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5 Ways to Deal with Picky Eaters (from a Mom Who’s Been There 3 Times)

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This morning, my 2-year-old toddler and I met a couple of friends for breakfast. I ordered a veggie scramble and ordered him a fruit crepe, hold the Nutella and caramel sauce. When our meals all came out, Hayden honed in on the small cup of whipped cream and quickly began dabbing his finger in it with timed precision. After each finger dip and lick, he let out a deeply satisfied, “Mmmmm.” Any hopes I had of him eating his fruit-filled crepe were doomed after he took that first lick, and the rest of the breakfast meal was spent with me trying, very unsuccessfully, to get him to eat something else. Of course I tried to take it away, and of course he responded, as 2-year-olds often do, with a very loud, high-pitched, “NO!!!” This isn’t my first parenting rodeo, it’s my third in fact, and while I very easily could have fought him on this one and dealt with a screaming child for a few minutes, I acquiesced, because by now I know that my kid will survive if all he eats at one meal is a small cup of whipped cream.

In the grand scheme of things, one cup of whipped cream really isn’t a big deal since in general we eat pretty darn healthy. But this morning’s battle of wills reminded me that I do need to be mindful of this behavior, as this is how it all began with my middle son’s picky palette. While I firmly believe that meal preferences are strongly influenced by personality and genetics, I also believe us parents play a key role in helping kids develop and expand, or limit, their palates. And it’s hard to reverse bad habits, which often take years to break; just ask my husband, who had never eaten a salad until I met him at the age of 21. So, to help keep myself in check as we get further entrenched in the “Terrible Twos,” here are five ways I’m going to be more mindful when feeding our third child …

1. Don’t use a food as a remedy for fussy behavior

The first time around, I learned pretty quickly that when all else failed to calm my fussy little toddler, snacks — and usually the crunchy, sweet or salty variety — came to the rescue. I found myself in an endless rut of offering snacks to diffuse meltdowns, which in years two and three, were plentiful. It got to the point where there was hardly a beginning and end between meals and snacks, as they all started blending together. This led to lack of hunger at meal time because he had been snacking all day, which led to worries over him getting balanced nutrition. I never intended to fall into this trap, as we had always maintained consistent snack and meal times, but when things got rough during the toddler years, I fell victim to that endless cycle. Lesson learned though, and now with our third child, when he’s fussy or temperamental for reasons other than being naturally hungry, I’m making it a point to turn to snacks last. Reading a book, coloring, playing on the floor, and walks outside should be my go-to option, and snacks only as a last resort.

2. Don’t underestimate a toddler’s palate 

I don’t know if it’s naturally ingrained in us through our culture or through endless exposure to sadly limited kid’s menus, but we often underestimate a young child’s propensity to like more complex flavors. Even still, now with my third child, at times I find myself picking out foods I don’t think he’d eat from our meal instead of allowing him to have the final say. I usually catch myself, but I need to always remember to offer him every single thing us grown-ups eat, aside from spicy foods of course, and let him be the judge. I continue to be amazed at how well, and how often, he accepts the most unusual foods I didn’t think he’d have the slightest interest in.

3. Don’t just resort to trickery 

About seven years ago, I bought a copy of Jessica Seinfeld’s book Deceptively Delicious in the hopes of learning all the sneaky ways to get my kids to eat more vegetables through pureeing and adding it to food. While I loved the recipes and maintain that sneaking in extra nutrients is always a good thing, I wish instead of relying on the hidden vegetables, I would have just been more persistent in offering the real thing, in the flesh. So now, I make it a point to offer vegetables in all their beautiful, un-pureed glory to the kids each meal. Admittedly I’m not always the most adventurous; I’d rather have them eat a whole cup of steamed broccoli at dinner than fight to get them to eat one piece of cauliflower, but a veggie is a veggie, right? Also, I’ve learned a little bit of trickery with my youngest, who loves tortilla rolls. I can add any type of vegetable, from red peppers to kale, in a cheese and turkey wrap, and he’ll eat it with delight.

4. Get ’em hooked on the juice

I’m sure this may sound crazy, but I do believe that one of the ways I’ve been able to get my youngest to be fairly open to trying more vegetables and flavorful food is by exposing him to earthy green juices and smoothies from a very young age. New research, though limited, as well as anecdotal evidence, does show that we can train our palates to crave healthy foods like vegetables and fruits over fried salty foods and sweets. Since he was about 9 months old, I’ve been offering him my strange concoctions of smoothies and green juices, containing everything from kale and parsley to dandelion greens and cucumber, and he slurps them up with joy. I truly believe that since his palate has been exposed to the earthy, sometimes bitter, tastes of green vegetables packed with nutrients in liquid form, he is more open to these flavors at meal time.

5. Avoid the short-order cook syndrome

Of course one thing I did learn very early on, and I continually practice, is to avoid the short-order cook syndrome. Modifications to meals are allowed, such as holding the sauce, but I never make a separate meal for the kids as I do for us adults. While my kids aren’t perfect (whose are?) and they certainly don’t like everything, this strict rule has exposed them to all sorts of foods, and in turn, they all eat fish, shrimp, red meat, pork, turkey, and a very wide variety of produce and grains.

Countless books, articles, and blog posts exist to help guide parents to overcome food battles at meal time with picky eaters. While I’ve learned something from almost each piece of advice I’ve read, this is a real-life breakdown of how we maintain some level of sanity and peace at meal time. I hope you find some of it useful when dealing with your next meal-time struggle.

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