How To Get Your Picky Eater Eating

Everyone who has kids deals with picky, finicky eating habits, in some form or another. Some of us have kids who will only eat white bread for an entire year; others have kids who will down kale and caper salads like it’s the best thing on Earth.

I fall into the first category. I’ve got a sensory kid on my hands and food has always been a struggle. It used to be a struggle for both of us, but now it’s mostly just a struggle for him, as I have let go of expectations resulting in fewer disappointments when he (literally) runs away screaming from my feta and tomato stuffed Portobello mushroom caps. I’m not disappointed (more for me!), but I always secretly hope that he will give it a shot next time. And sometimes he does.

When he was around 2-3 years old, I constantly struggled to get him to eat. I would make something that he asked for, then he would turn around and say he didn’t want it, or that he wanted something else. Cue frustration. There were, and still are, times when he would have three different dishes sitting in front of him while crying that he was hungry. It was so tempting to respond with, “so eat the food that is sitting in front of your face!”

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He turned 4. I was feeling lost. Food had become a huge battle of wills. I never forced him to eat anything. You can’t, really. But I had invested too many emotions into it. I love food. Good, beautiful, fresh-from-the-farm food. So why on Earth did I have a child who seemed to despise it? Eventually, I realized that I was part of the problem. I was putting way too much pressure on him to, “just give it a try” and, “you might actually like it!”

I received some treasured advice from a dear friend to completely remove any emotions or pressure from the food. Don’t offer food. Don’t talk about food. Don’t make him a plate at dinner and say here is your food. Of course, don’t deny food. This challenge was to detach my own emotions from his rejection of the food I was providing.

If he saw me eating, he avoided me for awhile. I’m sure he was thinking, “she might want me to try something different and scary!” Once the pressure was off, slowly but surely, he started coming to the table to see what I had. If it looked safe in his eyes, he would ask what I was eating.

Spaghetti.

I left it at that. A simple answer to a simple question. No asking whether he wanted to try some. No pressuring him to eat just a little bit. And then…

It smells good, mom. Can I have some?

I was skipping on the inside. I wanted to jump out of my seat and say, “yay! I’m so glad you are going to try it!” But I stayed calm. I gave him some spaghetti. I didn’t ask how it tasted. I barely even made eye contact while he ate. 

It worked.

I started noticing that he was eating more. He asked for more. He tried new things. He took control over his own food; an area where he used to feel powerless and fearful and pressured. He started wanting to help me cook and pick out our veggies. He still doesn’t like seeing veggies in food, but he helps me pureé them to add into dishes.

Often, the things that bring parents the most frustration in their interactions with children are the things that the parents can’t control — their children’s eating, toileting, and sleeping. But this is true for children too. They need to be in control of their bodies; doing things when they feel they are secure, safe and ready. If they don’t want to eat something, that’s ok. There’s no need for guilt or a fuss.

It’s easy to pile on the guilt. “I worked so hard on this meal and you are wasting it!”

It’s easy to apply pressure. “Just try one bite.”  

Sometimes too much pressure leaves children conflicted, “I want to please my mom because I love her, but I really don’t want to eat this food. This is so unfair.” Cue meltdown at the dinner table.

At this point, the words, “I am not a short order cook!” may be flashing in neon lights. I understand. It isn’t reasonable to make a separate five-course meal for everyone in the family, but I think a little flexibility with meal prep can go a long way. If I know my son will eat his meal if the sauce is blended up, that’s not a huge extra step. If I make him a separate pot of noodles with his own sauce from a jar, it’s not too painful. If he would prefer leftovers, no big deal. If he would prefer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (doubtful with my jelly hater!), that’s fine with me.

People are allowed to dislike certain foods. They shouldn’t be forced to sit at the table to finish their meal. They shouldn’t be coerced to eat so many more bites. They shouldn’t be bribed with treats. They shouldn’t be shamed or guilted or pressured.

Food will be a lifelong journey for each and every person. Without it, we die. Our job as parents is to set up a healthy relationship with food. Fill your house with only the things you are ok with your child consuming. Allow them to be the full decision maker on when they eat, what they eat (because your house only had acceptable foods, right?) and how much they eat

Our children will only be children for a short time. Making a separate dish here and there, making dinosaur shaped cheese on their sandwich, eating an entire bag of carrots before dinner or them filling up on granola and yogurt (or cheddar bunnies on occasion) at 11 pm after refusing to eat dinner are all ok. We are showing them that their voice is heard and respected; that they have just as much say in this life as the people who are bigger and more powerful than them. They are learning to listen to their own bodies. They eat because they are hungry. They stop eating because they are full. That’s what eating should be like for all of us.

To pack food with a nutritional punch, I pureé veggies into almost everything, even cookies and baked goods. I add ground seeds (chia, hemp, flax) into almost everything. Sometimes I mix vitamin D drops with maple syrup and put it on top of some pureed spinach, walnut, and blueberry pancakes.

Get creative. Get playful. Bring the kids in for the fun of making the food, without any pressure to try what they made. That will come with time.

What are some of your kid’s favorite recipes?

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