The Picky Eaters Parents Club – written by Bre Strobel.
“This isn’t what I want! I’m not eating it,” my five-year-old, Clarabelle, shouts as soon as her plate hits the table.
Rory, two, cries as he looks into his bowl of chicken tikka. He hates broccoli, I know, but I also know he loves the tikka masala sauce. It’s just been so long since we’ve made them eat what we were serving for dinner instead of their own separate meal.
“I hate our kids! I hate feeding them!” I scream at my husband as I walk back into the kitchen, “They’re going to go to bed hungry, and then they won’t sleep!”
I slap food into our own bowls.
I can tell he’s ready to make them something else, but we both stop and remind each other of our goal: the kids will eat what we serve them. It’s three weeks into COVID-19 isolation, and we just bought and moved into a new house all at the same time. So we were in survival mode for a minute. And now we have a bit of undoing bad habits to address.
When my daughter was 6 months old, she was failure-to-thrive, which means she was not only tiny for her age but had actually lost weight since her four-month checkup. It turned out she had silent infant reflux, a condition that causes the stomach acid to come back into the esophagus without the characteristic constant spitting up that normally indicates reflux in a baby. Which is why it took several months and weight loss (and many sleepless nights, and hours of crying per day) to get a diagnosis. A month later, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety, which probably comes as no surprise.
All this to say, from the beginning, feeding my daughter was a stressful affair. As we introduced solids she was put on a proton-pump inhibitor to stop her stomach from producing acid. We had a strict no-sugar policy, which was bent immediately on finding that ppi medication tastes like baking soda and therefore needs a sweet syrup in order for a baby to acquiesce to consuming it.
As my daughter grew, as much as we had planned to do baby-led-weaning and only give her the healthiest foods, feeding times became a lot more about ensuring she would learn to enjoy eating, period. They were also about fattening up her tiny body, so we had to lean on purees fortified with fatty oils.
Ingesting anything had become such a painful transaction for her, we had to be careful not to give her food that would upset her stomach or push things that she didn’t like, just to make sure she would in fact eat.
Her weight issues only fueled my anxiety, and on more than one occasion food ended up on the wall and floor by my own hand. I distinctly remember pinto beans flying everywhere as the plastic plate I had thrown hit the wall. Clarabelle, 18 months at the time, was less concerned about my anger outburst, satisfied to know she wouldn’t have to eat that food.
As my daughter phased out of her medication and entered toddlerhood, I needed another way.
After a recommendation from a stranger in a mom group, I started following Janet Lansbury on Facebook. She posted something on trusting even the smallest kids with their eating by “keeping it breezy.” This method was supposed to encourage a positive food association and allow for bodily autonomy. By not placing a burden of “eating everything on your plate,” kids were trusted to fill their bellies only to their capacity and no more, encouraging food-regulation and portion control before it needed to become a bigger discussion.
And isn’t that what we all want for our children?
So my husband, Garth, and I took a new approach to feeding our toddler. We decided we would start feeding her what we were eating more often, and that when she didn’t want to eat it, we would stay calm and say, “Ok, I can see this isn’t what you wanted. I know that if you are hungry you will eat it.”
The key was to communicate that there is nothing else if she decided not to eat what was served.
Sometimes we’d find that she really didn’t like what we had offered. But we also noticed that sometimes, she’d just have an idea in her head of what we were going to have that night and wouldn’t eat what we served even if it was something she liked. And other times she was simply feeling oppositional and asserting her will. Where I had once thought that my job as a mom was to out-stubborn her in my own stubbornness, I was learning that really what I needed was consistency in my response.
The more I worried about her weight gain or thriving, I’d find myself begrudgingly make her Mac-n-Cheese or Spaghetti O’s just to make sure she would eat. And the more I gave in to my anxiety and desire to keep things easy, the more often she would assert her will, the harder it was for us to get her to eat what we wanted her to eat instead of what her toddler palette wanted. So it was important for us to stick to our boundaries. And every time we figured out our boundaries and got consistent with them, we would find peace.
The babies, they don’t actually want control. They don’t know what to do with it.
“I know it’s not what you want, but it’s what we’re having tonight. I know you’ll eat it if you’re hungry,” became our nightly mantra. Some nights it worked right away, and sometimes it took half an hour of pouting and tears before she would take even one bite, but we weren’t budging. And we found through this method that she likes roasted broccoli, Indian spices like curry and garam masala, and that she prefers raw green bell peppers over fried.
We even found a trick for serving desserts. Growing up, Garth and I both had to eat the food on our plates before we could have dessert. The problem with that is, if you’ve served your child more than their capacity for the night, you’re teaching them to overstuff themselves.
With Clarabelle, we noticed she wouldn’t eat anything on her plate if she knew dessert was coming. While we didn’t want to fuel a need for instant gratification, we also wanted to teach her to delay gratification herself. Or else, what, always keep dessert a secret, even at events? That seemed like a much harder tactic. So we started putting dessert on her plate when it was available, telling her that when she finished it, she wasn’t getting more. We’d even offer that she could eat it first or last, but that it’s all she was getting. And if she needed more food in the end, it was not going to be more dessert.
By her fifth birthday, we noticed she was saving her dessert for after she was done eating her meal. Her brother, who had just turned two, was upset when he noticed his sister’s cake after finishing his own.
“Ah, you ate all your cake, and she’s saving hers for after she’s done eating,” we said.
And that decision, waiting until she was satisfied with her dinner before moving on to dessert, was exactly the result we had waited for.
When we visit family or have some sort of big change, like when we bought our house this spring, we find ourselves bending the rules while we operate in survival mode. Our parents don’t always trust that if you don’t make the kids exactly what they want, they’ll still eat. And sometimes, even when we’ve been consistent, the kids still need to assert their power. Seeing as they get three solid meals and two snacks each day, we know that if they miss one meal they won’t starve. So if they really dig in their heels, as unpleasant as it is, we prove to them that their power only lies in how much they fill their bellies with what’s offered and not over choosing what we serve.
Another benefit is that as they grow, they’re learning to try new things. They’re learning that it’s ok to eat something you don’t like to eat, because it’s beneficial to your body whether you enjoy it or not. And I can’t think of a healthier way to build their autonomy and positive food experience than letting them be unafraid to try new things, even if they end up not liking it.
When we hold our boundary, even after messing up for awhile, the kids will eat if they’re hungry.
They might learn that they like mango. And maybe even salmon.
And after half an hour of crying and screaming (maybe some from Mom too), they might stick a rebel finger in the tikka masala sauce and lick it. And upon tasting the sauce, they might finish their broccoli. Though the quinoa goes largely untouched, they don’t go to bed hungry after all.