Episode 18 – Overcome Picky Eating & Raise Competent Eaters

today we are diving into the bane of so many parents’ existence… picky eaters.

As a Mom of 4 and a children’s/baby photographer I am fully immersed in the world of Mom’s and parenting, pretty much all day… every day. And one thing that never seems to change, and never seems to stop challenging us as parents is “how do I get my kids to eat”! And that makes perfect sense, because we all want our beautiful babies to grow up to be strong and healthy, and so we are invested in what they eat. But… it also happens to be one of the only things that these little darlings have control of, so control it they do!

I will preface this entire episode by saying I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist, so if you have concerns about your child’s health please consult them. I can only share what I have learned based on all my research (in case you haven’t noticed yet, I LOVE to research) and my own personal experience with our 4 kiddos.

In our house we have 4 kids, with completely different eating habits. 1 will eat most things, and will try pretty much anything served, but has weird preferences like he doesn’t really like bread or sandwiches (who doesn’t like sandwiches? I live for bread!), we have 1 that might be the pickiest eater I have ever met. He has issues with texture, he is super nervous to try anything new and basically refuses, and when he was little and we tried to make him try things he would literally throw up on my kitchen table. Gross. Then the 3rd boy eats like a fiend half the time, and not much the rest of the time. He will try lots of things, but is pretty set on what he does or doesn’t like. This child was a great eater as a toddler – I used to stuff his grill cheese with spinach, and he LOVED veggies, eggs, most things that were served, and then as he grew he started to become more and more picky. The 4th, our daughter will literally eat ANYTHING, and she does it with more enthusiasm and love than I have ever seen in a child. This little girl will come home somedays asking for cookies and other days she BEGS for peas and broccoli – and then she sings to her veggies about how much she loves them and how happy they make her feel. As a toddler we used to have to keep a close eye walking through the produce section of the grocery store as she would grab random vegetables off the shelf and take a bit. She also wants US to try all of her favourites and insists that we demonstrate how much we love it with equal enthusiasm. She is a super competent eater.

That is our biggest goal. To raise COMPETENT eaters. Not kids who clean their plates at every single meal. Not kids who eat the same thing ate every meal (though we have gone through those phases). But kids who enjoy their food, serve themselves appropriate sized portions… who eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

I want my children to grow up with a good understanding of what foods nourish their bodies and make them feel good, and which foods taste great but aren’t going to help your body. I also want them to be able to choose to eat those unhealthy foods in moderation for enjoyment but to choose healthier foods that fuel their body for their day to day meals.  Another important thing that I want them to learn is to eat when they are hungry… and only when they are hungry. So many of my own issues with food come from eating for reasons other than hunger. Boredom. Sadness. Anger. Joy. Rewarding myself. I mean really… you break up with your boyfriend? Go eat ice cream. You got a promotion at work? Celebrate with a cake. (Or probably wine for most people, but I don’t drink) Great work out at the gym? Treat yourself! It’s all over our culture and its causing health issues that I don’t want them to have to deal with – so my goal is competency in eating.

In our house it is a work in progress, and while I know that some of my daughter’s love of food and competency around her eating decisions is just the way she was born, she literally was humming and singing at the breast from the first time she latched to nurse, I also believe that it is the result of being the baby, and having more knowledgeable and educated parents than her brother’s did at that age. Sorry boys, parents aren’t perfect and we definitely learn and make adjustments as we grow. I always tease the oldest about this – there are definitely perks to being the oldest and getting more freedom and responsibility… but he’s also paving the way for the little ones who will probably get to do all sorts of things that we never let him do because we know better or are more relaxed as we go. C’est la vie.

When I decided to get serious about developing competent eaters and getting rid of all of the dinner time drama that was happening – and TRUST me there was DRAMA. Every night was a battle with kids whining and complaining about what was being served, refusing to eat, us arguing and trying to make them try it, or eat this many spoonfuls, or threatening that they didn’t get dessert unless they ate their dinner – it was a mess. There was no time for conversation and hearing about each other’s days and by the time dinner was done everyone was annoyed with each other. Anyway, once I got serious about it I did a few things. I took a module in the Positive Parenting Solutions course that was all about kids and food – amazing, and I highly recommend that course even though I’m not affiliated with them in any way – it’s just that awesome. I also did loads of research on Ellyn Satter’s website. She is an expert in this area, and I read a ton of other articles, talked to my family doctor and lots of other parents.

