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The Picky Eating Chronicles: Adding Variety and Creating Structure

Picky eating can be so frustrating, both for parents and I believe for the children stuck in these habits.  If your table has become a battle ground it is time to end the war.  I hope that if you have been following along with this series you took a chance this past week to just stop fighting for a bit.  The goal of this break is to stop the cycle of fights, tears, and anger that can come with picky eating.  Now that you have had a chance to reset we are going to look into adding variety into meals and creating structure around meals.  Picky eating needs a multi-front approach, and adding variety and creating structure will help.

Solving picky eating in toddlers and preschoolers by adding variety and creating structure.

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What have we done so far?

Let’s review the steps we have taken so far.  I think an important first step to solving picky eating is to take a look at how and why your family is in this place.  For us, it was a lot of big life changes that just pushed eating habits aside.  Now that we are more settled in our new lives, we are ready to attack this issue.  After realizing how we got into this situation, we tried several methods to get out of it before settling on one that is working for us.  The first step in this process was to just reset.  We didn’t force eating, we just stopped fighting about it.  At the same time, I took note of what my children actually ate, finding some good habits I could build off of.  This brought much-needed peace back to our meal times.  Next, we were ready to take some real action.

I’ve mentioned before that many of the methods I decided to use with our family came from the book It’s Not About the Broccoli.  This book was a game changer for me.  I highly recommend it.  You need to read the book to get all the details of this method.  (I don’t think it’s fair to the author for me to spell it all out here.) But I am sharing how we used the ideas to help with picky eating.

Adding Variety

Why do we need variety?

First up I had to start adding in some variety.  A hallmark of picky eating is that our kids only want to eat the same thing, meal in and meal out.  I get that a bit.  I go through periods of time where I eat the same thing every day for lunch or go for the same snack time after time.  The repetition in itself isn’t necessarily a problem.  The problem comes when that repetition becomes so limited, nothing else will do.  It is nearly impossible to get total nutrition from just a handful of foods.  I know there are some ‘super foods’ out there, but as of yet, no one food has everything we need in a day to survive.

Beyond the health aspect, variety is important because it encourages us to try new things.  When you are at home it is easy to keep the foods you like on hand.  But when you are out in the world you might have to eat something different.  Variety at home helps remove some fears of these new foods and helps build confidence in trying something different.  This practice at home is especially important if you have a child who is reluctant to change in general.  If we learn to expect and accept new foods, well, pickiness will go away.

How do you add it in?

So how do you add variety when your child only eats a handful of foods?  Like all things, you start small.  One area that my kids do well in is fruit.  They love fruit.  Seriously, Pat and I could get scurvy because the kids eat all the fruit in this house.  But they don’t eat all fruits equally well.  They adore strawberries and blueberries, so I started with those.  One meal I served strawberries.  The next blueberries.  Then the next blueberries and strawberries mixed together.  Right there are three options out of those two foods.  Once we did that a few days I added a couple of other options that, while not favorites, were usually accepted.  Apples and bananas joined the list of possibilities.  With these additions we went from three sides we could rotate through to six, plus each fruit on its own.  This is nine options of fruit from just four that we already bought regularly.  My goal was to just not serve one fruit dish two times in a row, or at the same meal from one day to the next.  Really it took very little effort in this area to add some variety.

I think it is important to remember that adding variety doesn’t mean you have to discover something new at every meal.  You don’t even have to change your shopping habits very much.  This is helpful as we are on a budget, and I don’t like buying things I’m not sure my family will eat.  I could start adding in changes with foods we already bought regularly.  I would switch how I paired things up.  Even cutting and plating food differently worked.  Anything you can do to help your child see foods in new ways is good.

Main dishes proved to be a little more challenging.  Ben loves chicken nuggets.  And for awhile they were cheap, filling, and I let myself feel better that I got the freezer ones instead of fast food ones.  But long term, he can’t eat those every day.  (I know, we shouldn’t have gotten into this position, to begin with.  But remember, no blame.  I didn’t mean to cause problems and I can’t go back in time.  So we just move forward.)  For awhile we just alternated one day nuggets, one day something else.  We took it that slow.  After a couple weeks of that, we went to every third day.  It took time, but we are down to just once or twice a week.  Quite honestly they are his favorite still, so we haven’t gotten rid of them completely.  (And yes, some nights we are just too busy and tired so he gets them.) But they are not the staple they used to be.

How did this variety go over?

The added variety didn’t go unnoticed.  He did ask for his favorites every day for awhile.  But I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t fight it too badly.  I explained that he had that food yesterday, and we needed to have something different.  We did start out rotating between foods he already ate regularly.  As I said, we went slowly.  A key was to treat everything matter of factly.  We didn’t eat the same lunch two days in a row.  That’s all.  No other explanation needed, no bargaining.  Just a statement of fact.

Another key was not making a big deal if he did or did not eat something.  If he didn’t want to eat a food, he didn’t have to.  If he ate something new, we did tell him good job, but no big show of praise.  Keeping meals low key really helped.  I served what I served and he decided if he ate or not.  I was shocked one day a few weeks into this process when he sat down to a lunch of sandwiches (which in the past he wouldn’t touch) and just dug in.  It’s a little thing, but this was a huge victory for us!

