Picky eating, it's almost considered a rite of passage for many parents to conquer, hopefully during the toddler years, although some may linger a little longer. It will make you feel exhausted beyond believe, embarrassed, and I've even known some mothers who felt like a failure due to their inability to get their toddler to eat vegetables. I'm hoping to give you some tools in this short post to help you combat the dragons that live at the table!
Mealtime should be a supportive and warm environment that we share our day together. We use this time to decompress our emotions and comfort each other. Mealtimes are for nourishing our mind, body and soul.
No way! You can't make me!
Around 24 months, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, your happy-go-lucky child may start to transform. It often starts with the words "no!" and "mine!" becoming even more prevalent in her vocabulary. These outbursts make your face turn brighter than the red in Target as you're trying to scramble through the check out, salvaging whatever pride remains.
"Terrible Twos" and "Trying Threes" are stages that should be embraced, as difficult as it may be. Your defiant little one discovered there is a world beyond his own; a world to be manipulated and extorted for his advantage. While his wishes may not always be met, his ways to problem solve through it all are to be appreciated. The cogs in his mind are churning as he tries to figure out just which octave makes mommy give into that candy bar request. These outbursts will later develop into negotiations and ultimatums as his social problem solving develops.
While the cognitive skills behind these years are to be celebrated; you cannot give into every request, demand or tantrum. You can, however, encourage the development by eliciting negotiations and rules. For the 2 year old who won't go to bed, allow them to choose which stuffed animal will snuggle with them- the giraffe or the teddy bear? For the 3 year old who won't go to bed, let them pick out which color pajamas they'll wear or which story is tonight's bedtime story. Keep your demands age appropriate by offering a choice of 2 for the 2 year old and incorporating colors and sizes when offering a choice to a 3 year old. Also, keep in mind that your 3 year old is just starting to understand the world outside of his own. Any time-related "prizes" will need reminders and visuals to help and shouldn't go longer than a day.
Your child is demonstrating these behaviors because he's realizing he has control and wants to test how far that control extends. Since we know the root of these behaviors, we can work with them better. Offer opinions, choices and ways that your child can control what's happening... within reason. Be sure to explain when things are not an option or not under his control. Help him understand by discussing "Yes, I know you want to stay up late, but then you'll have trouble waking up in the morning. How about we make a special breakfast in the morning?" Some of these discussion might not be able to happen as your child is crying and fighting to have his way. Stay firm, hold your ground and allow choices when earned and appropriate.
Now, these control behaviors are rarely limited to shopping and sharing. Often, they extend into mealtimes. What do you do then?
1) Get cooking!
One of the best ways to help ease your child's picky eating is to let them help you in the kitchen. There are plenty of kid-friendly kitchen tools on Amazon. Pick out a recipe together and share the experience. Cooking together allows your child to be active in his mealtime while also helping to get him used to the difference sights and smells of the food. You can find a continuously updating list of kid-friendly recipes here.
2) Have Two Spoons
This is a trick from Melanie Potock. She recommends having a "yes please spoon", or large spoon, and a "no thank you" spoon, which is much smaller. Again, you provide a choice of either Yes Please or No Thank You. Even if your child refuses, a small scoop goes on his plate. It's up to him if he eats it or not, but at least it's on there. Avoid force feeding your child at all costs. He can go to bed a little hungry before you should attempt force feeding for almost all typically developing children. If your child doesn't eat the "no thank you" scoop, that's okay. Half the battle is getting it on the plate.
3) Use Fun Presentations
It's all about marketing and presentation right? Of course! If you present the food in a way that is fun and uses fun props, you're more likely to get it in his belly. See what shapes you can make the food into and challenge your child to do the same. Get fun plates and placemats. Be mindful of how your child is learning to hold utensils when shopping for these items. Little hands prefer spoons and forks with a little bit of a curve to help them learn how to grip and balance. These truck ones are super cute, but not supportive for children who are learning to hold a fork. The grip on these allows for a more age appropriate grasp while allowing your child to feel successful while self feeding.
4) Play With Your Food
I know grandma always said, "Stop playing with your food!" but if you're not going to play with it first, you're sure not going to eat it! Break out some clean toys and load the truck up with broccoli trees to carry off. Put a few carrot logs in the train as he chugga chuggas his way to the station. Let the alligator splash into the pudding and wait for his favorite monkey to wander near. You will make a mess, there will need to be a clean up time after, but smiles are the dinner table are always a good thing.
Your child may have other circumstances that add to his picky eating, such as sensory challenges and oral motor weaknesses. It's important to have these concerns addressed by a speech-language pathologist who is knowledgable in feeding. Together, we can create a plan that is specific for your child and your family's needs. It's important to keep in mind that mealtimes are family times, even if you eat separately. If you do not eat vegetables, you cannot expect your child to easily eat them either. Your child will take cues from you as to what they should be eating and enjoying. My biggest recommendation with picky eating is to stay positive yet firm and strong through it all. Your child is not here to always listen and obey you; your child is here to grow with you and challenge everything you thought you knew.