When my first daughter was a baby, her favorite foods were sautéed green peppers, sweet peas, and — I kid you not — salmon.
You had bet your yoga pants I was feeling pretty smug in my parenting game with that baby jackpot. But fast-forward seven years and that same salmon-eating baby has morphed into my pickiest eater, a child who once produced an “approved lunches” list for me that included precisely four items.
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I have been thoroughly and completely devastated in the war to get my children to eat healthy, balanced meals. I have actually lost sleep over it, so great is the pressure I feel as a mother to ensure that my kids grow up with the palates of French schoolchildren who enjoy freaking oyster plant in their school cafeteria, instead of kids whose only introduction to French food are fries and chocolate croissants. And then there’s the little fact that the media alerted us all that picky eating might just be an underlying sign of some serious mental issues, but don’t freak out, really.
The truth is, I feel like a big, fat failure of a mom. And aside from my very real concern that my kids aren’t eating a fresh, balanced diet, is the fact that I have no one to blame but myself. I mean, I feed them, right? So therefore, it’s all my fault.
In an attempt to get my kids to eat healthier, I finally gave in and sought the advice of a pediatrician. Unsurprisingly, he blamed my laxness on my kids’ food choices. Don’t give them anything else, he said. Don’t let them snack at all. And then, also, duh.
Which, OK, OK, I get it. In theory, that little piece of advice from a man, who I wager has never actually spent time at home caring for four children, (but that’s just petty of me to point out, isn’t it?), should work. But in reality, it only serves to 1. make my kid starve 2. make us all stressed out 3. turn food into a power struggle.
It’s common advice, given in articles and by our pediatricians, to simply limit other food choices in hopes of forcing a picky child to eat the healthy food you cook. But that lovely piece of advice that, quite honestly, simply served to stress both me and my children out more than anything, didn’t help at all.
Instead of eating the food I prepared or succumbing to the pressure, my kids just refused to eat anything at all. And don’t let yourself think that I am a pushover, because I assure you I am not. No snacking = no snacking and what you get is what you get, so don’t throw a fit. But it still wasn’t helping. And let’s face it, guys, I want my kids to freaking eat. I am not a monster. I am not a horrible person who wants to cook boiled vegetables and gruel and gleefully shove it down my kids’ throats. I want them to come to enjoy food, for both the way it brings us all together and the deliciousness and nourishment it provides.
So instead of laying down the law as a parent of a picky eater, I decided to go the alternative route and simply give up.
I gave up the fight.
To make all of our lives better, I decided that instead of making food a power struggle in our home, because picky eating is very frequently tied to other issues, such as anxiety, intense emotions, and sensitivities, I would “give in” by rotating one or two alternate options that would be offered if the child:
- Tried the meal and
- Politely declined the meal
The rules are always the same: they have to try the food, even if they’ve previously tried it, and there is no fuss about it. They don’t have to whine or complain or cry or throw themselves on the floor in despair. It can be as simple as trying it and requesting Plan B, no dramatics allowed. That way, I reasoned, the child is still being introduced to new foods, and by not making it a struggle or cutting out all other foods or making it this big, dramatic fight all the time, the food would not turn into any kind of power struggle or way for my child to use food to express other emotions.
In my mind, having a few, not-ideal Plan B options (think frozen tortellini, chicken nuggets, or a plain, non-sugary cereal) is a temporary solution that in the end, will get us all through this stage. I’d like to think that if we just stay the course and keep introducing our kids to delicious, healthy, and varied foods, that they will eventually come to realize how freaking awesome their parents are for serving up walnut-crusted salmon, homemade chicken pad thai, pumpkin spice chili, and steak and mashed potatoes. (Also by “we”, I mean my husband because I suck at cooking.)
I can’t tell you how much this new attitude has helped. I’m no longer stressed and ranting and raving about the fact that they won’t eat anything I cook, and why won’t you eat, and no snacks for you, and blah, blah, blah. And in return, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the things my daughter has tried and actually loved, such as roasted broccoli with “seasonings” (garlic and lemon juice) and homemade turkey meatballs.
This method has helped save all of our sanity, ensured that my children aren’t starving, and has given me a short-term solution to ending the food drama. My ultimate goal is to not make healthy food a punishment of any kind, so by offering the alternate options I’m still presenting a variety of foods and I can hold on to the hope that eventually, they will realize that the food we make is quite delicious.
Because if that kid can’t come to learn to love my homemade blueberry muffins, I really think all hope is lost.