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When I was a new mom, I swore I would never be a short-order cook who made something different for every family member. I’d make one delicious, nutritious meal after another, & my whole family would love it. I was blessed with a toddler who at least tried anything, & I thought I was well on my way to being the next Catherine McCord.
Then that toddler turned into a 4-year-old. Apparently 4-year-olds think all food* is poison. And I got another toddler who learned at a shockingly tender age what a hunger strike is.
*Except pizza, pancakes, PB&J, hot dogs, & spaghetti.
Boy did my standards change! When my little one was losing weight (I wish I knew her secret! Oh wait, it was not eating.), I had mountains of kid-sized bowls of barely touched food in my sink–anything to get her to eat something. One night I may or may not have fed her peanut butter by the spoonful. Not my proudest moment.
Mealtime is still a battle sometimes, but now that we’re out of the woods I feel like I can share some of the tricks I used to survive (& help my kids survive!) without resorting to Goldfish & frozen chicken nuggets.
Stay out of the Snack Spiral. I can’t tell you the number of parents I’ve heard say, “Oh, Junior lived off of Goldfish crackers & juice at that age.” Why do you think he wouldn’t eat anything else? Because he was filling up at snacktime on just that! If you’re worried about your child’s eating, start by cutting back on snacks & not letting your kids graze. Trust me, kids are a lot more adventurous when they’re allowed to get hungry before a meal! They won’t starve if they’re limited to 3 meals & 2 small, scheduled, seated snacks a day.
I take this one step further & make a rule of not offering “snack foods” (crackers, fruit leather, etc.) at dinner time, & don’t use it as a crutch if they haven’t eaten enough “real food” at a meal.
Meet your kids in the middle. I still steadfastly refuse to be a short-order cook, so the whole family eats our fair share of “kid foods” (healthed up a little). For instance, on our menu every week is at least one of the following: homemade pizza (lots lower in calories than delivery, especially with part-skim mozzarella), spaghetti & meatballs, & “brinner” (you’ve seen a few of my healthy pancake recipes on the blog already). I enjoy these meals too, & if nothing else, I know that I at least have a couple dinners a week when I’m not fighting them.
If you can’t stand the few things they will eat (like if they’ll only eat fish sticks), then designate that for a date night or a night when you & your spouse order something in for yourselves. My 4-year-old loves when the babysitter comes because she knows that’s when she gets Annie’s mac & cheese. One word of warning about this second tactic though: don’t do it every week. The more the family eats the same meal, the more unified you’ll be & the easier it’ll be to convince your kids to eat what’s in front of them, because that’s what the whole family’s eating. As tempting as it is to feed the kids nuggets every other night & then treat yourselves to sushi after they’re in bed, that could backfire on you when they dig in their heels & whine, “But YOU don’t eat ___ when YOU don’t want to!”
Make like a fancy restaurant–try courses. Have something on the menu that they WILL eat at every meal so you know they’re not starving. But don’t bring it out right away. My girls are fruit-itarians–they would subsist entirely on grapes & strawberries if I let them. So I leave the fruit in the fridge. When they’ve eaten enough protein & veggies to balance it–my 4-year-old always asks “How many numbers?” (meaning how many bites) as soon as she gets her plate–THEN I bring out the fruit “course” & let them go to town, fully prepared for them to not touch what else is on their plate for the rest of the night.
Don’t be boring. Change up how you’re serving things. When my toddler went on her hunger strike shortly after turning 1 & wound up losing over a pound, I was in a panic. The day she stopped eating her favorite food in the world, strawberries, I was in tears. What was wrong??? The next night I saw her reaching for my strawberries instead of hers. Do you know what the problem was? She had decided I was cutting them too small! Instead of the teeny-bite-sized pieces I’d been giving her, she wanted a whole quarter of a strawberry. It was as simple as that, & she was back to eating strawberries. Do you know how the hunger strike ended once & for all? I handed her a fork. Seriously. She didn’t even use it at the beginning, but knowing she COULD have the control somehow fixed her not eating.
So in short, if they stop eating something they’d eaten before, try changing what you call it or how you serve it. For example, your child might decide he wants his “night-vision carrot sticks” (because of the beta carotene) with dip, or her “dinosaur trees” (that’s what we call broccoli) raw instead of cooked, or she prefers short pasta to spaghetti, or… she’ll only eat raisins out of the box.
Let them help. Recruit your “kitchen helpers” to be your sous chefs: let them choose the fruits & veggies at the store & then wash them or add them to the pot. The more involved they are, the more excited they’ll be about trying something new.
Be sneaky. When all else fails, sneak the good stuff into their food. Veggie puree in the spaghetti sauce, whole-wheat flour in the baked goods, Greek yogurt in the pancakes–all of these go a long way to helping maintain the balance in your little one’s diet until he decides to get more adventurous.
Best of luck with your picky eaters! Do you have any other tricks & tips for surviving?