Between the ages of 1-2, we’ve had a lot of challenges with our son when it came to eating. Now, after a year of trial and error, I think (I hope?) we’re finally in a good place so I’m ready to share how we got there.
Going back to the first year, I found introducing solids to be the most overwhelming transition. First, there’s the anxiety of them choking or having a severe allergic reaction. There’s also so many different approaches to take and I had no clue which one would be the best for us. On top of all that, it begins a whole new routine and balance between solids and breast/formula feeding. Are they eating too much, or not enough?? I found it stressful in the beginning for sure.
When we did introduce solids around 6 months though, Sebastien seemed to try and love everything. Even as I look back on the food diary I kept for him for the first few months (I’m neurotic that way), he was eating a variety of good, healthy food, and hitting every food group on a weekly basis. We thought we were golden! Pssh, I was stressing for nothing.
But then, somewhere along the way, around his first birthday, he suddenly stopped wanting to eat almost everything he used to enjoy. He wouldn’t even eat pizza anymore, which used to be the biggest treat for him! WHO DOESN’T LIKE PIZZA? (Uh, me as a kid too, actually. Guilty.)
He also started to demand to eat the same thing every day and would throw a fit when he didn’t get exactly what he asked for. I had read at the time that toddlers feel safe in routine and feeling like they have some control, so it made sense, but I had no idea what to do. Have you tried reasoning with a 1-year-old why he can’t live off bananas alone? Yeah, good luck.
Everything I had read though said if your child is a picky eater that it’s your fault as the parents. (Yeah, full on ringing the Game of Thrones shame bell at us.) Well, even admitting that to myself did not help me because the mistakes had already been made! I can take full responsibility for contributing to him being a picky eater, but at the same time, I needed to know how to reverse the damage I did!
So I’m going to pass along 8 things that DID help us…
1. We stopped offering him something else when he would reject the food in front of him.
The number one mistake we made was when our son would refuse to eat what was in front of him, many times we would make him something else instead. That was setting the worst habit ever. It taught our son that if he whines enough, he eventually gets what he wants. GREAT lesson.
In our defense, it came from a good place. When Sebastien was a newborn, there was a scary time for us when he wasn’t gaining enough weight so my mind always went back there. When he rejected an entire meal, I would worry he wouldn’t get enough to eat again so I would panic and give him something else. Plus, it just seemed easier sometimes to make him something else instead of battling with him, but in the end, I regret doing that.
They do warn you not to allow yourself to be a short order cook for your child! Ain’t nobody got time for that. They also say your child will never starve themselves, meaning, they will eventually eat if they are hungry. Noted.
So now we always calmly let Sebastien know, “If you don’t eat this, there’s nothing else.” And we stick to it. The choice is up to him, but he will not get an alternative. No more cracking.
2. We kept exposing him to foods he refused to try.
Another thing I was told over and over is that your child needs to be exposed to a new food sometimes dozens of times before they’ll like it. I thought it meant he had to actually TASTE it dozens of times, but for the longest time, he would never try it. Sometimes he wouldn’t even touch it! So of course I worried, “How will he ever like anything when he never tries anything??” What I didn’t realize was, sometimes exposure means just having the food on his plate.
Now that he’s 2, I’ve seen him try things he would have never even touched before. Literally out of nowhere start shoveling it in his mouth Cookie Monster style and loving it. VICTORY! (I swear, whenever this happens, I feel happier than a kid who correctly spells ‘DRAHTHAAR’ in a Scripps National Spelling Bee.)
Warning: This constant exposure approach will seem like the longest waiting game ever. It was truly painful preparing food to put on his plate when we were pretty sure he wouldn’t even try it anyway, only to end up throwing it out and feeling wasteful, but we’ve finally started to see it pay off! Hang in there.
Oh, and one major key to add to that: It always helped to make sure there was something else I knew he loved on the plate along with the new food. Less chance of a full-on plate toss that way.
3. We started giving him more of a variety, with a lot of colours on his plate.
Health Canada recommends making half your plate fruit and veggies, and an organization called Rainbow Plate (that I heard of through Jamie Oliver on a Facebook Live session) has suggested adding as many colours of the rainbow to your plate as possible. Points taken! We’ve really noticed it helps to provide both variety and colours.
So for us, yeah, many times Sebastien won’t try every little thing we put in front of him, but he’s more likely to try something else that’s there when he has options, especially if he feels drawn to the different colours and fun shapes. Presentation is everything. (And obviously when I say colours I mean healthy, colourful fruits and vegetables; not like red dye no.32.)
To add to that, it’s also not a bad idea to find out if your kid likes their food all mixed together or separated. Our son has gone through phases of wanting each thing in its own compartment to liking everything mixed. I know I personally don’t want my egg on top of my toast, thanks very much (what kind of monster does that?) so of course children have their own preferences too.
