If I had thought about it ahead of time, I would have known this was my fate. Not that I like to label, but… oh-my-word is Z a picky eater!
Every time I offer him something that I just know he would love–chocolate pudding! pancakes! cherries!–and he gives me that closed-lips, emphatic shake of the head, I feel…frustration, fear, and a huge amount of empathy for my parents. This is karma at such a basic level it doesn’t require much insight to see it.
When I was a kid, I pretty much ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. Yes, I had texture issues, but I think eventually it also became a fear of new things. I have gotten better as I have gotten older, but honestly I am still pretty picky. I can usually just look at something and know whether I’ll like it, and I’m not a big fan of trying new things (again why it has been such a big accomplishment for me to turn around my diet over the past year and a half, woo!)
Okay, but back to my picky toddler–
It is so, so hard to want to give your child the best food possible, only to have them refuse to even try it. Not to mention, the work involved in preparing the food, and the expense of wasting food.
It can make you go over the edge a little bit–I have made everything anyone in all of history has ever suggested or even intimated that a toddler might like (people walking by on the street have a suggestion? I’ve tried it!)… I have bought eggs and yogurt to see if he would like those…I have given him junk food on vacation…There is nothing I haven’t tried, no principle I have held so fast as to not overturn in the name of just getting my toddler to eat! something!
Given Z’s weight gain issues early in life, it make sense that I would be a bit anxious about getting solid foods into him. Maybe my anxiousness rubbed off on him (although I tried hard not to let it show. More likely, he just inherited texture issues from me.)
But slowly (amazingly!) over the past 6 months or so I have gotten to a happier, more relaxed place about feeding Z. Here is what I’m doing…
First, I thought a lot about all of the different goals I had when it came to his eating habits. It is such a huge responsibility to teach someone how to eat. For me, it came down to two things:
1. Nutrients. Yes, it’s important that he those calories and nutrients into his body. But since he is still breastfeeding about four times per day, I know he is getting a lot of great nutrition from that. His weight is on track, our doctor knows exactly what he is eating, and he is hitting all of his milestones. So he is okay. (I have to keep reminding myself that this is not the same as when he was four months old.)
2. Food as a cultural experience. Not sure what else to call this, but I see this as everything else about food: from the ritual of sitting down to eat, the social aspect of eating as a family, to seeing the colors, and feeling the textures of foods. This is setting him up for a healthy relationship with food later in life, and I think this is just as important as #1.
So! Realizing that I’m working on both of those things at once, what does his day look like? If I were to sum up my philosophy right now it would be: offering a combination of sneaky foods and real foods.
What do I mean by that?
A sneaky food to me would be: a smoothie, a date-sweetened homemade muffin filled with pureed carrots, a cookie filled with super foods. These are all wonderful things, which get nutrients into his body–yeah! But as far as food-as-culture goes, all they really do is teach him that he likes purees and cookies and muffins. (Great, but not the only thing I want him to learn.)
So I also try to put real whole foods in front of him. These are the things that he is much less likely to actually eat, but I think are important for him to see and experience on his plate. He will often try something eventually, especially if I don’t push it–not after the third or fourth try (oh no, that would be too easy), but after the tenth or eleventh.
Sneaky foods address goal #1, and whole foods address goal #2. Thinking like this helps me not get wrapped up in swirling anxiety about each goal. I don’t worry that a smoothie will make him never like whole foods, and I don’t worry he’ll starve if he doesn’t touch his plate of whole foods at lunch.
How does this translate onto a practical level? What does a typical day look like?
Breakfast: usually a muffin, sometimes a cereal he likes. Morning is pretty chaotic in our house so it might be either me or my husband who gets up with him, and we each have a slightly different routine. Sometimes he sits at the table, but often we just hand this to him as he’s playing.
Snack: big green smoothie loaded with super foods like chia, protein powder, and amazing grasses. He eats at least one of these per day.
Lunch: We sit down to eat lunch together, at his little table. I make a full plate for him with at least 4-5 different foods. I usually put half foods I know he will eat, and half foods I wish he would eat, always including a protein source and a fresh fruit. I don’t push anything, but we light a candle and have a nice time sitting and “talking” together, and clean up afterwards. If he doesn’t eat anything at all, so be it.
Snack: super cookies, or other snacks like vegetable chips from Whole Foods bulk bin.
Dinner: He eats what we eat, at the big table with us. The meal always includes a protein source and a fresh vegetable. I might round out his plate with a few things that I know he likes, such as crackers or pumpkin seeds, but in general the focus here is on food-as-culture, time together as a family in a happy food environment. (What my husband refers to as “meal as theater.”) If he doesn’t eat anything, he doesn’t eat anything. We try to at least eat his leftovers so they don’t go to waste.
Other: I might offer him an organic puree packet after lunch or dinner if he really hasn’t eaten much at all, but I am trying to move away from those since at 20 months he is a bit old for them (though they are a convenient way to get vegetables in!). Or I will make him a second smoothie.
I’ve also stopped constantly offering him food. I think I was so anxious about his nutrient intake that I was offering food all the time, and he just gets bored of it. We would leave the house for an hour and I would pack three snacks just in case! Now I offer him three meals and usually two snacks per day, and that’s it unless he seems interested in something in the kitchen.
And finally, I think teething had a lot to do with his willingness to eat foods. He went through a really bad patch where he ate almost nothing at all from 11 to 16 months (and I went to some pretty dark places and had some panicked visits to the doctor.) But it got better starting around 17-18 months and it has kept getting better. So if you are in a bad spot with your toddler eating, maybe see if they are teething?
Do you have a picky eater? How did you handle it? Or is your child an adventurous eater (you can tell me, I promise I will only hate you a little bit)…