Overdue with our second child, who finally came out at 10 pounds, 1 ounce – yes, a crazy natural birth, my mom journeyed to help us with our eldest son while I was in the hospital.
The night she arrived, I was serving a green salad for dinner. Our 18 month old son didn’t like it, so I gave him something else. Who feeds salad to a toddler anyhow?
After three days (and a new baby in tow), I came home from the hospital to a little man who gobbled up an entire plate of salad. How in the world did that happen?
“He saw my excitement over eating it every day, and slowly, I kept introducing it to him.”
That was the first realization that whether we had one child or twenty, our children were not going to dictate my meal time. Encouraging new foods in a positive way, yet not allowing a toddler decide what he’d eat and when he’d eat, changed how I approached meal time.
Nineteen years later, that son is known by all as the “salad eater,” and goes first to the greens when we’re at a buffet.
A group of my friends discussed this issue and threw around suggestions for picky eaters. It’s always eye opening how everyone has such differing opinions. While I have strong views on this subject because I feel it’s a symptom if left unaddressed will lead to other character building issues, I do know there is no right way for every family or child, and I’d love to hear in the comments what works for your family.
With having four children in five years, I remember exactly what it’s like to be exhausted by meal time (does that ever end) and just praying I’d get through that crazy hour without a fight. On the most difficult of days, I’d serve a family favorite that I knew every one would eat, and if that meant Mac ‘n Cheese or PBJ, so be it, but on the majority of days, the kids didn’t dictate their meal.
They’d have choices, but typically, they had to give everything a try, and if they chose to not eat it, that was their choice, but they waited to get anything else until the next meal. Simple rules were established, and I tried to be consistent. They knew the expectations.
Since I’m passionate about fighting for that important family dinner hour, I don’t want to create a battle field at the table, but I also know that a short order cook + picky eaters = stressed out mom, as I am sure many of you can relate.
Please know that our children didn’t have any allergy or sensitivity issues. They were just kids with strong wills that would make that one little bite into a fight. Sometimes, children may have some other issues that cause them to be picky eaters, such as Aspergers or Autism, which makes them very sensitive to texture, tastes and smells. In asking a Pediatrician about this, he recommended that with Autistic children, they know within three bites if it’s a texture issue, so it’s still good to have them give it a try. Again, these are special circumstances, which I can’t really address.
There is an entire philosophy that encourages children to make the decision maker with what, when and how much they will eat. For me, I tread lightly on this approach, since if it was left to my children, they would have dined on burgers, fries, Mac N Cheese and nuggets for years. As I am sure this is beneficial for some children, I specifically think of my strong willed child who would just use this approach as another way to exert power over the parent.
I was amazed when our daughter’s friend slept over and out of three meals, she had a few apple slices and popcorn. She ate nothing that I served her. When I questioned her mom about it, she explained what a struggle it is. She’s given up having her try bites of things and now that child only eats around four items. I don’t see this kind of approaching working for most.
For years, one of our sons, no matter what the meal might taste like, always assumed he was not going to like it. It became a bit of a joke in the family since he turned his nose up before even trying it, complained, then tasted it (since he had to), and cleared his plate. If I just let him choose his foods all the time, he would never have ventured towards other food items.
Here are some of the suggestions we implemented with our picky eaters:
One Pass Rule:
Since our children have been little, I’ve always given each child a “pass” on a specific food. You know those one or two foods that after trying them a few times, they literally give you the gag reflex? They got to choose long ago those few foods that I made them try, but will never force them to eat it again.
Model eating a variety of foods by exposure: Fun Foods
The more our children are introduced to a variety of foods, the more open they will be to try them. We want children to view new foods as a fun experience, not something that gives them huge anxiety. Recently I shared a Fun Food Ideas post and there are lots of creative ways to serve foods. Come up with some fun ways to serve veggies. We love having favorite dipping sauces for the kids. All veggies are great with a new twist.
Hiding shredded veggies in varying meals gets the child on board when they don’t even know it. For example, shred zucchini or carrots and add them to their favorite mini biscuit meatloaves.
After they’ve begged for seconds, let them know that they just gobbled up their dreaded vegetable.
Include Children in the Meal Planning & Build Excitement
Gather the family together to pick out the meals for the week. Make sure everyone has a say in picking out the main dish, sides, veggies etc. If they get to pick the new food of the week, concentrate on building excitement for the big “taste test.” They can be an official “judge” of their food, complete with chef hat. Praise their sense of adventure and character for trying something new, even when they didn’t want to.
Don’t shame them into eating, or make dinner time a battle field.
