As I scrolled through some old baby pictures the other day, I came across one of my favorites. There’s nothing remarkable about the photo — it’s not one that you’d likely frame or display — except that it captures a moment of pure joy on my tiny son’s face.
I’d set him down on the deck outside in the early morning sunshine with nothing but a diaper on and set a bowl of fresh, ripe berries in front of him. I’ve forgotten so many moments of my son’s brief childhood so far, but this one sticks out in my mind as if it were just last week.
He squealed in delight when he saw the bright berries in front of him, realizing I was going to let him dig in and go wild. I didn’t spread out any napkins or lay down a placemat. I didn’t hand him a spoon or try to neatly feed him berries one by one.
No, I let him stick his chubby little fists straight into the bowl and mash the berries right into his eager mouth. Most of them ended up smeared across his face, dripping down his chin and on to his bare little baby chest. Berry juice and pulp oozed through his fingers as he squeezed them a little too hard. The white deck was a mess, my kid was a mess, and we were both utterly thrilled.
Looking back on this picture I realize how much every child deserves to have such a photograph, or at least such a moment. A moment where we’re providing them with the experience and sensations of food without worrying about what or how they’re eating it. A moment where a bowl of spaghetti ends up on top of their head instead of in their belly, or a first birthday where icing ends up everywhere but on a cake or in a mouth. A moment to just learn, enjoy, and experience the many sensations of food.
So often when it comes to picky eating we focus distinctly on the type of food or how much a child is eating, forgetting that food is so much more than just a food or even nutrition, especially to a child where every experience is new and exciting or scary or overwhelming.
When we’re struggling with getting our kids to eat, maybe we need to look a little further outside the box. Perhaps it’s not the food so much, but the experience or sensation. Maybe it’s a new texture or new shape. Maybe it looks different from other things they’ve eaten. Maybe it’s a funny color or feels unusual on their fingers. Maybe they’re not used to something crunchy or squishy or green.
Or perhaps it’s not the food or the texture or the taste at all — perhaps it’s the act of sitting at a table or the skills required to do so. It’s a lot to ask of a small child to sit still at a table where their feet can’t reach the ground, to use utensils and a napkin, and to remember to say please and thanks for their food. There’s so much going on during what to us as adults is a simple meal. To kids it can be an overwhelming amount of input and sensory experiences.
So maybe when we’re struggling with picky eating, we need to stop focusing so hard on the what and how much. Maybe we need to step back a little and brainstorm why. Why do kids like fast food nuggets but won’t touch the ones you lovingly made from scratch? Maybe it’s because they have the same name but they look and taste different. Why will a kid eat a raw carrot but screams in the face of cooked ones? Maybe it has nothing to do with the flavor of a carrot or that it’s a vegetable, but that it mushes in their mouth instead of providing a satisfying crunch as they bite down.
We’ve heard it takes multiple introductions to foods in order for some kids to accept them, but perhaps reevaluating the way we constantly serve something over and over could help. Instead of putting broccoli on your kids plate every night anxiously waiting for the day they decide to miraculously chow down on it, try introducing it in steps and stages.
Let your kids help you pick out a brunch of broccoli in the grocery store; let them touch it and hold it. Maybe the next time they also help you prepare it in the kitchen, cutting it up and seeing how you’re going to cook it, touching it when it’s raw and feeling how it changes to soft once it’s cooked.
Maybe one day it sits on the dinner table in a serving bowl, but you don’t put it on their plate. The next time it could be on their plate or place-mat but they don’t need to eat it. Let them feel it with their fingers, on their arm, on their lips. Don’t worry about them eating it; just let them learn about it and become familiar with its existence. Maybe one day they’ll be up for letting it touch their tongue or even taste or chew or actually eat it.
Don’t worry about messes or proper table manners or wiping off sticky mouths or fingers until a meal is over. Don’t fuss over foods being “breakfast” or “dinner” foods — if a child is too tired at dinnertime, they may not be able to handle something new or hard to eat. That doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a palate of oatmeal and eggs.
It may be a process and it may not end picky eating overnight, but seeing it as a learning opportunity and a part of development just like every other aspect of childhood might get us farther in the long run.
It’ll at least get us less frustrated while we work our way there.More On