In JJ’s early toddlerhood, one of the most challenging issues we dealt with was picky eating. There were days when I literally had all my plates from the cabinet piled up in the sink already before 2 o’clock. I had made so many meals in an effort to get him to eat. Needless to say it was not fun. A year later, we still deal with it from time to time. But, we have a lot more strategies now.
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My son’s issues were mostly related to texture of the food. He has a “wetness” avoidance issue. He will eat only foods that are dry and crunchy. Sticky foods such as rice and oatmeal are generally out of the question. As time went by, I researched online, talked to other moms to come up with a list of solutions that really worked for us. If you have a picky eater in the house, I hope some of these solutions might work for you too.
1) Serve what he wants to eat
For a while, JJ only had 2 different foods he wanted to eat. I found out quickly that serving those foods exclusively for a few meals actually made him bored with the foods. This encouraged him to move on to try new foods. Early on, I found out that if we get into a food power struggle, he just won’t eat anything. That is not helpful at all. Serving what he wants to eat when he doesn’t want to try new foods at least ensured that he was fed.
2) Eat however he chooses
Now, JJ sits at the table to eat. But, while we worked through the problem, I fed him where ever and when ever he wanted to eat. We took trips in the car because he wanted to eat there; We took trips to the grocery store because on top of the shopping cart he ate better; Since he didn’t like the high chair, I transitioned him early on to a toddler chair. He often stood and ate; He often watched his favorite shows while eating; I read to him while he ate.
Some moms might say that this is permissive parenting. However, to me it was picking my battles time. Working on eating better was more important than working on any other issues. For a while, this was the focus.
3) Juice the vegetables
With my son’s texture issues, it was a matter of time we came upon juicing as an option for making sure he gets his vegetables. He usually has a green juice with an ounce of apple juice and kefir twice a day: morning and night. For a while, JJ only wanted to drink apple juice and water. I actually had to spike his apple juice little by little with vegetable juice in order for him to drink the desired amount of vegetable juice.
4) Give him something to get him started
For a long time, I always served blueberry and strawberry before every meal simply because they were his favorites. They get his appetite going and lead him to trying more foods. For a while, I also gave him an Oreo cookie to get him started as well. This trick worked particularly well when he was too hungry to eat.
5 a) Five Items on a large giant plate
For every meal, I served 5 items on a large giant plate. This lessened the pressure as I’m not expecting him to eat everything. I tell him only to take a bite of each kinds of food. If he just does that, that’s enough food for a meal. But, most often, he will eat everything of the kind of food he wants to eat. Those five items were chosen wisely: two items I know he will eat, two items he’s only tried once or twice, one item I know he hates to eat.
5 b) Combining everything in a vehicle
After we did option a for a while, I realized that as a carb, he most often liked to eat noodles or pasta. Then, I started to cook them in different ways by stirring in bits of shredded vegetables or varying the flavors. Since sauces were too wet for him, I stir-fried most pasta and noddles with different flavors: teriyaki, bbq, butter parmesan, butter anchovy. In the beginning, he would pick the vegetables out. Inevitably, some of the vegetables do get into his mouth by the end of the meal.
6) No, we are not eating cheese all day
Like most toddlers, JJ was a cheese fanatic. I had to put it on everything for a while. It was just plain bad for his health to eat that much. After a while, I put a stop to it. I buttered his bread instead of serving a grilled cheese. Cheese was dispensed thoughtfully in sauces. As a snack, I replaced cheese sticks with other options.
7) Desserts did not have its place in our meals
For a while, JJ really liked sweet foods but he was sensitive to blood sugar changes. I made it a rule to serve small pieces of dessert as a snack in the afternoon rather than after a meal. In the afternoon, he’s usually very active and will burn off the sugar quickly. It’s usually small pieces of milk chocolate, a cookie, or a few licks of an ice cream cone.
8) Cereal is not our breakfast but a great snack
In an effort to stabilize his blood sugar and to get him to eat non-crunchy foods, I always served cereal as an option for a snack. Breakfast is a time for him to consume lots of nutrients. It’s also the easiest time to get him to try new foods since he’s usually very hungry. Our breakfast ends up being a feast: fruits, sausage and spinach omelet with a side of avocado and toast.
9) Desensitize, Desensitize, Desensitize
This is probably the most important point here. Don’t give up. After what seemed like agonizing months of food struggles, we gradually settled on a routine of trying new foods . First, JJ started to eat fruits with his fingers to get messy; then he moved on to eat bits of melted cheese; slowly he worked his way to eat wet pasta and noodles; then finally he started to eat pizza with sauce on top. After a year, he can now eat selective sauces mixed in noodles or pasta.
Next year, I’m optimistic. I hope that JJ will be able to drink soups and eat sticky foods such as oatmeal and rice. When he does, I will write a blog post to celebrate the occasion.
10) Appeal to the loving self
What always and consistently worked for my son whether it’s discipline, or food or any limit setting is to appeal to the empathy in him. I use this strategy often and especially when I need him to try new foods. I would sit him on my lap, take a bite of the food, and put it in his hand. He would try it. Then, if he wanted more, he would ask for more. I would then hand him another bite. By not asking him to eat something new by himself, I am saying to him that I’m there trying new foods with him. By giving him only one bite that he can spit out or refuse, I take the pressure away. As he consumes the new food bit by bit, I would hear him say: “Yum..”. This is a loving way to take the power struggle out of our food battle. Once he eats the new food with delight, I follow up with a complement: “JJ, that’s good eating. That’s very good eating. Good job.”
Even now occasionally, I still sit with him or let him sit on my lap for some meals.
To me, rules of eating at the table are great. But, it’s also great to just have him eat his meals. I will always work with him to eat his meals even if it means sitting him on my lap for some meals. It’s inconvenient. I have yet to find out why he needs comfort when eating. But, I just know that eventually he will grow out of this too.
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