Food and the process of eating is a social endeavor. Children pick up on that notion very early in life. When approaching food struggles with your children it is imperative that you see this not as purely about taste, but also about relationships.
- “The other senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone, but taste is largely social.” - Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
This is why the toddler years (ages 1 - 3) are such a struggle at the table. During the toddler years your sweet little one is testing testing testing. He is pushing the limits and learning about cause and effect. This general approach to the world doesn't change just because he is sitting in the high chair. You set a pattern of behavior for his whole life too. Sure that pattern can change, but it is tough. Here are some tips to help you to get them to eat something other than mandarin oranges and applesauce.
1. Set yourself up to succeed. The first step is to eat right while you are pregnant and nursing. I was able to live primarily on peanut m-n-ms with my 4th pregnancy. I had horrible reflux and I was chasing a 2 and 4 year old around. When those m-n-ms came up they tasted just the same as when they went down. I was happy. My daughter, at age 6 now, has a total sweet tooth. And I knew better too. My eldest doesn't care much for sweets at all. I ate beautifully when I was pregnant with him. Greens & lean proteins. I was doing it 'right'.
This is important because when pregnant, our amniotic fluid is actually flavored by the food that we eat. Same with our breast milk. It is a super cool way of our body preparing our babies to eat food specific to our culture.
2. Make sure they are hungry. Letting them walk around with a box of sugary cereal up until 530 and expecting them to sit down at 6pm and eat peas is just lame. Think it through. Don't let them snack 1-2 hours before a meal. That goes for juice and milk also. If they tank up on juice as soon as they sit down at the table they aren't going to be hungry for their food. Hungry kids are less picky. If they are starving, give them raw veggies to nibble on while they wait for dinner. Which brings me to number two.
2.5 Watch the drinks. This is related to no. 2 so it doesn't get it's own section. If you child is on their 3rd glass of milk and not eating their salad think it through. Would you be hungry if you just drank 12 oz of milk? Conversely, if you have a child who is putting ON weight and eating TOO much at once, have them drink water before they eat anything.
3. Serve them veggies first. Cooked veggie taste best warm with salt and butter. They also cool faster than most of the other food on the plate. We have a general rule that the kids are able to eat their veggies while everyone is gathering for dinner and finishing up the pre-dinner chores (like setting the table, getting the napkins they forgot) and while they are waiting for me to finish up that last sauce or whatever. I plate the veggies and put them on the table. We also eat a LOT of raw veggies: sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, raw carrots, and salads. I can put those on the table 20 minutes before anyone complains about hunger. When they start smelling dinner and "need food now mom I am starving...", it is ready for them on the table. Raw veggies won't spoil their meal, it won't fill them up, but it does get them munching and crunching on something healthy. They aren't allowed to touch the main course or side dish until we have all sat down together and said grace.
4. Everyone gets the same meal, but with a variety on the table. I try to have two veggie at dinner. Often I fail, but if I have cooked carrots for instance I will also put raw carrots in a bowl on the table. If they don't want to cooked ones they can help themselves to the raw ones. If I know someone doesn't like peas (we have two lovers and two haters) I will open a can of green beans too. They have to eat one of the veggies. We try to have a salad most nights and some cooked veggie as well. My kids all like different salad dressings and they get to dress their salads (with our help) at the table. I don't assume they are all going to love my same favorite dressing (which changes anyway). For those with kids just recently on solid foods, let you littlest children eat what you eat. Just cut it up smaller of course. You may be surprised by what they like. My kids generally didn't eat baby food. We just cut up our food. It really does taste better than that mush in the jars.
Now when an older child doesn't like just one or two things (my eldest hates peas & mayonnaise), just leave him alone. Don't make him taste it every time. Be happy you have a good eater and leave it at that.
5. Don't make your table a battle zone. Give your children choices in life. If they choose to be hungry so be it. In our home I tell my daughter constantly
With the youngest eaters food can become a serious battle zone. Don't buy into it. Tell them "It is your choice to eat or not. I did my part, now you do your part. If you are hungry then eat. If not you can just sit there." If they are hungry, and don't have you to fight with, often they will just pick up the food and eat it.
I saw this in practice recently and it was awesome. The caregiver spent 10 minutes trying to get the 23 month old to eat. She said "no fries until you eat the burger". He yelled. He whinned. He complained. She said "Fine. You are all done then" and turned to talk to me. He looked at her and picked up his burger. He ate it all. Not a sound from him. And we all completely ignored him.
Sometime they will throw the food instead. We never had food throwers. I think it is luck. Some kids are throwers some are not. The few times food got thrown, our kids were automatically done with the meal. That was it. I suggest you let them sit there in their seat with nothing on the plate or just take them out of their seat. They can eat it off the floor when they are hungry, or they can wait until the next meal time (your choice depending on the cleanliness of your home).
If you have graduated from this stage of parenting I have another post on how you can make dinner time a great family time.
Another great source on this topic is the This Inspired Life Podcast where Kristin interviews Nell O'leary about food and family.
Thanks for stopping by to think with me!