4. Bribery. Yes, I know this is controversial.
Alright, say Sebastien has three things on his snack plate: a mini-muffin, grapes, and cucumber. My son will, 10 times out of 10, eat the muffin and then ask for more muffins before trying the grapes or cucumber. We will tell him, for example, he can only have another muffin if he has 5 grapes and 3 cucumber slices. (It’s always a random number but hey, it helps with his counting too.)
I’ve heard people warn not to bribe or negotiate because you’re teaching your kid they get rewarded for eating, and then they’ll grow up wanting to be rewarded for everything. Whatever. Maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s just a worst case scenario. But for us, bribery doesn’t come into play at every snack and meal. It works for us sometimes, and when it does, I feel like it’s a win-win because he gets to try and like more things. So I accept the future consequences.
Bribe at your own risk!
5. We started eating dinner together every night, and stopped making him a different, separate meal.
One habit that we let go on for too long was that we used to make Sebastien his own meal, then we would sit at the dinner table with him and just watch him eat (or not eat. Usually not eat.) We would always eat later, without him, after he went to bed when we would have time to make dinner for ourselves. It’s hard to have dinner ready for the entire family at like 5:30pm every night and most of the time my husband and I wouldn’t even be hungry that early.
However, one day we decided that we were only going to make one family dinner, and offer it to Sebastien at the same time as us, and that was it.
This changed everything.
He actually wanted to eat what we were eating and I was like, “Whyyyy didn’t we do this sooner?!” It does take extra planning (online grocery shopping with delivery or free pickup helps a lot with that though. Thank you, internet…) but at the same time, now we’re making one meal instead of two so it evens out. We definitely did have to change our own daily eating schedules in order to have an appetite in time for the early bird special, but that was worth it. Yay for family togetherness.
6. We stopped getting frustrated at him when he wouldn’t eat.
Every time I reached out for help, whether it was in person to our doctor or just searching for helpful articles online, I was constantly reminded of this:
Our responsibility, as the parents, is to provide the meal and set the time to eat. It’s our son’s job to eat.
As any parent of a toddler knows, you can not force them to eat… but I still wanted to encourage my son to eat. So, while Googling solutions to ‘toddler is a picky eater’ one day, I came across a phrase that blew my mind:
You don’t have to eat?
But he does have to eat??
Here’s the thing though… when meal times are a battle, nobody wins. If we got frustrated at Sebastien, it never worked. Not once did we enticed him to eat when we got mad about it. Plus, we were in danger of him associating meal times with fighting. So now instead of getting upset, we simply say, “K, you don’t have to eat.” That ends the the dramatic act before it even starts. And sometimes, guess what? He eats anyway, even after we say he doesn’t have to! (The first time that happened, I felt like I earned my ‘mom badge’ in reverse psychology. Heh heh heh.)
As our son gets older, we will tell him he doesn’t have to eat BUT he does have to sit at the table because dinner time is family together time. For now though, he’s too young for us to make him stay sitting at the table (especially since he said goodbye to his booster seat meaning I can’t strap him in anymore.) But apparently as children get older, the majority of the time they’ll end up eating because they’re sitting there anyway. Woop.
Seems so much easier than the days of my parents not allowing me to leave the dinner table until I finished everything on my plate. It was always a scene too. One time, I was even threatened that I wouldn’t get a Halloween costume unless I finished my… wait for it… LIVER. Ew! It took all night but I did it. (That event scarred me for life.)
7. We got him involved while we make the meal.
We always make Sebastien part of the process now. We take him to the grocery store and let him put items in the cart (of our choosing, not his because duh, he’s 2.) We give him access to his own cupboard in the kitchen (it only has his plastic items in it so nothing will ever break) and we let him get things from it himself, which he loves to do. He always gets to choose his own plate, bowl, cup, spoon, fork, bib, etc.
Also, we often let him sit at the counter to watch us prepare dinner, along with letting him “help” by doing age appropriate tasks (which right now is pretty much letting him stir or toss in some ingredients as long as it’s not over the stove.) It makes him feel special and it’s such a fun way to introduce the important lifelong skill of cooking.
Plus, now he wants to help me with everything, including laundry and sweeping the floor. I’m not gonna say no to that!
The most life-changing move we made…
K, I’m exaggerating and it’s not like we bust this one out daily but seriously, once I got this kid hooked on the act of dipping, he will try anything if it’s dippable. Raw carrots in hummus? Yep. Yam fries in ketchup? No brainer. Avocado sushi roll in soy sauce? Bring it. Peach slices in yogurt? Works every time. So simple. All about that dip in this house. #whenIdipyoudipwedip
Well, that’s all I got!
Applying these adjustments and waiting to see improvement took almost a year for us so it may not be a quick fix, but we found it was worth putting in the effort to have our son finally become more adventurous with food. If you’re struggling with a picky eater, I hope some of these can help you too.
(And yet, after all this, he still won’t eat pizza. Workin’ on it.)
As well, if you have any great tips to add, please leave it in the comments! My son just turned 2 so I’m preparing for new challenges ahead. ‘Terrible Twos’ are a myth, right? 😐 Ha.
xo – Bri
[photo credit: Witzia Schafer]