No More Dino Nuggets – Putting an End to Picky Eating Habits

This post originally appeared on Wiley Adventures for a BFBN blog swap day.

I love to cook, and I love to eat even more. I want to share the joy of cooking and eating good food with my kids. It’s important to me that they grow up with positive memories of time spent around the dinner table, eating together. I want them to remember Mom’s pulled pork and chocolate cream pie. I want them to taste all kinds of foods prepared all kinds of ways.

I DO NOT WANT TO BE SERVING CUT UP HOT DOGS AND DINO NUGGETS AT EVERY MEAL.

In my opinion, creating a well rounded eater is largely within the parent’s control. It’s true that some kids have the natural tendency to be pickier than others, but I think in most cases, extreme pickiness is a result of the parent overindulging their child’s persnickety eating habits. All kids go through phases of pickiness. How you respond is what dictates whether or not it becomes a permanent trait.

With that in mind,  here are my strategies for putting an end to the pickiness:

1. SERVE A VARIETY OF FOODS, AND START EARLY:

Why do you think children from different cultures and geographical areas typically eat (and presumably like) such different foods from children in other areas? It has to do with exposure. Kids learn to like the foods they are served. In order for your kids to like a variety of foods, they have to be exposed to a variety of foods. If you always serve chicken, they’ll probably scoff when you put pork on the plate. If you always serve fried vegetables, they’ll probably turn their nose up at something steamed. The more used to trying new foods they are, the more readily they will taste a food they’ve never had before.

This method can start early, too. Regardless of whether you decide to offer purees follow a Baby Led Weaning approach, a baby is capable of eating what everyone else in the family is eating long before their first birthday. You don’t have to stick to what’s available in baby food jars, nor do you have to follow any recipes in a baby food cookbook. If you’re doing purees, just put whatever you’ve cooked for the family into a food processor and give it a whirl. If you’re doing BLW, cut size appropriate chunks of your food and put it on their tray. Do as you mean to go on; if you want your three year old to be accustomed to eating the family dinner, start serving him the family dinner before age 1.

2. STAY AWAY FROM THE SNACK HABIT:

For the most part, I do not offer my kids snacks in between meals. This includes milk and juice. It’s tempting to try to fix boredom or obedience issues by shoving a cup of goldfish in their hands when they’re distracting you at Target, but in that case what they need is probably a nap, not a snack. Not serving snacks ensures that come mealtime, my kids are hungry. Hungry kids are less picky. Hungry kids eat more at mealtime, ensuring that they are properly fueled to make it to the next meal without a snack.

3. NEVER OFFER ALTERNATIVES:

Decide what to serve, and serve it to everyone. You can certainly try to prepare foods that your kids will like and be excited about, but there’s no way to please everyone all the time. If meatloaf is served, my kids have the choice to eat it or not eat it, but you won’t find me whipping up quesadillas for them instead. I have a kitchen, not a restaurant.

4. DO NOT OFFER SECONDS UNTIL EVERYTHING ON THE PLATE IS EATEN, OR SERVE IN COURSES:

Generally, I start out with a small serving of each meal component. Let’s say, for example, they’re having chicken, potatoes, and brussel sprouts. Inevitably they will eat all the potatoes, half the chicken, and one brussel sprout and then ask for more potatoes. This is a no-go. They must eat everything on their plate before they are offered seconds of any one item. If they eat everything on their plate, I’ll serve them more of whichever item they want (seconds, even thirds), but they have to eat that first serving of brussel sprouts before that’s an option.

Even this strategy can pose a problem at a times, though. They may start refusing their vegetables meal after meal, choosing to only eat the other items on the plate and then be done. When this happens, I start serving meals in courses – starting with the least preferred food. I’ll put the serving of brussel sprouts on the plate and they have to eat it all in order to get the next course, chicken. If they eat all their chicken, they may have potatoes.

5. SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR MEALTIME SHENANIGANS:

In my experience, if you put a plate of food in front of a hungry kid, they eat it. They don’t flip the plate over, toss beans in their water, or stick rice up their nose. They’re too busy eating. If those or other mealtime shenanigans start happening, I take it as a sign that they aren’t really hungry and end the meal.

6. OFFER DESSERT AS AN INCENTIVE:

I know the better mom is either anti-dessert or serves something like apricots (which is the same thing as being anti-dessert), but I’ve found it to be a highly effective incentive for eating the meal. I have no shame in telling my kids they can have a slice of pie or a ding dong if they finish their vegetables. In my mind, broccoli and a brownie is healthier than no broccoli at all.

7. SERVE GOOD FOOD:

This probably goes without saying, but if you don’t like cold, plain, unseasoned green beans, don’t try to make your kids eat it. The idea isn’t to get your children so hungry you can get by feeding them dog food; it’s to get them to actually LIKE eating a wide variety of foods. Serve well balanced, well seasoned meals.

8. SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR PICKINESS:

Typically the preceding 7 suggestions are enough to keep my kids eating well. Sure, they skip meals from time to time because they aren’t hungry enough to eat whatever it is they don’t like on the plate, but for the most part they eat a variety of foods. Every so often though, one of them will get into a bad habit of consistently refusing meals they don’t like. They may go days eating only 1 bite of food for dinner and then gorging on breakfast (which usually consists of foods they like better). When I notice this happening, I do a little “pickniess bootcamp” where I offer the same exact food over and over until they eat it.

Here’s how it works: let’s say I serve a casserole for dinner and they choose not to eat it. Normally they would just go to bed without eating and that’s the end of it, but during pickiness bootcamp I saran wrap their plate of casserole, stick it in the fridge, then reheat and serve at breakfast time. They don’t eat it for breakfast? I saran wrap, reheat and serve at lunch time, and so on until they finally eat it. I continue doing this for a day or two until I can see that the pickiness has been broken and they go back to eating a variety of foods.

My approach to handling pickiness is firm and straight forward. By staying consistent, meal time rarely becomes a battle ground. Set your kids up for success by making sure they’re hungry come meal time, serve something tasty, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to enforcing the standards you’ve set forth. You’ll have your kids eating a variety of foods in no time.

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