Weathering The Picky Eater Stage

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P7020118The other day, I made lunch for myself and my two kids. Chicken sandwiches on wheat bread all around, apple sauce for them and a pickle for me. I was putting dirty utensils into the sink when I turned around to see that my 5 year old son had snatched the pickle off my plate, taken a bite, handed it to his sister, who also took a bite and handed it back to him. When he looked up and saw me watching him, he said, “I like it! I like pickles!” He took another bite, then placed what was left back on my plate.

Germ sharing aside, I couldn’t help but marvel at how far this once super picky child of mine has come. And within the confines of my brain, I heaved a giant sigh of relief and thought, “Yes! It finally paid off.”  In this photo, they enjoy a dinner of Asian Pork Linguine, broccoli and cantaloupe.

Picky eating is common among 1 to 3 year olds, and part of the reason is because it’s developmentally normal. As growth slows down, children eat less because they need less. But it’s also incredibly common for a child for a child who once ate everything with gusto to suddenly slam on the brakes and refuse to eat once favorite foods, certain textures, or any type of vegetable. It can be alarming.

As they get older, most picky kids will expand their palates and begin to eat more, but the key for you as a parent is getting through those picky years with your sanity intact. Some picky kids will indeed grow into picky adults (my brother does most of the cooking in the house because his wife found it impossible to cook for him when there are so many foods he won’t touch), but if you teach good habits now, even those picky adults with limited diets can be healthy and happy.

Some tips that have worked for me:

  • Acknowledge your child’s right to not like certain foods–Chances are there are foods you don’t like, foods that are quite good for you. I’m not crazy about most kinds of seafood, pearl onions, or pancakes, and I won’t touch zucchini, beets or eggplant with a ten foot pole. Sure, presenting a food ten or twenty times might convince your child to eat it in the end, but then again, maybe not. Don’t be surprised if your child won’t eat foods that you don’t like either. Food preferences are partially genetic.
  • Keep your expectations realistic–Sure, you know that avocado mashed with pepper and some lemon juice makes a scrumptious swap for mayo on a sandwich, but to your toddler, it’s a funny color and a strange texture. Go ahead and introduce foods that you drool over, but don’t blow a gasket if your two-year-old balks at kale.
  • Model healthy eating–Take a look at your own eating habits. Do you skip meals, guzzle coffee or munch on junk all day? If your own food habits are less than stellar, try to clean them up a little. Kids notice things, and they’ll be quick to call you on what they perceive as hypocrisy.
  • Try peer pressure–At my children’s preschool, the only food allowed for snack is fresh fruit. So my kids take a lot of bananas and apple slices, which are fruits they both eat well, but seeing other kids eat other fruits meant they each added one or two fruits to their “approved” list. It doesn’t have to be another child too. Seeing mom chow down on sweet potatoes is powerful. Eat as a family or invite an adventurous eater over and see what happens.
  • Take advantage of distraction–If you’re truly worried about the volume or variety that your child eats, try getting them to eat when they are otherwise distracted. Many kids will mindlessly polish off a bowl of baby carrots while watching TV. I got my own son to eat melon a few weeks ago at the beach by following him around asking him to take a bite here and there while he was playing with his friends.
  • Reconsider cooking separate meals–Do you make separate food for your picky eater? Be careful, because your child might start to treat you like a short order cook. My first child had a milk allergy when he was younger, and in the interest of getting calories into him, I did make him special meals, food I knew he would almost always eat. But when he got demanding, I quit. For the most part, the kids eat what my husband and I eat. I do try to keep their preferences in mind, making sure there is at least one thing on the menu that they like. The transitional period was rough, but both kids now know that they are expected to sit down with the family and eat what I cooked. They don’t have to eat something if they don’t want to, but I also won’t be making something else in it’s place.
  • Make “kid food” healthy–Chicken is a good source of protein and potatoes are loaded with potassium. Homemade versions of kid friendly food will set your mind at ease when it comes to the nutritional profile.
  • Watch your portion sizes–Think back to when you were pregnant, suffering from morning sickness, and a full plate of food had the power to turn your stomach and make you not want to eat at all. For a picky eater, being presented with too much food can be overwhelming. Keep portions kid sized and if you’re cooking a food on the “non-approved” list, make the portion even smaller.
  • Look at the big picture–Some days, both my kids eat well, other days one eats well while the other picks, and some days neither seems to eat much of anything. If you’re worried, take a look at what your child eats over the course of a week or two and you’ll probably see that he or she eats more than you think.

And finally, hang in there. It gets better. It really does. My pickle snatching, watermelon eating, edamame snarfing 5-year-old is living proof.

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5 thoughts on “Weathering The Picky Eater Stage”

  1. I echo the caution against making too big a deal of your child’s eating habits. Making food and eating a battleground can create a power struggle, so that the issue becomes not nutrition but the child’s desire for autonomy. If you don’t escalate the problem to this level, your child if free to (eventually) eat his broccoli without compromising his independence.

  2. Your suggestions are very helpful, thank you. My daughter will be three in September and it does seem like she is beginning to try some new things. She still won’t touch beans, which she loved, for example, but we are making progress.

  3. Oh wow, I think this post has come at the perfect time for me — I’ve been so stressed with my finicky eater these days… and since she’s always been small for her age I worry that she’s not getting enough sometimes. She’s still breastfeeding a lot some days (at 17 1/2 months) which I’m so happy about since I know she’s at least getting what she needs from me!
    Anyhow — thank you for this post! You’ve given me some fabulous strategies to try out — merci!!

  4. Great article. One thing that worked for me that I got from Dr. Sears was filling up a muffin pan with healthy snacks (fruits, raw nuts, raw veggies, etc.) and sticking it in the fridge. I told my girls they can eat anything from the tin whenever they want, and they don’t have to ask first. By dinnertime they may be full and have no appetite and complain about what I cook, but since I know they’ve been snacking on such healthy foods all day, I don’t worry about it. The muffin tin has been my sanity saver.

  5. Oh, this sounds so familiar. My oldest daughter also had a milk intolerance, so my desire to feed her what we were eating never got off the ground. Now that she is 8 and all three girls have outgrown the milk intolerance, they finally eat what we’re eating. My oldest still hates all fruit and most veggies (except kale!), but my rule is one of each at dinner. She will eat ONE strawberry and ONE carrot. This is big progress from the days when she would throw up after one bite of apple.

    These are all GREAT tips. Picky eaters often have a very strong gag reflex, so I love what you say about portion sizes. My 2 yr old will eat nearly anything, but not when it’s all on one plate. She does better when served in courses. Like a little princess in training, but hey, she eats tomatoes and cucumbers for breakfast!

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