Although I’ve mentioned picky food habits with Hattie and Joe, I don’t think I’ve ever written a full blog post on this topic. So here it is: my tried and tested ways to reform formerly picky eaters!
HA! Sorry, I crack myself up sometimes. Gentle readers, I have NO IDEA how to solve picky eating problems! My children are the pickiest eaters I know. Hattie is a dyed-in-the-wool picky eater (or, ‘a crazy person and carb addict’, as the voices in my head call her), whereas Joe is more of a Johnny-come-lately picky eater (or, ‘a little shit who is 100% doing it for attention’, as I fondly think of him during many dinners).
It all started out so well. Here’s a photo taken in October 2013, when the kids were ten months old. They’re eating crisp bread with jam on it here, but my original Facebook photo caption shows that they followed this up with cold broccoli and cold asparagus.
Hattie and Joe probably haven’t eaten broccoli or asparagus since they could speak in full sentences.
Another example, this one from November 2013: Hattie, covered in her lunch – couscous, chicken, and vegetables.
When was the last time Hattie ate couscous? Or chicken? Or any vegetable that wasn’t in chip form? It was so long ago that I can’t even remember.
And you know how people whose children don’t like to sleep really get irritated when well-meaning but clueless people offer them advice about how to make sleep happen? Well, I feel EXACTLY THE SAME WAY when people try to give me advice about how to get my picky eaters to broaden their culinary horizons. Here’s some of the things we tried, and why they were utter bullshit.
1. ‘You don’t have to eat it’ – the six words that will [NOT] end picky eating
The theory here is that you put something unfamiliar on the plate, next to the familiar food, and when the kid kicks off at your audacity, expecting them to actually eat something other than the list of seven pre-approved foods they’ve begrudgingly agreed to eat, you stay super chilled and just airily comment “oh – you don’t have to eat it”. Apparently this takes the pressure off your delicate snowflake picky eating child, and eventually their natural curiosity overcomes them and they start trying the food.
I don’t know how gullible or weak-willed these kids are, but this did not work in our house. Instead, Hattie and Joe more or less said “We don’t? Awesome!” – and then they ate the stuff they already liked, and blithely ignored the new food. And yes, we tried it more than a few times. And I have seen this Huffington Post article and others about these six supposedly magical bullshit words at least eleventy million times, but yep: it didn’t work for us.
2. At least 20 ‘yucks’ to one ‘yum’
This is predicated on the idea that kids just need to try a food many, many times. It must be based on an opposite philosophy to that which is championed by the ‘you don’t have to eat it’ disciples, because you’re presumably cajoling your kid into repeatedly trying the food they’re not sure about. All I can say is that the picky eaters who fall for this approach are obviously total novices in the picky eating department, with zero willpower to keep up a good solid picky eating battle at their dinner table.
Getting a child to try something once is a mission when said child will not so much as pick up the unfamiliar food. Seriously, we’ve got more hope of Hattie sprouting wings and flying to school tomorrow than we have of convincing her to repeatedly try a food she doesn’t know. And if either of my children tried something and found it ‘yuck’, how in the name of all that is holy do you suppose I’d convince them to try it a further 19 times? Seriously, when I read this advice I wonder if my children are a different species to other kids. So yes, we haven’t really tried this approach fully, largely because I can’t imagine how to achieve it, short of strapping the kids to their chairs and force-feeding them like geese.
3. That’s dinner – take it or leave it!
This is one approach that we did try, way back in 2015, when the kids were two and a half, and Hattie’s extreme picky eating was taking root. We offered a different dinner every night – whatever we were having – and to be benevolent we included macaroni cheese (her favourite) once each week.
We tried this approach for six weeks. During that time, Hattie ate dinner once a week – yes, on macaroni cheese night. Eventually we had to bow to the inevitable: that her will is like iron (as we’ve seen again more recently, when she gave up sucking her thumb), and we couldn’t really starve her into a broken spirit.
4. Don’t stress – they’ll get bored eventually and try more stuff
This was the approach taken by the Plunket nurse we saw for the kids’ B4 School check, early in 2017, and I was so grateful to her for it. When she asked me about their eating habits I mentally clenched, expecting a lecture about how we were failing to encourage them to eat a variety of foods. Instead, she asked whether we’d tried a few approaches and, when I told her we had, she followed up by asking whether it was an issue we wanted to address. I was honest, and told her that full time university and the general stresses of life with two young children made me disinclined to spend every evening in battle with them, and that i just couldn’t really be bothered at that time. Her response was refreshingly pragmatic: she essentially told me not to worry at all, and that they’d eventually get bored and want to try other things.
And the thing is, I do agree with her – I just don’t know how many years that might take. I’m not joking here: for the past two and a half years Hattie’s dinner has been either macaroni cheese, or a home-made pizza (with an olive oil base, because tomato paste is far too close to a vegetable) with ham and cheese. She eats no vegetables, no fruit (who doesn’t like FRUIT?!), very little egg, and very little meat (pretty much just that ham on the pizza). She lives on carbs and dairy. How does she not have scurvy? It’s a shame that she wasn’t born two hundred years ago – she would have been an excellent pirate. She shows zero interest in trying anything new. And it’s difficult to expose her to new things, given that the grownups in our house eat after the kids have gone to bed.
