I have a picky eater in my house. For something that shouldn’t be that big a deal, that is hard to admit. I feel like it is a signal that I have either failed as a mother, or that I just don’t care enough to serve my child healthy food, or even that I have lost control over my children. None of these are good things, and realistically I don’t think any of these things are true. Eating can be surprisingly complicated, and anything with small children can have unanticipated challenges.
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Ben has been a bit of a picky eater for awhile now, and Ali and Sammy are already showing strong preferences for certain foods. Now that Ben is going to school and eating more meals away from home I decided to was time to try to tackle this eating situation. Before we get into how we are doing that, I want to take a look back at how we got here.
As I said I think there is the misconception that most parents with picky eaters have done something wrong. And I don’t feel that is necessarily the case. So if you are coming along with me on this picky eating battle the first thing I want to do is eliminate the blame. This isn’t about pointing fingers and shaming other moms or ourselves. I plan to look into how we got to this point, which does mean examining things I have done. But everything I did ‘wrong’ was out of necessity. Or at least it was not intended to create negative consequences. I encourage anyone looking at their children’s eating to take this approach too. Blame builds up walls and resistance. It adds guilt which, let’s be real, none of us moms need more of. And quite frankly, who cares? You didn’t mean to do something wrong, so why even cast blame.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why picky eating is such an easy trap to fall into. To start out with, let’s look at the role our children play in the problem.
Why do kids trend toward picky eating?
Biology is a factor
I think some people wonder why picky eating is even a thing. I mean, serve healthy food and tell your child to eat it. Done. Yeah, not so much. If eating, in general, were that easy we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. We are hardwired to seek out certain flavors and foods. Salty means electrolytes. Sweet means sugar for easy energy. Fat means long term energy. This is all important for survival. However, now that food is abundant and we aren’t running from wild animals and aren’t held captive to seasons, these flavor instincts are not as helpful. Bitterness has long been a signal that something is toxic, so avoiding bitter foods is natural for little ones who put a lot of stuff in their mouths. However most of our little ones aren’t around a lot of toxic plants they need to avoid. Instead, this reaction makes strong veggie flavors unwelcome. Sugar means energy, so we want it. This is true for children too. Children, of course, want ‘the good stuff.’ We can’t blame them for that.
Why not just avoid sweets?
What about just not giving kids anything sweet or bad for them in general? Well yes, this is one approach. But fruit is sweet. And really breast milk is naturally sweet too. (Lactose is a sugar.) So this isn’t a foolproof approach. Plus it isn’t a long-term solution. Yes, you can control what your child eats at home, but at some point, they will eat somewhere else. And I want my kids to enjoy the fun celebratory foods in life. I want them to eat a piece of birthday cake at their party. I want them to taste grandma’s cookies. These foods are an important part of our story and one that I don’t want to cut out entirely. Not to mention some studies show that even those who have never tasted ‘sweet’ are hardwired to seek it out. So elimination alone isn’t enough to remove interest in those foods.
Small children defy logic.
Little kids, like toddlers and preschoolers, really do not always understand why they need to eat certain healthy foods, or why they can’t eat the same thing all the time. I once read that it isn’t until a child is at least three years old that they can begin to understand the idea If I don’t eat now, I will be hungry later. That makes it tough to encourage someone to eat! Even if the food being offered isn’t a typically offensive one, if a child doesn’t want to eat it at these young ages quite often they just will not. There is no concern as to being hungry later. There is just the knowledge they don’t want to eat what is before them. It is very hard to reason with small children, and they can be tenacious as anything if they do not want to eat something. They don’t understand long term health benefits and detriments, so you can’t use that sort of logic as we use on ourselves to eat our veggies. Have you tried to use logic or facts with a two-year-old? It just does not work.
Alright, these are all some reasons why children can tend to picky eating. They aren’t doing anything wrong, they are doing what I think is expected of them. But that is just part of the equation. How we as parents behave also contributes to picky eating. I think most of it is unintentional, but I know it has happened to me.
How parents add to picky eating
We don’t like to let our kids go hungry.
A mother’s love is strong, and I know I never want my children to suffer. I can’t stand the thought of my children going hungry. So if they don’t want to eat dinner, my first response is to find something else they want to eat. I do worry I will be seen as a bad or neglectful mom if my kids are hungry. Add to that the abundance of snacks available to our kids, and it is very hard to encourage healthy habits when they can just wait and eat later. I don’t think the desire to keep our kids full is a bad thing in itself, but it is important to look at why we feel that way and see if there are times to not follow this impulse.
