Monday, April 7, 2014

Raising Kids Who Aren't Picky

A kid's meal at our house is a regular meal on a kid's plate.
Most of the kids in our family love all varieties of healthy food - in a "truth is stranger than fiction" sort of way. Even we don't believe some of the things we hear sometimes!

 Here are actual events from our extended family:
Toddler who makes a habit of crawling to the fridge, opening the door, pulling out the crisper drawer, and selecting a cucumber or bell pepper to snack on.
Mom to child: "You cannot have any more seaweed until you've finished your pasta!"
Child: "Can I have some lettuce for breakfast?"
Daddy, looking through the fridge and pulling out some Iceberg, "Sure, here you go."
Child (crying) "That's not lettuce!"
Child: "Can I have a special treat before I go to bed? Like, maybe, some . . . broccoli?"
Child: "Can I have some more of that nice Kale?"
Mom: "All our kids just LOVE lentil soup!"
Grown kids (fondly): "Do you still make that Tofu Tamale Pie we grew up eating?"
Four year old, "Dad, can I have capers for a snack?"
And, I could go on. But, I won't - because there are a whole bunch of people who will read this and already think I'm lying ; )

So, I thought I'd share a few non-picky kid tips:

Let me FIRST say, a certain part of pickiness is genetic and completely outside of a parent's control. So, if your kid is picky, that is not a cause for you to be ashamed. But, on the other hand, the quotes above are from several different gene pools. Even though were all family, we're not all blood relatives.

But, my Mom was picky, and she raised a bunch of non-picky kids and grandkids (and one very picky grandkid, too - but he was one of those kids she started with when he was older), and I have found her advice on this issue to be very helpful, and I followed it myself (and added a little) and, I do think that whatever a child's genetic pickiness situation, Mom's tips can help, even if they can't fix everything.

A very important note: the earlier you start these things - the better they work. "Fixing" a picky 10 year old is much harder than helping a kid like everything from day one. If you've adopted, or are helping to raise your Grandkids, these things can get more complicated! But, some of these tips have worked on older children, too (obviously, the baby food tips didn't work on older kids).

1) Dislikes are contagious. If Mom and Dad don't like a food, they shouldn't expect kids to like that food. If Brother says, "I don't like this!" today - tomorrow expect Sister to say, "I don't like this!" Your kids adore YOU (and their siblings) - whether you realize it or not - and will strive to adopt the same dislikes you have so they can identify with you. Because of this, we had a strict policy that we were never allowed to discuss food dislikes. We were to try a tiny bit (Mom's rule was three bites) of a food each time it was served, or at least occasionally, then we needn't eat any more - and there would be no discussion of it. The assumption was that perhaps a person just wasn't hungry for that food on that day. As a result of this policy, I was in my twenties before I realized that my Mom was the ultimate picky eater! But, because she had good food policies, she raised kids who were not picky like she was : )

2) Labels are damaging. "Susie hates peas," soon becomes part of Susie's identity. Never label your kid with their food dislikes, or proclaim them, "Picky" - instead, teach them to expect their tastes to change in the course of their life. Explain how your tastes have changed over time. My Daughter loves to hear how I didn't like cucumbers (her favorite vegetable) when I was her age, but I DO like them now!

3) Expect dislikes to improve in time, and new tastes to require exposure. Teach your child that liking new foods is part of growing up. That tastes mature and horizons broaden, and they should expect that to happen just as surely as they expect to be taller next year, or to ride the big roller-coaster next year. Teach them to continue trying new foods expecting their tastes to broaden.  A few times, my daughter has proclaimed "I don't like this!" and I'll reply, "Maybe you're not hungry for it today, but maybe you'll like it tomorrow - or next year." And, that has happened in most cases.

4) Try non-sweet foods before sweet. This was a biggie for us. For some reason, when introducing solid foods, all the books suggest giving babies fruit before vegetables, and sweet vegetables before unsweet vegetables. This sets kids up to always be disappointed by the next food not being as sweet as the last one they tasted. But, Mom recommended the opposite and I took her advice. We tried zucchini, cauliflower and broccoli before sweet potatoes, and carrots. And after all the veggies, THEN we moved on to fruit. It seemed to be a big help. On a similar note, no older kid (or adult, for that matter) is likely to want a nice big plate of vegetables for dinner after an after-school snack of toaster pastries, cookies, or snack cakes.

5) If you want your kid to try a new food, put it on your own plate and not on theirs. I read this advice somewhere years ago, and I've found it to be super-effective. I often fix my own plate and don't offer what I'm eating to my Daughter. I wait for my Daughter to request what is on it - which she nearly always does. And, if she doesn't, I don't sweat it.

