Saturday, May 3, 2014

How We Handled Our Picky Eater

{Image found here}

Picky eaters. Most parents deal with them to some degree at some point in their parenting careers. That's where we found ourselves with our just-turned-four-year-old over the course of the past year {give or take a bit}. As a little toddler, Carsen ate just about everything we offered her, especially fruits and vegetables. It seems we were sadly mistaken in believing she was just a really good eater, because somewhere in the middle of being 2 she decided to stop eating some of the foods she once devoured. After being such a healthy eater for 2+ years, her favorite foods began to drop off one by one until the only things she really wanted to eat were the dreaded "toddler standards"- hot dogs, pizza, grilled cheese, and chicken nuggets. Gah! How did we get here? And more importantly, what do we do about it??

I was determined not to make a huge issue out of food. My philosophy on just about everything in life is that if you make a big deal out of it, it will become a big deal. So we tried the casual approach. We encouraged her to eat her vegetables but more and more she declined. We thought maybe it was just a phase that she'd move on from, but she didn't. Like any parent I began to worry about her nutrition. She was still eating normal and fairly healthy stuff for breakfast and lunch, but she was eating less and less for dinner and not much in the way of vegetables at all. I also started to worry that she wasn't eating a sufficient quantity of food in those two meals with what little she was getting from her meager dinners.

Well, we all know what worried parents do... Google. Far and away, the most prominent piece of advice we found, both from people we know and the interwebz, was the "one meal" approach. Simply put, you make one family meal {no short-order cooking}, the kids must at least try each food, absolutely no snacking between meals, and no games/tricks/bribery. They eat or they don't. One mom describes looking her 2 year old in the eye and telling her to "eat it or starve" in this article I read, which I personally found heart-breaking. Supposedly this teaches kids to try new foods and become more adventurous eaters. They'll eat when they're hungry enough, right? ...Right??

We tried. We really did. It's no exaggeration when I say that she would eat dinner maybe once a week. She refused every. single. night. Instead of reducing the stress surrounding meal time, our stress went through the roof. Instead of just fussing at the dinner table, Carsen began asking me what was for dinner the minute she woke up from her nap in the afternoon and would whine and agonize about it all the way through meal time and straight through bed time. Every evening became hours of discussion over what was for dinner, what she did and didn't like, whining, crying, and other generally uncooperative behavior. We were frustrated, annoyed, and experiencing tons of guilt. Our child basically never had a bite to eat after her 12:30 p.m. lunch every day, and was going to bed crying and hungry every night. We don't have a lot, but we have enough food to eat. I can't imagine if I had to send my babies to bed crying and hungry so doing it by choice seemed utterly ridiculous and it ripped my heart out. Worst of all, we were getting nowhere with it.

Then one night while I was making another dinner I knew she wouldn't eat, and she was yet again hungry, cranky, and melting down about everything, I caved and asked, "would you like eggies and peas??" She stopped, I swear to you mid-meltdown, and literally snapped back to her sweet adorable self and said, "Yes I would!" Like flipping a switch, our entire evening did a 180. She began cheerfully bouncing around the kitchen. She ate her whole dinner. She played happily until bed time. After struggling for so long, it was miraculous. I decided that night that if she wanted some damn scrambled eggs and peas every night for dinner that was fine with me.

I immediately felt a million times better and swore to never send my child to bed hungry again as long as I could help it. Sometimes as parents we go against our instincts to follow the latest "expert" advice {or whatever "everyone" seems to be doing at the time}. Truly though, if it causes you and your child stress, it's probably not the right thing to do regardless of what any expert says. The more I thought about the hard-line, no-choice, eat-it-or-starve approach, the more insane I realized it was.
  • First of all, I allow her to choose what she wants to eat for her breakfast and lunch. How confusing and frustrating it must be for her when at dinner time she's told she has no choice but to eat what I've chosen or go hungry. Not to mention as a child she is unable to make her own food and is completely at my mercy. This is a situation she literally has zero control over.
  • Second, "experts" usually advise that in order to get children to cooperate, you should empower them with choices. Let them choose between the yogurt or banana, yellow shirt or blue shirt, hair up or hair down, etc. Yet when it comes to dinner, the expert advice is to allow no choice at all. What sense does that make?
  • Third, my favorite, many experts love to base their advice on how to treat children by referencing how we adults would feel when treated that way. So then my question is: how would we adults feel if we were told we had to eat food we don't like and didn't choose, or starve? I think we'd probably be cranky and out-of-sorts, too. 
  • Fourth, this approach flies in the face of everything I know about Attachment Parenting, a philosophy I am wholeheartedly committed to.
And so, our new approach is to feed her what she'll eat, among acceptable dinner-time foods {for goodness sake she's asking for scrambled eggs and peas, not candy}. We ask her to try three bites of the dinner I make and then she can opt for scrambled eggs if she wants. We also started a sticker chart and give her a sticker every night she eats all of her dinner. Guess what? We're going on 2 months straight that she has eaten her dinners! So maybe we're not actively expanding her pallette. Neither is  offering food she doesn't eat. She can't get any nutrition from it if she refuses to eat it. She loves fruit, smoothies, fruit/vegetable pouches, and eats plenty of healthy protein so she's still getting nutrients even if she doesn't gobble up brussels sprouts at the dinner table. Most little kids don't love vegetables. I will continue to offer them to her and otherwise feed her the best food she enjoys eating. Like I've said before- the best approach {to anything} is always to do what works for you and your family. The current "wisdom" didn't cut it for us in this case, so we tried something else that did and are all much much happier and healthier as a result!

Anyone else have experience with a picky eater? What worked for you? What didn't?

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