Reforming a Picky Eater

Q: My 17-month-old son is very uninterested in eating most of the time. I am still nursing but I would like to start weening in the next month. However, I’m concerned because he doesn’t seem to be eating much. He will eat a certain type of chicken nuggets, boiled eggs, cheese, most fruits and snacks that I try to avoid as much as possible. Sometimes he will eat pizza. 

I can’t tell if he chooses what to eat by the way it looks or if it’s because he wants to be able to pick it up himself or if it’s based on familiarity. I tried to give him a different type of chicken the other day and he would have none of it. I resorted back to his normal chicken and he ate it all. Dinner typically ends up all over the floor with virtually nothing in his mouth. When he was younger, we had a weight gaining issue, so I’m super aware of his eating habits. He does not seem to have a weight gaining issue at the moment. Thank you for your advice.

A: Your son is a picky eater because you’ve allowed him to become one. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but that appears to be what happened based on your question. Your son had weight-gaining issues when he was younger, but you’re still operating as if he still does and that is hampering your ability to teach him to eat a wide variety of foods, including healthy fruits and vegetables.

Let me put it this way: Do you want your son to grow up eating only pizza, chicken nuggets, eggs, cheese, fruit and snacks? That’s a very limiting diet, but because you fear that if he refuses to eat something at one meal, he will stop gaining weight, you’ve allowed him—instead of you you as the mom—to dictate what he eats.

Of course he’s going to go for the easy foods, the ones that taste better to him, and refuse the unfamiliar. All kids would eat his diet if they could because it does taste good, but one of our jobs as parents is to give our kids an expansive palate by introducing them over and over to different foods, including fruits and vegetables, cooked a variety of ways.

Here are a few suggestions to get your toddler eating better. First, stop worrying that he’s not going to get enough. Toddlers go through eating stages. When they’re not growing, they tend to eat less. So if he happens to refuse what you’ve made for dinner, don’t sweat it. When he’s hungry, he will eat. And skipping a few meals won’t make his weight dive bomb.

Second, stop fixing him special meals at dinner time. You can serve him what he likes for breakfast and lunch, but at dinner, he gets what everyone else does. Give him a tiny teaspoon of everything on the table. Then allow him seconds of what he wants (from the foods on the table) after he’s finished those little bites.

Third, remember that he will fuss and fidget and refuse and throw the food. You’ve given him complete control over his eating for his entire (short) life, so wresting it back will take a little effort because he’s not going to give up without a fight.

Fourth, for the nursing, wean him with the step-down method (dropping one nursing at a time, then a few days later, another nursing). Replace those nursings with milk in a sippy or other cup (skip the bottle—in my opinion, it’s easier not to have to wean off the bottle later).

Fifth, keep in mind that you’re not just feeding a toddler—you’re training a budding adult on how to eat for life. Taking the long view by focusing on having a child willing to try all foods, eat the ones he doesn’t like, and know what makes a balanced meal will help keep you on track.

Handling a Picky Eater

Q: My 4-year-old son is an extremely picky eater who screams whenever he sees a new food or non-preferred food on his plate. As an infant, he suffered from reflux, and I read some research that indicated GI problems can lead to feeding issues later. We’ve talked with a feeding specialist and an occupational therapist but nothing is working. He will now tolerate the unwanted foods on his plate but he won’t touch the foods or eat them, not even a bite. We dread mealtimes because it has become a stressful battle! What can we do?

A: It’s hard when a child screams at dinner time, especially since that’s the time of day when we want to be together as a family and we’re often tired and cranky ourselves after a long day at home or the office. So I understand your frustration.

However, you’ve had a hand in creating this non-eating monster by tying his previous GI problems with his current pickiness of the plate. That has meant lots of consultations and “methods” to help him “get over” his feeding issues and has resulted in a lot of angst on your part and entrenchment on his. Now you’re at an impasse, and things are no better than when you started.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To reboot things, here’s what I recommend. Take a break from “making” him eat things for a few weeks to allow everyone to calm down. Don’t cook special meals, but allow him to “not” eat something he doesn’t want to. For breakfast and lunch, he can have more autonomy with food choices within reason (picking one cereal from the two offered, for example), but at dinner time, implement the one-bite method: serve him literally a teaspoon of each dish on the table. Once your son has consumed the food on his plate (two or three bites), he may have seconds of anything on the table. Make sure you serve at least one food he does like at each evening meal for the first few months, as an added incentive to get him to eat the other food. To help progress things along, hold off on late afternoon snacks so he’s good and hungry at dinnertime. But don’t ask him to eat, don’t cajole him to eat—simply ignore his eating or not eating altogether.