6) Try new foods when they're hungry. A few times, when we were first trying solid foods, my little one would have a picky day. The next day, I would serve lunch a half hour later. Worked like magic. Hunger is the best seasoning, as they say.

7) Never have a contest of the wills over food. Statements like, "You WILL eat this, and you will LIKE it!" or "You will not leave this table until every bite of this food is GONE!" or "I will serve this to you every meal, every day until you eat it!" have - to my knowledge - never worked for anyone. (By contests of the will, I mean forcing a kid to eat something - not forbidding eating the wrong things at the wrong time) Generally, they produce a child who loathes the food in question until they're 90. Choking down a food that makes you want to gag will NOT increase your fondness for it! If you want a picky eater, just have a contest of wills. Works every time.

8) Don't be afraid to forbid vegetables. For some reason, parents act like their kid is doing them a favor to eat vegetables. And they are doing their kid a favor to give them candy. This produces all the wrong emotional responses to food. Treat both categories approximately the same way. "No, you may not have any carrots - dinner is in ten minutes & you'll ruin your appetite!" and "Everyone is eating cookies, are you SURE you won't have one?" are both very appropriate things to say. We do serve sweets at the end of meals, not at the beginning, but otherwise, we treat them as just as virtuous as the spinach. Similarly, when we bring home a "treat" from the grocery, it might be some nice seasonal Strawberries or a Melon, or a can of Baby Corn, not always chocolate (although, often enough it's chocolate too!). (On a similar note, Mom used to say "If you don't clean your room, I won't let you go to school tomorrow!" - and guess what? ALL of her kids (8!) would go clean their room for the privilege of going to school.)

9) Steal food from your kid's plate. Really. Do it! "You don't want your Kale? That's great! I was hungry for more!" And grab it and eat it. And watch (half the time) them change their mind about whether they wanted it or not. (Never say, "Yummy, Yummy!" - they'll pick up on the sales pitch. Instead, act like an older sibling would when they got the bigger piece of cake ; )  Even if it doesn't work the first time (or the tenth time), it lets the kid know that refusal of a food takes away their freedom to eat it, rather than making you miserable.

10) Don't worry about your kid eating enough! Children will not starve themselves, unless there is a serious medical problem (I have been told that children on the Autism spectrum are an exception, but I've never raised a kid who was, or researched the matter, so I cannot speak to that). If your doctor says your child's weight is acceptable, there's no need to worry about them starving. My Mom was widowed when I was an infant. She said she was in a daze, and simply put the food on my highchair tray, and picked it up at the end of the meal - she never tried to encourage me to eat and never paid attention to how much or how well I ate. It worked great. I'm not in a daze, but I act similarly toward my daughter - if we're home together for lunch, I put the food in front of her, and pick up what is left a while later. I don't count or monitor much. She's growing just fine, and asks for Nori for a snack, so I'm guessing it's all good.

11) Don't be a restaurant, but do offer freedom within parameters. Imagine your least favorite food. Then imagine being told you would eat it or you would go hungry. Yuck. I try not to put anyone in that position. I offer several healthy foods on the table each meal, with the intention that at least one or two of them will be eaten. It's fine if she eats only Rice one day, and only Spinach the next - it all balances out over time. And, I don't care which one is and which one isn't eaten (though I do draw the line at making a meal of olives or pickles while the entrée goes uneaten). On the other hand, imagine a food you like pretty well, but you're told that you have your choice between eating it and having your favorite dessert or treat. Most of us would choose the treat (at least, if our conscience wasn't watching), but we expect kids to do the "right thing." I knew a Mom who couldn't figure out why her kids were so picky- but at every meal she told them if they didn't want the dinner she made they could have some Super-Sweet Breakfast Cereal instead! I usually let my daughter choose her own breakfast & lunch - within my parameters- but then at dinner, we all expect to eat together and only choose from what is on the table.

12) Expose to a wide variety of foods early - and keep exposing. I have read studies that say that children develop tastes for foods even in utero (from their Mother's diet). Other studies propose that most tastes are well-set by the age of three. I don't know how true all that is, but I do know that a kid who has lived on Chicken Nuggets & Mac N Cheese until the age of 5 is unlikely to suddenly develop a craving for Tofu and Sprouts. For most humans, the food we know is the food we like. Expose kids early and often to lots of healthy foods.