The emphasis needs to be on exploring varying foods, not totally stressing over them. Awhile there were times when our kids did have to sit until they ate one bite and certainly weren’t allowed other foods until they gave it a try, shaming and threatening never occurred. Our explanation was clear cut and simple, “Eat that one bite or head to bed.” (Obviously, there are extenuating circumstances in any situation, but most of ours centered around a power play, which we hoped to avoid, but when that happens, Mom and Dad must stay strong.)
Include Children in the Meal Planning
Gather the family together to pick out the meals for the week. Make sure everyone has a say in picking out the main dish, sides, veggies etc. If they get to pick the new food of the week, excitement can be built up for the big “taste test.”
Never say “EWW or I don’t like that.”
We all have foods that we’d rather not eat, but there’s never a reason to visibly show or tell someone that you don’t like it. Work with your kids and role play BEFORE they are in a situation when tempted to say, “Eww or I don’t like that.” The practice must begin at home and actually work on what they will say if at someone’s house who offers them things they don’t want. “No thank you,” or “Thank you for the offer, but I’ll pass.”
Gratitude for the Meal
Gratitude for the time spent preparing a meal and for the food offered should always flow from the child whether they like the food or not. This is another character building opportunity that you work on at home. My husband was always very good about reminding the kids to show a grateful heart to me. They verbally thanked me before being excused.
Again, this goes back to My Biggest Perspective Change. You have the opportunity to train your child to go beyond, “Thanks. That was great food,” to “Thank you for the wonderful meal. I know you put a lot of time into that and I appreciate it.”
I couldn’t think of a title to give this, but essentially this means to talk to your kids before they go to a potluck or friends home about “hoarding” specific foods. Since picky eaters gravitate towards only 1-2 things, I’ve noticed that I’ll see a plate filled with ten cookies and one nugget. We didn’t have that problem, but since our boys were such big eaters, we did talk to them in the car about normal portion control.
We’d encourage them to take one of everything, but make sure they waited until everyone was finished eating before going up for seconds. When at a friends house, I’d tell them, just consider it a snack and I’ll feed you more when you get home otherwise, my guys would eat them out of house and home.
Don’t always Use Dessert as a Bribe
First, since wise food choices are always a struggle, I don’t want our kids to think that dessert is a given every day. It should be something special, not a given. Now granted, it’s a highly motivating factor, but I also determined that continually bribing our children to get on board isn’t how I want to lead my children on a regular basis. Come up with some other forms of creative encouragement as well.
I do have a friend who routinely paid her children to try a new food and says it’s been awesome what they’ll do for a little coin. Again, each family is different.
I feel like I’m just getting started, since there are so many things rushing back to my memory as I write, but I know that you all have some great ideas as well, so please chime in.
Keep scrolling down and I’ve shared a few of the responses that I received from other moms, but I would love for you to share how you handle picky eaters in your own family.
Some Suggestions for Picky Eaters from a wide variety of moms:
– I’ve found that teaching preschoolers the names of fruits and veggies, their shape, colors, and other fun facts makes the produce seem fun and interesting and less “yucky” and “scary.”
– My older son (now a teenager) is vegetarian and my younger one has food allergies. When they were little it felt like I was a short order cook, trying to accommodate everyone’s preferences. One summer, I assigned each person in our house the job of planning one meal per week. It had to be balanced and be something that everyone could eat. After taking on the job for themselves, everyone realizes that we aren’t a restaurant. We still go back to that system sometimes but that summer broke the habit of different meals for different family members. We keep a list of “favorite meals” on the frig – and it has to be a whole meal that is balanced to be on the list. I use that as a starting place in meal planning.
– We have a sign in the dining room that one of our friends gave us. It is both pretty to look at and straight to the point.
1. Take it
2. Leave it
Our rule is that you are not allowed to complain about the food or you lose the opportunity to eat until the next meal. We have 8 kids and of the 6 old enough to have benefited from this training, they eat what they are served.
– We have four children. We have always put dinner on your plate and you get what you get…don’t throw a fit! Then came my daughter….she will REFUSE to eat certain things…meaning refuse to even try it! Some of the things are plain crazy. She will eat straight spaghetti noodles but not rotini noodles. Same taste, different shape! She will every fruit but pears. She will eat every vegetable but green beans! Our rule is that if you don’t eat all of your dinner you don’t get snack. All our other children eat most everything….one boy won’t eat bananas or yogurt, but will eat a bag of apples in a blink.
– I agree with you, Jen, that kids will usually eat what they are served if that’s the only choice. I don’t force my kids (5, 3, 2) to eat what I serve, but they also may not have anything else. Either they get hungry enough, or decide to eat so they can have the next snack/dessert (which they’ll miss out on if they don’t eat the meal) or only very occasionally will they skip a meal entirely. As long as there wasn’t defiance or sassiness involved, I don’t save it for the next day.
I would make exceptions if a child had sensory issues (to a point) or food allergies, of course.