What to do About Picky Eaters

IMG_1627It’s dinnertime. You have already put in a full day wearing many, many hats. You manage to pull together a home-cooked meal in the little time that you have between tantrums, snacks and potty breaks, and oh yeah, the messy house. The mess you have now added to with pots and pans and mixing bowls but who cares, it is well worth it because everybody will now sit down and enjoy the nice meal you whipped up in your not-so-spare time, right? Wrong. Because every family has one: A picky toddler.

You thought this dish was a sure thing. After all, what toddler doesn’t like pasta? First, you ruined it by calling it “pasta” instead of “noodles, ” and a power struggle ensues which you inevitably lose. “Big sister is eating it, why don’t you give it a bite, mommy made it just for you,” will quickly turn into “You will eat this for Mommy!”

You don’t mind one meal gone wrong, except that this happened last night, too. Now that you think about it, he did not eat a good lunch either because there was too much peanut butter on the sandwich. Sound familiar?

It may seem like all of your friend’s children are happily eating avocados and sweet potatoes and beans, and you’re lucky if you can get one decent meal in your child a day. But realize that those children are the exception. Most toddlers go through a picky phase. If you luck out with a toddler who will eat all textures and varieties, great! If not, choose your battles and avoid power struggles. I am not a big fan of the “eat what I made or eat nothing at all” concept. I have tried the eat-what-I make-or-go-to-bed-hungry tactic but it just didn’t work for me. What happens at our house is my toddler woke up at midnight starving, at which I point I end up giving him something he will eat just to try to catch some much-needed sleep.

My thought is that mealtime is for families to come together, and sit and enjoy some time together while eating. Now that’s not to say that I would let my child sit and eat cookies while the rest of us have a meal, but so long as I can get something nutritious and filling in him, I am happy. I am happy to substitute a meal with real cheese and whole grain crackers with some cut-up fruit or some sweet potato fries. There is some dairy, and whole grains and healthy carbohydrates in there, which is okay in my book. Or if I have made a home made chicken noodle soup, and my picky toddler likes noodles and carrots, but not all together in a broth and minus the chicken, I am happy to pull his serving apart and just serve him the noodles and carrots plain. Frustrating? Yes. But it is better than him refusing the meal all together, and now I get to sit and eat as well because I am not arguing with him to just eat the soup in a bowl like everybody else, or worse, have him end up throwing it at me. This probably sounds like extra steps for mom, but you can try to simplify it. Keep cheese sliced up in your fridge, a bowl of fruit cup up and any veggie sticks he may eat. If they are readily available and prepared, you can grab them quick at mealtime.

I never assume my picky toddler will not eat what I made; I always offer him our family meal first. But if he is refusing, I allow him a healthy alternative and am satisfied if I can get this in him. One day the role modeling that is going on at the table will rub off and he will take a bite of something new and realize he likes it. One day he will be old enough to be reasoned with, to be taught. And at that point is when I will be more comfortable being a bit more stern with requiring him to eat what I have made.

Here are a few common picky eater problems, and how to combat them.

1)     Work a variety into the limited foods your child is willing to eat. Toddlers do not need to consume a huge variety of foods, so long as they are eating a few things from different food groups. If they will eat yogurt but will not eat cheese, that is okay. Buy a variety of yogurts with different fruits pureed in to be giving him some fruit as well. Will he eat the fruit on the bottom kind? Or will he eat the variety with cereal in the yogurt for some added whole grains? There are so many varieties of foods out there, you can experiment with these and keep stock in a variety of yogurts he will eat. If he is really picky you can even buy vanilla yogurt and finely chop up your own fresh fruit so as to add little amounts at a time to find out what he will tolerate and work up from there.

2)      If your child won’t eat meat, buy other foods with added protein. If your child wants noodles with each meal instead of meat, buy the noodles that have added fiber and protein to bulk up what he is getting from the noodles. Make what he is eating really count.

3)     Hide food within the foods he likes. Try to find at least one food that is textured to accommodate hiding nutritious food in it. Foods that are good for this include mashed potatoes and oatmeal. I used to scramble an egg and chop it up finely and mix it in with a bowl of oatmeal to make a real hearty meal. Again if your toddler is very picky, chop it up finely and start with small amounts mixed in and work up to what he will tolerate/not find.

4)     When in doubt, supplement with vitamins. Go to your local health food store and pick up some quality vitamins for your picky toddler. If he is picky and will not chew them, get the kind that can be crushed, and mix them in yogurt or applesauce, or even pudding if it means getting some good vitamins in him.

Michele Ogniewski is a mother of 3 who lives and writes In Saratoga Springs. She is a part-time social worker and full-time advocate for her daughter’s medical needs. 

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