By 15 months of age, it became apparent that we had a “picky” eater on our hands. My son willfully began to put up epic battles about what he would eat and not eat. This came as no surprise to us, as we had dealt with a wide range of issues since birth, and we had categorically deemed him a “strong-willed” baby. As I continued to fight these battles, which many days felt like I was losing, my son slowly started to shape his eating habits, and therefore shape how we fed him. I truly hate categorizing babies because it always seems to come off in a negative light, but for brevity, plain and simple, my son was particular, from how close he sat to the table to which way his toy cars lined up, he had very specific ideas about how things should be. And he was stubborn and would very rarely back down when it came to his trigger points. You can only imagine how much this affected the food choices he made.
By the time he was 4 years old I can count on 2 hands the foods he would eat. That list included chicken fingers, mac n’cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and broccoli. Thank goodness we discovered broccoli, or else a green thing wouldn’t have touched his lips for 5 years.
But the more time I spend on the path to a healthier way of eating for my family, and the more parents I speak to about having fellow “picky eaters,” the more I can’t help but think that I am responsible for some of my son’s food aversions. The other day as my son was having a “moment” and I was trying to get some dinner going, and help my daughter finish a school project, I absentmindedly offered him a “snack” to settle him down. Maybe because now I’m just more sensitive to the subject of food, but I finally realized that for years I had been using foods, and in particular “snack” foods he loved, to diffuse situations when my “difficult” kid was acting up. Crying in the store, here’s a snack to calm you down, fussing when I’m trying to do housework, sit in your high chair and have a snack, and on and on. And most of the time, the only snacks I knew would really settle him down were the type that come from a box or a bag.
Essentially, I had used snack foods of the processed kind to calm difficult behavior because it was just easier, plain and simple.
This isn’t the worst parenting crime one could make, and it’s a common one that many of us can identify with. After writing my article earlier this week about fighting kids menu battles at restaurants, I know a lot of parents can relate to the sentiment of “whatever we have to do just so we can have one peaceful dining experience.” Been there, done that. However, it’s still important to acknowledge the facts. And I’ve learned a thing or two from having a 6-year-old with stubborn taste buds.
Here’s what I’ve realized from having a picky eater on my hands:
1. Picky kids aren’t the sole result of over-accommodating parents. Having raised my 3 children all the same way, I can attest that just as all children have different personalities, they also have differing tastes in food preferences. Whether they’re “super tasters,” or just have aversions to various tastes and textures, you cannot force every kid to like the same diverse range of foods, despite what other parents and adults like to think.
2. Parents of picky eaters can — and often do — reinforce pickiness, though. Whether it be by making them a separate meal, letting them dictate their food choices 100% of the time or never encouraging them to try foods, even ones they have sworn time and time again they don’t like. After all, it takes up to ten times of trying a new food for you, or your taste buds rather, to really determine whether you like it or not.
3. We need to take the opportunity when we can to overcome the pickiness syndrome. For our child, we are finding that 1st grade has been a game changer for us. While his personality dictates that he is, and probably always will be particular and stubborn, we’re finding that at 6 years old he doesn’t put up the hard-drawn battle lines. He can understand logic and grasp the concept of good foods and bad foods. He also very clearly understands how his choices affect his outcomes, so not touching his veggies means desserts are automatically off the table. There are obviously fewer tantrums to work through, too. While he still has a lot of growing up to do, we can now have much more rational conversations about food.
We’re taking this opportunity to really test out how adventurous we can be, and many days we’ve been pleasantly surprised. When we tossed out the hazelnut spread, no meltdowns were had, and when we enacted project “no more chicken fingers” at restaurants, he found other menu options without much of a fight.
To this day, my son still differentiates between a snack and a “snacky.” Snacks are of the healthy nature: fruit, yogurt, string cheese, etc. “Snackies” are of the boxed and bagged nature: chips, crackers, fruit gummies. When we made the switch to a healthier way of life, I limited the amount of “snackies” in the house and the ones I did buy were the uber-healthy ones. Whole grains, limited sodium, you know the kind. They don’t taste as good as a good, old box of Cheez Its, I’ll admit.
Want to know something? 9 times out of 10 now, my son skips over the healthy “snackies,” and goes straight for fruit or trail mix or a cup of yogurt.
It’s actually really funny and awesome to see him change, and know that I’m sort of responsible for it. If we’re gonna take responsibility for the wrongs we do as parents, we’ve gotta also take credit for the rights we do. And right now, my once-ridiculously picky kid is withdrawing the troops and working on a peace agreement with me — and food. We still have a ways to go, but it’s starting to feel less like a war, and more like a friendly game of scrimmage.
So how have you handled your “picky” eater? What suggestions or advice would you give to other battle-wary parents fighting this battle?