Adding Structure

Besides adding variety we actually added more structure to our eating patterns.  In the past, if Ben had asked for a snack I usually gave him one.  It was fruit or something healthy, but I wanted him to listen to his body.  I remember reading that kids don’t necessarily understand the idea that if you don’t eat now, you will be hungry later.  But I was feeling that he was old enough to understand that concept now.  So snacks were not as forthcoming.  This was a bit hard to do with two younger sisters.  Sometimes Ben gets a snack just because Ali and Sammy are.  Overall I thought harder before giving in to snack requests.

I am not anti-snack.  I feel they can be appropriate and useful.  But I decided when that was.  If we needed to move meal times earlier or later, I would add in a snack as necessary.  Other than that we cut them way down.  Ben had to eat at meal times.  If he didn’t want to eat then, well, he could wait until the next food time.  This can be so hard!  I hate the idea of my kids going hungry.  It was time to stop giving in so quickly though.  Recognizing that another meal wasn’t too far away helped me stay strong and teach Ben to eat at meal times.

The Backup Plan

Confession:  I talk a big game about only eating at meals and only eating what I serve for dinner.  But the truth is I can’t stand the idea of my kids being hungry.  I also remember what it was like to be a picky eater as a kid, and I don’t want to force my kids to eat something they truly do not like.  (The book Flavor totally explains how we all experience foods differently.  A food that I think is amazing and so easy to eat might really be repulsive to someone else.  Who wants to make their kids eat something they are repulsed by?  It’s a fascinating read.)  So I offer a backup food.

The point of a backup food is to be something that your child will eat, something that is pretty healthy, but something that is not a favorite and is boring.  There is no incentive to eat dinner if the backup food is too good.  For our family the backup is plain Greek yogurt.  Healthy, no extra work for me to dish out, but not very exciting.  While we were introducing variety and really laying down the law with our structure we did allow Ben to have the backup food if he really didn’t want his meal.  He was fed, which made me feel better.  But it wasn’t something Ben was dying to have every day.

How did the backup work?

At first, Ben asked for the backup food almost every meal.  No questions asked we gave it to him.  Like with the rest of this process, slowly we stopped getting it as quickly.  Surprisingly Ben stopped asking for it as much pretty quickly.  Without the pressure to eat, I think he didn’t feel the need to push back at all.  He ate what he wanted and moved on with his day.  Now that we have been at it for awhile, there are times when we say no to a backup.  And he doesn’t fight us.

The backup to the backup

I know what you might be worrying about.  How is my child going to get the proper nutrition if he continues to reject meals and only eats the backup food?  I think it is important for my kids to see things like vegetables and know they are eating them.  I also think it is important for them to actually eat them.  As such, I use an additional backup plan- smoothies.  Almost every day I whip up a smoothie of fruit, vegetables, and yogurt for them all to have.  It isn’t a perfect solution, but I want to make sure they are actually eating some of the good stuff.  They like to drink them, and I am happy they are getting some healthy food.  This also helps me relax and stay strong with our picky eating program.  I’m not worried my kids will become malnourished if I don’t force them to eat.

Solving Picky Eating in toddlers and preschoolers by adding variety and creating structure.

Let’s Review

This was a lot, but I think it is the most important part of this whole process.  Once you have had a reset period with your family it is time to make some positive changes.

The first is to add variety wherever you can.  You don’t have to go nuts and buy a new food every day.  Just don’t serve the same thing two meals in a row, or two days in a row if you are able.  (And I sometimes still do.  The fridge gets low and you do what you need to do.)  Find ways to add variety with things you already eat.  Mix and match different foods, prepare them in a different way,  even just cutting them differently can help.

As you add variety start structuring your food times if you don’t already.  Your kids can eat when you decide that it is an appropriate time, meals and snacks.  Have times that work for your family.  Scheduled meals will help you relax if your child doesn’t eat a ton, there is another food time coming.

Offer a backup food if you aren’t comfortable with saying eat this or nothing.  Make it something simple, healthy, and relatively boring.  As your child gets used to the new eating style you can decide which times you allow the backup plan.

Have a backup to the backup if you want.  For us, that is our smoothies.  It’s a way for me to feel confident my kids are getting at least some nutrition, making it less likely I will give in to snacks and alternative meals.

Remember you can do this.  These changes are working in our house.  It is a slow and steady process, but it has been worth it.

So tell me, how is this going for you?  What is working in your home?  Anything not working?  Let’s help each other out and share how things are going.  Any questions I can try to help you out with?

Be sure to check out the rest of the Picky Eating Chronicles:

How did we get here?

Regaining Peace and Taking Notes

Considering Food and Table Manners

And of course, take a look at the book that was a game changer in our home: It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating

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Friday 8th of September 2017

I love your tips! I truly think starting small, and giving yourself grace is awesome! Our kiddos eat all of our fruit too! ?

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