Picky, Picky!

veggies.jpgToday, Tracy shares strategies for coping with picky eating. Read on for her tips, and feel free to share others that have worked for your family.

“If there’s one issue that can unite and divide parents, it’s picky eating. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with other parents about how to manage this ubiquitous tendency.

During my childhood, mealtimes were a regular battlefield. We were the pickiest of picky kids, and I can only imagine that my mother was at her wits end at times. I’m sure my parents did the best they could, but in reality, I think they modeled the very behavior they were trying to inhibit. My dad was a staunch meat and potatoes man, disinterested in trying new foods, and my mom was always on some sort of diet, often requiring her to eat different foods from the rest of us, none of which she seemed to enjoy. I subsequently have spent a lot of time thinking about how to model positive eating behavior and avoid dinnertime battles. Here’s what has worked for us, so far:

The general approach. I think one of the things that really bothers parents about having picky eaters is that it’s insulting. You’ve worked hard to prepare a meal for your family, and the response is that your offerings are “bad” or “yucky.” My general approach is to work on instilling a respect for the process of getting food to the table and the person who put it there.

Try one bite. Our children must try a new food before deciding they don’t like it. One bite. That’s it. When they try something, we say thank you. If they don’t like it, it’s not okay to spit it out and say “yuck!” If they absolutely cannot finish the bite, they may dispose of it in a napkin. We encourage them to say things such as, “That flavor is too strong for me” or, “It’s not something I like right now” instead of the negative alternatives.

Be prepared for shifting preferences. We’ve found that encouraging our kids to express “It’s not something I like right now” helps reinforce that taste preferences are temporary. We also talk to our kids about our own changing food preferences, which seems to help them admit when they finally do like something. They don’t have to dig their heels in because there’s no power struggle.

I am not a short order cook. It can be challenging at times, but I make one meal for supper and there are no exchanges, substitutions, or refunds, as it were. If they don’t like it, fine, but I’m not going to interrupt dinner and make a separate meal. I got around my worry that they would go to bed hungry by offering the option of a bedtime snack. They may have one bowl of cereal or a piece of toast before starting our bedtime routine. That way I know they’ve had something relatively healthful, and it is sufficiently removed from our dinner hour to not seem like a direct substitute.

Preference or ploy? We do our best to determine whether the pickiness truly is a taste preference or a ploy. If it’s something they ate with abandon earlier in the week, and now they are turning their nose up at it, we’ve implemented the “bites per year” rule. So, if you are four, you eat four bites.

Incorporate choice and encourage input. Generally, breakfast is a meal with many options. Lunch is a bit less so, and dinner never really has choice. But, while I’m planning the menu for the week, I ask for suggestions. It’s hard to say you don’t like what’s being served when you’re the one who put it on the menu in the first place! Also, including my kids in the menu planning process gives them a sense of control and contribution so they don’t feel continually forced into eating.

Remain calm. We really try (heavy emphasis on “try”) to spend absolutely no time fighting about these “rules.” Usually, mealtime behavior is managed in the context of our family conversation. If I’m chatting with my husband and notice that one of the kids is about to spit something out, I gently remind him that he needs to use his napkin. If he exclaims his disgust, I reinforce the polite phrasing of his preference. This does not mean that the boys never protest that they have to try it first. Of course they do, they’re kids. It’s just that if we remain nonchalant about what we expect at the dinner table, they are not as likely to notice that these are “rules” they might want to fight against.

Slow and steady. I also work really hard at keeping my feelings in check at the dinner table. I remind myself regularly that just like there’s a slow food movement, we need a “slow parenting” approach. I will keep putting green peas on their plate for them to try. Eventually they might like them. Or maybe not. But what I’m trying to shape is an eater who isn’t afraid to try new things because they just might like them. And, I realize that taste preference is as individual as my kids are. Children really do have different preferences when it comes to taste, texture, and adventurousness in food. They don’t have to like it just because I do.

Ask for feedback. If I try a new recipe I ask for feedback about what is good and what isn’t. What might I do differently next time? My kids have developed a great repertoire of ideas for how to make dishes more appealing to them.

Individual differences. In the spirit of realistic expectations, different approaches work for different families. If you’ve got a great picky eating solution, please share it by leaving a comment below.”