Many toddlers are picky eaters. We know that. Biologically it does make sense to be choosey about what you put in your mouth when you are still learning about the world, lest you eat something poisonous, so I do get why my son flat out refuses to eat all fruit. Well I don’t actually get it, fruit is delicious but whatever, I can respect his distrust of all fruit for now.
I have struggled to feed DK ever since he was 6 months old and I was told by my pediatrician to start introducing cereals etc to him. I found it stressful to introduce new foods to him. I didn’t know what to feed him, he didn’t want to eat it, and he made a big mess. I don’t know that I “tried” a specific method – baby-led weaning or whatever the opposite of that is, I just tried to get him to eat food. He was much better at eating if he could put whatever it was in his own mouth, so baby-led weaning kind of took over. But still, he barely ate anything but breastmilk. After one particularly difficult trip home to Canada, he actually lost 3 pounds and I freaked out, basically force feeding him peanut butter and ice cream. It was a low point for me.
Things did not get better as he entered toddlerhood. There were very few foods that I would introduce that he had any interest in or would try at all. And what was worse, he started gagging just looking at certain foods or at the suggestion that he try something. Seriously, he would gag anytime he saw a strawberry or an apple. In desperation, and in preparation for my next pediatrician visit and wanting it to look like I was at least trying to get my kid to stick to a growth chart, I took a course offered through my doctor’s office called “Feeding Your Toddler”.
The course was taught by a pediatric nutritionist and her goal was to teach us how to get our children to eat – but not overeat. She based her talk on the work of Dr. Ellyn Sater who wrote many books on feeding children in the 1980s and 1990s, among them, “How to get your kid to eat, but not too much.” (1987). And frankly the info in this course BLEW my mind and also completely freaked me out. It was so different…could it possibly work?
The basic premise is that you want your child to see all food (healthy & unhealthy) as neutral and to eat just the right amount so that we feel full, but not too full. Treating all food as neutral means that chocolate ice cream has the same value as raw broccoli (I know, crazy right?). But the goal here is to not develop cravings for those unhealthy forbidden foods. As soon as we put dessert on a pedestal or use it as a reward for eating the healthier foods, we develop an unhealthy relationship with that unhealthy food and it makes us crave it that much more. The second concept, to eat just the right amount, breaks down into letting your child choose how much, or if, they eat at all. Unfortunately, the side effect of requiring that children finish all of the food on their plates makes them lose their natural ability to tell when they are full and begin to associate the feeling of being over-full with satisfaction and reward. Down the road, this can cause weight issues such as obesity. Now, this isn’t my current problem with DK – but with the obesity epidemic predicting that we are now entering generations who won’t live as long as their parents – I want to make sure that anything I do do to get DK to put food in his mouth will not be counter-productive to his relationship with food in the long-term.
The instructor broke meal time down into parent versus child roles.
The parent’s role is to decide: what we eat, when we eat, where we eat.
But the child’s role is to decide: how much to eat or whether to eat at all.
I’ll admit, I had a really hard time with this. Following this advice to fulfill my role and to let DK fulfill his role meant that I had to give up control completely about how much he ate and I was already freaking out that he was underweight. Could I really just put a communal bowl of pasta on the table and let him serve himself what he wanted? What if he didn’t like what I made? I brought my concerns up with his pediatrician, who I saw a few days later and he said to follow the advice of the pediatric nutritionist and just see what happens.
And so we tried the method to see.
We let DK choose how much of anything he wanted to eat and trusted that over the course of a few days, he would get a balanced selection for a healthy diet.
We served a selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy with every meal – letting him decide how much he wanted (if any). We didn’t try to push one food over another, but offered them all equally and without pressure or guilt (or at least tried to).
And, the hardest thing, when we served dessert (and the nutritionist’s advice is you should serve dessert at least once per week), we served it in equal portions (everyone at the table gets one cookie) but we served it at the same time as the rest of the meal.
This advice seems SO WRONG and against everything our moms and grandmas taught us. You earn dessert because you ate enough of your peas. You don’t just get dessert.
We were very skeptical. If we served a treat with the rest of the meal, DK would fill up on his dessert first and eat less of the healthy stuff, right? The concept is, if the child feels that all food is of equal value and that the dessert is not conditional on any other eating – they are happy to eat the dessert when they are ready, and not in a “I have to eat this right away before I lose it” binge-eating-attitude. And the long-term goal is to develop healthy eating habits, not binge-eating-junk-food -when-no-one-is-looking-habits
But yes, at first, that is what happened. He ate the cookie first. And would ask for another one. But we said, “We each get one.” and then he’d try to eat ours. But we re-affirmed, “we each get only one” and we would eat ours so that the temptation was gone. But we kept trusting in the method and a few times per week, we continued to serve a single cookie each for dessert, at the same time as the rest of the meal.
And now, I am amazed that what they said would happen, is happening. DK will take a nibble of his cookie and then eat his chicken, or spinach or rice, and then take another nibble of his cookie. Often he doesn’t even finish his cookie before he declares he is “all done” and gets down from the table.
He has become more adventurous for eating more foods and when he tries it of his own accord, he often likes it. Whereas if I encourage/pressure him to try it (which pediatric nutritionist said not to do…I know, I’m not perfect), he almost always spits it out and says “I don’t like it” and won’t try it again. Case in point, he now eats raw spinach and raw broccoli very happily. I didn’t even bother to offer it to him with any suggestive influence because most kids don’t like those things, so I assumed it would be a flat refusal and didn’t bother even asking, but it turns out when he wants to try it, he will, and he’s more likely to like it without the power struggle.
Some days, DK only eats carrots. And some days, he only eats chicken. And some days, the only food worthy to cross his lips is yogurt. But over the span of a few days, he does get a balanced diet.
Now, to be real, I still wouldn’t say my child (or my husband for that matter) is an adventurous eater – but his palette has expanded and his curiosity about what is on the table is widening. I try not to be a short-order cook, so if I know there’s no way he (or my husband) is going to eat the soup I really felt like cooking and eating – I try to make sure our table is set with communal dishes of things he will eat: fresh cut veggies, bread with butter, a bowl of nuts, etc. And he can always ask for a peanut butter sandwich or toast, which I will short-order cook for him.
All in all, I was very skeptical of the philosophy, but right now it seems to be working for us. Every so often DK will add a new ingredient to his “approved” list. Still no fruit, unless contained in yogurt, but I am very happy to report that he no longer gags at the sight of a strawberry and will touch it and allow it on his plate (although he hasn’t tried it yet).