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Chatter: How I Cured My Picky Eater

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People tell me that I’m lucky to have kids who will eat anything, but in reality it has very little to do with luck: I’ve worked hard to get them to eat well! My daughter (now six) was two when I finally admitted that I was raising a picky eater. After lots of reading, discussions, and quite a bit of trial and error, we came up with a plan that eventually turned the situation around. Here is what worked for us:

1. Cut out snacks

A big problem with getting kids to eat at mealtimes is that they aren’t actually hungry. They’ve been snacking on crackers, fruit, yoghurt, juice, raisins, etc., and they have no motivation to eat anything on their plate other than what they know they like.

When I started the new routine with my eldest, I cut out ALL snacks. It was hardcore. I felt like such a mean mama even though I knew I was doing the right thing. Luckily, the results quickly spoke for themselves: cutting out snacks meant that she was more willing to eat what I set out for meals.

2. Refuse to be a short-order cook

When I make my kids breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, what I serve is not subject to negotiations. Sure, they can make requests (cereal for breakfast, banana for a snack, etc.), but once I’ve served them, that’s it. I don’t want to hear that they’ve changed their mind, or that they don’t like how I’ve cut the bread (for some reason this one is a real issue in our house . . . ). If they try it and they don’t like it, then I’m fine with them not eating it, but there will be no substitutions. (In addition to the issue of picky eating, I hope this also teaches them something about the value of food and the importance of not being wasteful.)

3. Mix it up

My daughter has always been a massive fan of pasta with red sauce. It was always an easy go-to meal for her because she would consistently eat it without complaint. While this pasta obsession was extremely convenient, it was also a slippery slope into cupboards full of noodles and pasta sauce, and I wanted her to have a more varied palate.

Limiting her pasta intake made things more difficult for me initially. I started by restricting our pasta meals to once every two weeks, which forced us to engage with different foods with a variety of other flavours and textures. She put up quite a fuss at first, but eventually began to have more interest in the other meals she was being served. Plus the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thing really works: once she knew pasta wasn’t regularly on offer, she didn’t request it as often.

4. Discourage preferences

I’ve met so many parents who claim that their child won’t eat an orange unless ALL of the white bits have been picked off the outside, or they won’t eat pasta unless it is a certain shape, or they won’t drink milk unless it is from the jug with the blue lid (NOT green!!), or they won’t eat a sandwich unless it has been cut into triangles, NOT squares…. We’ve all been there, and many of us are “there” all day, every day. But here’s the thing: kids only have these options because we (or grandparents . . . ha!), at some point, have offered them.

By giving in, I realised that I was teaching my daughter that these preferences were acceptable and that her requests (like a new sandwich cut into the preferred shape of the moment) are reasonable to make. I was able to improve the situation by being less consistent. I began cooking with a variety of pasta shapes, purchasing different brands of milk (and bread, cereal, yoghurt, etc.), and by all means, never picking the pith off of an orange.

5. Play the long game

In addition to not indulging my kids with their favourite foods, I also make a point of feeding them foods they claimed not to like the first time around. When my baby son gagged and violently spit out the first (sliced) cherry tomatoes I had served him (see pic above!), I didn’t conclude that he wasn’t a tomato fan. Instead, I concluded that he would need to try them a few more times before understanding the flavours and textures. In the end, it took between five and ten more tries (over the span of about four months) to get him to eat and enjoy a cherry tomato, but we got there eventually! Now he LOVES tomatoes. No joke.

6. Avoid “kid food”

Our kids eat what my husband and I eat. This is important to us because we want our kids to develop a palate for flavourful, varied, and interesting food. I understand that it isn’t always possible for parents to have time to prepare dinner for the kids between getting home from work and bedtime, but where there’s a will there’s a way: during particularly busy times, I’ll prepare something in the slow cooker, or batch cook on the weekend, or purchase pre-made meals that we can all enjoy. Just because it needs to be quickly prepared doesn’t mean that it has to be “kid food”.

7. Let them help

My daughter loves helping me plan our meals for the week (here’s how). She often requests pasta (no surprise there) but instead of doing a simple pasta with red sauce, we do salmon curry pasta, gruyere mac and cheese with spinach, or some other variation. She is happy to have gotten her beloved pasta on the menu, and I’m happy to have new flavours, textures, and foods for her to try.

8. Stand your ground

The most effective (perhaps tied with cutting out snacks) way I found to get my kids to eat is to tell them there is no food until the next meal if they don’t eat what they’re served. It took my daughter going to bed without dinner two times before she figured out how serious I was about this. There is no big glass of milk before bed, no piece of fruit, no yoghurt . . . nothing. If you don’t eat your dinner, there is no food until breakfast. Final answer. It may take a few rough nights before they understand, but I promise the effort will be worth it in the end!

The best part of all of this is that my kids have a positive, happy relationship with food that I hope will benefit them throughout their lives. Yes, it took some work to get here, but for us, it was definitely a battle worth choosing!



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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Kate
    February 29, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Such a great post Bethie! I absolutely agree and love eating as a family and not kid tea vs parent supper, but to each their own. My girls have great appetites and eat quite a large variety of foods.