We want to avoid conflict.
I don’t know about you, but I want family meal times to be pleasant. That means no yelling, crying, or tantrums. I already mentioned above how little ones aren’t great at the logic side of life. So when my 18-month-old daughters start yelling and crying because they don’t like what they have to eat, I have a hard time talking them in to it. If I instead just let them not eat it, they will yell and cry because they are hungry. It’s a lose lose for me. So I end up giving them something I know they will eat. Then the three-year-old sees that, and he is still a bit young to fully understand why his sisters get something more fun to eat that he doesn’t. So now everyone is eating something other than what I prepared. Add to that a lot of parents are just tired, and we don’t want to have to fight over our meals.
We are busy and on a budget.
Parents today have a lot going on. Sometimes there is just not enough time int he day to cook varied, healthy, and tasty meals. Letting our children watch and help makes the whole process take even longer. Being on a budget means trying new foods might mean we are wasting a lot of it. It is tough to take the time and money to make something just to see our children reject it. So while we try, it makes sense to rely on the same repeated foods that we know are good enough health-wise and that our children will eat.
There is a lot of conflicting nutrition info out there.
Seriously, how do any of us know what is healthy anymore? Is fat good or bad this week? I think sugar is the enemy right now, but does that mean salt is okay? Do we need more protein or more fiber? I try to read nutrition labels, and I have a background in chemistry, but I still think it is tricky to decide what we should be eating. I have to believe I’m not the only mom who;s head can be left spinning sometimes. It is enough to make you want to give up and say Forget it! This constantly changing information means it is hard to find consistency. How are we supposed to teach our children how to eat when we are still learning ourselves?
We bring our own baggage to the dinner table.
Raise your hand if you have ever had issues with food. Are most of you raising your hands? I know I am. We all bring our own issues to meal times. Some people were forced to clean their plates as a kid and have vowed never to do that to their children. Others had parents who never let them have sweets, and as a result, they don’t want to deprive their children. And there are some who had parents who just let them eat whatever they want, and are struggling with their eating still. They want to teach their children what they are learning. I know personally that my history of eating disorders makes me very careful to keep relationships with food neutral if possible, positive at best. That means going to bed without dinner is not a punishment in my house-food is not available based on whether you are good or bad. Whatever the issue most adults are still learning how to balance healthy eating themselves. It is hard to lead by example when we are still figuring it all out.
These are just a few of the reasons picky eating can occur. I think it is hard to find a solution to the problem without examining these reasons. We can’t find an answer without looking at the situation. I know there are people who will say My children eat what I serve, and that is the end of it. To them I say, that is awesome. I am glad you found what works for you and your family. But I think the plethora of books and tips and tricks to get kids to eat out there proves that this is not a workable solution for everyone.
So what does this mean?
I think it is safe to say most parents want a solution that will stick. We want to teach our children how to eat in a healthy manner. We want to eat healthy ourselves. And we want it to be as easy as possible. I know I don’t want to have to fall into trendy eating patterns or constantly be changing up how we eat based on some new headline. And if we are being real I want it to be easy. I don’t want to fight with my kids, I don’t want to have to spend too much money, and I don’t want to waste too much time on it. Basically, I want it all.
I think we can have it all. Well, we can have most of it most of the time. But it isn’t a quick fix, and it isn’t going to be easy. This is going to be a process to rebuild how we do meals in our house. I started this process a few weeks ago after reading a great book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating. I found this book at the library after having read about a hundred books on picky eating. This one made so much sense to me. A lot of what I started working on with my kids is inspired by this book. I have done my own thing with it, but I want to give credit where it is due. These ideas are not all my own, and I highly recommend you read it.
Normally I like to blog about things after I have reached a conclusion of sorts. I like to have answers. But I think it will be helpful for myself to examine each step as we go. And I am hoping it will be helpful to other moms who are facing this battle. So I want to invite you to attack this picky eating thing with me. It is going to be a process, and support is always helpful. Please let me know about your picky eating issues! Let’s help each other remember that it isn’t an easy situation for everyone and that we aren’t bad moms who have no control over their children because we are having a hard time with healthy eating.
