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Right now, Ryan is eating everything in sight. He’s at that delightful baby stage where he doesn’t discriminate and all food is awesome. I love it. Especially considering that Margot is…less excited about food. Mila? Sometimes she’ll eat stuff, sometimes she won’t. She’s had her extra picky moments. But having even just one picky eater makes mealtime more stressful than I’d prefer.
Not that I’m surprised. Every kid is a picky eater at some point. Every single one. I don’t have data to back me up on that assumption, but I’m sure all the parents out there are nodding their heads in agreement because seriously. They all go through at least one phase where all the food is yucky.
I also understand that sometimes it’s more than “just a phase.” I’ve got a friend whose son has had some SERIOUS food issues for a long time, and she has tried EVERY strategy out there. Therapy has helped. But he’s on the extreme end of picky eating. Food allergies, sensory processing issues, and other developmental complications can make things extra challenging for parents.
(To those of you dealing with that kind of extreme pickiness, I am so sorry. It’s heart-wrenching to know your child is hungry but won’t eat what you provide for them. And I’m just so sorry. All the hugs to you; you’re doing the best you can and that is inspiring.)
For the majority, though, being a picky eater at one age or another is just part of being a kid.
Unfortunately, when they eat only graham crackers all day every day, kids don’t get the nutrition their growing bodies need. That’s when parents have to either get creative or accept the fact that their kids might get scurvy. (Jk, I doubt that’s really a concern unless they’re sailors in the 1500’s.)
Over the last few years, I’ve picked up some strategies that have helped us when we’re dealing with a picky eater or three. The goal: get them to eat. The bigger goal: get them to eat a varied, nutritious diet. It’s a challenge, for sure, which is why my number one tip is…
Choose your battles wisely.
I think this applies to nearly every aspect of parenting, because some battles just aren’t worth fighting. You have to decide what is truly important…and be aware of the consequences you may have to face.
Do you want to deal with a kid still at the dinner table at 10 PM because he refuses to eat his green beans? Are you willing to clean up vomit when you demand that your kid eats more of something, even though it’s triggering her strong gag reflex? (True story. I learned my lesson) Sometimes you stand your ground. Other times, it doesn’t have to be a big deal and you can let it go.
For me, this has been a learn-as-you-go kind of thing. I can’t tell you which battles to engage in or avoid. Just be sure you choose wisely.
On to more easily applied suggestions!
Keep it separated.
Things like casseroles, enchiladas, pot pies, and pasta bakes? Margot hates all of them. Even when she likes each of the components of a meal—because she ALWAYS asks, “What did you put in this?”—she refuses to even try it. She will scarf down all kinds of foods…as long as they aren’t all mixed up with other foods. Therefore I’ve stopped serving it to her that way.
Instead, I set aside small servings of certain ingredients as I’m making dinner. So, for example, if David and I are having steak quesadillas, the girls eat steak, cheese, raw bell peppers, and tortillas. I serve pasta without the sauce on it. We build our own salads at the table. It’s a really simple practice, and this way I don’t have to make anyone a different meal that they will eat. Everyone wins.
Provide options you know they’ll eat.
There are some foods I know Margot will always eat: biscuits, strawberries, scrambled eggs, pancakes, yogurt, and a handful of other things. Whenever possible, I try to include one of her favorites with our dinner.
Some nights, that just doesn’t work out, though. When I know dinner will be something she refuses to touch, I try to make sure she has an extra big lunch or offer her a snack later in the afternoon. Or I just don’t worry about it too much because I know she’ll eat a big breakfast in the morning. (I’ll explain this more in a later tip.)
Serve veggies that don’t look like veggies.
You know I like my green smoothies for that very reason. Zucchini muffins are also great for this. Our more recent favorite way to serve vegetables is in a glass of V8® Veggie Blends: Berry Bliss and V8® Veggie Blends: Caribbean Greens. I’ve always liked the V8® fruit juice options, so I’m not surprised that these are equally awesome. Mila’s favorite is “the red one” and Margot prefers the green.
I love that they’re happily drinking fruits and vegetables they would otherwise snub. (Sorry, sweet potatoes.) Neither flavor is too sweet, thanks to a full serving of veggies in each 8oz. serving and no added sugar. When they drink some V8® Veggie Blends with their lunch, I know they’re getting around 60 calories of nutritional goodness, with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, so I don’t mind as much that the rest of the meal is plain cooked pasta and cornbread.
Confession: we actually polished off two 46oz bottles (one of each flavor) before I had a chance to take photos for this post, so I had to go back to Walmart to buy more…and we’re almost out of the Berry Bliss again! It’s super affordable too, so I may just start keeping our pantry stocked V8® Veggie Blends at all times.
Change the way you describe certain foods.
Ever since I read Dinner A Love Story, I’ve been telling my kids that tortellini are “little pasta presents.” Margot literally eats it up. “A present? For me? WHAT’S INSIDE?!” She pulls the things apart and gobbles them down. For the longest time my girls thought “popsicles” were frozen tubes of Greek yogurt. They like to open up sugar snap pea pods to eat the “tiny baby peas” inside, and they’re more likely to eat broccoli if we talk about dinosaurs eating trees.
