This is a guest post by Jill Exman Tedlock, whom I met through New Mom’s Coffee, an absolutely wonderful resource here in metropolitan Pittsburgh. Once you’ve attended this in-person discussion group, you can join several affiliated Facebook groups to discuss raising children of different ages or to discuss related topics, like cooking for your family. Jill recently offered to share the basic strategies she’s learned for convincing her daughter to keep trying a variety of foods, and many moms were eager for tips! I offered to make Jill’s advice available on the open Internet, where you don’t have to be a member of our Facebook group to see it.
I am just a mom of a picky eater. I have no training aside from researching in an effort to help my kid.
My daughter was a very picky eater. She got pickier when I was pregnant with my son because the last thing I wanted to do is cook. I was too sick to deal with food, and she ate whatever dad fed her, a/k/a what she wanted to eat, which only supported the pickiness. I gave in to easy toddler foods to simplify my life. Then, when I started to get back into the kitchen, I was frustrated that she would not eat the food I made. Our mindset was rough, blame was mislaid, and mealtimes were a hot mess!
She has been small for her age, so not eating enough was a concern. In the past several months, we have been focusing on the issue, and we have had some success increasing the number of foods that she eats.
Can you believe she ate peas yesterday? Black beans today? Not a bunch, but it is a win. That’s what this post is about: our wins!
First: It’s no one’s fault!
Everyone was doing the best we can. It’s not her fault she is 2! She is learning what she likes, how to control her world, and so much more.
It’s not my husband’s fault. He was coming home from work exhausted and making sure his ladies were fed. I was pregnant but losing weight, and she was small for her age. His priority was getting food into everyone and reducing stress.
I talked about my frustrations and fears with her eating and size often. It was and sometimes still is a major worry of ours.
Does any of this resonate with you? Are you blaming, mad, or frustrated with someone or yourself? This problem did not start overnight, so it’s not going to get better overnight. Blame certainly has no place here.
So let’s start with a new mindset for food: Practice, Practice, Practice. You will not be perfect, and you will slip up and feel defeated. Next meal is a new opportunity!
Tip 1: Food is Food.
Don’t call it “kid food”, “junk”, “bad”, or anything that gives an opinion not a fact. Call food for what it is: “oily”, “low nutrient”, “sugary”, etc. Teach kids facts about food rather than giving a preconceived label. All foods have their benefits in different situations.
I have been putting dessert (when we have it) on the table with dinner like Jennifer from Kids Eat in Color suggests. I only put enough out for everyone to have exactly a serving. (Adults can sneak after bedtime if need be….) If she wants more of something, I say, “I am sorry, but we need to eat a variety of foods to make our bodies strong,” or, “Eating is about balance, so you need to have other foods before you have more of that.” I don’t tell her which foods because her options are in front of her.
Tip 2: Don’t bribe or pressure.
Kids are ultimately in charge of what goes into their own bodies. If you physically force food into them, they are just going to spit it out or develop a negative association.
Tip 3: Let it go!
Elsa has the right idea. There are so many ideas about how parents “should” make sure their kids eat “properly” that are just not useful, helpful ideas for many families. Worrying too much makes the whole situation more stressful, and stress makes eating difficult.
Don’t talk about your concerns in front of your kid. It’s hard, I know! They need your confidence, not your doubt or disapproval. Don’t let it get to you!! Don’t get mad about them not eating. If it’s not positive, you have nothing to say! Yes, they might not eat what you put out for that meal. Is getting one bite of something into them important enough to cancel out all that screaming and the bad feelings it triggers in both of you?
Focus on each step! You put it on the table, on the plate, and there was no fuss. They pushed it around their plate. They licked it. They put it willingly into their own mouth. They actually tried it, whether they liked it or not! That’s what’s important. Those are your WINS! Remember, this is about long-term change, not tonight’s change.
Even more important, let go the idea that they need to eat a certain amount! Check with your pediatrician, obviously, but typically eating very little at one meal will not hurt them. Stay firm that this is what you are serving and that’s dinner. Make sure there is one food they will eat on the plate and a small serving of everything else. If they are hungry, they will eat.
