Parents of good eaters might say their kids are good eaters because of how they were raised. Parents of picky eaters might say their kids are picky because they were born that way. I think it’s both. Charlie is a picky eater, and I think he was born picky, but we probably did a lot of things that made it worse.
Often babies are good eaters and then become picky once they enter toddlerhood. But pickiness runs in some members of my family, and Charlie has never liked eating, even from the time we first started solids at 6 months. Dinner is often the most stressful part of my day because mealtime is usually a battle with him. Sometimes he will eat a decent amount; he has his good days. Sometimes he will only eat a couple bites of food. And sometimes he refuses to eat anything at all. The nightly meal struggle really wears down on you, and you start to dread dinnertime rather than look forward to it as the only time of day when you’re sitting down together with your entire family.
Olive on the other hand is naturally a much better eater. She’s always preferred solid foods to purees, and is open to trying a wide variety of food. Though she’s always just been a better eater, I wanted to avoid raising another picky eater, so we’ve been doing things a lot differently the second time around. These are some of the things I would have changed with Charlie if I could go back in time:
1) Establish a mealtime schedule. Mr. Bee and I have never been on a mealtime schedule for ourselves — we usually worked late and ate separately — so it was difficult to establish one for Charlie. In fact up until Olive was born, I used to feed Charlie dinner at the playground and Mr. Bee would come home after Charlie was asleep. Kids thrive on routine, and I think having set mealtimes and sitting down as a family to eat dinner together is very important. Babies are naturally interested in eating what mom and dad are eating, so family mealtimes can encourage kids to eat new foods. Scheduled mealtimes also lets your child expect that certain meals will be eaten together as family every day.
2) Establish mealtime rules. Once we implemented a nightly dinnertime, we had to establish some mealtime rules. We were guilty of allowing Charlie to watch shows on the ipad because he would almost always open his mouth and allow us to feed him when he was zoned out watching a tv show. This is bad for many reasons: 1) Charlie is distracted so he is not learning how to listen to his hunger cues and regulate his intake, 2) toys and tv shouldn’t be used as a bribe to eat, and 3) we were feeding him instead of having him feed himself. Another rule we established was that everyone had to remain seated until every family member had finished their meals. Mr. Bee would usually finish dinner first and then leave the dinner table, but I think sitting together until everyone finishes eating is important so that your child won’t feel rushed, and doesn’t think they can just get up from the dinner table when they want to. Often Charlie doesn’t want to eat, but he still has to sit at the dinner table until we’re done.
3) Don’t rush your child. Children can take a long time to eat, and I know sometimes it can be hard to sit there waiting for them to finish their food. But allowing them enough time to eat their food is an important part of establishing healthy eating habits.
4) Offer choices. Charlie started eating better when I packed him bento boxes because they were visually appealing and offered a lot of variety. You can also offer your child a couple healthy choices at mealtime. Being allowed to choose can help them feel like they’re not being forced to eat what’s being served because no one wants to be forced to do something they don’t want to!
5) Encourage self-feeding. We tried baby-led weaning a couple of months into starting solids with Charlie, but he just wasn’t interested in eating, even when it came to sweet foods like fruits. With Olive we pretty much did baby-led weaning from the start. I think there are several advantages of baby-led weaning: 1) they’re feeding themselves instead of being fed, which helps them better self-regulate, 2) they can decide exactly which foods they want to eat, and 3) it can introduce them to a wider variety of flavors since they usually eat what their parents are eating at younger ages.
6) Limit snacking. Once Charlie could eat Cheerios, puffs, mum mums, and yogurt melts, we gave them to him in abundance. But grazing all day on snacks can make your child not hungry enough to eat at designated mealtimes. We don’t offer Charlie many snacks anymore, but when we do, they are usually healthy snacks like fruit.
7) Don’t have any junk in the house at all. I used to buy treats like ice cream, sprinkles, marshmallows, etc. and give them to Charlie sparingly as treats. But once he got old enough to open the refrigerator and cabinets himself, he’d beg for the treats and throw a fit if we didn’t give him one. I found that it was just easier not to bring those foods into the house at all anymore. Otherwise, I found myself using treats as bribes. Not having them in the house eliminates that option, and makes sure that I can’t give Charlie junk food at all since that would also take the place of him eating something healthier instead. We can always go out to buy a treat, but Charlie knows that we don’t have them at home.
