We are reaching the end of our major changes when it comes to dealing with picky eating. We aren’t done handling the situation, but we are setting up our healthy habits and are ready to live the solution. So far we have looked at how we got into the picky eating club, we took some time to reset and regain peace at the table, and we worked on adding in variety. Now it is time to hammer out the rules of the table as we are going to follow them. For our family that means we are focusing on considering food and table manners.
Up until this point, I was focused on creating a peaceful table for meal time. We took the time to eliminate fights by not forcing Ben to eat. I took note of the good areas and starting building the variety into designated eating times. This worked really well. Meals were fun again! I didn’t feel like the food police, making sure everyone ate what was put in front of them in some prescribed amount. My kids didn’t have the pressure to eat something they were unsure of to rebel against. Our family was happy. But, well, it didn’t mean that all our problems were solved.
Ben was happy eating his usual foods in the presence of other foods. Most nights he asked for the yogurt back up food without even looking at dinner. During the reset phase, this was fine. Now that meals were peaceful I knew Ben would need a little push to even give different foods a try. So I introduced the rule that Ben had to consider his meals.
What does it mean to consider meals? For us this means we talk about our food. A lot. I have Ben go through his senses to experience his food. This can be tedious sometimes, but I think it is a really good process. It also gives us a chance to explore food and to work on other concepts that Ben is learning in school and life.
We have to look at our food with our eyes. Sounds simple enough, but it is easy to look at something without really seeing what is there. Ben has to tell me what is on his plate. I tell him what the food actually is, and why it is healthy for us. The focus here isn’t as much on specific nutrients, more of the idea that some foods help us to grow and give us the energy to play. Some foods are fun, and we just get to eat them occasionally because they taste good. I fit lessons in too. This process gives us a chance to talk about colors and shapes. We count the food items on the plate. And sometimes we talk about the letters the foods start with. Basically, we hit concepts that preschoolers are working on.
This one is kind of for the silly aspect. Yes, we actually lean our heads towards our plate and listen. (Eventually, I’m going to try rice crispies so we actually hear something!) When Pat is home this is usually a fun time as he likes to make the food talk. I don’t expect most foods to have sounds. (But if you know of any let me know!) I just wanted to be sure to include all the senses in our experiences. And hearing is a pretty safe one if your child has fears of new foods. They don’t make a sound, so there is nothing bad that is going to happen.
We smell our foods. Scent is such an important part of taste, and if something smells good we are often enticed to eat it. My hope is that some good smells will help encourage Ben to taste new foods. I also use this as an opportunity to talk about the ingredients used. For example, I will point out the garlic smell, or the citrus scent. I’m no chef, so my ability to describe these smells is a bit limited, but we are trying.
Some manners go out the window with this one. We touch our food. Yep, even if it is messy I encourage Ben to stick his hand in there and feel his food. Texture is an important part of the eating experience too. We see if something is crispy or mushy. Yogurt is creamy, while crackers are crunchy. I let Ben get his hands in there and touch any part of his meal he wants.
Taste is the last step. Honestly, it is one that doesn’t happen very often. Once we have worked our way through our other senses we see if Ben wants to actually taste the food. He has the option at this point to spit it out. He can nibble, lick, or try it any way he wants. But he does not have to. I am standing by my decision to not make him eat foods he doesn’t want to. And we do our best not to guilt him into it. We do bring up that someone prepared this food for him, or that it is one of our favorites. My hope is that this will encourage him to give something new a try. Even if he doesn’t want to taste something, Pat and I talk about how the food tastes to us. Is something salty, sweet, savory, etc. We compare it to other foods and discuss our favorites.
Why do we do this?
