*WARNING* This may start out not-so-nice, but I swear the purpose of this post is to help you, so keep reading!
When I post pictures of my dinner, which may include meatloaf, sauteed kale, and roasted sweet potatoes, people often ask me “Do your kids actually eat that?” to which I reply “Of course! They have to eat it.” This is usually followed by “My kids are picky eaters” or “There’s no way my kids would eat that!” or “Must be nice to have kids who eat whatever you feed them.”
Here’s the thing… My kids have no choice but to eat what I feed them. In most parenting situations, I take a very gentle, nurturing, kind approach. I do not spank my kids, I don’t do a real ‘time-out’, and I try my best to limit how often I raise my voice. But I don’t mess around with eating. Active children burn a lot of calories throughout the day and need to eat a nutrient-dense diet filled with proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains to develop properly. This is not an option. I give my children ample opportunities throughout the day to make choices about the activities in which they engage, the clothes they wear, the places we go, and even the snacks they eat (within reason). When it is mealtime, they must simply follow my rules.
From what I have seen, unintentionally creating a picky eater is pretty simple.
1. Formula-feed your child. Okay, I know plenty of people will not like this, but let me explain why this is true. Formula has one flavor, the same flavor, at every single feeding. If you have formula-fed your child since birth, that means he has only tried one food until you begin introducing solids. Breastmilk has lots of different flavors (and color variations), so your child has experienced many different foods before he ever tries solids. Your child’s palate is advanced by a year old!
2. Bland, boring grains that have no business being consumed by babies are being introduced as first foods. I don’t care what your pediatrician or mother tell you — there is absolutely no benefit to feeding grains as the first food, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Feeding rice and other grains as first foods can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other conditions. Read more about Dr. Greene’s WhiteOut Campaign.
3. From what I’ve seen, even babies who are awesome eaters become more selective around 18 – 24 months. All of a sudden, they don’t want the home-cooked meals you’ve prepared. They want the pizza/chicken finger/mac & cheese diet. At this point, parents tend to only feed the few foods that interest the child because — why bother to cook a beautiful meal that ends up on the floor while your kid throws a tantrum? Just pull out the bag of frozen nuggets and blue box, right? I wrote about this stage when Lydia was 2.
4. Now that your child is used to eating only 5 or 6 foods, few of which are healthy, fresh, or homemade, you’ve shown him that he’s boss, he gets to make the rules about his food, and he’s not eating anything that he perceives as undesirable.
This is usually when people say to me “My 3-year old is the pickiest eater ever!” and I not-so-kindly think to myself “That may unintentionally be your fault.” I’m not always so nice. But now what? Rather than leaving you feeling judged or inadequate (trust me, I have plenty of flaws as a mother), I’ll provide you with some tools to assist you in getting your child to eat a more nutrient-dense diet.
1. Children are really good imitators. What does that mean? If you want your kid to eat healthy food, you need to start eating healthy food. You can’t serve him the spinach and quinoa salad while you’re eating fried chicken and tater tots. Eat the same thing your child is eating. You should not prepare two separate meals (other than to perhaps make yours spicier than your child’s).
2. You don’t have to like everything, but you have to try everything. Trying new foods can be intimidating, even for adults, so allow your child to experience foods with all his senses.
- Smell it – Does it smell like a familiar food?
- Listen to it – Does it make a sound when someone else eats it? Is it crunchy?
- Touch it – Is it slimy? Crumbly? ??
- Look at it – What color is it? What shape is it? Is it big or small?
- Taste it – Can you just lick it? Can you eat a small bite mixed with your favorite food? (e.g. a small scoop of peanut butter on bread)
3. Give your child a few “outs”. My daughter simply does not like raw tomatoes, raw greens, or plain nuts. This is okay, because she isn’t actually missing out on the nutrients in these foods. She will eat cooked tomatoes, cooked greens, and nuts as part of a prepared dish. Give your child a few foods that he/she does not have to eat. We don’t have to like everything. It’s okay to exclude a few things from our diets.
4. If they won’t eat it, hide it! Make meatballs loaded with leafy greens, add carrots to your pasta sauce, make homemade pizzas with chicken and burritos with lentils. Take your traditional recipes and get creative to incorporate nutrient-dense foods into everyday meals. Even your baked goods can be loaded with berries and topped with raw honey.
5. Do not offer alternative dinners. Your kid doesn’t like the steak and broccoli? Oh, well. He’s not getting a turkey sandwich instead. He will go to bed hungry. Offering alternatives teaches your child that he does not have to eat what you have prepared. Trust me, he won’t starve. When he’s hungry, he will eat what you have prepared.
6. Get your kids in the kitchen! I find that if my children help me cook, they’re more inclined to eat what they have helped make. Allow them to make choices during the cooking process “Should we use turkey or beef to make burgers tonight?” “Should we make blueberry pancakes or chocolate chip pancakes?” Let them get a little messy, allow them to try the ingredients when appropriate, show them how to stir everything together, and explain why you are adding different things “Garlic makes this sauce flavorful” or “Baking soda makes the cake fluffy”.
7. Do not stop preparing foods because your child does not like them. I actually found myself doing this. I would prepare a salad for myself and my husband, but not for the kids. Because Lydia didn’t like salads, I assumed Bryce wouldn’t…until he started stealing salad from my plate. Bryce does like salad. And even Lydia is starting to ask to try foods she previously rejected or showed no interesting in trying. Continue to prepare healthy food and offer it to your children.
8. Praise your child for eating well. Make sure the praise is specific and desirable to that child. My daughter would prefer a simple “Good job eating your chicken, Lydia” while Bryce prefers a somewhat obnoxious “Woo hoo! Great job with dinner, Bryce!” with lots of clapping. Encourage your children and make them feel good about eating well.
It may take your child a while to bravely try new foods and admit to enjoying them. Even very young children are creatures of habit. Don’t give up, though. Prepare balanced meals with a variety of nutrients, show your children how much you enjoy eating them, praise them for trying, and do not offer alternatives.