Welcome back to the picky eating chronicles. My goal with this series is to take a look at picky eating and find a real, workable, healthy solution to it. This isn’t a quick fix situation. Eating is something we do our whole lives, and I want my kids to find it enjoyable while still being able to make healthy choices. I want our meal times to be pleasant and not battles. My hope is that our whole family will benefit from these changes and this style of eating. For this step, I am aiming to regain my child’s trust at the table and find the good habits we do have.
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Last time I talked about the reasons why picky eating can start. From a biological predisposition to unintentional habits to just accidentally happening, there are a lot of reasons. I think it is important to look back and find your reasons why your child is a picky eater, at least to the best of your ability. Understanding how and why your child is eating like he is helping you to see what changes need to be made. Did we fall into a habit because there was a major life change? Is there a medical reason for the eating patterns? One thing I want to reiterate is that there is no place for blame in this. I don’t think we should blame children for this sort of behavior, especially when they are only toddlers or preschoolers. We can’t blame children for acting like children. And I for sure don’t think we should blame ourselves as parents. What is the point? You can’t go back in time and change things. Instead, it is more beneficial to focus on the changes we can make. Quite honestly, even if it is the parent’s ‘fault’ somehow, I don’t think most parents ever intended to create bad habits. So blame is really a useless thing at this point.
I hope you took a few minutes this past week to look at how your family ended up in the picky eating club like we did. I wrote out mine at the end of the last post, so you can check out how we got here. I know while we started on the right track when Ben was a baby, we got sidelined by some pretty major life changes. We had twins and then moved. I chose to let some eating habits slide in order to keep my sanity and just get everything done. But once we got settled again I was ready to attack this problem. We tried a few things.
Techniques We Tried To Combat Picky Eating
We gave ownership
First, we tried a few things to give Ben a sense of ownership over his meals.
- I talked about healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. I really played up how they gave us great energy to grow.
- I took Ben to the store with me to continue talking about yummy healthy choices. I let him pick out what he wanted us to buy.
- I let Ben help in the kitchen. He helped me prepare the food for the family all three meals. He saw the entire process of prep to table.
- We watched episodes of his favorite shows that highlighted healthy eating.
None of these things worked. Oh, Ben can parrot back healthy eating statements to me. He knows veggies help you grow big and strong. He had always come grocery shopping with me, and he seemed to like talking about the food and picking it out. He adored helping in the kitchen and knew that his favorite tv characters liked healthy food too. But none of this matter once he was seated at the table. He was not going to eat any of it.
Why ownership didn’t work
These were most of the suggestions I had found in books and online. I think they make a lot of sense. If you give kids ownership of things they become invested in them and usually react very positively. But for a three or four-year-old, that doesn’t always work. This is that lack of logic I talked about last time. I am not saying that to be mean to our children. There is just a disconnect there. It doesn’t matter if they chose the food, helped prep it, and had their eyes on it through the whole process. If they don’t want to eat it, well, they aren’t going to eat it. I think these options work great for some kids, and could work really well for older kids. But for toddlers or preschoolers, it can be tough.
Trying out discipline
Since giving ownership didn’t work, we went with more of a discipline based method. If he didn’t eat the food he got in trouble. Nothing major, but he would be sent to his room for a bit. Or he had to sit at the table until he ate a bite of dinner. Seriously, we were going for one bite. The result of this was tears, frustration, and anger. Usually, he would give in and try the bite, but sometimes he wouldn’t be willing to swallow and it just didn’t end well.
Why discipline didn’t work
The biggest issue with this method is that it became a power struggle at the table. And meals were just no fun! Someone had to give in at some point. Either we let him go without eating what we wanted, or we sat there forever until he caved. Dinners on those nights were battles. There were tears and general unhappiness all around. It impacted Ali and Sammy too. I could tell they were almost nervous at meal times, wondering how things would go.
Consistency was tough with this method too. Some nights I just didn’t have it in me to deal with the fights, so I let it go. You can imagine how helpful that was long term. In general, I don’t like food being tied to behavior. I don’t think getting a basic necessity should be associated with being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ As a result, we didn’t want to let Ben go to bed hungry. I don’t want him to feel that he is worthy of food (and as an extension love) only if he is good. (I do want to note that I recognize that this technique can work for some kids and some families. I am not making a judgment, just stating what works for our family.) Discipline was just not something that worked for our family.
What Did Work
We needed to take a break
During all these battles I decided we needed to reset. I stopped pushing Ben to eat. I offered up what I had prepared, but he could have a yogurt if he didn’t want to try dinner. The one problem I had with that was he never even glanced at dinner after a few days. He would sit down and ask for his yogurt. While I had eliminated the battles, I wasn’t exactly promoting a varied healthy diet. I certainly wasn’t helping Ben learn how to try new foods. Throw in the sugar content of those individual yogurts, and this was not a long term solution.
