One of the most stressful times I recall as a military spouse was when my daughter was six months old and her daddy left for a deployment. That first night I went to open a bottle of one of my favorite wines and the wine opener broke with the corkscrew still in the cork. This trip wasn’t off to a good start.
As the months passed by my daughter moved into the solid food phase. I quickly noticed that she wasn’t trying new foods like other kids her age. She wasn’t trying to pick up food, like Cheerios or puffs, to feed herself. And she was super picky. I couldn’t get my daughter to try new foods. She literally refused. The sight, smell, texture, something always kept her from trying.
At her one year check up, I talked with her pediatrician about my concerns. She agreed this was a developmental issue. She shared that typically when babies start solid foods they will try anything new. Later, their tastes develop and they decide whether they will eat it again or not. The doctor referred us to an occupational therapist.
For several months, the occupational therapist worked with my daughter and me to get her to try different foods, to expand the list of foods she would eat, and to get her to feed herself. It took a lot of hard work. Mainly on my part. I remember many nights in tears, begging my daughter to pick up her own food or try something new. Of course at her age, she didn’t understand. Dealing with this frustration and having to do it solo with no break from my spouse added to the stress.
It took several months but she progressed to eating different foods and feeding herself. Had I not been persistent and frequently remembered why this was so important, there is no telling what type of eater my daughter would be today. At 11 she is a fairly healthy eater, but we continued to struggle through the years. With some creative strategies and sheer mom grit, I helped her develop better eating habits.
Please note that all babies are different and the situation with my daughter is unique to her. It is best to partner with your pediatrician for support.
It All Starts With You
Getting kids to eat healthier or not be so picky is a top concern for many parents. Battling the will of a young child who is expressing their own desires can frustrate any parent. You can’t negotiate, try to reason, or get them to understand why. Your child may not be at an age to understand or they simply might not care. They want their heart’s desire.
So to help you get through this process and overcome this struggle, you will need to remember and keep coming back to why you need to do this for your child. Part of your why may be for you also. You don’t want to be a short order cook. You want the family to eat the one meal you provide every night without a battle.
First, let me say that modeling healthy eating has to start with the parent. You can’t expect your child to eat healthy or not be so picky if you don’t have healthy eating habits. So if you are also struggling with healthy eating, this could be something you could work on as a family. Or you may want to work on your healthy habits first and as you do, be open with your child about how you are doing it, why it is important, and how it makes you feel.
3 Steps for a Successful Plan
There are three steps in creating a plan to help your child – and you – to be successful with better eating habits.
ONE – Start Small.
It is better to start by implementing a small change rather than a major overhaul. You don’t want to overwhelm your child or yourself by trying to achieve too much at one time.
It will depend on where your child is and where you want them to go. Here are some examples. For one who rarely eats vegetables, the goal might be eating one vegetable a day, literally as small as one bite. For another who will only eat carrots for their vegetable, it may be trying one new vegetable a week.
Think progress over perfection. Start small and build every week or two based on how well things progress.
TWO – Set an Incentive.
Most children (even adults) need some incentive for making habit changes. Set up some rewards or use a reward chart. Some reward ideas are stay up five minutes past normal bed time, get one extra book at bedtime, or mom has to do a silly dance.
Avoid using food, such as sweets, as a reward. It can be easy to say, “I’ll give you a cookie after dinner if you eat your veggies.” You don’t want to encourage them to develop the desire and habit for a nightly dessert. Or think that they deserve a treat because they ate healthy.
You could make it a game, a competition between you and your child. If they don’t eat their veggies, you get the mark. If they eat their veggies, they get the mark. If the child has more marks than the parent at the end of the week, they get an extra TV show. If you get more marks at the end of the week, they have to do an extra chore.
Be sure to make your expectations clear to your child and appropriate for their age.
THREE – Follow Through.
The most important part of this is that you have to follow through with whatever strategy you choose. Don’t go strong for a week or two and then give up. This will take some time. You may have to give some tough love. You may need to say, “Mommy is serious about eating healthy. It is very important for our whole family.” Remember why you need to do this.
Get extra support if needed. Vent with a friend to give you encouragement. Find a fellow parent and tackle this together.
If you don’t pick the battle now, it will always be a battle. Don’t negotiate on your rules. No weakness mom or dad! You got this!
3 Steps for a Successful Plan
Each child is different on what will and won’t work. These seven tips will help you in your quest.
1. Get your child involved. Let them pick the new vegetable to try that week. Let them pick their rewards from some options. Getting them involved helps the child take greater ownership, feel they have a say, and have some control. They are getting their way in some small way that doesn’t jeopardize your long term goals.
2. Tell and not ask. Don’t ask if they want to try a new vegetable or do they want a vegetable. Of course you are going to get a “no” answer. Rather, give an “or” option. “Would you like peas or green beans with dinner tonight?” Again, this makes them feel a little in charge.
3. Prepare variety. Try cooking what you want them to eat in different ways. Steamed, sautéed, roasted, raw. Not all in one meal. Spread the variety out. Does a healthy dip or sauce make it better? One of the ways I got my daughter to try more foods was by dipping them in hummus. Hummus was one of the few foods she would eat.
4. If they strike, let them. So they refuse whatever you try. Okay. Don’t give any other choices. They won’t starve. If they put on a show about being hungry, remind them they can finish their meal and it will be there until they go to bed. Your child will not starve. It will be difficult to deal with as the parent, but this is when you have to follow through with what you say. Persistence makes the difference. Show them that you can be just as persistent.
5. Set limitations. Consider setting limitations on the unhealthy food they eat. Don’t get rid of it completely. Remember, start small. For example, “You can have chicken nuggets. We just can no longer have them five nights a week. You can have nuggets two nights and this week it is on Monday and Thursday.” This also works well with sweets. My daughter can have dessert three nights a week (she would prefer every day). She gets to pick those nights and what she has.
6. No guilt or shame. In no way do we want them to feel guilty for eating unhealthy or shame them for being picky. Also don’t compare them to others. Making them feel bad is not helpful in what you want to achieve and it can lead them to a bad relationship with food that will impact them even as adults.
7. Show empathy. Acknowledge the struggle, but at the same time relay the importance. “It is hard to make change and not get what you want. But this is very important for us to do as a family. This is a team effort.”
I wish I could say there was a magic wand you could wave and immediately make your child not be a picky eater and love lots of healthy foods. But unfortunately, that is not the case. This will require some hard work. And every child is different but following this plan will give you more confidence moving forward.
While my daughter is a better eater than I was as a child and does eat a variety of foods, I still have to be sure she eats veggies more than just at dinner and encourage her to only snack when she is actually hungry.
Eating well is a daily practice. The more you pick the healthier choices, the less you want the unhealthy. But you have to be persistent in order for that shift to happen. Just as you have to be persistent with your child.
So mom, dad, caregiver, you got this! This is a battle you can overcome. So huddle up, come up with a plan, put on your war paint, and lead the team to victory!
Jen is a certified nutrition coach and master personal trainer with a specialty in corrective exercise. She owns 7Core Wellness, where she strives to empower individuals to live better, move better, and become their strongest self.
Jen created the Warrior Approach and the Warrior Approach Guidebook, which introduces a simple system to plan and prep your way to a healthier life by creating sustainable, healthy habits. As a former Special Operations spouse and registered nurse, Jen understands the demands placed on the family and the challenges they pose to well-being. She is passionate about helping families find balance through self-care in an achievable and sustainable way by simplifying how to eat right and move more.