They don’t eat dinner? Well, that’s that. If you are concerned, then before you brush teeth offer a small protein-packed snack–cheese, spoon of peanut butter, spoon of hummus. It’s a different meal/snack; make sure there is a time gap between. They didn’t eat breakfast/lunch? Well, there is another meal later, so they will be fine. For this to work, keep the meal schedule consistent. My daughter knows there will be another meal later. It does not stress her to go without one meal.
Tip 4: Make it fun.
We make green beans once a week. My daughter does not eat them yet, but she puts them in her mouth. Sometimes she even chews it a little before taking it out of her mouth calmly. Want to know how I get her to try them? Bet you do. I microwave them in a bowl of water, and if you bite them the right way they spray water all over the table. She loves watching me do it and laughs and laughs and then she tries. Okay, not the cleanest activity, but talking about it and laughing as we wipe down the table together is fun–whereas she used to throw her plate on the floor and we would have a battle of wills to clean that mess up. I’ll take green bean spray any day!
Would a sprinkle of cinnamon help? A ketchup face (fail here, but maybe that’s your kid’s thing)? Even real sprinkles? For my daughter, we have “breakfast sprinkles” which is really “everything but the bagel” seasoning.
Becca notes: My 5-year-old loves balsamic vinegar and seaweed sprinkles! When she was younger, she really enjoyed Market Pantry Table Mix, the Target store brand version of Mrs. Dash seasoning. We had some success with arranging salad into faces, and when my son was little he loved having a smiley face of peanut butter and sorghum syrup on his Grape-nuts. My mom used to spell out my name in little strips of cheese or serve me Pooh Bear Snack which was strips of buttered whole-wheat bread arranged around a pool of honey for dipping. It’s hard to predict which seasonings or visual presentations will appeal to a specific kid–all the more reason to expose them to lots of options!
Ask kids to arrange their food into a face or flower, stack it, organize it by color or shape. “Playing with their food” is not automatically bad: Even if they don’t eat any of it this time, they are getting positive exposure. Next time they’re offered that food, they’ll remember it was a pleasant experience.
Tip 5: Like it or not.
“I don’t like that!” we often hear the second the plate hits the table. Don’t sweat it!!! Don’t get mad. Say, “In order to know if you don’t like it, you need to have tried it.”
It is okay for kids to say things like “I am nervous of the green food”, “It looks soggy”, etc. These are facts! “I don’t like that” is not a fact until they’ve tried it, today. They might not have liked it yesterday, but today is a new day we start from square one. In response to, “I tried it yesterday,” you can say, “I heard you yesterday. This time I cooked it a little longer so it’s less soggy. Give it a try.”
Kids feel validated when you are making an effort to accommodate their preferences but not giving up control. Watch yourself here: They don’t have to try it! They just need to try it if they’re going to say, “I don’t like that,” without you correcting them.
If they try and don’t like it, tell them you are proud of them for trying.
If they find that they do like it, don’t say, “I told you so”! Just go with, “I am happy you like it.” Keep it positive.
I am stopping here for today–naptime is nearly over–but I’ll be back!
Becca says: When my kid resists eating a food she previously resisted but then tried and ate, I say, “It’s like [food] is your green eggs and ham.” She easily remembers this familiar story and sometimes realizes that resisting even a taste of the food might be a waste of time.
Check out these articles I’ve written about helping kids eat well:
- Listen to Your Body to Find Your Perfect Diet–and to understand how the “what” and “when” your kids need to eat may be different from your own needs, and that’s okay.
- My 3-year-old’s 3 Favorite Foods–don’t miss the positive aspects of the menu items your child wants most, even if they’re a very limited set.
- How to Get a Kid to Like Mushrooms–friendly strategy that could work with any disliked food.
- Four Weeks of Pesco-Vegetarian Dinners–a real-life look at how we adapted our meals to a toothless finger-food fan as well as a 10-year-old with some picky preferences.