Erika, of the wonderful In Erika's Kitchen, tweeted today looking for suggestions on how to deal with children who are picky eaters. I started listing out what worked with my picky eater and before I knew it I had gone from writing a tweet to writing an email to writing a lengthy blog post.
Consider this a post-in-the-making. I'm going to add and refine it and maybe add a recipe and photo as I think more about what worked with my two boys growing up. (I had one foodie and one picky eater).
If you have tips or other info to share, please leave a comment.
Picky eaters can be born or made.
Those who are born that way are probably supertasters (like author and food guru Michael Pollan's kid). That is a whole another issue where what the children taste and smell is so intense that it overwhelms them.
My own picky eater (who at almost 23 is still relatively picky) was made. Unlike some (my mother for instance who was a notoriously picky eater in her childhood since her mother was always pushing food), he didn't become a picky eater from pressure from his parents to eat, but rather from an attempt to shape his own world and control his own life.
Before he was four he ate anything. Recipe after recipe with ingredients like chickpeas, eggplant, spices and other adult favorites is marked with "even the baby liked it." At four that all stopped. Confused we took him to the doctor. The doctor smiled and said: "I have good news and bad news. The good news is your son is very smart. The bad news is that he is manipulating you."
Our son needed a lot of limit setting (which he tested continually) to thrive back then. The doctor felt our oldest was finding a way to express some boundaries and limits of his own by what he would choose to eat. (Our youngest is whatever the opposite of a picky eater, he's open to new foods, and prefers fruits and vegetables to just about anything else.)
Relived our son was healthy we went from the pediatrician's office armed with only this advice: "Don't make him a separate meal."
I began not saucing the pasta so he could eat his plain, scraping the sauce off a piece of chicken before he was served it and looking for ways to make sure he'd eat healthy meals.
Here are some strategies that worked for us:
1. Asking questions. Why do you like this or not like that? It took us a while to figure out it was the texture of cooked vegetables he couldn't handle, but that he would eat and even ask for raw ones. (My non-picky eater stopped eating broccoli and artichokes for awhile. Finally we figured out he only liked the stems of the broccoli and the leaves of the artichokes. We were happy to accommodate his tastes and share with him.) Kids' taste buds are sensitive as well so overwhelmingly bitter foods can be a problem. If there was a low-fat salad dressing, ketchup, yogurt or salsa to dip them in, so much the better. (Watch portion sizes on the salad dressings). Look for similar foods and put them out to try. Mine went from eating raw carrots to nibbling on jicama, for example.
2. Instituting a three servings a day of fruit and vegetables (excluding juice) rule. Sliced bananas with cinnamon, dried fruits, veggies with dips, celery with peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese and raisins, apple slices and other "fun" foods helped get the boys to their three a day. Luckily, they also liked green salads. If they accomplished three servings a day they could have a small cookie or small serving of non-fat pudding or other relatively healthy treat after dinner. (That helped keep their treat consumption down as well). Because juice was extra the boys almost always got their 5 servings a day. To be honest, in the beginning the picky eater's choices were very narrow (carrot sticks and fruits) but eventually he widened his list of acceptable foods.
3. Setting a good example. We always have a full fruit bowl that can be used for snacking at any time and the kids always saw us reaching for fruit as a snack.
4. Posting a list of suggestions on the fridge door of healthy snacks or foods. The kids used to love watching me change the "menu" and get excited by the new choices.
5. Offering no thank you portions. Our rule was you had to try new foods at least three times before you could officially say you didn't like it.
6. Making meal time interesting and compelling, not a time of judgement or criticism about the child's eating style or anything else. Conversation, asking questions, sharing, etc. all help. Dinner time was mandatory for my two even as teens. If you didn't feel like eating, you still had to sit with us until we were done.
7. Being creative. My oldest went through a mac and cheese stage. One day we were out of pasta and I made a cheese and rice casserole. He was not thrilled but tried it since I called it "astronaut food" (why I don't remember except maybe he was going through a space phase), he was willing to sample and eventually added it to his list of "favored" foods.
8. Being sneaky, but not too sneaky. I found I could work a little shredded or pureed vegetables into some favorites, but not so much that they noticed. It worked but I'm not a big fan of the technique. I'd rather they learned what a balanced meal looked like.
9. Engaging your picky eater. I took both of my guys food shopping when I could and had them smell, touch, taste and help pick out all kinds of foodstuffs. Back home, they played at cooking nearby when I was cooking and as soon as they were old enough had small tasks in the kitchen. This helped the picky eater with his ownership/control issues and made it more likely he'd at least make it through his no thank you portion of something new. (And made a foodie of the younger boy.) Another tactic: Find a cookbook with lots of color photos of the food and let them pick some recipes they want you to make with/for them from it.
10. Introducing food that's fun for them. My boys liked to eat with their hands (Ethiopian and Moroccan food as well as chicken drumsticks and skewered foods worked well.) We also got them "training" chopsticks and they enjoyed eating foods like that. Other favorites: fajita or taco "bars" where we set out all the ingredients and the kids could make their own, ground turkey sloppy joes and top your own pizzas (we baked their little pies in their Easy Bake Oven). We also had theme days (French, Chinese, Italian) where we'd talk a bit about where the food was from and the customs/culture from that country.
11. Teaching them to read nutrition labels. My boys were only allowed to have prepared cereal with 3 grams of sugar or less per serving, so they would prowl the aisle reading the boxes and making choices based on the labels.
Watch for this post to be updated and refined.
I look forward to your comments and links below.