13) Don't engage in food dishonesty - no "sneaking" vegetables like they're something to be ashamed of. This is perhaps more about the parent's attitude than the kids. Deception is not a relationship builder. Kids don't know that they aren't supposed to like spinach or squash until you reveal it to them. Besides that, many "sneaky" recipes provide miniscule portions of healthy food disguised by tons of junk. And, sneaky recipes don't help your child learn to like new foods, so that they will seek these foods out on their own in adulthood. In our house, we might put a fruit or veggie in an unusual place (I like Carrot Cake, Zucchini Bread & Banana Based Ice Cream) - but we're always up front about it.

14) Limit junk food & small kids will balance their own diet - no worrying about enough of certain foods. My Mom read a study to this effect many years ago, and relied on it. It worked. Little kids naturally might eat all beets one day and all potatoes the next. That's okay. Put toaster pastries & chips in the mix, though, and they can no longer balance their own diet as effectively.

15) Serve healthy food that tastes good. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I've never met an adult who can even bear the smell of commercial baby food. I watched a friend's child once, and fed her the packaged "toddler meal" her Mom had provided - it was all I could do not to gag while feeding to her - just from the smell! Yet, parents feed it to their kids, and are disappointed when their kids turn up their noses. Then, when they're a little older, they serve them chicken nuggets in a sweet sauce next to rather smelly peas dumped from a can. When the kid goes for the deep-fried-dipped-in-sugar over the peas, the parents take that as proof that "kids just naturally don't like vegetables" - well, who would like vegetables in such circumstances? Put your time and energy into the healthy foods - make them attractive.

16) Don't be your kid's "dealer!"  If you deem a food inappropriate for your child, do not make it available to them - maybe not even once. So many times I've heard a parent say, "My child will only eat chicken nuggets and mac & cheese." I find myself thinking, "What, and they'll only drink Budweiser?" or "They drive themselves to McDonalds?" (pardon my bitey sense of humour - it just slips out now and then). Your kid can't "only" eat what they've never tried, or what you don't make available to them. And, even if a relative gives it to them, or they try it at a restaurant, amusement park, or birthday party, a simple "We don't serve that at home." will do it - if you stick to it.

17)Don't allow after-meal snacks that you wouldn't allow for dinner. Many children have caught on that if they wait it out during a meal, they can "trade up" to junk food. If they ignore the entrée, they can have chips, a drink of their choice, or a sweet snack in just a little while. Be especially wary of cow's milk as it has 1 Tablespoon of naturally occurring sugar per cup, and some kids will go for this as an after dinner sugar high. I have known many super-picky kids who lived on excessive consumption of cow's milk. (Excessive cow's milk consumption can produce health problems, and inhibits absorption of Iron).  My daughter's mealtime attention span is still short - she can't sit and eat as long as I can, so she gets hungry shortly after meals - that's okay. I generally offer her choice of anything that was on the table at the previous meal. We do have fruit - and occasionally sweets - for dessert, but this is not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the after dinner grazing for more calories than the meal would have been that so many kids engage in.

18) St. Theophan the Reluse recommends that children be required to ask permission before eating. If started early on, this helps make eating be a little less about asserting one's own will, and more part of a measured and balanced life.

19) Perhaps most importantly, tone down the excitement! If you think every meal has to be a trip to a culinary amusement park, with lots of rich, fancy foods, don't expect anyone in your family to come to love ordinary, everyday food. A while back, BBC had a story on the academic benefits of boredom - boredom is good for your palate, too! We all notice that when it's Lent, basic foods taste so much better than they do when we're indulging in rich foods. Learn to embrace the ordinary, and watch your kids' tastes broaden.

20) Oh, one final note: This isn't going to "work!" Parenting methods don't produce results that you can see in the short term, as a rule, any more than exercise produces great health results with three trips to the gym. Although some of these tips may produce quick results for some people, generally they're going to be a long-term lifestyle change rather than an instant fix. We can only very gently guide children's growth - and that growth takes years, and sometimes decades to manifest. If you look for "results," you'll give up too soon.

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  1. This is a super helpful list. I do a lot of these things, but I'm happy to be reminded of several things I've gotten lax about. Thanks so much!

    1. It's lovely to have you visit! Glad you liked the list : )

  2. I was going to try and comment on this yesterday but I don't know why I didn't - I must have gotten side-tracked :)

    GREAT post! Very well thought out! LOTS of great info and tips! Even tho I don't have (human) kids I found this interesting because a lot of people call me a 'picky eater' - I used to take offense to that but the older I get I don't mind it as much because it's true but in a GOOD way...I mean...don't we want to be 'picky' about what we put in our bodies? Then again...I still think "choosy" would be a BETTER word...but I think you know where I'm going with that :)

    1. It's true - there are some things that we SHOULD be picky about! : )

  3. Wow, tons of great advice! Now if only I could go back and un-picky the grownups! (Seen on Ma Made Blog Hop.)

    1. That would be great, wouldn't it! : ) Thanks so much for visiting!

  4. All of our children had likes and dislikes growing up that were totally different from my own but only 1 who was 'picky'. We eventually found out he had some serious textural issues, not just with food but with clothes. His body would develop sores that would crack and bleed if he wore things other than soft cotton! Even as an adult he struggles with this. Certain textures of foods make him gag and start to close off his throat!

