The Parenting Perils of Picky Eaters
By: Shannon Ralph
I come from a long line of eaters. Hearty eaters. Robust eaters. A fair share of overeaters, even. I have inherited from my family a healthy appreciation of eating in all its forms. Food comforts. Food celebrates. Food unites. Be it your grandma’s cornbread or your auntie’s baked spaghetti or your cousin’s pot pie, food binds us together and makes us a family.
And to make it all the more binding, I am a Southern girl. Food is akin to religion in the South. The smells and sights and sounds of my childhood are all wrapped up in the food my mom put on the table every night. Fried chicken. Biscuits and gravy. Chicken and dumplings’. Beans and cornbread. These are the tastes of my childhood.
When I became a parent, I was determined to introduce my children to the food I grew up eating. I no longer live in the South, but the South is still a part of me. And food is a huge component of my sense of belonging. My sense of self. Food is family, as far as I am concerned.
Imagine my surprise when, coming from such a storied line of great cooks and even better eaters, I discovered that my own children generally dislike food. I know, as a rule, kids can be picky. Kids like to graze rather than eat at set meal times. Kids often go through spurts of heavy eating followed by periods of bird-like eating. Kids and food are a complicated combination. I get all of that and fully expected to have some minor bumps in the road on the way to a healthy adult relationship with food.
What I did not expect, however, was to create three children who do not like pizza.
Or macaroni and cheese.
Or peanut butter.
Or any ethnic food (Mexican, Chinese, Indian, etc).
Or a single vegetable.
Or any fruits that do not come in berry form.
OR GRAVY AND BISCUITS! WHAT THE HELL??
My children are not toddlers. They are not preschoolers. My picky children are tweens. My daughter likes some food. She likes snacky foods. Sugary foods. Fatty foods. My sons, however, really have no interest whatsoever in food. They don’t really care for eating at all. And when they do eat, they certainly take picky to a new, disturbing level.
I used to wonder what I did wrong to create the little food haters that inhabit my house. It had to have been me, right? Did I not introduce enough foods? Early enough? Often enough? Did I try offering my children each and every new vegetable exactly 12.7 times before giving up and moving on? Should I have forced the new food? Backed off? Should I have given them my undivided attention while they ate? Ignored them completely? Started with veggies? Started with fruits? Offered new foods at the beginning of the meal? At the end of the meal? Rid my house of all sweets? Indulged that sweet tooth more often? Mixed their food together? Used a separating plate to keep everything apart? Required them to clean their plates? Allowed them to eat only what they wanted?
The advice on the topic of children and food is varied and exhaustive. And trust me, I’ve read it all. I have obsessed. I have fretted. I have cried. I have begged. I have spent days of my life that I will never get back worrying about my children’s eating habits. As the mother of three incredibly—freakishly—picky eaters, I have some advice for other parents dealing with the same issue. I am by no means as expert, but here are my top 7 tips and tricks that may—possibly, maybe, conceivably—help.
- Respect your child’s appetite. We want our children to listen to their body’s cues, but we often force them to eat when they are not hungry simply because it is mealtime. If you force your child to eat when his body is telling him he is not hungry, you will inadvertently create a child who has problems recognizing his bodily cues around food. We are a nation of sky-rocketing childhood obesity. As parents, we should honor our child’s appetite—or lack thereof.
- Do not bribe. Do not force. We all want our child to be a member of the clean plate club, but should we force it? Should we make our child sit at the table until she cleans her plate? I have learned the hard way that this type of behavior only leads to power struggles. You become frustrated. Your child becomes anxious. You beg. Your child cries. You whine. Your child screams. A pleasant twenty-minute family dinner becomes two torturous hours at the dinner table as you go head to head in a battle of wits with a tenacious five-year-old. You will lose. Trust me, you will.
- Let your child have input on the menu. I’ve learned through the years that kids are more likely to eat if they have a say in what they are having for dinner. It’s pot roast night? Let your child pick the side dish. How about a taco night where kids can assemble their own? Or make homemade pizza and let your child choose their own toppings? A mac and cheese bar where your child can mix in his own favorite additions? The possibilities are endless. Involve your child and you may just end up with a child who actually eats her dinner.
- Follow a routine. My children are grazers by nature. Given the opportunity, they would snack on the few foods they like all day long. This is where I really try to stick with a routine. Allowing your child to fill up on juice, milk or snacks throughout the day might decrease her appetite for meals. I try to limit my children to two snacks a day (one mid-morning, one mid-afternoon) and water between meals. It’s perfectly okay to allow your child to get a little hungry before meals. A hungry child is more prone to try new foods at mealtime.
- Minimize distractions. Turn off the television. Put the handheld electronics away. Your child is better able to focus on eating when he actually looks at the food on his plate.
- You are not running a cafeteria. You are not a short-order cook. Cooking a separate meal for your child when she turns up her nose at the dinner you lovingly prepared for her will only create a pickier child. You should encourage your child to stay at the table until everyone who is eating is finished. Do not force your child to eat the meal you prepared, but you are under no obligation to offer a separate meal.
- Breathe. As long as your children are gaining weight appropriately and appear happy and healthy, does it really matter that they are eating a grilled cheese sandwich every single day? In the greater scheme of things, is it really a Shakespearean-style tragedy if your child does not like broccoli? And because he does not like it now, is that a guarantee he will not one day develop an intense love affair with everyone’s favorite cruciferous veggie? You will drive yourself utterly mad worrying about every single bite your child eats. As a reformed obsessed mama previously consumed with worry over my children’s food habits, I have to tell you that life is a lot more enjoyable (tastier, even) when you simply let it go.
Photo Credit: Bruce Tuten