Breaking the Habits of a Picky Eater

IMG_0825.JPGEating with John has been a bit of a roller coaster ride.  His pickiness has forced us to pack entirely separate meals for John for day trips and meals in restaurants.  There was a chunk of time where I’m embarrassed to admit that the only way we could get him to eat anything besides fruit was to let him watch videos.  Even more embarrassing, those videos were of himself.  John’s eating habits have always been a cause of anxiety for me, and two and a half years later, I am happy to announce that we finally seem to have reached the light at the end of the very dark, very stressful tunnel.

John started with purees at four months old.  We introduced him to rice cereal, followed by a variety of fruits and vegetables.  At first, I pureed everything myself at home.  Some things were easy- bananas barely needed to be blended before turning to mush.  Other things were more difficult- it seemed impossible to get green beans to take on the right consistency.  Some foods took longer to prepare than others, and with my time already fairly limited, after just a few weeks, we switched to good old Gerber.

At six months we began introducing table foods like halved grapes, bread, and peas.  John quickly took a liking to these foods, but soon after developed a strong aversion to anything pureed that could not be served in a pouch.  As he graduated to meat and veggie purees, meals became a battle.  He refused most chunky purees, and to this day, I don’t know if it’s because they were just gross (because let’s face it- those meat and veggie purees look like they’ve already been partially digested), or because he was having difficulty chewing them.

As days turned into weeks, it became apparent that getting John to eat was not going to get any easier.  If it was a phase, it was a long one, and he couldn’t live on bread alone.  In a moment of desperation, I showed him a video from my phone to calm him down while he was sitting in his high chair.  The effect was instantaneous, and faced with a suddenly calm child, I began spoon-feeding him his dinner.  For the first time in weeks, John ate his entire meal without fuss.  From that day on, videos at the dinner table became a staple in our house.

To say that this arrangement was embarrassing is an understatement, but John couldn’t survive on just fruits and veggies, and this was the only way to get him to eat his jars of baby food.  The classic airplane and train tactics did not work for him, and he refused to eat anything that might have been found on the dinner table.  Instead, it had to be served as lumpy mush, and he struggled to get even those little lumps down.

IMG_0832Once his first birthday passed, we had a bit more luck with table foods, as deli meat and crackers became staples in his diet.  Eventually, we added a handful of other foods, and by his second birthday, we could pretty much guarantee that he would eat at least one element of our meals at dinner time.  We adopted a few helpful strategies as it became easier to reason with John (as much as you can reason with a two year old), and these have had the greatest impact on John’s recently expanding palette.

We adopted a type of chain eating technique that slowly introduced John to new foods.  The key to this was that John was always introduced to new foods in the presence of another that was tried and true.  For instance, John has always loved peas, so to get him to eat chicken Alfredo with peas, we followed this chain.  First he ate just peas with a bit of Alfredo, and then the following week we added a piece of pasta with his spoonful of peas and Alfredo sauce.  From there, we added bits of chicken to complete the chain, but also created a new chain in another direction.  Now that he was eating pasta, we introduced him to macaroni and cheese, as well as whole wheat spaghetti in tomato sauce with meatballs.  By keeping something familiar on the spoon with each addition to the chain, John was much more willing to try new things.

In addition to this tactic, we employed another policy at the dinner table to discourage John’s pickiness: I refused to prepare anything extra for him.  If we weren’t eating it, neither was he.  This required a bit of effort on my part, but some of his staples, such as pasta, rolls, rice, and peas, are very malleable.  At every meal, I make sure that there is something that he will eat, even if it’s just peas or a roll.  In addition, he always eats a fruit “appetizer” while I’m cooking, so I’m confident that he’s eating enough.  If he’s hungry enough at the dinner table to request something different, he can eat what I’ve placed in front of him.  If he refuses to eat it, he wasn’t hungry enough.

I’ve also adopted a policy that I read about in the French parenting book Bringing Up Bebe, which seemed very reasonable.  Rather than requiring that John eat everything on his plate, he is simply required to sample everything.  If he doesn’t want to clear his plate, that is entirely up to him.  I can’t predict exactly how hungry he is for any given meal, so it’s easier to just trust that he will eat as much as he needs.  The only catch?  He has to sample something from each “course” before moving onto the next.  Feel free to interpret that as John has to eat a little of his protein, veggie, carb, and fruit before getting dessert.  He doesn’t realize that this is what we’re doing, but by serving the carb after giving him the protein and veggie, following up with dessert doesn’t seem like a reward after having consumed some of the “yuckier” foods.  It’s just the natural progression of the meal.  We might need to reevaluate once John’s old enough to recognize our motives, but for now it works for us.

IMG_0842All of these techniques have worked to shape John into a much more versatile eater.  It’s not embarrassing to bring him into restaurants anymore, and I can rest easy knowing that we will definitely find something for him to eat when we go out.  I don’t need to stress about having friends over for dinner now that I know that no matter what we serve, he’ll eat enough not to raise the eyebrows of our guests.  It’s been a somewhat painful two years for fostering good eating habits, but we’ve learned a few very valuable lessons that will hopefully make eating easier with Felicity.  Hopefully we won’t create a meal time monster this time around…

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

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