What I discovered as the biggest root is control. Kids can control 2 things. What they eat, and when it comes back out of their bodies. That’s about it. You can’t FORCE a child to eat something (at least not without being horribly abusive and risking choking them) and you can’t FORCE a child to go to the bathroom. Because of this, these are two areas that you NEVER want to engage in a power struggle over. You can’t win, and because we are so invested in their health and development we care, and guess what? Our kids are SMART and they recognize that we care and they will use that against us all day long. It’s a great way for them to get attention. To exhibit control. To rile you up, to convince you to bargain, barter and bribe. They will win every single time.

So instead, we just don’t go there. Here’s what we do in our house. We have set times for snacks and meals. This cuts back on pre-dinner snacking, and being pestered incessantly for food between meals.

Then, I decide when the meal will take place and what is being served. THEY get to decide what and how much they will eat. I literally prepare the food, and then set it on the table and then depending on age and ability they either tell me what they want and how much and I serve it or they serve themselves. I hated this in the beginning by the way, I am a control freak and it drove me nuts.

A few keys with this… I try to make sure that there is at least 1 thing in each meal that the children like. It doesn’t always happen that way, and sometimes they just randomly decide they don’t like that food anymore, even though they ate it 3x last week. It is what it is, but I try my best. I also make sure that if there is something being served that isn’t especially nutritious but I know that they love, that there is a limited quantity. Only 1 bread roll per person is served for example. That prevents them from entirely filling up on bread and not being tempted to try any of the other options. Kids are naturally curious so believe it or not once all of the power struggles and pressure have been removed, and they hit a certain age (more on that in a second) they are likely to WANT to experiment and try new foods.

Dinner is served, and then they are informed (well we don’t do this anymore because they just know.. but when you are starting) they are informed that dinner is starting and will be over by xyz, whatever time you set. Once dinner is over, the plates will be cleared and food will be put away until the next scheduled snack or meal.  This is not to make them race through their dinner, there should be ample time to eat and socialize, but it does let them know that it’s not an all-day affair and will cut down on it taking 2 hours to consume half a sandwich as toddlers so love to do.

In our house they also know that if their butt leave the chair for any reason other than to get something from the fridge or be excused to use the bathroom then we will consider them finished and their plates will be cleared. Trust me, this only happens once or twice before they get it through their head and popping up and down like little whack a moles at the fair.

Once dinner is served there is no more discussion of eating, or suggesting they try things, or one more bite or hurry up. None of that. The only time we even talk about what we are eating is if someone is expressing an opinion about the food – and a quick note there, they are allowed to say that they don’t prefer something but they are NOT to complain about things being yucky or ewww I don’t want that or anything like that. Just no thank you, none for me and we move on. We have explained that it is rude and I actually told my kids one day how much I hate cooking and how I get a bit nervous because I think I’m not that good at it (which I’m not, seriously, its bad) and since letting them know that I have feelings and can be sensitive about it they have all been really kind and supportive.

This whole not chatting about the food and how much or how quickly they are eating is SO key because it takes away the pressure and power struggle. Even if they are choosing and serving what they want – if you are still on their case about how much they are eating, or suggesting they are trying something different than what they chose then they are going to read that as pressure and you controlling them, and this whole thing fails. So just keep your mouth shut even though it’s really hard and believe me, I’m a control freak and I get how hard that is!

Enjoy the conversation and the peace, and then when time is up clear the table. If there is dessert after, that’s great, approach it in the same way. Offer, provide a limited amount and allow them to eat or not eat. One of the things I struggled with at first is that dessert is NOT tied to eating dinner. Whether they eat or not, they still get the option of having dessert. Here’s why.

