We have three small children (ages 1,3 and 5) and three very different eaters. One lives to eat. One eats to live. And one has no real idea how to gauge either of the two, simply that if there’s food on the table he must do his duty as an eater to eat it. I don’t feel as though we’ve done anything drastically different in raising our kids and how we want them to interact with their food during mealtimes, yet our little eaters each have a mind of their own and have taught us a lot about this topic.
Do you have any picky or challenging eaters in your house?
Let me start with Stella, our adventures eater – the one who lives to eat. From a very early age Stella has loved trying new things. One afternoon when she was quite small, the three of us went to a French restaurant for lunch on the patio, and instead of eating her pre-made baby food I had hauled along in the diaper bag, she reached her tiny hand onto our charcuterie board when we had our noses in our menus. She full-on grabbed a big hunk of pâté mixed with pungent blue cheese and shoved them in her mouth without so much as a grimace. This marked the first of many food explorations for Stella. Give the girl anything in a shell, and she’ll lick the bowl they came in. The stinker the cheese, the better. In fact, she enjoys the newness and excitement of trying new flavors like no one else I know, besides perhaps, myself. I remember thinking aloud on several occasions, we so got this. We are those parents whose kids eat well because we’ve done our part. Ha. Good try, Amanda. I call this kind of parental pride: first baby syndrome.
Then along came sweet Theodore, whose relationship with food is a little bit different. Unless it’s laced with sugar, a banana, a bar, or mac’n cheese, he’s usually cautious and careful about what’s on his plate, eagerly inspecting it as if I snuck in rocks. Theo eats to live and is very antsy. Getting him to sit still at meal time can be a real chore. He would much rather be making jokes trying to make us laugh rather than eat most things I make if he had his way. Most evenings we play “choo choo” or “airplane” to fill up his little belly before he scoots off to play with his matchbox cars in the living room.
It’s interesting to me me, these stark differences. I am a blend an adventurous eater and a lover of food, and I am never “not hungry” nor do I forget to skip meals so I can go play. Theo is a bub who you have to remind to eat, and to try and do so within reasonably healthy parameters. I am going to go out on a limb and say I bet you have an eater like this too.
All of this being said, our little guy has made leaps and bounds over the past eighteen months with a few changes we’ve made to help him here at home. He’s not an adventurous eater, nor will he go out of his way to try much of anything new, but we’d never expect that right now. Getting Theo to try mussels or spicy curry is not our priority. I will say, he does eat much, much better than he ever has before, and this is truly wonderful. Andrew and I really do believe that the work we’ve been putting in at home is why we’ve seen such positive changes in his eating habits.
And if you are wondering where Alfie falls in the mix, think of a labrador who has to have his food rationed because for some reason or another his “I’m feeling full” trigger is broken. He’s that kind of eater and I am not sure he even tastes his food.
10 Things To Try If You Have a Picky or Challenging Eater:
- Have Them Help: An easy way to get kids excited about something is to give them responsibility for it. Inviting your little one to be a part of the process of making and serving food can really up their interest when it comes time to eat. I give both Stella and Theo small but satisfying jobs while I food prep, and you guys, they soak it up. These two are able set the table and do various tasks as I make supper, and I have found when they feel included in the process, the prepping of the meal, and the eating of the food becomes rewarding and special.
- No Alternatives: My mom used to do this for my little brother who learned pretty darn quick that he could weasel out of what she had prepared if he wined long or loud enough. We had a lot of Doritos and hot dogs in the house during this time. In our home, Andrew and I are pretty strict in that you must at least try everything on your plate and know that mom will not make you a different meal if you don’t eat up. This may sound a bit old-school and perhaps a little harsh depending on your parenting style, but keeping options out of their head makes them appreciate what you’ve made, and brings the family together in a more mindful way. We feel that respecting our food is an important part of our meal together, and practicing these values as a family is important while they are young.
- Make It Special: I believe in making meal time a special part of our day because it’s usually the one chance we all get to sit together (or wiggle together) and chat. You can make this pocket of time more intentional if you set the table, light a candle, or say a prayer to give thanks. Doing these things creates a ritual out of something simple you do every day and therefore makes it feel important. We recently started going around saying one thing we are thankful for and why, and it has been so neat to hear what they come up with. Stella usually says the name of a friend. Theodore usually says cars. Making mealtime more of a ritual will help get your little ones excited about small things, and that excitement may in turn spill over into trying and possibly even enjoying what is on their plate.
- Show Them The Process: I know it’s a lot of work, but showing our babes how to grocery shop and gather food can help them understand the whole process, and thus have more respect for their meals. The same goes for gardening! Getting them involved in the steps before mealtime can have a big impact on their eagerness to try new foods. Theodore loves helping me put things in my grocery cart and even more so, picking veggies and greens in the garden. Having him help in these simple ways gets him more excited about the food prep, which gets him more willing to eat what I make for supper. We talk a lot about food at the grocery store and I believe this helps him want to branch out and try more foods.
- Get Creative: Perhaps you have a noodle lover at your house? We have three, so I make zucchini noodles with parmesan cheese and butter all the time to get them to eat their veggies. We make lots of smoothies with kale and spinach hidden in them, root veggie soup, cauliflower in lieu of potatoes, veggie tacos, and other clever veggie-packed to get them to eat healthier. Stella is like me and loves raw vegetables, but the boys not so much. I have found that cutting them into fun shapes and giving them ranch to dip makes it more fun. If you sound excited about it and try something new they may want to follow your lead! Imitation is everything at this age.
- Don’t Snack: If you cut out snacking out of the day, chances are the kids will be hungry at mealtimes. I typically give the kids one mid-morning snack and that’s about it until supper. If they want a snack later in the afternoon, I’ll offer an apple, orange, banana, or veggie chips. If they decline any of these then they have to wait for supper. Those are the rules! The amount of food our kids eat on days with limited snacking is unreal. This tip is a big one.
- Try Everything: This is a rule I learned from Brining Up Bebe, a great book about the wisdom of French parenting. The kids have to try everything on their plate but do not have to finish all their food. There are some exceptions to this depending on the situation, but this is generally what we follow and it has become commonplace for our kids.
- Create Rhythm: Try as best you can to make mealtime a ritual at the same time each evening. Building this rhythm into the structure of your day makes eating together something the kids can count on, making them more likely to follow the rules you set in place.
- One New Thing: If you have a really picky eater, try introducing one new thing at a time rather than a whole plate of new foods. Your little one will be much more likley to try one thing if he or she is not overwhelmed. Know that it takes many tries for kids to enjoy something new, so if they turn up there nose the first time they try it, that’s normal. Keep trying!
- Don’t Bribe (if you can help it!): Similar to making a different meal for if your bub if he or she doesn’t like what you are serving, bribing one to eat can be a slippery slope. If you build up the expectation each time you sit down at the table, you will be engaging in a long battle that ultimately shows your kids that they are in control and do not have to listen to you. I have bribed my kids for various things at various times, so I’ve been there and find myself there often. Some days are long and it’s easy to give in. I get it. But it’s also good to know that bribing our kids teaches them they what they are getting as a reward is more important than being respectful and listening. This is a hard one to overcome, but I think there is great pay off in the end if you can stick to your guns.
And know this, if they simply refuse to eat, they will not starve. I am almost certain of this. Keep your kitchen stocked with more healthy options than you think you need, and when they are in fact hungry you can give them those. What suggestions do you have for parents of picky eaters? Moms and dads with older kids, did your little one grow out of this? Any tips to share? Insight that can give us patience and persistence?