Around this time I found the book It’s Not About the Broccoli. I totally recommend everyone dealing with a picky eater read this book. It spoke to all my concerns with the previous ways we tried to help fix the picky eating. It also talked about the importance of learning how to eat in a healthy manner, not just shovel down whatever was put in front of you. Overall I do hope my children enjoy food, and I want them to want to eat the good stuff.
This book gives great detail and explanations that I can’t go into in just a couple of blog posts. But I do want to share how my family worked with this information.
Regaining the trust
Fortunately, this book first recommended doing basically what we were doing. Take a break. Stop the fights, stop creating negative associations with food, just stop. If you are in the cycle of fighting over meals it can be hard to get out of it. Kids start coming to the table ready to reject what is offered and prepped for a fight. It is tough to overcome that. And who could blame Ben for not trusting us at the table? We tried so many different methods to get him to eat. He had gotten in trouble, he had to try foods he didn’t want to and didn’t enjoy. He really had no reason to think dinner was going to be something he enjoyed. We had to win back his food trust.
This step makes a lot of sense to me. When you are little most foods are new foods. And new foods can be scary. What if you don’t like it? What if it makes you sick? Think about what eating really is. You are taking something and putting it in to your body. I think it is completely understandable to be nervous about doing that with something you have no experience with, especially if you have already eaten a few things that you have found gross. And then if you don’t want to eat something you get into trouble? I wouldn’t want to give in to that either.
So we took a break. We stopped making Ben try foods. He came to the table, requested something else, and got it. Now I know some people really dislike the idea of creating a second meal. We didn’t do that. Ben didn’t have to eat the main dish. He did eat the fruit and some of the sides sometimes. But if he wanted something else he got something easy. Yogurt, cereal. I wasn’t going to make a whole new meal for him, but he could have a simple alternative. I did consider his age and kept a degree of control. The alternatives were all options I felt were reasonably healthy. He might ask for cookies, but that didn’t mean he got to eat that. Our goal was to open him up to a new and varied diet, not let him get even more used to eating unhealthy food.
How did it go?
You know what? We saw a change almost right away. A few days of not forcing him to eat and suddenly meals were fun again. Everyone was relaxed and there were no tears. This was such a relief. Ben was happier, and we were happier. Seeing as one of our goals was to have a happy table, I’ll take this one as a win. I let this go on for a few weeks. Yes, I want my kids to eat a healthy diet, and during a reset like this your child might not make the healthiest choices. But we are keeping the long game in mind. This isn’t a sprint.
While in reset, take some notes
I wasn’t idle while we were in this pause period. I started taking note of what Ben did eat. What did he like? What was he willing to dig right into? I found some interesting things. While yes, he would jump at junk food if we had it, he also jumped at some pretty healthy stuff too. Ben adores fruit. Seriously, he will eat it until we run out if we let him. He also enjoys yogurt and milk. He drinks mainly water and eats whole grains. While he wasn’t interested in a lot of meats, but he ate some. The one area we were lacking in was vegetables. Well, he ate them, but he didn’t realize he did as they were mixed into smoothies for him. He did eat too many nuggets for my taste. He wasn’t usually willing to try anything different. Basically, he ate the same things day after day.
Overall we had some work to do, but Ben did eat a number of foods that I was happy with. I took a look at his behaviors too. He wasn’t a huge breakfast eater. Lunch was his main meal of the day. Dinner depended on what were having. But like a lot of kids, some days he would pack away a ton of foods. On others, he ate like a bird. Looking at larger periods of time, like a week, helped me to see that I didn’t need to worry about quantity. I didn’t need to push food on him. He would eat when he was hungry. I don’t think I’m the only mom who worries her kids aren’t eating enough. So seeing his patterns was a huge relief for me.
The scientist in me loves this system. Basically, we are in the data gathering phase here. We looked at past behaviors and how they brought us here in the first segment. And now we are looking at the details of what our children are actually eating. During this stage, we are also helping our children trust us with food again. Without that trust, eating will continue to be a battle. After all this, we are going to move into the action phases. In the next installment we will talk about introducing more variety. We will look at the types of foods we want to encourage our children to eat and how to start doing that.
Yes, there is homework involved in this. Eating habits don’t change on their own. The first part is easy. Just stop. Take a period of time to reset. Decide which foods you want to use as a backup and then let your kids eat them instead of what you prepared. The goal behind this is to take the fight out of eating. To do this everyone needs a break. While this is going on take note of what your child does eat. There is usually some sort of healthy bit to build on. Take note of how your children eat over a period of time, like a week, not just in one day.
We saw some positive changes in just a couple of days. I hope you at least have some peace at meal times by doing this. Remember, this is a lifetime of habits we are building. Slow and steady wins the race.
I’d love to hear your experiences with picky eating! What is working for you? What didn’t work? It can seem like a silly problem to be worried about, but eating is for life. It is important we help our kids find their ways to healthy habits. Have you tried this system before? I want your feedback!
Check out the other installments of The Picky Eating Chronicles: