Got some picky eaters? Join the club

Most kids are somewhat picky when it comes to eating... and some can test your sanity. One mom's food adventures with her picky pipsqueak.

BY JOANNA AUGENBERGS

Before my first child came along, I had a lot of preconceived notions – and often misguided judgments – of what I would be like as a parent. I would NOT be one of those moms who stopped seeing her kid-less friends (Dear XXX, I miss you! And I swear we will get together soon!). I was NOT going to just give up my personal hobbies and interests and become one of those moms who only have conversations about nursing and teething and sleep training (ummmmm… Hi roadbike, I know we were seeing each other 6 days a week and it’s been a hot minute but I promise you’ll see me riding soon!). And I was certainly NOT going to put up with toddler tantrums or spoil my kids (Wait… how many toys Is TOO many?).

I cringe now looking back when I righteously proclaimed that I would never put up with bad eating habits or cook multiple meals if the little ones didn’t like what was for dinner. Growing up, that was the norm in my house — if you didn’t like what was offered, too bad; You would not get anything else. And it was never a problem. There were no meltdowns of fights. Neither my sister nor I had any food allergies, and we weren’t picky eaters. This parenting philosophy made sense to me… And then I had a kid.

One of the first things you learn right away as a mom is: A full belly helps with sleep and a well-rested child makes for a happy baby.  Duh. Insert face palm emoji. For the first 9-12 months, there wasn’t a problem (she was basically EBF until then). But as she entered her toddler phase, I quickly discovered that getting food into my picky eater would not be easy at all. I became obsessed… Reading baby-led weaning books, scouring Pinterest for “kid-friendly” recipes, joining Facebook (support) groups, you name it, hoping to get my daughter to eat more food.

It’s been a long and slow process but we are getting better. Mealtime has become less of a battle, I am feeling less stressed and my daughter is eating more/different foods. Here are some tips I picked up along the way:

It’s all about the packaging

This may not seem like it would work but hear me out. We all know we eat with our eyes. Turns out, for kids — who are not only choosy but also sensitive to the way things look — this concept is amplified. So next time you’re plating up or meal planning, think presentation and nutrition. And you need not do anything fancy per se… It can be as simple as arranging cut-up veggies on a colorful platter and sticking in some toothpicks, or serving a fruit smoothie in a fun glass with crazy straw.

Go family-style

Again, this is counter to intuition but letting your child serve himself can help reduce his pickiness. Letting him be his own boss at dinner (without becoming a short-order cook!) removes the fight factor. Serve a variety of good foods for your toddler to eat at each meal, making sure to include in each meal at least one you know he will like to eat. Allow him to enjoy the family dining experience his own way, and try to keep your own worry about his nutrition out of it. When mealtime is pleasant and stress-free, kids begin to relax and are more likely to take risks by trying something new.

Further, it’s important to eat together. It’s never too early to start family meal-time! Sitting and eating with your child takes all of the pressure off of them to eat (as you are eating your own food, not concentrating solely on baby eating his!). Eating healthy, balanced meals with your baby also creates positive role modeling.

Pace new food introduction

Some babies may need to try a food eight, 10, even 15 times before they enjoy it, so be patient and continue to revisit a rejected food over time (barring allergy concerns). Keep trying, gently. For older toddlers, introduce new foods one at a time and in small amounts. When picky eaters are slowly and gradually offered foods that are very similar to ones they already accept, they gradually learn to expand their menus.

Also, when you offer a new food, simply place it on the table or your child’s food tray (ideally next to something your child already likes) without making a big deal about it. This technique will help her feel comfortable with trying new things (foods that are age appropriate of course), by adapting to your child rather than forcing food under pressure. Don’t let on that you’re frustrated or angry. React emotionally to a picky eater and even a 1-year-old will understand her power over you.

Let them get hungry

Experts suggest to structure your child’s eating so that she has three regular meals a day and two healthy snacks in between meals. Doctors say that most often picky eaters are “grazers” (kids who eat small amounts of food throughout the day) so making sure your child has set meal and snack times will help ensure she’s eating when she’s hungry and lessen the chance she’ll snack too much. The likely result? Mealtime – where more nutritious food is served – will become more satisfying.

On that note, try to introduce a new food when you know your child is hungry. Kids are more likely to eat different types of food if they’re hungry, even foods that scare them a little. Put healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, where your child can reach them so when he gets hungry he can easily get to good foods. And remember: Respect tiny tummies and keep portion sizes small.

Create the right environment

Keep in mind who’s responsible for what. It’s your job to feed your baby, but it’s your baby’s responsibility to decide what and how much to eat. Children will always eat when they’re hungry. As long as a child is growing and gaining weight — and you are feeding him healthy foods — there’s little need to worry about a baby who’s a picky eater. Here are some tips to making meal time more effective:

>> Minimize distractions at the table. Try to make meals relaxed and quiet. Make food the focus of mealtime. Turn off the TV, calm siblings, remove toys and books, and help your little one focus on one thing: Eating.

>> Try different textures. Even babies have food preferences. Some enjoy wet foods, while others may prefer finger foods.

>> Resist offering your child “junk food” or sugary treats in an effort to get him to eat more. Present healthy options and he’ll develop a taste for them.

>> Transform the tempo. Some babies want to eat fast, others slow. Try slowing the next feeding or picking up the pace to experiment.

>> Boost the nutritional value of the dishes your toddler enjoys. Ok, so this is kind of a cheat, but look for ways to kick favorite foods up a notch with tricks like add some wheat germ or diced chicken to her macaroni casserole, pureed vegetables like carrots or spinach to pasta sauce, and little chunks of fruit to her favorite cereal, for example. Use dips, spreads and toppings to get some extra calories and nutrients into your little one’s belly.

>> Keep meal length reasonable. Although you shouldn’t rush mealtime, don’t let it go on much longer than 20-30 minutes.

>> Let baby participate. Many doctors do say “Food before one is just for fun” so them touch and play with their food! Indeed, many babies are interested in trying to feed themselves. Offer safe finger foods and/or give them a spoon of their own. Although your picky eater will probably make a huge mess, letting him take control is important to a child’s growth and development. As they get older, prepare meals together and/or let them do some of the cooking.

>> Be a good role model. Eat a healthy range of foods yourself and make sure that your own choices are in line with the diet you want your child to eat and enjoy (they are learning from us and mimicking our behaviors after all). And avoid showing disgust or disinterest in food and don’t assume they will not like something just because you don’t or based on previous experience/ mood.

>> Never force feed. If your little one turns her head from the spoon or says “No”, she’s telling you clearly she’s had enough. Force feeding a child to eat despite these signs, your little one may start associating eating with tension and discomfort — and become even more fussy and picky.

Lose the self-blame

You don’t know how envious I am of mothers with “good eaters.” I know, I know – every child is special and unique with their own merits and faults… but when you see your friend’s kid chowing down on sushi while yours is working on pretzel sticks you brought from home, you can’t help but judge yourself. But it’s important to understand some children’s palates are more sensitive than others. Some simply won’t like the texture, color, or taste of certain foods. They are born this way; try and remember that pickiness is a trait like any other.

And once you shed the self-blame, you can gently help your child stretch his tastes without infusing the process with your own stress. When you finally just accept the situation, you can begin to enjoy food and celebrate dining with him, rather than viewing it as a measure of your inadequacy. He’ll pick up on your attitude, which will help him relax.

Consider professional help

Most kids will outgrow this phase but some kids are picky eaters because of a developmental or medical issue. If your child’s picky eating is affecting his health, causing a lot of conflict in your home, or seems particularly severe (or if you’re simply at your wit’s end and want some professional backup), it’s time to talk to your child’s doctor. She can refer you to a feeding specialist or nutritionist, who can provide an evaluation to help get to the root of the problem and will then develop a customized plan to address it.

For us, the “easing” of picky eating was a combination of occupational therapy, family-style eating, not sitting too long at the table and disciplined timing/ limitation of snacks. I can’t say we have the issue totally resolved (I don’t know if that’s totally possible; how many picky eater adults do you know?!) but the situation has gotten significantly better.  Wishing you the best on your food journey!