Picky eating kids can drive a sane mom crazy. Though it pains me to admit: after having three children, I’ve learned that I can not really control what a child will and won’t eat. But I do have influence over the options that are available, and so I focus on that. At the end of this post, I will share my battle-tested strategies for dealing with picky eating children.
Before I try to boss you around, I want to share my picky eating credentials. Kid 1 was a pretty good eater and we were extremely neurotic, dedicated first-time parents (not that there’s anything wrong with that), hell-bent on getting him to eat every
bite blob of food on his spoon. He ate a very healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins. As of age ten, he won’t eat cooked fruit (apple pie – WTW?!) or plain cheese pizza, preferring vegetables on his pizza to the point of pouting at parties where only cheese is available. He’s a little bit picky but mostly a terrific eater of many foods. And yes, we are those food a**holes who serve kale salads to our kids on the regular. Kid 1 eats them with relish and wants to make sure we are properly massaging each leaf. (Not actual relish made of pickles.)
Kid 2 was also a pretty good eater from the start. Rather than force the “clean your plate” mentality of our own childhoods, we had evolved as parents to encourage a “Try-It Bite” for every new food, and then left it up to him as to whether he would eat more. He was a frequent eater of frozen waffles and plain yogurt but also ingested a healthy combination of other foods. If anything, he opened up our eyes about a broader range of possibilities for nutritious foods. He prefers plain pizza to veggie, but he always eats the broccoli we offer on the side.
Kid 3 has been a picky eater from the womb. He was a voracious nurser that required formula supplementation almost immediately. I should have known that we couldn’t rest on our good experience. He developed a penchant for dairy and carbs (plain cheese quesadillas and cheese pizza are his perfect foods) such that I couldn’t even get him to eat fruit without disguising it as a cracker (thanks to Trader Joe’s freeze dried strawberries, he now eats the real thing). The “Try-It Bite” has devolved into the “No-Thank-You Lick”. It took us 3-5 times of offering ice cream before he would even put it to his lips. I’ve caught myself doing a happy dance when he ate his first dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget, because he had never agreed to try chicken before!
Because our picky kid was our third kid, I had no choice but to accept this as a thing about HIM rather than a thing about ME. I am positive if my first child had been the one to turn up his nose at a grape or carrot, I would have blamed myself.
Having experienced two kids who will eat anything and one who will not, I have some mantras and reminders I give myself and my husband to help us stay sane.
Tips for parents of selective eaters:
- Remove all pressure around eating. I practice acting like I don’t care if the meal or dish is finished because I know my child will not go hungry. (See banana tip below.) Say — and believe — “You don’t have to eat it.” You wouldn’t force me to eat a cilantro leaf, so don’t force your toddler.
- Offer one safe food with every new food. We make sure that there’s a familiar dish on the table. Our dinner times often include a seemingly random banana or waffle option for this reason. The kid might not try the new thing, but he won’t starve.
- Only allow food at specified meal and snack times. Truth be told, I’m happy enough if my kids fill up on healthy snacks. An apple right before dinner? Go ahead. But Hell to the No, you may not eat a snack after the dinner if you just ignored it. The kitchen is closed and you will make it until morning.No candy and treats for children who don’t eat their real food. For real. I am hardcore this way.
- Encourage good manners. With some meals — like the white bean chili I plan to serve tonight — I know that only my husband and I will actually eat it willingly. It is my job to prepare healthy meals (every flipping day) and it is their job to be polite about it. They can sit without making faces and say “No thank you”, or “Just a little please.”
- Be curious, not furious. If they do taste an icky food, I encourage my sons to become little scientists and investigate further. I want them to think about why they didn’t like it — Would cheese sauce make it better or worse? Is there a cilantro problem here? Would you eat red sauce on the side next time? — and not be jerks.
- Find creative ways to serve fruits and vegetables: Pinterest can be your friend and enemy when serving sandwiches that look like spiders or hummus-guacamole crocodiles but a little inventiveness can go a long way. Two of my boys love roasted broccoli; Whitney served frozen peaches instead of popsicles with great success; little crispy freeze-dried peas go over great with my cracker-loving-veggie-hating toddler; some kids just LOVE dipping so give them carrots with hummus; a green smoothie can be a HULK shake; put melon or cheese on a toothpick; try to pass off bananas as dessert with a Yonanas fruit treat machine. Here are more ideas for a picky toddler. I could go on, but won’t promise the success of any of these produce projects, because what works for me may or may not work for you.
- Try different temperatures. Along with experimenting on form factor (tip 6), I learned that not every kid wants hot or cold food. I have one son that eats frozen peas frozen and another that prefers them cooked. Easy peasy. Whitney was surprised to learn that her kiddos liked tortellini cold (yay, something new in the lunchbox). My baby thinks that cold smoothies are too cold so I limit the chilled items and use a room temperature banana when I’m sharing with him.
- Think big picture on the day, week, and stage of life. Nutritionally balanced foods need not be offered at every single meal. Does it balance out over the longer haul? Is your doctor concerned? Mine isn’t, so we’re just going with it.
- Get them involved. Your child might be more willing to try a new food that he grows in the garden, chooses from the supermarket, or helps prepare. Or not. My son literally sang about trying new foods while picking the cherry tomatoes from our backyard and THEN WOULDN’T TASTE ONE. Moving on.
- Make a list of what a child WILL eat. Instead of focusing on the negative, list the YES foods. I am always surprised when parents call their children picky and then rattle off a list of foods that go down with no problem. This morning, I heard “Yes, she eats rice, beans, berries, noodles, pears, but not meat.” I was way impressed that they have a bean eater.
- Let the kiddos know that tastebuds change over time. He may not like mushroom pizza today but when he’s older — hooray — he will. And say it with a smile. I like to dangle that possibility like another badge of being a big kid so it’s something my little one can aspire to. Who knows if its working. Ask me in ten years!
Like Ellyn Satter says, parents control what is served and the child controls if he eats it. The moral of the story for our family is to continue to offer healthy foods that the kids like mixed in with new foods that I like. I also have a back-up food that they can politely prepare for themselves (hummus and pita with fruit).
ps Never trust a person telling you how to solve picky eating if they do not have one. If a two-year old is harvesting vegetables from her garden and eating them, she is NOT picky and her parents shouldn’t be bossing me around!