I call these picky eating tips radical because though I feel they are gentle, respectful, safe, proven, and effective, they are not the permissive, unhealthy, sneaky, and coercive methods that you read just about everywhere else these days! We will start with how to prevent picky eating and then we will go into how to reverse an unsavory picky eating situation.
Don’t Hide the Vegetables.
That is the most backward and ineffective way to help a child to enjoy them. If your child does not know the veggies are there, she cannot decide to appreciate them. You are also driving home your child’s suspicion that vegetables are scary and therefore worthy of hiding. Prepare vegetables with flavors your child likes (butter, salt?) but have them in plain, natural form, color and shapes.
You decide what is served. Your Child Decides How Much Is Eaten. Yes, every person has unique tastes. But personal food preferences are not finished forming while your child is a toddler. If we decided that was true and to ‘respect our child’s preferences’, we would actually be dooming them to an unhealthy, stifling life of mac and cheese infinity. This is the time for exposure and learning. The division of responsibility of eating for young children according to Ellyn Satter is that the child is responsible for how much and whether. The parent is responsible for what, where and when.
Serve what YOU enjoy in front of your child and provide that meal for your child as well. Some books say that because modeling is so important (and it is!), you must eat healthy foods in front of your child even if you don’t like them. This is disrespectful to both of you. Definitely model trying new foods and trying new preps of foods you didn’t like- but be honest about the outcome. Figure out what the healthiest foods you truly enjoy are and provide them regularly. If you want to eat junk and don’t want your child to eat it, do it when your child is not around. I have a super healthy paleo lifestyle “free” of so many things – but when I need to feel “bad” and eat some ramen – I do it late at night.
Don’t deny dessert as a punishment. There are multiple ways of dealing with “dessert” but punishment shouldn’t be one of them.
Dessert Philosophy A) If your child doesn’t get dessert because she didn’t eat her meal, nobody in the house eats dessert that night – but not as a family punishment, just because eating in front of the child is cruel. We don’t want to set up a child to force food she isn’t into down her throat because she is coveting sweets. We don’t want to turn the entire eating experience into reward and punishment when it is really about nourishment and pleasure. When we all eat our dinner, we might have dessert. We don’t get dessert every night in this case, we mix it up so some nights we don’t have dessert even if everyone eats “well.”
Dessert option B) Some families have dessert every night, no matter what. Maybe if the children didn’t eat dinner, the dessert is a tiny bit of fruit instead of a big sweet deal.
Dessert option C) There is a way that you can make getting more frivolous calories/ pleasure into a positive logical consequence of consuming a meal of protein and green veggies. Logical Consequences are really only fair/ actually work for kids 4 years and older when you can explain the WHY of needing protein and veggies and they can fully understand cause and effect. Dessert at my house is often fruit or sometimes something amazing. Can you see where the wording:
“If you don’t eat your food, you won’t get dessert” can be changed to:
“After we put protein and vitamins in our bodies, our bodies will be ready for the dessert foods that are not as important.”
This phrase gives context and information and sets a boundary instead of creating a punishment. And I’m queen of the “we” language of cooperation as it doesn’t single out and blame and instead invites modeling and cooperation.
But what If you are already experience picky eating?
We hear of toddlers who “eat like birds” or “subsist on air” and still thrive. We decide this is okay because the child is obviously making a choice even when favorite foods are put in front of him. Somehow when we are the parent of a picky eater, we feel that we are personally STARVING the child if we don’t give them what they want and they turn down other foods for the rest of the day. Your child has behaviors and makes choices and you do not control whether food goes in, therefore you are not to blame if your child chooses not to put food in when provided with a few lovely foods on a plate.
I’ve worked with over 200 picky eaters in my 20 years loving children (plenty but sleep is my main biz!) and none of them have starved. Some will go on strike for two days when you cease to be a short-order cook (of white flour and cheese) and then they slowly begin eating new foods. The strike will be longer if you do not prepare the child beforehand for the mealtime changes you are about to make – simply out of confusion.
I promise that your child will not starve if you make changes! Start doing everything above only after you have had a heart-to-heart with your child. Tell your child what things are going to look and taste like now. Let your child know what the change will be and give them at least a few hours notice a la: “At dinner we begin the new healthy whole family eating plan.” Young children need information about changes we make, heartfelt reasons and notice of transitions.