 

Understand that this problem didn’t crop up overnight, and it will take several weeks, if not longer, for him to actually eat the foods he doesn’t like. For the screaming, I would excuse him from the table and send him to his room until he can control himself. Not as a punishment or for a specific time limit but “until you can get control of yourself.” He’s old enough to be taught that just because he doesn’t like something, doesn’t mean he gets to scream.

Finally, realize that if he doesn’t eat his supper, he will not starve. For more tips on helping kids learn to like different foods, read my blog “Educating a Child’s Palate.”

Educating a Child’s Palate

For years, I thought I didn’t like salad or yellow squash in particular. Frankly, most vegetables left me cold, but since eating them was required, I ate them. Rarely did I ask for seconds of green beans, cauliflower or broccoli, though.

Fast forward to college, when I left my relatively small hometown and ventured to first Georgia and then Missouri—not exactly hotbeds of culinary delights, but each place boasted a unique introduction to new foods, along with vegetables prepared in different ways. The first salad I had that didn’t contain mostly iceberg lettuce smothered in Thousand Island dressing was an eye-opening experience. Hey, this green stuff tasted great!

Nothing against my mother’s cooking (when I reminiscence with anyone who grew up when I did, and our stories of vegetables cooked within an inch of its life are nearly identical), but there was a whole, wide world out there that prepared and ate vegetables much different than I had—and I liked it. A lot.

As parents, it can be a challenge to get kids to eat their vegetables—and sometimes, even like them. We know the importance of establishing healthy eating habits when they’re young because we want them to have good eating habits when they are on their own.

We can—and should—have a hand in helping our kids cultivate a wide palate when it comes to vegetables. Thankfully, we live in a day and age where we can offer a good variety of vegetables and can easily find many recipes incorporating those veggies.

Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For some concrete ways to help your child overcome her picky-eater tendencies, try these five ideas.

The one-bite rule. At dinner (as this is the most likely time a picky eater balks), give the child literally a tablespoon or less of each dish on the table. Once the child has eaten that, he may have seconds of anything on the table.

  1. Have the child help prepare at least one meal per week (planning it, shopping, cooking). Stipulations should be that it has to be a well-balanced meal (i.e., not pizza and hotdogs, but pizza and a fresh salad or hot dogs and two veggie dishes), but other than that, let the child guide the menu.
  1. Offer a “no-thank-you” clause. Once a year, let the child pick a vegetable that the child doesn’t have to eat that entire year. For example, New Year’s Day is the time when my kids choose their “no-thank-you” veggie (selections this year include potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes). When the chosen veggie is served, the child who picked it doesn’t have to eat that one food item. But the catch is that the child must eat at least a bite of any other veggie or food served—or the picked veggie is back on her menu.
  1. Connect to the source. Community supported agriculture (farm shares), farmer’s market, a vegetable garden out back—all of these ways bring veggies directly to the child from the ground level. Visit the farm, stop by the farmer’s market and rope the kids into planting their own “patch” of ground to get them interested in seeing how things grow. Vegetables grown this way are not as uniform or clean as the ones in the store, which can really spur interest. Also, when a child grows an eggplant from a tiny seed, he’s much more likely to want to taste the fruits of his labor.
  1. Fix each vegetable a few different ways. Your kid might not like steamed zucchini, but perhaps sautéed with a yogurt sauce might taste better. Remember, kids need more than one exposure to a new item before they start to consider whether they like it or not. They might say they don’t like X veggie, but served in a different way, they might just find they’ve acquired a taste for it after all.

While there’s no magic bullet for getting kids to like veggies, these ideas will help ensure they at least eat them most of the time.

Until next time,

Sarah