8) See a sensory/swallowing specialist. I think Charlie had some sensory issues with textures, because he refused to eat almost all solid foods (non-purees/soups) until he was about 18 months old. Just when I started looking into seeing a sensory/swallowing specialist, he decided that chunky foods were ok. Kids that refuse to eat chunky foods can have a oral motor or sensory issue, but they can become behavioral as the child gets older if the problem isn’t addressed early on. I didn’t know such a specialist existed until Charlie was older, and if I could go back in time, I would definitely have seen a specialist when he was much younger.
9) Consider the textures of foods. I’m picky about certain textures. For instance I hate cooked green onions in my soups largely because of the texture, but love them chopped up in eggs or raw in a salad. Some kids won’t eat certain foods because they hate the texture rather than the taste. Get creative by offering healthy foods, but in different textures. For instance, you’d be amazed how much mashed cauliflower tastes just like mashed potatoes. Does your child like pasta? Try spaghetti squash or a use special peeler to create “pasta” with healthy foods like carrots and zucchini.
10) Get your child involved in cooking. I used to pack Charlie breakfast and lunch for him to eat at daycare because he always eats better there around other children. But Mr. Bee started making eggs with Charlie every morning, and it’s had a dramatic impact on Charlie’s interest in food and how much he’ll eat. They crack the eggs into a bowl together, Charlie whisks it with a fork, then mixes in a little grated parmesan cheese. Obviously Mr. Bee cooks it by himself, but because Charlie was involved in the process of making the food, he’s much more excited to eat it. Another thing we really need to start doing is getting Charlie involved in purchasing food together at the market. That’s been tougher to do because we have most of our groceries delivered, but the weekend farmers’ market is a great place to introduce kids to new foods and get them involved in the food selection process.
11) Serve as a food role model. We recently changed the way our entire family eats, and one of the reasons for doing so was to be a role model for our children. I’m the first to admit that I’ve always had a horrible diet. I generally don’t enjoy eating day to day, and it’s usually a chore for me, so I tend to eat junk that’s fast and easy. If Charlie and Olive don’t see me eating healthy foods, why should they want to eat it themselves?
12) Read books about food. This isn’t actually a book, but we used to watch this Abby Cadaby video called Hurray Hurrah for Broccoli all the time when Charlie was younger, and it really made him want to eat broccoli. To this day it remains one of his favorite vegetables. We’ve had such great success using books to teach Charlie about all kinds of concepts from sharing to potty training, and writing this post is reminding me that we need to get some books on food! One thing we’ve actually been doing lately that’s been hugely successful has been telling stories at the dinner table. Charlie is obsessed with stories right now, and we often make up stories about kids who love to eat, while incorporating some of Charlie’s favorite characters like Thomas, Dora, Diego, etc. into the story. We weave in positive associations with eating in a way that Charlie can understand (eg eating makes us grow strong like Superman), and Charlie gets so into them!
13) Reintroduce new foods regularly. I’ve read that you may have to introduce a food 12-15 times to a child before they eventually like it. Just because your child hated a food once, don’t write it off because it doesn’t mean they’ll hate it forever. There are many foods that Charlie didn’t use to eat like beef, mangoes, and kiwi that he will eat now because we kept offering it to him.
14) Feed smaller portions. Mrs. Jacks wrote a great post on how she addresses Little Jacks’ pickiness, and in it she mentions that an average toddler meal size is roughly the size of their fist, which isn’t very big at all. We may be expecting our kids to eat larger portions than they are able to, and it may be overwhelming for them to see a large amount of food on their plate. I always give Charlie small portions and if he finishes it, I give him more.
15) Make food fun. I cut up food into fun shapes like stars, offer foods in a variety of colors or served in colorful containers, and offer dipping sauces all of which make eating much more fun. Even as adults, we’re more enticed to eat when food is visually appealing. There is tons of fun food inspiration on Hellobee and online, particularly for bentos, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time making food more fun. It can be as simple as using fun dishes like this Food Face plate which lets you make hair, a beard, etc. with food. Charlie ate his pumpkin pancakes off this plate this morning!
16) Introduce new foods with old favorites. I’ve been cooking a lot of new foods lately because of our healthier way of eating. While I can usually count on Olive to eat most of what I make, I never assume that Charlie will eat it. So whenever I introduce a new food, I always have something that I know he will eat as a backup.
17) Eat meals with other kids. Kids tend to eat better when they eat with other kids, which is why Charlie eats so much better at daycare. A friend of ours has a son around the same age as Charlie and when we eat at their place, Charlie tries new foods he probably wouldn’t eat at home because other kids are eating it.
18) Keep a food journal. When I blog about what Charlie eats over the course of a week, it makes me realize that he actually eats a decent amount and healthy food at that. He usually eats breakfast and lunch pretty well, but since dinnertime is often a struggle, it makes me feel like he’s eating very little. But writing down exactly what your child eats over a week or two might give you a different perspective.
19) Don’t force your child to eat. When Charlie doesn’t want to eat, nothing we say or do can get him to eat so we don’t force him. We don’t want him to have negative associations with food and eating, especially because I struggled with anorexia when I was younger, and we don’t want food to be a power struggle. Toddlers often feel like they don’t have control of much in their lives, and controlling what they eat is one of the few areas where they can exercise their control. If he doesn’t want to eat, I try to at least get him to drink some bone broth (homemade chicken stock) and let him skip a meal. Usually he’s hungrier at breakfast time.
20) Sneak in veggies. There are two schools of thought on sneaking in veggies. Some say it’s a clever way to get your child to eat healthy vegetables they wouldn’t otherwise. Others feel that hiding veggies will never teach your child to learn to eat them. I’m all for sneaking in veggies, but you can always sneak them in and offer them in their normal state as well! Mix in squash or pumpkin into your pancake or french toast batter for instance, but also serve them with dinner. Telling your child that the same vegetable they’re having for dinner is also in their pancakes/french toast may even help them accept a food they think they hate.
21) Offer more “real” foods. I’ve blogged about how we’ve eliminated gluten and processed foods from our diet and have been focusing on meats, vegetables and fruits. I’m not saying that this is a lifestyle that everyone should follow, but I wish that I had offered Charlie much more real foods so that he developed a taste for them. His diet formerly consisted of so many grains and carbs, and who doesn’t love grains and carbs?
22) Always offer one alternative. Most people have probably heard that you shouldn’t cook separate meals for your child. But I don’t want to force Charlie to eat something he doesn’t want to, so he always has the option to eat seaweed soup or chicken porridge, which I make in big batches and freeze in individual portions. This has prevented Charlie from going to bed hungry many, many nights.
23) Use a food passport. This food passport lets your child document when they tried new vegetables. They get so excited about filling up the passport, they try foods they might otherwise never try. You could easily make your own so that it’s not limited to just vegetables, and fill it with pictures of entire dishes your little one has tried. It gives you a great opportunity to go through the passport with your little one and talk about food together. I’m definitely going to have to try this one!
24) Try a green taste test. How this works is you offer your child a wide variety of foods that are all green — some vegetables, some treats like jello — and give them a smiley face frowny face taste-testing chart. This turns trying new foods into a game, and they may eat vegetables they may otherwise never try. Often trying to get your child to try a new food even once is a challenge. They have a fear of new foods, and like sticking to foods they’re already familiar with — that’s definitely the case with Charlie. This is a great way to get your child to taste new healthy foods.
25) Make mealtime a positive experience. If we make mealtime a stressful time, children are going to feed off our energy, and that’s unlikely to contribute to good eating habits. I’m definitely guilty of this because some days I’m just way too tired, frustrated, and impatient to deal with yet another food battle. It isn’t easy, but I try to keep in mind that Charlie isn’t trying to test my patience on purpose by not eating; he is just a picky eater and sometimes he genuinely doesn’t want to eat.
I wish I’d implemented a lot of the techniques above earlier before some of Charlie’s current eating habits were established. It’s still a work in progress, but luckily we’ve been able to avoid the same mistakes with Olive, and so far she is a great little eater.
What are some ways you deal with your picky eater?
Pickiness part 1 of 31. 25 Ways to Avoid Raising a Picky Eater by Mrs. Bee
2. Picky Eating: Is it in the Genes? by Extra Extra
3. 11 Best Tips for Picky Eaters by Food
Picky Eating part 1 of 61. 25 Ways to Avoid Raising a Picky Eater by Mrs. Bee
2. 11 Best Tips for Picky Eaters by Food
3. Picky Eating: Is it in the Genes? by Extra Extra
4. The Psychology of a Picky Eater by Mrs. Chipmunk
5. French Kids Eat Everything? by Mrs. Bee
6. 10 Tips To Get Your Kids to Eat More by Mrs. Bee