    Your list is excellent and something every parent should look at!!

    1. Thanks so much for visiting! I really enjoy your blog : ) Sorry your son had such trouble with textures - that can be a tough thing to deal with.

  5. I've got some super picky eaters on my hands. They weren't always this way, and I'm hoping it's just a passing phase, but it sure can make for difficult dinners. I will definitely be putting a few of these tricks and recommendations into play. Great post! Thank you!

  6. I think every thing here is spot-on except for asking permission to eat. If we've sat down to eat.... isn't THAT the permission? I wouldn't ask my fiance if I could eat, why should a kid ask to eat? Seems like it could appear to the kids that the adults are "above" or "better than" the kids who have to ask for the permission to do something that is REQUIRED for survival. That's feels the same as asking permission to go to the bathroom, or permission to sleep, or permission to drink water. Why?

    But seriously otherwise, that is all great advice. I didn't raise a picky eater and I did most of what was written about here.

    One of the things I really try to remember is that kids have "kid palettes." I honestly think some of things taste different to them than to adults, and they are less able to tolerate bitter or strong flavors.

    My future MIL acted like my daughter was being rude by not liking the food in their house. Well when the options are very bitter carbonated drinks, unflavored almond milk, meats (like salmon) without any sort of seasoning (not even a lemon or butter was offered), pasta salads that were sour, etc., of course she isn't going to eat it! I didn't eat any of it either. It was honestly either flavorless or bitter. They didn't even have sugar in the house (and no, not diabetics or other food restrictions). When we went and bought milk and sugar, they treated us like we'd committed a horrible sin. We just wanted a bowl of cereal that wasn't gross! THAT is setting kids up for failure and to be falsely labeled as "picky eaters."

    1. I appreciate your kind words : )

      I agree that if I've served dinner, I've already given permission. Sorry I didn't phrase that better!

      But, I do think it's healthy for a child to ask permission for eating outside of served mealtimes, and for choosing their own foods. If my little girl fixed herself breakfast without asking permission concerning what to eat, she might choose seaweed, rice, or chocolate. I would encourage her to go with the seaweed or rice. Similarly, she has a strong tendency to snack *right* before dinner. And, I know more than one kid who would eat a Snickers Bar 10 minutes before dinner EVERY night - if given complete freedom concerning food. I don't see these life-and-death situations (as you described as necessary to survival), but rather a matter of developing good self control - which kids generally need to learn rather than being born with.

      I respect that you come from a different world view on the obedience/permission issue. I see obedience as a sign of virtue, and not at all as an inferiority thing. Some of our greatest heroes (Jesus, The Virgin Mary) were known for their great obedience. It is a virtue that I feel it is important to be practiced by children & adults in order to have a successful, happy life.

      I don't find that kids necessarily have kid-palates (although very few kids enjoy hot-and-spicy - I do know some who do), but I do think perhaps there is such a thing as a household palate. My little one LOVES vinegary foods, but we had some friends over a while back whose kids just didn't do vinegar. That's okay! I always tell child guests (and self proclaimed "picky" adults) that my goal is not to torture *anyone* at my table - if you don't like something I serve, I'll do my best to provide something you DO like - even if that means whipping out the good-ole PB& J! : )

      Thanks so much for visiting, and for your thoughtful comments : )

    2. Hi Anna,
      This topic brings back lots of childhood memories and scenes from the dinner table. I was not a picky eater but there were a few foods that I just couldn't bear to swallow. Mom and dad were firm but loving. They established family meals as important daily rituals. Food was not to be wasted. This set up a value system that put good, healthy meals into the proper perspective in our home. Being picky was not a behavior that was tolerated or validated. Thank you for sharing these valuable tips with us on the Healthy, Happy, Green and Natural Party Blog Hop!

  7. Anna, this is the best, most comprehensive treatment of this subject I've ever seen. And I so agree with you. Most of the picky eaters I've known were *made, not born.* "'They drive themselves to McDonalds?' (pardon my bitey sense of humour - it just slips out now and then)."--loved that line! Pinning! #TrafficJamWeekend


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