Feeding my picky eating toddler

Child Eating PeasThere was a time when my son was eating peas and avocado and asked for more. That time has long gone. Somehow around 2 he turned against the color green and would not touch any vegetable…or meat, or eggs, or anything with sauce on it, different food can’t be touching each other on his place. He won’t even eat the typical favorite pb&j or mac n cheese. For the longest time his diet consisted of mostly blueberries and milk. I was convinced I was raising a bear cub because somehow he was still growing and stayed in the 90th percentile in height and weight. I’ve tried everything from only offering the same food we ate to involving him in the prepping process. Still, he was only interested in the food he liked. Every meal was a stressful battle for both of us.

I came across a study where the researchers kept track of what a group of children ate over the course of a week. They could eat whatever they wanted, and the result was that all the children ate a balanced meal on their own.  The belief is that children are much more in tune with their body and will eat what their body needs. With this information, I began to have a new outlook on how to approach this picky eating issue.

First of all I have to admit that in general I am a pretty lenient parent. I don’t practice permissive parenting. I do set limits, but I pick my battles. So if my 3.5 year old son asks for a cookie before dinner, I will give him one but not use the cookie as a bargaining chip for him to eat vegetables. The limit I set is he can have just one as his snack and it’s fine if he chooses to have it early. If we eat out and he wants french fries with ketchup as his meal. I will order sweet potato fries and let him know because he is only having fries, his dinner is going to be carrots and steamed broccoli. Some meals he’ll only eat carbs, or dairy. So instead of having every food group in each meal, he eats one or two food groups per setting. At the end of the day, he’s met most of his daily requirement. Over a week, I know he definitely had a balanced diet.

And during the meal, I’ll talk to him about how carrots have vitamin A and helps his eyes, or yogurt has calcium and so on. With each bad food choice he makes, I make sure we talk about what he ate and what else we can eat to make his meal better for his body. Another trick I do to help emphasize the importance of certain vitamins is pretending to gain special powers. We pretend that our eyes are so much more powerful from food rich in vitamin A that we can see outer space, or we’re so strong we can lift up a construction truck.

Another thing I realized is that when we eat out, every person orders whatever they want to eat. So why do we always have to eat the same thing at home? In my family, I love hot soup, my husband loves salads, and my son eats very plain food. So when I can, I make a chicken salad, then steam some of the ingredients for my son, and add some broth to make my soup with mostly the same ingredients. Of course this only happens on occasion since no mom has the time to prepare custom meals for each family member.  I personally eat a lot of vegetables, so I continue to model that for him and always offer to let him try. A few times he tried a small bite and didn’t like it, but I felt like it was a milestone just for him to be more open to new foods.

I also serve a variety of fresh and dried fruits. Or I make a smoothy or popsicle that I’ve hidden pureed kidney beans with blueberries or steamed squash with orange juice. Avocado creates a great smooth texture. I also add a spoonful of finely ground flaxseed wherever I can for some extra Omega-3. I know there are a lot of recipes out there where you can add many pureed ingredients. I’m not much of a baker. So I’ve found the smoothies and popsicles to be the easiest, especially when it’s given as a snack food.

I used to spend a lot of time “decorating” the plate with fun shapes and cut outs. It took a lot of time to prep and it didn’t always work out. What I’ve found works best is letting him have the fun. I make him a very large pancake using whole wheat pancake mix then give him a few cookie cutters. You can do the same with bread or tortillas. He loves making the shapes himself and eating them. And with softer food like melons or cheeses, I give him a spreading knife, show him how to safely handle it, and he can cut the pieces the way he likes it.

I stock my pantry with whole wheat pasta in every shape and he can choose which one he likes or make his own mix. I’ve also tried quinoa or brown rice pasta. I’ll often cook extra and freeze single serve portions so next time I only have to heat it up and serve.

Keeping my son at the table was always a problem. Sometimes I realize he’s just not very hungry, so I don’t enforce that he has to finish everything off his plate. I’ve also learned it’s better to put less on the plate so he can ask for more. Other times I’ll finish cooking and eat first while he’s still playing, then while he eats I can tell him a story or about our day. Every once in a while I’ll ask him “So when do you think you’ll try to eat a salad or sandwich?” and see what he says.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on having good eating habits. Unfortunately, my husband and I both still love to eat in front of the tv (after my son goes to bed early) and I realize that we’re taking very tiny steps for him to try some new foods that everyone else eats. I guess what is important to me is that he learns about what he is eating and that he enjoys it. Many grown ups don’t even try sushi until they feel ready, then can’t get enough of it. So I know the day will come when we can order something off the menu un-altered. In the meantime, I’ll continue with this approach so we can enjoy and relax during our meals.

annA Mom Knows Contributor

About Ann

After working over 10 years as an art director at the Walt Disney Studios, I became a stay-at-home mom. My experience as a first-time mom inspired me to publish a book called "Quick Tips For First-Time Moms: A Simple and Practical Guide to Finding Balance". I love using my creativity to solve problems. From organization to recycling, parenting to party planning, I continue to find new interests and inspirations through spending time with my child.

2 Responses to Feeding my picky eating toddler

  1. Sue-on-the-farm says:

    Damn! Wish I had thought of this great question 20 years ago! “So when do you think you’ll try to eat a salad or sandwich?”

    Long ago, in a place far, far away, when I was a Perfect Parent [when I was childless], I was gob-smacked to meet my first picky eater. Of course all of my righteous eye-rolling, scoffing, and reluctant catering guaranteed I would give birth to a picky eater.

    We’re now out the other side, Kidlet is a fully grown 20-something adult. We all survived. Quite well in hing-sight but there were more than a few days of doubt.

    We were/are relatively permissive parents. We lived a shift-working, tag-team-parenting lifestyle that rarely saw all three of us at the dinner table together. Since it was usually just one parent plus one child eating at a time, it was easier for us to cook to feed her and feed ourselves from whatever she was eating.

    I started baking muffins when she was an infant and I was faced with my first-ever brown bananas and haven’t stopped since. Muffins are quick, easy, hide a multitude of pureed or finely diced or shredded fruits and vegetables, also all manner of ground grains and seeds.

    One chocolate chip pushed upside-down into the center of a muffin makes a “chocolate chip” muffin that passed the acceptable foods to eat list while containing flaxseed, shredded apple, carrot, pear, and almost any cooked, pureed veggie as a substiture for butter/margarine.

    Our rule, that we got away with, was that she had to try one bite of everything we ate.

    Seemingly by magic, when she turned 12 she began eating “like a normal person” and is now a more adventurous eater than we are. Who ever thought I’d be typing that sentence!

    The best parenting advice I ever got was, trust your gut, do what works for your family.

    I still wish I had that question in my arsenal though….

  2. Ann says:

    Hi Sue, thank you so much for your comment on the post. I’m so happy to hear that when your daughter was ready, she ate like a “normal” person. Just yesterday my son ate pizza, and not just the crust! It might not have been the healthiest choice to start, but he tried a few bites on his own.
    I think your tip to try one bite of everything is great. And I’ll definitely try the chocolate chip inside the healthy muffin idea! Thanks for sharing.