At this point, I’ll pause and urge you to resist the temptation to tell me how eating together as a family is what we need to do. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t make any difference. Also, the kids need to eat by 5ish, especially now they’re at school, and Tristan and I aren’t home until 5.30pm. Also, the social benefits of eating dinner together as a family are actually nothing to do with eating dinner – it’s about sitting down together. They eat breakfast with Tristan every day, and lunch with Rieke or me on the days that we’re at home. And anybody who has met my kids know that they’re not lacking social graces. Hattie just doesn’t like trying new foods, and Joe is just being obstinate. I realise that it sounds as if I’m cutting Hattie a lot of slack, and not extending the same courtesy to Joe, but there’s a reason why: he hasn’t always been a picky eater. He’s chosen to become one. When we go out for brunch, he’ll happily try many of the things that we’ve ordered, but when he’s at home he will stubbornly refuse to eat anything but the most ridiculous things for dinner (chicken nuggets and tomato sauce, and nothing else, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich).
One of the reasons why the Plunket nurse wasn’t too worried – and also why we’ve let this issue slide for a long time – is Hattie and Joe’s robust good health. They get one or two colds a year, and that’s pretty much it. They had a tummy bug last year, and it was the first time anybody in the house had vomited for at least two years. I know that, if they were sickly children that picked up every bug going (and this is after two years at kindy, remember) we would probably be forced to worry more about what they ate. We do have a slight insurance policy in the form of those vitamin jelly lollies that are, no doubt, ruining their teeth.
5. Be a ruthless food dictator and take no shit from your kids
This isn’t actually recommended by anybody, but I prefer odd-numbered lists. And it’s more or less the approach we’re going to take from now on. This is both for health-related reasons – they just don’t eat enough of the right stuff – and also because I’m so bloody sick of this nonsense. I’m sure I should have addressed it more firmly a couple of years ago, but life has been busy, and when everything else is pretty good it’s sometimes hard to rock the boat. The late afternoon/early evening is my absolute worst time of day, so the idea of food-related battles every day was too horrible to contemplate. But it’s become utterly ridiculous, having kids who are so fussy about food. And besides – they’re lovely kids! I want us to be able to dine out more often, or have picnics on the beach, or visit friends for dinner! It’s all too difficult when they’ll barely eat anything.
And although it’s true that the kids don’t get sick, one issue we’re now facing is Joe’s recurring constipation, which is caused by a lack of fibre in his diet. He finds it very uncomfortable, and he hates taking medication for it. We’ve explained that the problem will probably be solved when he eats more varied food choices. When we saw the doctor yesterday she explained that food like apples and bananas, two of his favourites, are not great on this front, so he came with me to the fruit and vegetable shop to choose some poo-friendly plums instead.
The doctor also chatted to both kids about the overall need to eat different types of food, in order to be strong and healthy, and have a lot of energy. So Hattie, on the way home (after we’d left the fruit and vegetable shop, thus preventing me from calling this particular bluff) announced “I really like broccoli!” – this from the child who hasn’t eaten broccoli since 2016. She also declared that she’d like scrambled eggs for dinner, so that’s what I served. And here’s some photos that show how me taking her at her word sent her into something akin to a grief cycle.
First there was shock and denial. WTAF? Carrots?! And eggs?
Then we moved to depression – the world is a cruel place when you can’t just force people to make the food you’d prefer to eat.
But there was some acceptance as well…
Not shown: more grief and disbelief, largely when she was told that two bites of her toast and egg would not necessarily be sufficient to get an ice lolly afterwards, and that there would be no yoghurt or glasses of milk, either: if she wasn’t hungry enough for this food (which she had said she’d eat, let’s not forget), she wasn’t hungry enough for dairy products either. And there was anger. At one stage I asked, “Do you just not want to eat it because you don’t like being told what to do?” and she confirmed that yes, this was the biggest barrier to cooperation.
I mainly don’t have photos of those stages because I don’t want awful photos of my darling daughter online, and also because I’d retreated to my bedroom with Netflix to keep me company, and had left Rieke to deal with it.
Joe was slightly more willing to eat, given that he does have scrambled egg for dinner occasionally. We did have some shock at the sight of carrots:
But in the end he was OK.
Eventually Hattie had about one third of her dinner, and one bite of carrot. I think Joe had an entire circle of carrot. I also left out some carb-heavy snacks from their lunch box today, and gave them more carrot circles and a couple of cherry tomatoes, instead.
Tonight we’ll try again with carrot, and I think they’re going to have kumara soup for dinner. Riots will probably ensue. This is why mothers drink all the wine, people. I’ll keep you posted!