Making a lifestyle change like this takes time and consistent effort. I want to make sure I am holding myself accountable, and want to help you stick to these steps with me. As I am working through this I want to hear where you are in the process and how it is going. I’m also going to give us some homework to help keep focus.
I think in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been. What has happened that has led to picky eating? Have you had any life changes lately? Has your child always been particular about certain things? If the picky eating is a new thing it might be traced back to a certain event. If your child has always been particular you might be looking at different reasons. The key is to see if this is a behavioral issue, a discipline thing, or did it just kind of happen? It is important to figure out if there are sensory issues at play or other physical reasons your child might not want to eat something. So start thinking back. Has your child always hated a food, or did the aversion pop up after a sibling was born? Again, this is not to place blame on anyone. It is simply to see the pattern that you are currently living. Don’t worry, I made myself do this too. You can read mine at the end of this post. Take this next week to really think about how your family got to the picky eating club. Next week I will be back on this topic sharing how we got started making changes.
If you have picky eaters and are looking for a change, I hope that you will join me on this path to healthy meals. Healthy eating is a life skill, and I want to give my kids the best start I can. Let’s do this!
Check out the rest of The Picky Eating Chronicles:
How we joined the picky eating club.
We started off doing everything right. I breastfed Ben, which is supposed to help expose him to multiple flavors based off of what I ate. We did Baby-Led Weaning. This is supposed to encourage babies to eat in line with their natural hunger cues. We started Ben with vegetables, lean meats, fruits. Basically everything healthy. He actually didn’t like most bread or carbs. (He still doesn’t in fact.) And for the first year of eating he was the healthiest little guy ever. This kid happily ate Brussel sprouts! Then at some point, this all changed.
It was all little things at first. He noticed what Pat and I were eating more and that it was sometimes different from what he ate. This was more a matter of convenience and safety. His food was cut smaller or was a bit softer, nothing major. Then we wanted him to try some fun foods, because, well, they are fun! We enjoyed them and wanted to see his joy in them. He got little tastes of unhealthy stuff, but nothing major. He did start to develop some stronger preferences. Ben has always been a creature of habit, and it fit with his character that he liked the same meals over and over. Quite honestly as a working mom, this was great for me. I could easily predict what he would want to eat and have it ready.
Then life just got busier. I got pregnant with Ali and Sammy. Besides being tired, making meal prep less of a priority for me, Pat and I both started working more. We wanted to save up some money for when after the girls were born. For us, this meant more time tutoring, and more nights Ben spent eating dinner at the office. Add to that we were working weekends more too. I was short on time, I needed meals that could travel and be reheated at the office, and I needed to make sure Ben was actually fed. If he refused to eat what I packed I didn’t have a backup plan. All of this added up to, well, repeated meals that while not unhealthy, didn’t encourage Ben to try new things.
Then we had the girls. Newborn twins? Sorry, it was just about filling Ben’s belly. Oh, I tried. I served the healthy stuff. But I didn’t have the time or energy to fight with Ben or try to force him to eat. (We also never want to force him to eat anyway.) Just when I felt like we could get back to working on his eating we moved. I know I use this as an excuse all the time. But it was a major upheaval in our lives. For those three weeks, I was alone with six-month old twins and a two and a half-year-old. Meals were about getting it done. And yes, I was trying to make Ben happy through food. I’ll admit it. He wanted nuggets and seemed okay with all the chaos, then he got nuggets. When you are packing it is tough to get out for groceries. I was finishing things up in our kitchen, not adding to it. That meant we had some interesting meals.
That is how life happened and we let Ben’s meals veer towards convenience and repetition. But that alone isn’t the whole situation. We want meal times to be peaceful, and I don’t want to force Ben to eat anything. I have my own food issues. I don’t want Ben to see food as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ I don’t want him to feel he has to eat if he isn’t hungry, and I don’t want him going hungry. Pretty much I want to let my kids follow their own hunger cues. And I think I have overcompensated for my issues by letting Ben make more choices for himself then he should be allowed to at his age. The problem is I am still struggling with healthy eating myself, so I am not sure how to teach my children to eat right. Hence, inconsistent messages and picky eating. I don’t think Ben’s eating is all bad. In fact, a lot of it is pretty good. But as a family we can be learning to do even better.