hear any other tips or successes you’ve had, and of course, feel free to post any questions.

Sarah Blackburn (Simon, pre-primary)

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