We do all this talking before I bring out the fruit or any backup foods. I want Ben to spend some time making his decision to try or not try his food, not just make a snap judgment. The longer something is in front of him the bigger the chances that he will give it a go. We are also working on his food and taste vocabulary. There are so many aspects of food we can enjoy- taste, temperature, texture. They all work together to create a pleasing experience. And any one of those aspects can make us not like something. I want to figure out if a refusal of a food is due to a genuine dislike or just an unwillingness to try. In order to do that I need to help Ben build his food vocabulary.
Doing all this also helps to demystify food. Have you ever been served something and you have no idea what it is? Like seriously, no clue, can’t find anything familiar about it? Were you a bit hesitant to try it? If you were I think that is perfectly normal. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the act of eating is a very intimate thing. You are taking something and putting it into your body. Almost everything is new to toddlers and preschoolers. Talking about what is in food and talking about the properties of foods help bring out the familiar and make it less scary to try.
Manners Still Matter
While we do all these food explorations we are not eliminating manners. In fact, we are hitting them even harder now. This isn’t salad fork versus dessert fork stuff, but it is important. Meals are a communal time, and good manners make it more enjoyable for everyone. No one wants to eat (or try new foods) if someone is throwing food or having a tantrum. We keep the rules pretty basic.
You must sit at the table, facing the table, until you are excused. No half sitting in the chair trying to get away. You have to ask to be excused (yes, kids as young as three can get this concept down), no toys during meals, and you have to participate in dinner time conversation. Evenings are often our tv time, but no one gets to watch a show until everyone is done with dinner. This eliminates the desire to rush through a meal to get back to a show.
Food must stay on your plate. Even if you don’t like it, it stays there. Ali and Sammy are allowed to put what they don’t like from their trays to the table, but that’s because they are young enough that throwing the food still seems like a reasonable option to them. Ben must keep it on his plate. Food cannot be thrown, even by the girls. Anyone who throws things has to sit on their bed for a few minutes. Tantrums at the table result in the same thing. No one loses the right to eat, but they can lose the privilege of having meals with the family.
Please, thank you, and excuse me are a must. Not liking a food is not a reason to be rude. No one is allowed to say that something is gross. Ben is allowed to say he does not care for something. I mean, his opinion is valid. But saying something is disgusting or making other negative comments can hurt how someone else perceives a meal. It isn’t fair to do that. Plus for Ben, everything he eats is prepared by someone else. It is polite to say thank you and not disparage what is made for you.
Eating isn’t just about putting nutrients in our bodies. It is a social time, and studies have shown that it is a valuable time for family bonding. These rules help us to talk as a family and enjoy each other’s company, even if everyone isn’t enjoying the actual food.
How has it all worked?
I am happy to say I think this process is working. I’d love to be spouting off all the different foods Ben happily and willingly eats now. That wouldn’t be true though. He still has a narrow number of foods he happily accepts. But he is trying more and more every week. We rarely use the backup food now. He does get smoothies. (I can’t let him go completely without vegetables.) And he still rocks at eating fruit. Ben sits at the table and participates in meals, even if he doesn’t like every food.
I am happy with where we are. The whole family is working towards healthier food choices. Big changes take small steps. And I am so happy that we can make these changes and introduce healthy foods while still having happy family meals. We can’t expect our kids to be perfect eaters in a few short weeks. The current plan is to keep working. Keep adding variety, keep encouraging the kids to try new things, and keep talking.
Conclusion… For now…
This is where I am going to leave the Picky Eating Chronicles. At this point, the next step is to just keep it up. I know we will fall off the wagon at some point. Life will get busy and chicken nuggets will pop up too frequently. What I like best about this method is that we can start it back up again anytime. I am already seeing positive changes, so I am motivated to keep going.
I know if you’ve never had to deal with a picky eater all this can sound a bit silly. I mean, just tell your child to eat. But for some families that just does not work. This works for my family. I think it can work for others too, and I hope it does.
If you want to read the book that inspired me and showed me a new way to approach our picky eating (and you totally should) you can check it out here: (affiliate link)It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating
Be sure to check out the rest of The Picky Eating Chronicles: