If you’re in the business of parenting then you might know all about meal time battles and picky eaters. It’s not a few kids you hear about here and there, no. It’s a THING in the parent-o-sphere. While it is common that many kids protest eating and balk at everything you put in front of them, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is normal. I do think that it is normal for children to exercise caution when being introduced to new foods, but if your child will only eat from one food group and/or you find yourself bargaining with her at every meal, then you might have a picky eater on your hands.
According to the CDC, 9 in 10 children aren’t eating enough vegetables, and 6 in 10 children are not eating enough fruit. Also, as children get older they are shown to eat less of these foods, which means healthy habits are not being established and for whatever reason they are opting for the less healthy options. This isn’t even mentioning the fact that 1/3 of the vegetables being counted were potatoes (french fries).
It is clear that America has some hang ups around food. I truly believe that good habits start from day one. Unfortunately, with so much conflicting information out there on child rearing and health, it can all be confusing on how to establish these good habits and we could be sabatoging our children without even knowing it. As an expert in plant-based nutrition and someone who is passionate about infant and child development, I have come up with 5 tips to help you raise a healthy, non picky eater. Whether you’re a new mom who is about to introduce solids or you’re already struggling with an older child, I think this information will help us all.
1) Avoid Purees. Opt for Baby Led Weaning.
When all our children experience is mush and blended food the first 6 months or more of their life, it’s no wonder they are replused when we try to give them something with a different texture later on. Introducing a variety of flavors and textures early on will put your baby at an eating advantage. It also promotes the development of your baby’s jaw muscles for chewing, something that isn’t happening if the food is essentially already chewed for them. Baby led weaning encourages you to let your baby feed himself and avoid spoon feeding him. The idea is that this sets the child up to feel empowered around eating and meal times. Sometimes a protest around food can be a form of asserting control for a child. If they have often felt not in control of their meals then this concept makes sense. I have heard from many parents of multiple children say that their child who they didn’t do BLW with is very picky and their child who they did do BLW is an adventurous eater. For an extensive understanding and a detailed list of principles for Baby Led Weaning then check out www.babyledweaning.com
You might be thinking, “I already missed the boat with that one. I have an older child.”
Then keep reading. The rest will be helpful to you.
2) Don’t force or put pressure on them to eat. Do NOT make meal times a THING.
In many cases our children will simply reject what we’re insisting on. They feel our anxiety around meal times, they act it out and then we blame them when really, the one who is so anxious about the food is us. Do you find yourself sitting and staring intently at your child during dinner? Do you bargain with him? Do you coax and keep saying over and over things like, “Do you want any of your green beans?” “Will you take one more bite of casserole?” “If you take one more bite then you can play on the ipad.”
Do you make threats? “If you don’t eat now you can’t eat later,” or “If you don’t eat your peas then you don’t get dessert.”
Do you sneak up behind them and shove food in their mouth (I have seen this done before) ?
My advice is to drop it all. Meal times are supposed to be relaxed and enjoyed. They are not battle grounds or poker games.
There have been some occasions when my son refused to try a food that I REALLY wanted him to like (i.e. mangoes). I noticed I would, in different ways, try to coax him to try mangoes. I would sit with him and watch him, I would offer them to him over and over and over. Then I just stopped, and you know what? He eats mangoes now. I notice that when I completely take all the pressure off around food, then he’ll start exploring it and picking it up. But the pressure has to be truly off. You can’t pretend or hide it. You have to be genuinely okay if they aren’t eating something, but continue incorporating it into meals.
3) Ensure a healthy emotional environment.
Sometimes, when it comes to issues we’re having with our kids, we have to look beneath the surface a bit if we want real answers. As you are probably aware, eating for many people is largely based on emotions. We eat (and don’t eat) when we’re sad, when we’re mad and we eat when we don’t want to feel certain feelings. Food can be used just like a drug and this is no different for children. Whether it is refusing to eat, overeating, or nit picking about what is in front of them, it is possible that these behaviors are coming from a place of emotional insecurity in the home life. What else is going on within the family? Children feel all of it. They sense and pick up on all of our conscious and unconscious behaviors. Is your relationship strained with your spouse? Are you having a lot of stress from work that causes you to not be as attentive to your child? If there is a problem at home that you cannot remedy right away, make space for your child to talk through their feelings about it, or if they’re younger reflect back to them their big emotions during and separate from meal times. In other words, let them know that you see they are having a hard time and have compassion. Always make sure that children know that whatever they are feeling is welcomed and okay, otherwise they may turn to food or use it as a means of control to process unwanted emotions.
