How I have ended meal time battles with a picky eater.

I'd like to introduce you to the pickiest child I have ever known.

Does it surprise you to learn that I have a super picky child?  I know that people think that my kids must eat everything, because I post pictures of the wide variety of foods that I serve them. But just because I serve it, doesn't mean they all eat it.  (But that doesn't stop me from serving it.)

Up until a few weeks ago, I could count on one hand the things this child would reliably eat, and maybe on my other hand the things she would *sometimes* eat.  So, a total of maybe 10 food items at any given time.

Before I had kids I was of the opinion that you could just make kids eat something.  I figured you just don't give them an option to not eat it, and they will eat it. 

Growing up I remember spending a lot of time sitting at the table in front of a plate of cooked carrots and peas because I was required to clean my plate before I could be excused. My parents weren't mean about it, but I think we had the rule that you had to have some of everything that was served, and you had to clean your plate. I think they had the idea that if I just would eat it, then I would learn to like it. It didn't work. I still don't like cooked carrots, or peas, or lima beans, or corn mixed into stuff.  And I'm still very picky about the beef that I eat, I have a steak at most maybe once a hear and that is enough for me.  All of the things that they made me eat as a kid - I still don't really like. 

I have learned that pressuring children to eat does not work. 

What I have learned, as mother who takes food and nutrition very seriously, is that making children eat a food they don't want isn't the key to long term success. It just creates a recipe for miserable power struggles at every meal. Threatening or bribing does not work. Creating arbitrary rules does not work. Negotiating does not work.  All of these things create battles that aren't necessary.  You might have short term success and get a child to reluctantly clean their plate, but it's not setting them up for long term healthy eating, and most likely not going to make them like those foods. Studies have shown that over time these battles will cause a negative relationship with food that will last them a lifetime, and can even lead to living on junk food, or possibly even eating disorders.  I do not want that for my children.  

I've tried all the "tricks".

I've learned this from experience.  I have gone the rounds with this child.  I've tried bribing her. I've tried tell her she has to taste it. I've tried telling her she has to eat one bite (what some people call a "no thank you bite"). We tried making a rule that once she turned four she at least had to taste the food (that worked for about a month). I've tried to tell her she has to choose a protein and a veggie. I've tried telling her that she has to choose something green. I've tried hiding foods in sauces or soups or dips.

I know all the tricks and I've tried them all. They might work on some kids (they sometimes work on my other kids), but they don't work on this kid. If she does not want to eat it, she WILL NOT eat it. You will not get any food in her mouth that she does not choose to eat. She will choose to have not even one bite of dinner before she will eat a food that she does not want. This child is STUBBORN.  If there is a power struggle to be had, she will have it. 

So I don't do it any more.  I have stopped fighting with her.

I put the food out, and I let her decide what to eat.  The food is just presented, with no drama and no pressure. 

I put the family meal on the table, and let her choose what of it to eat.  I don't make special or separate meals of 'kid food'. I do my best to make sure that there is some part of the meal that I know she will eat. If I've made something that I am pretty sure she is not going to want, then I also don't mind getting out some cheese or yogurt to add to the meal.  The key is that it is put on the table as part of the meal, and not presented as making a separate or special "kid food" meal. I'm not going to punish her with no dinner just because she doesn't like what I have offered - I don't think that's how you make a child feel good about coming to the dinner table. 

I got rid of the junk, and I no longer worry about snacking. 

I no longer keep anything in the house (or at least within sight and reach of a small child) that I am not comfortable with letting her eat at any time. It's not like we ever had a lot of junk food, but we did have some stuff that I didn't want her choosing all the time.  So it's out of sight. Our snack drawer no longer has packaged granola bars and goldfish. It now contains dried fruits and nuts, my homemade instant oatmeal, seaweed snacks, and a small amount of whole grain cereals and crackers - all things that I am fine with my kids having at any time.  I have a drawer in the fridge that she can reach with single serving packs of cheeses that she can help herself to.  I keep her cup of milk in the door of the fridge where she can reach it. I set out snacks on the table in the afternoons that consist of fresh veggies, fruits, nuts, and cheese, so that all the children can help themselves.