    I agree that it’s such a slippery slope if you fruit squeeze, raisin, Breadstall, milk, yogurt and cheese them all the time. Or peel fruit or cut off the crust. Really!? Fiber, anyone? We chat all about peels and why we eat them. Anyway, please keep doing posts like these. Such a great topic.
    xx

  • Reply
    Emma
    February 29, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with this, I’m a norland nanny & feed children what we eat, i won’t lie they have fish fingers too, but they eat with us as much as possible & we share family meals.
    It’s so important to keep trying new textures & flavours or you end up dictated by a 2 year olds, off narrow, palette!
    Our eldest is a very good eater, our youngest can be extremely fussy & I’ve learnt that she dispises all sauces, but she’s learning & off course eats well at school 😉

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:38 am

      Thanks for the feedback! And I won’t lie either: my kids and I love frozen pizzas! 😉

  • Reply
    Emma
    February 29, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    I have really enjoyed this post. Having one child that is extremely fussy (stemming from an undiagnosed dairy intolerance that made her contstantly sick) and then one that will eat anything – it is a constant battle in our house and I always end up giving in. However this has renewed by determination to try again with my eldest and encourage some better eating habits. She is slowly getting better but it’s textures that is the real problem for her (as simple as a slightly under ripe banana will cause her to gag!). I’m encouraged to start again though and I think the first step is to not define her as a picky eater and start building a good relationship with her and food. Thanks for the tips Bethie x

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:39 am

      Good luck! Thanks for the feedback! x

  • Reply
    Katherine
    February 29, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    A wonderful article. I can wholeheartedly agree with you. Iam a mum to a 23year old and 21 year old, who will eat anything and everything. When they were little we had our battles, but like you kept my ground when it came to food choices. All I can say is that what you start when they are little will pay dividends when they get older. We enjoy wonderful meals out as a family in wonderful, diverse restaurants.

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:41 am

      That’s great to hear! Thanks for the feedback! xx

  • Reply
    Danielle
    February 29, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Wise words! I definitely shaped (unknowingly) a picky eater with my first son. We’re doing things differently with our second and use many of the strategies you’ve described. With small children you really have to pick your battles, but food/eating is an important one to pick!

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:44 am

      Agreed! The food battle is definitely a battle worth fighting around here!

  • Reply
    Anonymous
    February 29, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    I am soon entering the world of solid foods with my baby girl and this article is an excellent reminder of the ways to encourage her, right from the the beginning,
    to be a good eater. Thank you for all the wonderful tips!

  • Reply
    Hannah
    February 29, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    Oh, yay!! I am happily surprised to see a different kind of post, I already love all your posts but was hoping that you would extend your content past recipes at somet stage because I really like your writing style.

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:45 am

      Thanks for this! I definitely feel encouraged to try another post like this again. xx

  • Reply
    nathalie
    February 29, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    I love this post! So many great ideas. I do have a similar concern with my daughter who would literally eat pasta and tomato sauce every single night so I appreciate how slippery the path is. I also find that the best way is to go cold turkey and just stop buying things that they might like a little too much. It’s often harder on the parents because we have to change gears and break an habit but my experience is that kids are pretty good at adapting and trying new things, if we give them the opportunity!

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 1, 2016 at 1:47 am

      Thanks! Most of what we did was just common sense, but as parents in the midst of these daily battles it can be difficult to step back and see the forest for the trees. Good luck with your daughter! x

  • Reply
    Katie Young
    March 1, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Loved every word. I do not have any children, but from teaching, I agree that children only request what they know they can get. Once they know the option is not there, they stop asking. Thank you for posting!

  • Reply
    Manaiasmama3 (@manaiasmama3)
    March 3, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    exactly the post i’ve been looking for! Can I ask how long did it take to train the kids? mine are aged 2.5 and 7yrs old and i have such difficulty feeding them and to my shame i have been known to cook 3 meals a night!

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm

      Hi! It really only took a few weeks for my daughter to really understand the new rules. She was around two at the time. We’ve raised my son with the rules in place (and are admittedly much more relaxed about it all now than we were when we originally made the changes), but he seems to understand the deal. He still usually gets his nighttime milk though, so once we cut that out, I imagine it could be another transition. Hopefully no more than a few weeks, but I’ll keep you all posted! x

  • Reply
    Emma
    March 6, 2016 at 8:47 am

    This definitely works. My children (7 and 4) have to have a bit of everything on their plate even if they don’t like it, eg kale, roasted butternut squash. They eventually came around and now eat these foods. Be persistent and no alternatives. Great article! X

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 9, 2016 at 12:35 pm

      Thanks! I totally agree. We don’t force them to eat anything they don’t want to. They do have to try it though. Then if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it, but there is no alternative! x

  • Reply
    Mathilde
    March 7, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Great post Bethie! Thank you! I will share with the husband and get ready for battle. Hopefully your tips work for him too! 😉

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 9, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      Glad it was helpful! Having a united front from the parents is definitely important. You can’t have one parent laying down the law, and the other slipping the kid biscuits after dinner! Haha! Good luck! x

  • Reply
    Kimberly
    March 9, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Amen, Bethie!!! Couldn’t have said it better, myself.

    • Reply
      hungermama
      March 9, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      You’re still supposed to do a post for me, mama! I would love to write about your meal planning!! I think it would be really helpful for other parents to read! xx

  • Reply
    Sammie
    March 16, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    This post is great. My daughter is almost 2, and a terrible picky eater. I need to be stricter, but she seems to be quite stubborn and happy to go to bed hungry! Must not cave! I have to keep telling myself that what I’m offering is just normal food I know she would like if she just tried it. x

  • Reply
    motherknowsbetter
    March 28, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    I loved this post! I have only just ‘discovered’ your wonderful blog, and already have my meals picked for this week.

    Everything you wrote, is what I try to teach my kids. I have been lucky, that this far, I haven’t had a fussy eater (baby #3 is only one, so hope I am not jinxing myself!), but I like to think that luck is because our food ‘rules’ are very similar to yours.

    Keep up the wonderful blog, can’t wait to eat my way through it X

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