Dr. Shefali Tsabary, PhD suggests that children are simply reflecting back to us all of our unconscious behaviors. So when I think I am having an “issue” with my son, I like to ask myself where in my life does this behavior or a similar one show up? For example, if you have a picky eater, maybe you can ask yourself, “in what ways do I myself battle with food/eating?” Then, address that, because we cannot free our children from behaviors that we ourselves are still stuck on.
4) YOU have to model good eating habits.
Before I had a child I had all these ideas of how my son was going to eat. The only problem was, I myself wasn’t exactly eating the way I imagined he would eat. What I learned really quickly is that we can’t expect our children to have an eating lifestyle that is THAT much different than our own. If we want our children to be healthy eaters then we have to truly live that lifestyle. The reason my son eats so well is because there is no other option. He knows nothing of junk food because we don’t buy junk food. It is that simple. We can only hide food from our kids for a very short time. I am telling you, they see EVERYTHING. This goes back to number three where I said our children are a reflection of us. If we are having a hard time getting our children to eat healthy food then we have to look at how we have contributed to that. We have to look at and address our own struggles with unhealthy food. Maybe some children can function on “moderation,” but for the most part it’s a struggle. If they know that junk food with addictive ingredients, high sodium and sugar content are an option then that is what they will want to reach for over and over again.
I once cared for a boy a few days a week in the afternoons and his mother would always pack with him gluten free pretzels. Like I said, you can’t hide food from children, especially if another child they’re with is eating it, too. So I thought, no big deal, I can give my son a few gf pretzels. Hey, at least they’re gf (becuase we’re gluten free). Except for after having a taste of what I like to jokingly refer to as “kid crack,” my son would ONLY eat pretzels. He wouldn’t eat anything else, so eventually I had to completely take the pretzels away. I have to keep a home where I feel good about 99% of the food items we have so that no matter what he chooses, it is a “yes” food. If I have food in the house I have to hide, moderate or limit, I am going to be miserable and we are going to find ourselves in many food battles. Make healthy eating a lifestyle, not a thing you try to do from time to time.
5) Know how to pick and prepare good food. Get your child in the garden.
With the age of the industrial revolution and widespread consumerism, it isn’t much surprise that we can be grocery shopping in Texas in January and see honeydew melons on display. We are constantly seeing foods that are out of season and unripe being sold and so we think that we should buy it. We take home our unripe, out of season honeydew, cut it open, give it to our kids and they hate it (rightfully so). Now we think our kids don’t like fruit. Well, at least they don’t like honeydew melons. So we peel open a green banana and they spit that out, too. Bummer.
It is so important that we know how to pick fresh, ripe produce that is in season, as well as which foods grow locally to where we live. The difference between an unripe, out of season melon vs. a sweet, juicy, liquidy amazingness of a melon picked in June is not even comparable. It is two totally different experiences. Many people no longer know this vital information about food. Simply put, they (we) have never had to know. We are disconnected from growing our own food and rely on supermarkets to feed us. It is no wonder that people don’t know what truly amazing fresh fruits and vegetables taste like.
Not only this, but we don’t know what to do with an abundance of fruits and vegetables when we do have them. One time I was buying several heads of kale and got asked if I owned a restaurant. It turns out this person thought kale was only used as a garnish. They didn’t know you could make amazing salads with it and steam it. I also often get asked if I am on a juicing cleanse when the check-out clerk sees the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables I am buying. People have no idea how to eat the foods that we are supposed to be eating.
Get your kids out in a garden or plant your own. It is the best way that I know how to get the connected with real food. My son loves picking cherry tomatoes off the vine and eating them. Know how to pick fruit and how to prepare vegetables. There are many resources online as well as an infinite number of simple healthy recipes to choose from. As a plant-based chef and nutrition coach, you can contact me as well 🙂
Of course, nothing is going to be a one size fits all, especially when it comes to children, but I think these tools are essential for everyone, no matter what kind of eater you have. What do you think? Are these tips helpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!