Picky eating can be a pretty touchy subject. No mom wants to hear they might be making a mistake, especially once you’ve gotten to a point where it seems impossible to change the course you’ve already charted.
Over the past few months, several people have asked me for advice on this topic. I’ve pondered writing this post many times but until today, something always held me back. Even just the title seems so self-congratulatory, so smug, like somehow I’ve mastered the art of parenting, having successfully raised perfect Stepford children who can do no wrong.
So let me just say, for the record, that this post is in no way meant to be a lecture on how to parent. I love my girls to death, but they are far from perfect. Like all kids they often range from little angels to little demons, sometimes in just a matter of moments. They whine, they cry, they disobey. They fight and complain. Sometimes–a lot of times–they are downright annoying. And contrary to what the title of this post may suggest, they can often be picky when it comes to food. If left to their own devices, they would probably eat nothing but french fries and toaster strudels.
When they were born, I think I always just assumed our kids would eat everything. My husband and I didn’t plan to start making special foods for them, nor did we plan to become the parents that always made a side of chicken nuggets or mac & cheese because we knew at least that would get eaten. We didn’t intend to be the parents who handed over a bowl of goldfish at the slightest whimper, or put our kids to bed with a cheese stick or a slice of bread because they hadn’t eaten their dinner and we didn’t want them to get hungry in the middle of the night.
It just sort-of happened.
The problem with the path of least resistance is that at the time, it seems so much easier. It even seems like the right thing to do. What parent wants their child to be hungry? Until, of course, it isn’t. You go to a friend’s house for dinner and you are mortified when your six-year-old, who should know better, says rudely as the food is being served, “Ew, that looks gross! I don’t like that!” You try a new restaurant and your three-year-old has a temper tantrum because the chicken nuggets look different from the ones you serve at home.
Our rude awakening happened the day my oldest daughter refused to eat a quesadilla. Trying to be clever, I had made it with roasted vegetables instead of just plain cheese. She threw a fit to end all fits and I saw clearly for the first time that I had, for the sake of fewer arguments at dinnertime, created a picky-eating monster. I vowed then that I would do everything in my power to turn my girls into kids who would not only eat their vegetables, but everything else they were served as well.
From that moment forward, my husband and I adopted five distinct strategies when it came to dealing with our kids and food:
1. Stop giving choices
We found that we were allowing our kids to dictate what they ate far too often. This doesn’t mean that we don’t still occasionally let them choose between two different meal options (we do), but for the most part, we adhere to the very wise preschool philosophy of “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Specific requests are considered, but not always honored immediately. Furthermore, we do not make separate meals. If we are trying a new recipe, whether it be fish, casserole, soup, or anything else, our kids eat what we eat. If they refuse to eat it, they don’t eat. This was something we had to enforce quite frequently in the beginning, but these days almost never. Ultimately we discovered that no kid will starve from missing a meal, and they will eat eventually.
2. The Three Try Rule
I read somewhere one time that most kids are wary of new things, and that it takes at least three separate exposures for something to become familiar. Once it is familiar, it will usually be accepted without resistance. It made so much sense that we adopted a Three Try Rule for food in our house. Our girls are not allowed to refuse a food or say they don’t like something until they have tried it at least three separate times. (Not three bites, three different meals.) Amazingly enough, we have yet to find something that they haven’t absolutely loved after the third try, even when the first try resulted in tears.
After following this rule for so long, we have found that our kids now are much more willing to try new things the first time because they understand that even if they think they don’t like it right away, they might like it eventually.
It is hard to get kids to try new things and eat healthy, well-balanced meals if they are constantly filling up on snacks. I can’t say that we never give our kids snacks or junk food, but it is definitely the exception, not the rule. We especially avoid snacking anytime in the two hours before dinnertime, and don’t allow snacks after dinner, especially if the child requesting the snack didn’t eat their dinner.
This is often easier said than done! The pre-dinner hour can be rough, especially for toddlers and preschoolers, and the fastest way to entertain a whiney three-year-old is to appease him with a bowl full of goldfish. Until, of course, dinner is finally ready and he refuses to eat even one bite. Then an hour later, just before bedtime, you give him another snack because you don’t want him to go to bed hungry, and the vicious cycle continues.
For me this was probably the hardest habit to break, until I finally realized that the only way to get my kids to eat well was to sometimes let them be hungry.
4. Emphasize Good Manners
We wanted our kids to understand that being picky about food and saying I don’t like that, or that looks gross, when someone else has spent time cooking for them was not only unacceptable, but incredibly rude. This meant teaching them about manners, and what it means to have good manners in all sorts of different situations, including at the table.
For this, I found a great series of books that was incredibly helpful, called the Way to Be! Manners books. Our favorites are Manners at the Table and Manners in Public. I found that reading these books frequently, then talking about them and then doing actual role playing exercises was really effective.
5. Constant Reinforcement
Being picky (and rude) is simply not an option in our family, but this rule requires constant reinforcement. Before we go to anyone’s house or to a restaurant, we will usually have a 3 minute pep talk in the car, which usually goes something like this:Me: What are our expectations of you? Them: To be polite and use our manners Me: How do we use our manners? Them: Say please and thank you, yes ma’am and no ma’am, don’t run around, look people in the eye, clear our plates. Me: What do we do if we get served food we’re not sure we like? Them: We eat it! Me: What DO we say? Them: Thank you for this yummy food! Me: What DON’T we say? Them: I don’t like it!
Even with the pep talk, they still have their moments. There have been times where we have had to pull them aside to remind them of the rules, and then make them apologize. Kids will be kids, which means constant reinforcement will always be necessary.
It has been almost two years since we revised our food strategy, and I can honestly say that it has worked wonders in our family. Going out to eat, cooking a new recipe, or visiting friends for dinner is now, for the most part, a pleasure, not a challenge, and my kids’ diet has never been so full of variety.
They are even now beginning to recognize pickiness in their friends. On a recent visit with friends, the girls watched in amazement as one of their friends went into hysterics after being served a new food, one she flat-out refused to try. As she wailed and screamed that she didn’t like it, my four-year-old, leaned over and whispered to me incredulously, Mommy, doesn’t she know she is missing out?
Raising non-picky eaters is no easy task. It means being willing to sacrifice short term peace in favor of the long-term gain. It is an exhausting and hard-fought battle, but, at least in this family, ultimately so worth the effort.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue! Do you struggle with picky kids? Have you found other strategies that work for your family? Do you agree with these strategies? Why or why not?