Over 20 years and four children – you’d think that’s enough time and children to figure this picky eaters thing out but I haven’t quite. It’s a process, like I am sure for most parents. Still, although we do have our struggles and battles over food, overall I would say my children are pretty open minded when it comes to food.
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to dealing with picky eaters. I wish I had done a lot of things differently but the ship has sailed. On the bright side, I learned what *not* to do. So I want to encourage you not to give up, have patience, and stick to your rules. I know it is hard, but giving in means raising a picky adult as it’s rare when a picky child outgrows her pickiness, in my experience.
I do realize all kids are different, as are grown-ups. We all have our own tastes and preferences. That said there are universal behaviors that are partly evolutionary and partly cultural. We are all affected by them, but we shouldn’t be ruled by them.
What drives the picky eater’s behavior?
**Being a picky eater is a protection mechanism
It’s an evolutionary trait that made sense when eating an unknown food could kill you. We are wired to be suspicious of new or unusual food.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently learning about how our brains work. One thing that struck me was that our brain has a way to reinforce the thoughts that appear to bring relief, or a sense of safety and comfort. For example, if someone feeding you an awful and suspicious looking vegetable, and you were able to kick and scream your way out of eating it, your brain will go: “Woohoo! It worked, I am safe! Let’s do the same next time”. I am simplifying, but essentially that’s how the brain works and it’s hard to go against nature, but not impossible.
**Being picky is a form of self validation and a way to assert oneself.
Children are always looking for ways to express themselves as people, to claim their space. Doing it through food is a natural way to assert “I am my own person”. Of course, all of this happens subconsciously and goes beyond food.
**Being picky is a way to manipulate the adults.
This goes hand in hand with the previous point, but I wanted to call it out separately because when the kids shift in the manipulation mode, it helps to see it for what it is in order to respond in the most effective way.
What can you do if your kids are picky eaters?
- The very first mistake one can make (I sure have) is to create a special “kid-friendly” menu. Don’t do it. As long as the rest of the family eats it, and as soon as the child is old enough to start eating solid food, don’t make special meals for the kids (within reason – I am not encouraging to serve spicy food to babies).
- Do not take the rejected food off the menu. Keep serving it, mention the good things about the food and how it is good for one’s health. I know it is hard, counterintuitive and kills you to do. But the alternative – giving up and stopping to serve it – is digging the hole deeper.
- Insist on having a bite (or two, or three) of everything at each meal. This is a way to train the brain to get over the mental “safety wall”. It’s best not to jump with joy if the child takes a bite because it can turn into a manipulation tool easily.
- Give freedom of choice but within limits and when it makes sense TO YOU. This is a tricky one and a hard thing to balance. You want to encourage independent thinking and decision-making, but it can also quickly become a slippery slope towards choosing the same few things over and over again. The way to solve this is to offer a choice that is within the acceptable range for you. For example, ask if they prefer green beans or broccoli, baby carrots or cucumber slices, etc. As long as they are choosing a vegetable, it’s fine.
- Never assume that your child won’t like something because it’s not a typical “child-friendly” food. I’ve seen parents to not even contemplate offering something because they feel it will be rejected. One of the first solid foods Phoebe ate was a shrimp spring roll because she reached out for it, tried it, and loved it. I’d never in my life think to offer it to her, because it’s not what babies and toddlers are supposed to eat. She is also crazy about artichokes, I don’t know how it happened other than I bought one to try and offered her some.
Phoebe is crazy about artichokes. Never assume that if it’s green, the child won’t like it
One thing I do not consider as a “choice” is giving permission to fix his or her own dinner (a sandwich, a bowl of cereal) if they don’t like what is being served. It sends a message that it’s ok to disregard the effort of the person who cooked the meal for them. What if everyone in the family would be allowed to “fix a sandwich” if they didn’t like what was on the menu? At the very least, it would be disrespectful. Not a lesson I want to teach my children.
I do understand that sometimes you just don’t feel like eating a particular thing, and it’s ok. We all feel like this from time to time. If this happens occasionally and doesn’t become a pattern, I don’t see a problem with it. However, I know that it doesn’t take long for a new pattern to form. I found it’s easier to prevent it than fight it down the road. So – no special meals.
To make the child feel like they have some say in what is being served, do ask them what they’d like to have for dinner – just like you ask anyone else in the family. This doesn’t always mean you’ll be making a special dinner for them. You really are not a short-order cook. The idea here is to have everyone in the family help with meal planning (meal planning tips here and here). They won’t be getting their preferred meal all the time, but they’ll know that eventually they will, and until then they’ll have to eat what others in the family requested, which is another great lesson to learn – compromising and respecting other people’s choices.
It’s true that we never stop learning in this journey to drama-free meal time, but these are some of the things that I know work for us and maybe they will work for you. I am curious what your thoughts are on this hot-button topic, please share in the comments.