If your child eats only macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, let your child know that those will become extra special treats for vacation only and that the reason is that you are concerned that those are not healthy to eat all the time. You have decided to provide healthier foods for your child. Those old favorites are out of the picture now, for a while- or your child will definitely try to hold out for them.
You can find two foods that are healthy which your child does in fact like- well enough. Offer those in small portions at the beginning of the day and let your child know ahead of time that those foods will only be eaten once a day in small portion. This gives your child the option of getting some calories even when they may decide to go on strike.
Will there be low blood sugar meltdowns when you use this process to end picky eating? Probably. Maybe two crappy days. For dinners I suggest leaving your child’s plate on the table and they can be encouraged to go back to it if they are hungry before bed. I always encourage before bed snacks for young children and tots under 4, but if children will simply not eat dinner that isn’t their first choice when they know they will get an another chance for a great snack in an hour. That would thwart your entire plan to diversify the palate and foster lifelong health.
Instead, letting child decide “when” they eat these newer foods might be a middle ground temporary crutch between the above-mentioned parent responsibility of what and when- so that while they are making big eating changes they can control when but you control what they are offered. You can be in charge of the timing more when they are a little older and more wiling to eat more foods.
A) Giving a picky eater too many choices often makes them more picky. It’s great to keep a family meal to three items only.
B) If your child is a heavy carb eater, spend three weeks not serving bread or rice or pasta. If bread is one of the three items on the plate, many children will eat only that. Try quinoa, millet, bulgar, potato variations etc. If your child wants to eat only fruit, seriously limit the fruit availability for 3 weeks and replace with other lovely foods, including foods your child has liked once or twice before.
C) Ignore food complaints. Food whining can go on and on and create a terrible meal for everyone. However, it is respectful to acknowledge and address the first complaint. It sounds like this:
“Yes. I hear that you don’t like this dinner. I’m sorry you don’t like this dinner. One day you might like peas and tofu and quinoa . This is the dinner Chef Daddy chose to serve our family tonight and that is all that will go on our plates tonight. I will ignore any other complaining”
The WORST that can happen is your child will go to bed hungry of his own volition. And It might happen a few times. Serve a healthy breakfast.
D) Take Your Child to Restaurants! Often, if you can afford it. Read this article I wrote on children in restaurants.
F) Go out and eat ethnic foods and model trying new foods often. Let your child see you sometimes love and sometimes dislike new foods, even if your child won’t try it at first. Normalize the eating of a wide variety of foods.
G) Grow vegetables and have children involved in the entire process. I’ve led the garden program at a great many schools and programs. Parents are always flabbergasted that their children will eat the vegetables if they’ve grown them.
So many families are challenged by picky eating. So many parents are picky eaters. Your food challenges are common and though they are not “your fault”, you may have fallen into a rut that you didn’t see coming simply because it felt good and right to feed your child what made him happy and now you feel trapped. Though you are not “to blame”, but you are the one who decides what comes in the house and what goes on the table.
RELAX! As with my sleep clients, my gentle discipline clients and my potty learning clients – the best recipe for living with picky eating is simply to create a clear plan and then relax. I really hate to say this but it’s important – anxious, worried and worked up parents are making the challenge worse as your child is picking up your feelings. I’ve set up food for my daughter using everything above from the very beginning, so I do not have a picky eater. I have a sushi eater, a radish eater. But even when my kiddo just isn’t eating as much protein as I’d like in a sitting I have to tell myself to lean back in my chair, take a deep breath and enjoy my own damned food! I kid you not, it is an extremely helpful parenting trick to simply say “F*ck It” in your mind and move on with your day. And once you have a clear plan, “F*ck It” is built in. Follow the plan and let go of the outcome today.
If you are really concerned about weight gain, write to me for my toddler weight gain smoothie recipes. moorea @ savvyparentingsupport.com
What does science say about picky eating? It seems we can be genetically predisposed to picky eating because of differences in sensitivities of the tongue to various tastes. And yet we train our taste-buds into our cultures beginning first in the womb, then through the tastes in human milk, then by first foods. (Did your baby eat sweet potatoes and bananas first – that may create a hankering for sweet things versus green veggies and savory dishes.) And so on with the foods we put on the table…
So…Are you ready to stop hiding the vegetables? If you want my support with pick eating, I have an affordable consulting option for you! It’s a great investment in your child’s health and in your future sanity.
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