Avoid a monster in the making
Did you know there is a technical difference between a “fussy eater” and a “picky eater”? And that there are all sorts of medical, psychological, and empirical mumbo jumbo to support this?
Do you even care?
I don’t. Because whatever you call it, my kid is giving me sh*t at the dinner table, and it’s making me nuts.
Don’t get me wrong, if you are genuinely concerned there are deeper issues involved in your child’s eating behavior, either physical or psychological, a consultation with a pediatrician or nutritional therapist is advised. The root cause could be anything from genetics to oral sensitivity to plain old anxiety. (As a child, my sister would freak at the idea of eating anything white. Now she’s on cholesterol medication due to the amount of white food she eats.)
Put yourself in your child’s position: if someone told me I had to eat an anchovy or a sardine, I would burst into tears and lunge for the Valium. It’s not just about being persnickety—it’s an actual feeling of panic at the idea of putting a small fish in my mouth.
Still, sometimes fussy eating just gets down to the good ol’ power struggle. Little Jimmy wants to be the center of attention at the dinner table, and his specific gastronomical needs will make it so.
But be warned: no amount of begging, bribing, or freaking out on your part will work. In fact, if you do this, if you show your cards, if little Jimmy knows he is wearing you out, you are doomed.
What not to do
Do not beg your child to eat his brussels sprouts. Studies show that more than 70% of adults who were forced to eat a specific food when they were young do not eat that food as an adult (#sardines, #anchovies).
Do not threaten loss of dessert if the plate isn’t clean. It’s a given kids love sugar. Hell, they’ll do just about anything for that one gummy bear. But taking away the sweet as punishment for the savory not only shows your dismay but also sends a message that eating something they think is gross (aka healthy food) is the only way to get something good (aka candy).
Do not compliment your child for eating like a normal person. Don’t say, “Mommy is so proud of you for eating your perfectly cooked, prime New York steak.” Choose your compliments just like you choose your battles.
And don’t waste compliments on something as basic as an essential requirement to stay alive. Avoid saying things such as this: “You will stop growing if you don’t drink your milk.” Uh, they don’t care. Junior has you over a milk barrel.
Whatever you do, do not lose your mommy cool. “Dammit! Stop being such a picky eater.” Awesome. Now you just gave it a name. “I can’t eat it. I’m a ‘picky eater.’ Therefore, I can’t eat anything I don’t like.”
What to try
Nonchalantly serve your kids an array of meals and foods and say nothing—ever. It’s tough. I know.
Put little bites of things your child likes on a plate. Also include a bite of something new.
Ask other Solo Moms for ideas. One of my all-time favorite Solo Mom tips comes from Megan Jo Wilson: “We call it ‘silly supper.’ I’ll take leftovers and whatever is in the fridge, and put it all in a muffin tin. So she’ll have a tin of raisins, a tin of chopped-up toast, a tin of carrots. . . . She thinks it’s the greatest thing.”
Let your kids be involved in making their own meal. Try a pizza night, wrap night, baked-potato night, or taco night. Offer various creative toppings for your kids to choose, and let them build their own culinary masterpiece.
Get the kids to help with the menu planning. This can even include creating and decorating actual menus, as well setting the table with a theme, etc.
Change it up and make it fun. Try adding dips to those veggies. Frozen peas are a lot more fun to eat than cooked peas. Or put it all in a handy-dandy juicer and make some soup. (Some kids are sensitive to texture and temperature, so experiment until you find what works.)
The good ol’ “put the food on the plate in the shape of a smiley face.” That always worked wonders for me.
Don’t call it what it is. Carrots are “orange power sticks.” Cherry tomatoes are “fairy food.” Soup is “a magic potion that makes you grow when you sleep.” And leprechauns love fish. I know this for a fact. (But they don’t love sardines!)
If you have a teenager, put him in cooking classes. This is a time when peer pressure is a good thing.
Go ahead and “no dinner” it. If, like me, you are too dang pooped to do any of the above and your child falls within healthy growth parameters, opt for no dinner some nights. Trust me, she’ll eat the next morning.
So although there is no quick fix to picky eating, there are strategies parents can use to gradually expand their child’s diet.
Just know that fussy eating is not a disease—but a rite of passage. It is just one of many assertions of independence that begin the moment your bundle of joy bursts onto the scene. With a bit of time and a ton of patience, you will survive. Before you know it, your child will be eating like a champ, and you will be teaching your picky eater how to drive . . . and oh, boy, will that be fun!
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.