How We Addressed Picky Eating

How It All Started

Looking back, I think the biggest reason Sawyer became so picky was because of his low-weight and my pregnancy.

His weight has always been low and it really influenced mine and Aaron's behavior towards Sawyer's eating. We'd anxiously watch him during meal times, and if he wanted food, any food, we'd give it to him. He grazed on snacks most of the day, and I thought that if he was eating all day that would help him gain more weight. Unfortunately, it didn't and he even lost weight in the fall. He was healthy and active, so I tried not to worry about it, but it was always in the back of my mind.

The other thing that made his picky eating worse was my morning sickness. I just couldn't cook healthy meals with a variety of flavors, and we relied on cold cereal, bread, fruit, and yogurt most of the time. I was kind of in survival mode for those two months so I wasn't really worried about the variety and health of foods that Sawyer was eating, I just wanted to keep us alive.

Changes We Made

When I felt well enough to start cooking again (mid-February) I noticed that Sawyer wasn't eating anything I cooked. He just wanted fruit and yogurt (and sometimes PB & J sandwich). I talked to Aaron about his eating habits and we decided he needed an intervention. Our previous method of letting him snack all day wasn't helping him gain weight, so we didn't have much to lose. I didn't really have a book or anything that I read, I just did observation and noticed a few things.

Here are the first things we changed that made the biggest difference:

Only One Snack

I noticed that when Sawyer had a snack close to meal time (within a couple hours) he wouldn't eat what I'd made. Although he seemed hungry, he just wanted his favorite foods, like fruit or yogurt. I stopped letting him graze all day, and I started giving him one small snack after he woke up from his nap, which is around 2 pm. This made a big difference because he was actually hungry at meal time. When he wants something to eat, I tell him that he can eat at the next meal or snack. At his snack time I usually give him his favorite foods, or something he's been asking for all day, like dates.
Also, do not keep foods in the house that are strictly snack foods or "crutch" foods. If they are in the house it makes it easier to give in. Foods that don't have any nutritional value have no place in a toddlers diet. It's nice to have a treat once in a while, but you don't need to keep a stash in the house all the time.

Serve One Food at a Time

When Sawyer was his pickiest I would offer him a variety of foods on his plate; some dairy, bread, fruit, and protein. He would immediately eat his fruit and cheese first and then he was full enough he didn't want to try anything else. After observing this, I embraced the "course" method of serving meals and found that if I served Sawyer's least favorite food first, usually the entree, he would watch us eating it and eventually take a bite and eat the whole thing! He was hungry and couldn't see any other options available. Amazingly he rarely complains or asks for anything else if I do this. Once he's taken his fill of the entree, I bring out a side dish, and then at the end of the meal I give him yogurt and fruit to fill up. This has worked amazingly well for him, and although there are days that he downright refuses to try the entree, for the most part he will eat it. Along these lines, I keep all the other foods in the kitchen and out of sight. If I have side dishes or bread on the table he will demand to eat that instead of the entree. I keep everything in the kitchen except what we are eating at that time.

No Bribing, Rewarding, or Coercing

This one was hard to get over. I would tell Sawyer that if he would try _________, then I would give him _________. Well, once I mentioned a food he liked, he would focus on that and he wouldn't give up until he got it. Seriously. If I said you can have some pineapple after you eat some soup he would push the soup away, say "all done soup!" and ask for pineapple. I had passed the the point of no return. I learned that if I simply served the soup and said nothing else, he would eventually try it. If he didn't want it I would tell him that is what's for dinner and if he doesn't want it he can go play. Sometimes he would get out and play for a while, but he would always come back and at least try it. There are some days that he just won't eat, mostly at lunch time. He doesn't want what we're having and so I let him play. I figure that if he's not hungry enough to eat then that's his choice. I try not to coerce (to this day he still refuses to eat foods that harbor bad feelings) and let him go play. I still give him his snack and dinner, but usually by dinner he is ravenous and eats A TON.
As I said, foods that we have worked hard to get him to eat he still doesn't like. It's like the struggle we had made him emotionally scarred. Keep things matter-of-fact and give the toddler some space to make choices. He can choose to eat it, or he can choose not to. When Sawyer senses that he has freedom to choose, he usually chooses to eat.

Keep Trying

I once read that, on average, it takes seven times of trying a food to develop a taste for it. It made sense since toddlers seem to want to eat only things they are use to, and the more they eat it the more they like it. I definitely noticed this with Sawyer and reminded myself (and Sawyer) that just because he doesn't like it the first time, doesn't mean he won't like it the second, third, and fourth time. He refused asparagus two difference times, but the third time he tried it really liked it. I think the difference was how I prepared the asparagus. If your child doesn't like a vegetable steamed, try it roasted, or blanched, or raw. And don't expect them to eat bland, overcooked veggies. Nobody likes that, not even the healthiest adults :) Add some good flavorings, different cooking methods, and introduce it again.

Employ Their Help in the Kitchen

I read this all the time, but it's a tried and true classic method.
Sawyer LOVES to help me cook. He can pour and stir, and he likes to take little tastes of food as I add ingredients to the recipe. He used to refuse chicken, until I was making chicken noodle soup. As I was dumping the cooked chicken into the pot he asked for a taste. He ate that piece and got a wild look in his eye and asked for more. At dinner he saw the soup and devoured it. This has proven to be a great way to introduce a meal, especially if your child can try the individual components as they go in, it makes it less daunting when they see the finished product on their plate.

It only took a few days after making these changes before Sawyer was eating most everything I cooked. Some days are better than others; most days he eats like a champ, but there are some days he refuses things that I KNOW he likes because he's eaten it before and I get really frustrated. But that's just part of raising a toddler I guess. Aaron and I try to continue to give him a good balance of freedom and structure. We expect him to at least try what I've made, but we respect that he can choose whether or not to eat. For Sawyer his picky eating was more of our problem and the way we addressed meal time. I'm sure there are kids that truly have neophobia (fear of new things) and making behavioral/parenting changes won't help, but for Sawyer it seemed that his picky eating stemmed from how we were parenting.

At his last pediatrician check up (he was going every 2 months to monitor weight gain) he had gained two pounds since his last visit! His doctor asked what changes we made, I told him about what we had done and he said to keep doing whatever we were doing because it was working.

1 comment:

  1. I love this! I just finished nannying for a family who had VERY picky eaters. I think if they try some of these principles it might help them :) Thanks for sharing!