I've given up on the idea of "spoiling your dinner" with a snack.  If the "snack" is healthy food that nourishes her body, then why does it matter if she fills herself up with nuts and cheese at 4:30? Maybe 4:30 is just when her body needs food. Regardless of whether she eats, she still comes to the table with us at family dinner time, and participates in the conversation, and usually at least drinks some milk. But I no longer subscribe to the idea that we need to force our bodies to a meal time that is convenient for somebody else's schedule.  I want my children to learn to eat when they are actually hungry, and stop eating when they are no longer hungry. That doesn't stop us from sitting down to a family dinner every night, but it just means that I am not going to stress about how much anybody eats at that time.  

I provide the food, but I let her choose what and when she is going to eat. 

I let her see what the rest of us are eating and how much we like it.  I let her experience the food through sight and smell, and even touch if she wants to. If she wants to have a tasted of something in a separate little dish so that it doesn't touch the rest of her food, that's fine. I continue to expose her to all of the food so she can learn what a normal healthy meal should look like. I let her be involved in the shopping or cooking if she wants to. I let her help arrange the things on the table. I let her see that her siblings are willing to taste things, and that sometimes they like it and sometimes they don't, and that's OK.  

And then I leave it up to her to decide when she is ready to try something.  I make suggestions, I provide the choices, but she decides whether to eat. 

I do not fight with her about her meal.

That's all.  I make a variety of healthy food available, and I let her decide.  I don't tell her to try one bite.  I don't even ask her if she wants to taste.  I just say "this is the dinner, eat what you want". 

Of course I worried for a while whether she was getting enough nutrition.  I went back and forth about whether I should be trying harder to make her eat more so that she didn't get malnourished.  But I kept being reminded (by her) that making her eat what she didn't just wasn't going to work. I do give her vitamins, the occasional fortified organic cereal, and lots of smoothies, to make sure she is getting the core nutrients she needs while she is taking the time to accept new foods at her own pace. 

And do you know what? It's working!  

Just in the last few weeks, she has started asking to try things.  She has tasted more new foods in the past 2 weeks than in the past 2 years. 

The child that wouldn't eat eggs: Last week asked for the boiled egg off my plate, and ate almost half of it.  Over the weekend she asked for some of the scrambled eggs at breakfast, and ate two servings. 

The child that wouldn't eat meat: The other night she asked for a piece of ham.  Just out of the blue, "can I try some ham?".  And she ate it.  

The child that won't eat anything green:  Monday night with her dinner she chose cucumbers.  Tuesday night she chose to put both lettuce and cabbage in her taco. 

Earlier this week she watched as everybody gushed about how delicious the broth was from the chicken.  So she asked for a taste.  And she liked it, and asked for a bowl of broth.  

I am happy.  She is happy. 

The war is not won, but these little victories are underscoring for me that my approach is the right one for this child.  Meal time is so much easier.  She is smaller than her siblings, but she is healthy and growing along a perfectly acceptable curve. Her color is good. Her energy level is good. She is meeting her developmental milestones and then some.  She is learning and thriving.  So I feel confident that she is getting the nutrients that she needs, while she explores and tries new foods at her own pace. 

I think as parents we spend too much time worrying.  I see so many comments from parents saying they worry that their child won't eat vegetables, or doesn't get enough protein, or that their child is too addicted to the junk food.  Stop doing that.  Just make a wide variety of healthy food available for them to choose from, and then let them choose without worrying that they will make a 'wrong' choice.  Children like to feel control.  So let them have control.

Recognize their differences and don't try to make them fit your expectations.

One of the biggest things I've learned about parenting in these past 7 years is that each child is so unique and different.  Having twins really teaches you this.  Having two children come out of the same womb, with the same treatment, the same diet, the same everything, and seeing how different they can be, really teaches you a strong lesson about how our personalities are formed before we are even born.  

No matter what the situation, there is no single approach that will work for every child.  I have found this to be the case with all of my children at every single major milestone - whether it's sleeping, potty training, separation, weaning from bottle or breast, or giving up their pacifier. Children will achieve each milestone at their own pace, when they are ready.  You can push them to fit your timeline, but it will be a difficult and painful battle for all involved.  Or you can gently guide and show them the way, and let them achieve their milestones on their own unique schedule. Your life will be so much more peaceful, and their success will be so much sweeter.

This couldn't be more true than with their relationship with food and eating. Everything I thought I knew about feeding kids was thrown out the window with this child.  She didn't fit any of the approaches that work with my other kids.  So I had to really step back and reevaluate my approach with her.

And I'm so glad I did.



Lisa Marsh

Mom to two sets of twins.

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