When I was a youngster, I was the kid who was stuck at the kitchen table well after dinnertime with a pile of long-cold green beans or beets still on my plate, slowly moldering away. I was my parents’ picky eater, forever a light-weight. And I was STUBBORN. I could out-sit any rejected food, fore-go dessert, and sniff out hidden carrots in my potatoes. My parents were constantly worried that I was stunting my growth or developing vitamin deficiencies. But, here I am, a passionate vegetable gardener with a robust palate and preference for all things plant-based. So what happened?
At some point, my parent’s gave up the battle. They stopped talking about vegetables as important for my health and instead started talking about food as a way to experience pleasure in life. Rather than create a list of health foods I was willing to eat (which I slowly whittled away over time anyway), they actually started branching the flavor palate out. We had Japanese exchange students and so we learned about Japanese foods. We watched PBS shows that emphasized different cultures and tried making ethnic foods at home like the ones we saw on TV. We read books that featured food and had recipes, some from other lands, some from fictional lands, and some from history. Food became a vehicle for adventure, shared experiences, relationship building, and curiosity. And it captured my imagination.
That’s just my story, but research on children’s behavioral patterns supports my parents’ revised approach. Encouraging healthy eating patterns in kids essentially boils down to letting them develop their own internal motivation to eat them. For me, a child that had solidly made up their mind about what was and was not good eating, I had to develop a whole new reason to be interested in vegetables. For kids that do not yet have an ingrained negative view of vegetables, all they need is to identify vegetables as normal foods that people eat for enjoyment. So simple, right? Hardly. For one, eating fresh fruits and vegetables isn’t a major part of American culture in general. Further, there are a lot of unhelpful messages about vegetables floating around in our kids’ world, some of them propagated unwittingly by us parents! Even I, gardener and veggie lover, have passed on unhelpful messaging strategies to my kiddo.
Maryann Jacobsen wrote a succinct article about some of the common traps parents fall into to get our kids to eat just one more piece of broccoli. Even misplaced praise can become problematic for long-term vegetable enjoyment. Eating is one thing kids have a lot of control over and it’s often a primary opportunity for children to assert their preferences and flex their independence. Giving them opportunities to flex that independence outside of the actual food choices can help dispel battles as well. This can look like stirring salads, shucking corn, or deciding what silverware is needed at the place settings.
If your picky eater is not yet school age, bear in mind that our littlest kids’ appetites can drop off between ages 1 and 5. We have a great article on our Pediatric Adviser resource all about appetite slump and how to support adequate eating during that time. Don’t have time for another article while doing the school/activity shuffle? Here’s a podcast.
What are your stories about your picky eaters? Were you a picky eater and what do you remember about the food battles?