We have two picky eaters in our home. My daughter is a picky eater. I’m the other one. Because I’ve always been very particular about food, it makes it much easier to accept my daughter’s eating preferences. And she has had them from very early on.
Raising a Picky Eater
I remember one day when my in-laws were visiting and Caroline was less than a year old. I had lined up four little bowls of various kinds of baby foods on the table, each with its own spoon. Caroline pointed to each one that she wanted, when she wanted it, and in the order she wanted it. David’s mom remarked that she had never seen a baby do that before.
The child knows her own mind. And she has from the womb.
I will say that Caroline has always been a good eater. She eats a variety of foods (although not many vegetables once we got off baby food). Eating a good variety was good enough for me (and our pediatrician). She eats meats, fruits, grains, dairy products, etc. so I make sure she has a variety of things she does like. But she does have a rather lengthy list of things that shall not pass her lips (as do I).
Thankfully around the time Caroline turned eight, she started asking out of the blue to try different foods. I’m not sure what changed, but something did. Sometimes she discovers something she really likes and other times she spits it out. But she’s trying and we always affirm the fact that she tried a new food.
If you aren’t a picky eater, it might be hard to understand why your child has such strong opinions about food. It would be easy to turn it into a power struggle instead of stepping back and really assessing why your child is reacting the way she is. So as a picky eater, here are things I would encourage the parents of picky eaters to consider.
“No” Means “No”
We have a very strong rule about “no” in our house. If someone says “no” or “stop” then we immediately respect that whether it is during tickling, playing chase or buying clothes. This includes food. If we offer Caroline something to eat and she says, “No, thank you” then we immediately drop it. We don’t try to cajole her or guilt her into eating something. And we definitely do not command her that she has to eat one bite of everything.
Do you want someone to harass you after you tell them “no?”
Is this hard sometimes? Yes. Sometimes I have had to bite my tongue. But given my own aversion to certain foods that I could not eat even to be polite in someone’s home, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and push her to eat something she doesn’t want.
I also want Caroline to grow up knowing that she has a right and responsibility to tell others “No” and expect them to honor that. If I want my adult child to know the power of saying “No” when someone tries to push her to do something she doesn’t want to do, it starts by giving her control over parts of her life when she is younger. In our home, this includes food.
Food Aversions Are Real
I have always had a strong aversion to many foods including fresh tomatoes. They are simply vile to me. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that oral allergy syndrome is the reason. Raw tomatoes feel awful in my mouth and make me feel sick after eating them. Yet I can’t tell you how many times in my life people have pushed me to eat raw tomatoes, looked at me like I was weird when I didn’t want raw tomatoes, etc.
Sometimes little ones cannot articulate why they don’t like a food. It is possible they don’t like the way it makes them feel when they eat it, but they can’t fully express it to you. With the oral allergy syndrome there are no external physical symptoms like there are with an allergic reaction. It is all in the mouth and not visible.
Don’t be too quick to brush off your child’s aversion to certain foods. There may truly be a biological reason for it.
Let Children Determine If They Are Full
I have seen people boast that they have trained their children to eat whatever they put in front of them. I know there are people who insist that their children eat every bite on their plate when the child has had no say as to the food or the amount put on the plate.
We don’t do that.
Sometimes I will encourage Caroline to eat another bite or two if I think she’s just in a hurry to get back to playing instead of eating. If she asks for ice cream for dessert, but hasn’t finished her tuna, I will ask her to eat a few more spoonfuls of the tuna first. But for the most part, if she says she’s full then we accept that.
There is NO virtue in eating everything on your plate if you are already full. (As a Christian, I would call that gluttony.) If we constantly push our children to eat past the satiation point, we are teaching them to ignore the powerful and clear signals their brain is giving them. We should WANT them to learn to listen to their brain to know when they are full.
If parents are constantly overriding their child’s natural signals in an effort to control their child, then they are missing out on a crucial learning experience.
Choose Your Battles Carefully
One of my parenting mantras is that I choose my battles very carefully. I will ask myself if this is a hill I’m willing to die on. I save the hill dying for what I think is very important. Food is not a hill I’m willing to die on.
I’m not willing to turn mealtime into a battle of wits. It’s not good for anyone to eat while upset. Mealtime should be relaxing and an opportunity to enjoy being together.
Do I really want to invest my parenting capital into bullying/manipulating/guilting my child into eating something she doesn’t want?
There are other things that are going to matter far more to me than if my child wants to try carrots or scalloped potatoes tonight. I am saving my parenting capital for when there is something truly important at stake. In the grand scheme of things, having a picky eater is the least of my worries on this parenting journey.
You know how I know? I’m a picky eater and I’m doing just fine.
And so will your child.