Sometimes you have to act like a hipster restaurant and use some creative vocab so your food appeals more to your audience.
“You have to taste it but you don’t have to like it.”
I don’t insist that my kids finish their meals. Maybe when they get older that will change, but for now? It’s not a battle I’ve chosen to fight. Our deal is simple: they have to taste everything. That’s it. If they like it, great, they can eat as much as they want. If they don’t like it, fine, they don’t have to eat any. (Or they only have to eat a couple bites instead of cleaning their plate. It depends on the meal.)
This way I know they’re at least being exposed to lots of flavors and textures. Often, with enough tries, they’ll admit that “it’s not that bad” and maybe even “I kind of like this!” Sometimes we are all surprised when a dish becomes their favorite. Mila, for example, is a huge fan of split pea soup. Who would’ve guessed? And so we keep tasting. It’s still a struggle, but MUCH less of a struggle than getting a picky eater to finish an entire helping. To me, it’s worth it.
Ask your picky eater to help you plan, shop, and prepare meals.
I am always entertained at how much my kids love helping me shop for groceries. A few months ago I took it a step further and asked them to help me plan our weekly menu. When I actually made the things they requested? It was like the best day ever! And while I really dislike having “helpers” when I cook, they are always so proud of themselves when they contribute to a meal.
I once watched Margot grimace while she ate the carrots she’d put into our soup. She still didn’t like them, but she “cooked” them so she was determined to eat them. Letting them take ownership of their food counts for a lot.
Consider food by the week instead of by the day.
This is something my sister-in-law suggested when Mila was going through her picky-eater-toddler phase, and it’s genius. When I watched her over the course of a week, I noticed some days she would eat a ton and other days she’d eat hardly anything. On average, she was getting enough food. It just didn’t feel like she was on those days when she had only two bites of lunch.
Since noticing that, I’ve felt less stressed about making sure my kids get x amount of veggies every single day. Some days all they eat is cereal and chicken nuggets. But if they have a big glass of V8® Veggie Blends: Berry Bliss or Caribbean Greens every other day, a green smoothie a couple times a week, veggies with dinner most nights, and a handful of cucumbers and/or peppers somewhere in there, I consider that fairly balanced. Having French Bread Friday also helps ensure they eat a fair amount of fresh produce at least once a week.
It’s so liberating to take a longer view of their nutrition rather than nitpicking every meal.
Keep offering a wide variety of foods.
Just last week we had fish, Brussels sprouts, chili, burritos, and ramen. Did Margot eat all of it? Nope. She hardly touched most of it. But Mila ate quite a bit, even trying new things with minimal complaining. (With the exception of the Brussels sprouts. “They smell weird!” She’s not wrong.) I have three main reasons for continuing to serve a variety of foods, even when I know they aren’t likely to eat much:
1) If I want them not to be picky eaters, they need to be exposed to a lot of different foods. Giving them their favorites over and over again only reinforces the idea that they don’t need to try new things, or that their favorites are the only “yummy” food.
2) If I make broccoli the same way every time, and they don’t like it, they’ll assume they don’t like broccoli at all. On the other hand, if I offer it in several different contexts, they’ll learn to determine more specifically what they like and dislike. Maybe they don’t like raw broccoli or they prefer it blended up in soup. I know I have preferences about how certain foods are prepared, but I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t tried lots of options.
3) There are so many foods in the world that aren’t chicken nuggets! How will they ever know they like gyros or pad thai or butternut squash if they never get a chance to try those things?
Feed your picky eater whatever they want.
Hear me out! I’m not saying give in and let them have a french fry free-for-all. (Although if there was ketchup involved, Mila would be all over that.) What I mean is, maybe don’t insist all the time. As parents, we sometimes feel like we need to control SO MUCH, but honestly? It’s okay if we don’t. At the end of the day, fed is best.
The girls get to pick their own breakfast, which 95% of the time is some kind of cereal. I also let them choose their lunch most days. Dinner is more of a “you’ll eat what we serve” situation. But this way, I only have to deal with a picky eater at one meal instead of all three.
This might look different at your house. Maybe you let your kids pick dinner but they don’t get a choice for breakfast. Maybe you choose every meal for them but allow them the freedom to eat whatever snacks they want a couple times a day. (My kids snack a lot. Restricting snacks doesn’t change the pickiness at meals so I’ve stopped fighting that battle too. I’m okay with that.)
Like I said, the goal is to make sure they are fed. If you can get them to eat a balanced, nutritious diet? That’s a HUGE win! And
You can find V8® Veggie Blends: Berry Bliss and V8® Veggie Blends: Caribbean Greens in the juice aisle of Walmart, and you can check out V8® Healthy Greens, another awesome veggie beverage option, online here.
Were you a picky eater? Do you have one at home? What are some tips and tricks you’ve used to ensure they eat a fairly healthy, balanced diet?