My first two children were what I considered “normal” when it came to eating. They each went through a “picky stage” sometime around two where it seemed like they didn’t eat anything at all and I was sure they were going to waste away. But after a year or so, they came around to eating whatever was given to them. Now at 10 and 9, they both eat very well. When our third son came along, I thought we had the food thing figured out. We introduced him to every food under the sun and he seemed to love them all. I was reveling in parental success! About the time I started congratulating myself, he stopped eating dinner. Completely. With the exception of cereal, bananas and peanut butter sandwiches, he didn’t eat. We could skirt by breakfast and lunch on those foods, but when it came to dinner time, he just refused. Didn’t matter what it was. Mac & cheese. Spaghetti. Grilled cheese. Pizza. Hot dogs even. It didn’t matter how kid-friendly the meal, if it wasn’t peanut butter or bananas, he didn’t want it. We tried all the strategies that worked with the older two. Nothing worked.
I was desperate enough to talk to his doctor about it. She said, “No child will starve himself to death.” I think Dr. Dobson used that exact phase in Strong-Willed Child. So it must be true. We decided to go with the “if you don’t eat it at dinner time, you can eat it for breakfast” plan. That was when we learned just how strong-willed he was. Not only would he not eat it for breakfast, he wouldn’t eat it for lunch either. We coaxed and prodded and he would eat one bite or two and then refuse again. I found myself googling, “how long can a child go without eating?” I was losing my mind. One afternoon after a day like that, I was doing laundry and he was supposed to be taking a nap. I walked in the kitchen and found the fruit bowl that was full when I left, now empty. After a little investigation, I found him hiding behind a chair surrounded by banana peels and peach pits. That day I learned that my doctor was right. He wouldn’t starve himself.
Now before you think I found some miracle solution, let me tell you, I didn’t. He is now almost 5 and we still occasionally struggle at mealtime. But I do think, (crossing my fingers, knocking on wood, and praying ‘please Lord!’) that we have made it through the worst of it with him. If you have a child like this, hang in there. But here are a few things that seemed to work the best:
- Keep the portions small and manageable. A small piece of lasagna cut up into bite size portions looks doable to a kid. If he can count the bites, then he can see that it will come to an end eventually.
- Bribe with bread. Yes, I know, bribery is bad. Bad. But something about a basket full of yummy bread sitting in the middle of the table will encourage anyone to eat. Especially me. But really, I would put some kind of bread on the table at dinner time and then tell him that he could have half a piece after he finished half of his meal. Or even a bite at a time. One bite of dinner, one bite of bread, etc… That saved us many times.
- Plan a fun activity for after dinner, like a movie or a game night, and talk about it before. Then say, “after you finish your dinner, you can join us.”
And here are a couple tricks to sneak in those hated veggies:
- Mix pureed veggies into soups and sauces. This is especially easy while I have a freezer full of pureed food for the baby. You can get quite a bit of pureed carrot into spaghetti sauce without anyone knowing. Shhh. Don’t tell my family they are eating baby food
- Psych them out. Make them think the veggies are actually something special. Watch this:
There it sits. An innocent looking plate of chopped peppers.
Curious child walks into the room. “Can I have one?” Mom: “hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe just one.” Child: “How about one of each color?” Mom: “I suppose.”
Then, “Can I have just one more?” Mom: “I suppose.”
(This is the same picky almost 5 year old!)
And before you know it…
So how about you? What are your strategies for dealing with picky eaters?