It's important for me to acknowledge that there are children with actual food related issues. There are kids with food sensory aversion, allergies, intolerance, etc. This post isn't about them. If you're the parent of a child who struggles with diagnosed food related issues, work with your pediatrician to keep your kid healthy and ignore this post.
Once upon a time, my husband and my oldest son engaged in an epic battle of wills. The Great Battle of Foodmageddon. Garrett's Last Stand. The Siege of Kitchentown.
For a short time, Garrett was an overly picky toddler, refusing to eat nearly everything we put in front of him. I'd heard of a tactic whereby you make your child choose between what is being served and a peanut butter sandwich. If they eat neither, they go hungry. We decided to employ this system. Our kid ate peanut butter for a week.
I had visions of our child eating only peanut butter for the rest of his life. He'd be the kid at the birthday party turning his nose up at the pizza and insisting that the host slap some creamed peanuts between two pieces of bread for him. He'd be the husband insisting on sandwiches at the wedding. Not to mention the scurvy I was certain was right around the corner.
"This is dumb," I said. "He eats what we eat or he doesn't eat."
I can remember sitting on the porch, waiting for Troy to get home from work. I was starved for adult conversation and my toddler was legit refusing to eat, choosing, instead, to spit everything at me. Troy pulled in the driveway, sensed my impending meltdown, and took over.
The evening culminated in Troy pressing Garrett's lips together so he couldn't spit out whatever it was he refused to swallow. They faced off. Stubborn father against the son who inherited his flair for being unwilling to back down. Garrett refused to swallow. Troy refused to be spit on. In the end, the adult won the battle and the war and our child ate from then on.
Nine years later, there are still tons of things he doesn't like. There are things he once liked but has now decided he doesn't. But, there are so many more things that he once hated that he now enjoys.
Do you want your child to eat? Here are some practical tips.
1. Make them try things. Once they're old enough to reason, explain that they will have a courtesy bite of everything. They must have a small portion of everything you've set on the table. Garrett hated potatoes for the longest time. I would make him have one bite of potato every time we had them. Eventually, he found that he liked them with ranch dressing. If they don't eat their dinner, they don't get dessert. Period. END OF DISCUSSION. Wait, what, you hadn't planned anything for dessert because it's not 1950 and we don't bake a cake every day? Break out two animal crackers or a graham cracker or a tiny dish with one scoop of frozen yogurt or WHATEVER because it will straight up be an incentive to finish that bite of broccoli. The older they get the less they'll need an incentive. And they'll start to find that they like things they didn't think they liked.
2. Make them try things you don't like. This is especially easy to do at a buffet. They may end up loving something you detest and the broader a kid's palate, the better. We don't actually want them to hate food, do we? Garrett loves beets because he ate them at a salad bar. Never saw that one coming.
3. NEVER tell your small child that you hate a particular food. This gives them a pass to refuse to try things because, "Dad doesn't have to." I have tried and tried and TRIED to love oatmeal. But I just HATE it and have since I was a kid. Apparently, I loved it as a baby but, for as long as I can remember I've detested it. It's not the taste. It's the texture. It's like eating vomit. But I completely recognize the nutritional value and ease of oatmeal so I have encouraged a love for oatmeal in all my children. My older kids are definitely old enough to know that there are foods we both hate. They're not dumb. They've never seen me eat oatmeal and they've never seen Troy eat an olive. Of course we've had discussions with them about foods we don't like--now. But when they were tiny and in the process of developing good eating habits, we PRETENDED to like everything. The more a kid eats when he's little, the more things he'll like later in life.
4. Sauces and dips. Or no sauces and dips. Whatever works. Garrett hated tomato sauce for years. It was bizarre because he LOVED tomatoes. When we had spaghetti, I would give him plain noodles with a little butter. Yes, I was catering to him, but he was basically still eating what we were eating. He wasn't eating peanut butter. Eventually, I started giving him buttery noodles with meatballs. The meatballs were cooked in our sauce so some sauce ended up on his plate. Initially, this was the end of his world. But he liked the meatballs and realized that a little bit of sauce wasn't going to kill him. Now, he eats spaghetti like a normal human. Ranch dressing or BBQ sauce or soy sauce are great for making foods that seem bland to kid's tongue, well, less bland. When Matthew was a baby, I told people that his favorite foods were condiments. Dipping made things fun and yummy. The doctor assures me my kids are healthy so I stand by this tip. Especially because I'd rather have my kids eating carrots with ranch than no carrots at all.
5. No seconds of the things they love until the things they hate are gone. Period. If they're still hungry after their plate is clean, they can fill up with more of the things they like.
6. Make sure they don't hate the entire meal. A few years ago, if I'd served spaghetti with potatoes and avocado, Garrett would have died on the spot. (Not to mention I would have needed my own head examined for such a bizarre combination.) But serve him up spaghetti with Caesar salad and a huge chunk of bread and suddenly there's only one thing on his plate he's not excited about. Double portion of bread and salad and a tiny amount of spaghetti? Sure. The end goal is to broaden their tastes, not make them hate their parents.
7. Reward them when they're little for being good eaters. Tell them how proud you are. One thing I do that I know other people find weird is I let them eat their food in whatever order they want. If it's breakfast and we're having eggs, bacon, fruit and a danish, they can absolutely eat the danish first if they'd like to. But they know that the very first time they don't finish the rest of their breakfast after polishing off that danish, they will lose that privilege. It has never once been a problem.
8. If they just legitimately hate something after repeated tries, don't torture them. Especially if they'll eat a wide variety of other things and they're eating a balanced diet. Garrett cannot handle spices or excessive amounts of fried foods. He gets physically sick to his stomach. Obviously, I don't force feed him fried chicken until he throws up.
I'm sure there are many more tips I could come up with but those stand out in my mind. I was blessed with an amazing eater in Matthew. That kid will try anything and he likes everything. Including fish eyes. Although, when he was little he tried avocado and hated it. He looked, mournfully, at my brother (who loves avocado) and moaned, "I can't yike it." Guess what though? He loves it now. Currently, Will will eat anything. Of course, we haven't reached that terrible toddler stage so we shall see. I'm sure I'll be revisiting my own advice soon enough. Garrett (with the exception of his natural bent toward anything from the ocean) was molded and crafted into a good eater with a great deal of intention and diligence on our part. He's still much more picky than his brother but he's learned to be polite, to eat what is put in front of him here and ESPECIALLY somewhere else, and he has discovered a love for so many foods because he was introduced to a wide variety young and often.
Your child can be a good eater. It just takes consistency. Good luck. You can do it.