The topic of picky eating has come up again, in several conversations I’ve had. I thought I would address it in a blog post. Disclaimer up front, if you are talking about someone who has some sort of sensory disorder, that may be a different situation. Many people on the spectrum also have some form of sensory processing disorder. Speech therapists can help some of the food issues, and I even know people who have been hypnotized to overcome food aversions. This isn’t about them, it’s about the just a picky eaters.
First, if you are the picky eater. I’m just going to say that if it is you that has the problem, you really need to want to try to overcome it. Otherwise, you just won’t be successful. The best tip I have is to try food cooked a new way. If your problem is texture, I did find this article had good information. If you grew up in a house where you ate canned veggies, heated in the microwave, I am here to tell you that fresh veggies seasoned well is a game changer. Even frozen veggies, served with flavorful protein can be quite delightful.
If your spouse is the picky eater, I am going to give you the same advice. You can’t change them if they don’t want to change themselves. I found out, at the age of 40, that my father has been a picky eater. I grew up in a house with 2 siblings who were super picky and I just didn’t get it. That is because my mom catered to my dad’s picky-ness. He ate salad, but only certain types of lettuce and dressing. So that is the lettuce and dressings we had in the house. You do need a unified front when it comes to the eating. Are you going to hide the spouse’s picky eating by catering to what they will eat? Or will you serve certain foods only when they are not home? A third option is that they will have to eat things sometimes that they don’t like.
The hardest is the kids. Different ages, having a 2 house family, and having kids in child care can all be factors to overcome. My little two have only ever known healthy eating, while Tyler was 8 or so years old before I made changes to our eating. When Ty was in elementary school, he had a friend’s mom tell him that he had to try something 14 times before he could decide if he liked it or not. What a game changer! It didn’t come from his own mom, and who remembers how many times they have tried broccoli? When I first changed my eating habits, it was more for weight loss than health. (I wrote about the difference of eating for health versus weight loss, if you’re interested in hearing more.) Ty was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I still let him pick his breakfast and lunch. The only thing I was changing was his dinner. At first, I still made Kraft Mac and Cheese, I just added frozen broccoli. I made tuna helper, and doubled the tuna. It was about increasing the good, not about eliminating the bad yet. For as long as I’ve been on this journey, I have allowed my kids to have a say in what we eat. Still making mac and cheese or tuna helper was just the beginning.
Mike and I started our Paleo journey when Ty was 9. If we made something totally different, he needed to take 1 bite of everything on his plate. He then could choose to make himself a peanut butter and jelly, or eat more of what was served. We would also all talk about what is goodNow is a good time to mention, I will NEVER belong to the finish your plate club. If you need to finish all your dinner, in order to get a dessert, how is that instilling healthy habits? I actually believe in having dessert first. Then filling up on the healthy with the remaining calories/room in our stomach. When it comes to food and my beliefs, I also strongly believe that food should be fuel for our body. Yes, it can taste good, but we don’t need to love everything we eat. You will often hear me telling the kids, you don’t need to love it, you just need to eat it.
Children are generally innately aware of their level of hunger and satiation. Our pediatrician said that if they ate one good sized meal, one decent sized meal, the third meal really can be more of a snack. With what I’ve learned about our circadian rhythm and hunger, it makes sense that dinner is the snack sized meal. It can be frustrating as a parent to prepare food that goes untouched, but it doesn’t need to be a fight or struggle.
Of my three kids, Grace went through the pickiest phase. If you have ever met her, she is a small but mighty child. I learned that if a baby loses 10% or more of their body weight, they don’t release you from the hospital on time. Darling Grace, she lost 9.8%, so we got to go home. However, we went into the doctor office for extra weight checks until she was 4 months old. She is 9 1/2 years old and recently started wearing size 8 clothing. Her head size and her height are as petite as her weight. This added to my concern with her eating, being she was so small already. I want to lay out some things that I did with her. Some worked better than others, but all are great idea generators for your own household.
My favorite was the ice cube tray. I cut food into bite size pieces and put one bite into each section. In the final section, we always had a dip, her preference was ranch and hummus. Pretty sure most kids will want ketchup though. Everything became finger food and dip-able. I would eat my food on the couch (big no no around here), with music playing on the tv. Grace would toddle over and eat, right off my plate. It wasn’t the distraction as much as the easy access to my plate, and it didn’t work the same to share a plate at the table. She also liked to fill up on milk and not have room for food, so I took her off dairy milk and gave her unsweetened almond milk. The almond milk has less calories, leaving room for more food. Pretty sure every parent has heard that the child is full, but wants a snack. I made snacks something only allowed at preschool. We could use a snack food within our meal, but we couldn’t have just a snack. This was also around the time that when she was “finished” eating, I put her plate in the fridge. When she was hungry next, she went back to her high chair and was given the plate of leftovers.
By the time Grace was in 4 year old preschool, her and Jack knew what protein and veggies were. Every lunch and dinner included a protein source and a veggie. They are able, to this day, to pick lunches for themselves. We make a meal plan on the weekend and they eat the same thing for lunch for the week. I’m pretty lenient on what is a protein and a veggie. Peanut butter, beef stick, lunch meat, protein shake all work as protein. Jack would love raw carrots and broccoli in his lunch, but it takes him too long to eat them. Instead, we do baby food pouches, veggie straws, and “crackers” made with veggies.
We have structured dinner a few different ways. For years, it was the kids and I for the weekdays. One night, I would make dinner, for all of us. The next night, I’d eat leftovers and the kids could have gluten free mac, salad, and all beef hot dogs. I have never been a short order cook for dinner, I take a hard pass at that. A season we like, everyone picks one dinner. Your choice must have a protein and a veggie, these are often the times Jack chooses raw veggies with ranch to go with tacos. Since we have more days than people, you can earn the option to pick a second dinner.
Often, we theme our nights. Like taco Tuesday, soupy Wednesday, French fry Friday, and leftover Saturdays. Sometimes, the theme is grill, instant pot, and crock pot, more manner in which food is cooked. Especially when time is constrained. Either way gives us some flexibility in our meal choices, while still giving direction. On Taco Tuesday, it isn’t just tacos. We may have quesadillas, nachos, fajitas, or a taco salad, as they all fall in the taco category.
They do say that involving your kids in the process is a huge key to getting them to eat the food. Jack loves to put on an apron, grab a step stool, and be involved in the cooking process. Grace doesn’t enjoy the helping prep and cook aspect. Our biggest struggle is scheduling though. If we are pushing for dinner before an activity, they are usually doing homework or playing with a friend. Other times, dinner is cooked while they are at an activity, and they just come home to eat. There are still ways to involve kids in the process, though. From setting the table, to serving the food, clearing the table, and washing the dishes, there are ways to involve the kids that doesn’t involve the actual cooking, day of the meal. When we make our meal plan, the kids sit with us and plan their own breakfast and lunches. Pre pandemic, I often had groceries delivered, but letting the kids cross off the list, help pick out produce, involving them in shopping for a better deal, or even asking the meat guy for the order are all ways to include the kids at the store. Grace and Jack help us put the groceries away, giving them some ownership of where “their food” is put.
If you have specific questions after reading this, drop a comment and I’d love to help you work through things. I do hope that you found something of value, a takeaway from what I have shared. The most important thing to notice, I didn’t give one answer to “solve” picky eating. It isn’t that simple