If you tell them they have to eat dinner in order to have dessert it will turn into how much dinner, which parts of dinner, and it ends up being a struggle. The other reason is that I don’t believe in rewarding my kids with food… and now I say that, but I totally bribed them with candy the other day to record an interview for the podcast because my husband got caught up at work – so we aren’t perfect either – but I try to make sure I am not bribing them or rewarding them with food because when children are raised with “if you eat your dinner then you can have dessert” that is likely to translate into all sorts of other self-indulgent rewards later in life. Got a promotion? Eat! Got a great work out in? Eat! Great first date? Eat!  The last thing I want is to program my kids to reward themselves with food, and typically unhealthy food at that, for the rest of their lives. It also programs them to over eat – maybe if they finished their dinner they wouldn’t have enough room for dessert, but now by finishing they have “earned” that dessert so darn right they are going to do that!

Left to their own devices kids can actually do a pretty good job of this. My kids will now often ask if there will be dessert and then they stop eating dinner a bit before they are full to make sure there is room for dessert. Even more impressive to me, the girl who used to crack and eat an entire bag of Oreos in a sitting, is that they will stop part way through dessert, say they have had enough and ask to save the rest for later. I LOVE this. I will always agree to let them save it for later, because that is something I am only just learning to do in my 30’s and I wish I had developed that competency earlier in life. We are NOT a clean plate club family, I am happy to pack away the left overs for later, I just want them to learn to eat until they are satiated and then stop and honestly they are the only people who can know when they have hit that point.

Before we go on can we chat about this week’s sponsor for a quick second? If you listen to the show regularly, you already know how much I LOVE audible. I’m literally obsessed. The audiobooks have changed my life, given me back my love of reading and are pretty much playing 24/7. In the bath. Out walking the dog. Driving to work. Cleaning the house or making dinner, the books are playing in my ears! And now my husband is hooked too. There is a HUGE selection, right now I’m working my way through the Audible Original Kick Ass by Mel Robbins for the second time, because it was so impactful the first. This one is a must for busy women and Moms, total game changer. Go to audibletrial.com/updraft to grab your first book and first month’s subscription, completely free!  

I know that by now some of you are thinking this sounds great and a lot of you are probably thinking I’m nuts.

What happens when you kids won’t eat anything?! Horror of horrors you let them. Again, I’m not a doctor so if your child isn’t growing properly or they have health issues you obviously need to consult a professional, but my experience and the advice of all of the experts is that children will not let themselves starve. They just won’t. Nature is smart, God, if you believe in him, is smart. Humans have been designed to instinctually do what we need to in order to survive, on top of which being hungry sucks, so they will only make that mistake so many times. There may be meals when they don’t eat. We have one little guys that skips meals semi regularly because even though he’s curious about and often tries new things, he just doesn’t like much.

If you are super concerned make sure there is a scheduled snack after dinner (or whatever the meal is) and then serve something that you know they like. That way they aren’t going off to bed with an empty tummy and you know they got some nutrients and calories in.

The point isn’t to starve your kids, or to make them miserable, the point is to give them control over their own eating habits and allow them to learn about and become more competent around food.

A side note to piggy back on the fact that nature is smart – be prepared for your kids to go through a super picky phase as toddlers. Interestingly enough, it is completely NORMAL for children to go through a phase when they are SUPER picky around the time they start walking. Why? Because nature is smart and it helps prevent them from ingesting things that they shouldn’t. Obviously this isn’t a perfect science, because lots of them still walk around putting all sorts of things into their mouths that they shouldn’t, but it is really common for kiddos to be super picky at that stage. Left to their own devices, and without pressure or suggestions from parents, their natural curiosity will start to kick in again between 3 – 5 and they will start trying different things and experimenting with their food. Unfortunately, most of us become so stressed out by their limited diets and unwillingness to eat that we start interfering and mess with the process.

Make sure to keep your expectations realistic and remember that the amount of food your little one needs to take in will vary day by day based on a large number of factors. Are they growing? How much running around happened today? What else have they eaten this week? There are days where my kids pack back a horrifying amount of food that makes me seriously question how we will afford to feed them as teens, and there are days where they eat next to nothing. I try to trust their own ability to know how much food they need, and as long as they are growing and developing well I try not to interfere. Try being key because none of us are perfect, and like I said… control freak.

I really do hope that these tips help you to manage the battle of the picky eater, and start to enjoy mealtime as a family again! If you are struggling or need a little bit of encouragement and support feel free to send me a DM on Instagram, I am annya.miller over there or join the amazing Updraft Insiders group on facebook and find support there. You aren’t alone Mama, we’ve got you!

See you next week!

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