I have shared how my education and training as a dietitian did not prevent me from having a picky eater for a child, but there are some aspects of my education that did help me as a mother, and I wanted to share those as well.
1.Understanding that appetite will wax and wane with growth spurts.
Growth takes significant energy. Babies and kids will have a dramatic appetite increase. They will gain a little extra weight. And then will have dramatic growth spurt. In other words, they go out and then go up. The pattern begins at day one and is very noticeable if you are breastfeeding. Does your baby suddenly demand more milk? Are they suckling at a dry breast? Do you have a brief moment of fear that your milk suddenly dried up? Were you like me, and spend an entire night cluster feeding your 6 week old? Do you have a 2 year old that seems to have a hollow leg and eats you out of house and home for a solid week, and then wakes up one morning and only eats two bites of cereal? This is all normal.
Understanding this simple fact about growth relieved my anxiety when it came to cluster feeding in those early days. When Little Bit was barely 4 years old and wanted to eat 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, I let her. The weeks she only had a few bites of a meal and wanted to finish it the next day, I wrapped up her food and stuck it in the fridge. I didn’t worry about her getting the same number of calories each day. That is not normal. I let her learn to recognize her body’s hunger cues and respected it.
This is an important aspect of helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. We are born with an amazing ability to meet our caloric needs by listening closely to our hunger cues. As we get older, we can lose this by using our heads more than our bodies. We feel guilt over not clearing a plate. We are conditioned that ice cream will heal broken hearts. I could go on and on.
In our house, the clean plate club has never existed and it never will. I hate to see food wasted as much as any other parent, so I handle this by offering very small serving sizes. By small, I mean it could be just two toddler sized bites or about 1/2 a teaspoon. As I have shared, I use breakfast and lunch meals as times to exert a little independence over meals, but I only make one dinner meal. This is the meal when I make her plate. This is usually the plate that contains 1-3 bites of a food we are working towards acceptance with (read: fruits and vegetables) and a tad more of a food I know she will like, typically 3 bites. Please realize this plate looks like a very small amount of food and I know when I make it that it will not be enough to fill Little Bit up, but that is my goal. She knows she can ask for as many refills of food as she wants, but she must eat her acceptance foods (again, usually fruits and vegetables) before she asks for more. Once she has consumed 1-3 bites of those foods, I allow her to choose to eat as much of any of other dinner foods she wants until she recognizes her own fullness. I try to make at least one item I know she will enjoy. When she asks for more, I still only provide a small spoonful, and I may end up giving her 4 additional spoonfuls before the meal is over, but I do this to avoid waste. As soon as she says she is full, I let her stop eating. If I only provide a small spoonful at a time, then the worst case scenario, I throw away a teaspoon of food.
2. Early food exposures are about learning to eat and exploring food, and not about meeting nutritional needs.
This was huge when I started solid foods, which for my daughter was about 5 months. I didn’t want to introduce solids until 6 months, but she had other plans. At my core, I believe that developmental stages have an age range because of the uniqueness of each child. My kiddo was ready at 5 months, so we rolled with it. However, she was still getting primarily breastmilk. Breastmilk or formula should be a baby’s primary diet for the first year. That takes care of the nutrition. Eating involves so many of the senses, that a baby needs first exposures to foods to focus on touching (usually fingers first and then with mouth – sometimes a trip through the hair is also involved), smelling, and looking at foods. Tasting may not occur the first time, and that is fine.
3. True malnutrition is rare in the United States, and when it does occur it is most often in children with developmental delays.
Please know that I don’t discredit the challenge with eating that many parents face, but living in the US we have abundant access to food and when a kids get hungry enough, they do eat. However, because eating does involve 4 of the 5 senses, sensory issues in a child can impact eating and nutrition. If you are a parenting a child with developmental delays, this may not surprise you at all because food schools may be part of the therapies in which you participate.
On the flip side of all of this, I hope this eases some of the stress that parents of developmentally normal children feel when it comes to eating.
4. A hungry child will eat.
You have heard this from your parents and your grandparents, and I’m hear to tell you that it is true. I came to fully appreciate it when I began my practice of removing the audience. My kid was hungry, I provided a healthy meal, and once she realized that I wasn’t giving into the fit, her hunger took over and she ate.
One thing I would encourage any parent to do, when the food battles start to get so intense that you think you might lose it, is to look closely at how much your kid is snacking. Infants need to physically eat every few hours, toddlers and children can go longer durations between meals. I stopped routinely carrying snacks around the time our food battles really started to heat up (about 20 months), and it truly made a difference. A kid’s hunger is a powerful thing. Use it for good.
If you want a really interesting perspective on kids, eating, and particularly snacking, read Bringing Up Bebe*. In France, kids are essentially given one snack per day, and it means they come to the table hungry.
5. Food jags are normal.
A food jag is when a kid wants just a handful of foods (or maybe even one food) repeatedly. Y’all know what I mean, your kid wants to eat mac ‘n cheese for every meal. While this is normal, and my kid certainly has her jags, I try to not give in to them, but instead see if I can use it to my advantage. I do require that she taste at least one bite of everything at dinner, but I let her satisfy her hunger on the foods she prefers. I also try to pack as much nutrition into her food jags as possible. One example is a PB&J. My kid can easily eat least 1 sandwich a day, and when she is about to hit a growth spurt, she routinely eats 3 for lunch. I make these sandwiches with whole wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and a minimal amount of jelly. Little Bit also loves pancakes, so I buy a whole grain, high protein pancake mix. I won’t lie, getting creative with this can be hard because food jags change, but rolling with them can help to ease the eating battles.
The challenges posed by a picky eater often feel relentless. I get it. I’m living it with you. I certainly do not feel this list is exhaustive, but it does reflect the most valuable lessons I learned as it relates to my parenting journey. Will this work with every child. Nope! Will it work at every step of your child’s development? Nope! But put your big girl pants on and stay strong. We got this!
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