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Thinking through this article, I knew it could be controversial. For some reason, people have incredibly strong opinions on food, and even portion sizes, body image, and a whole host of related, and important issues. That’s why the title is “A” cure, not “THE” cure.
It just so happens that I studied food policy at a fancy ivy league school with the top experts in the world, and spent the first half of a career conducting research and publishing on this (and yes, I am still and will forever be paying off those loans. Sigh.)
Our three kids, 8, 4 and 20 months eat everything. Bell peppers, eggplant, beans, lentils, cabbage, green things, tofu and every fruit we can find.
We didn’t luck into this. I wouldn’t say it was hard. Getting them to like a rainbow of foods was easy, but the consistency part was hard.
It was in the middle of grad school when I had my first son. I was bright eyed, bushy tailed, ready to start fresh with all this “knowledge” I had, and determined to have a kid who ate healthful food and had enough nutrients from food to be a well nourished baby.
During pregnancy I ate a colorful array of foods, and ironically, I craved salads piled high with veggies, hold the dressing, and air popped popcorn like crazy (not so with latter pregnancies where the donut shop gal and I were BFF). I continued to eat onions, garlic, brussels sprouts, and even my nemesis, broccoli, to make sure baby was getting a taste for this local, organically grown, incredibly expensive produce.
While breastfeeding, I continued to eat well, sneaking pizza when he wasn’t looking. We introduced quinoa, brown rice and veered away from goldfish and other processed baby/toddler staples. I made my own baby food while working and going to school full time (back when people used baby food…now the pediatricians don’t recommend it!) I froze it in cute little cubes for the nanny and my husband, and patted myself on the back for being an awesome mommy.
Then I went a little crazy about it (first child, you moms and dads get me right?) We brought our own organic muffins made with applesauce instead of oil +stevia to birthday parties as a cake substitute. And even served it at our own parties. Yes it was weird, but because of this crazy behavior, our son was a toddler eating salads at Chick Fil A instead of fried nuggets and french fries.
Some of my motivation was entirely selfish. I wanted to:
- Go to any restaurant and not have to worry about kids’ menu limitations
- Go to a friend’s house and have to explain a picky eater
- Avoid food tantrums
- Cook two dinners, one for the kids and one for us
As such, I ended up bringing our own food along, not realizing that most restaurants only serve chicken fingers and french fries. Quick story: I was a tutor/nanny to a 9 year old boy for several years as an undergrad. He had very busy parents, and he was a skinny kid, so they fed him sugar cookies and chicken fingers. Literally. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.
That made tutoring an exciting adventure….needless to say I learned many wonderful things from this and other families, but I also knew that I would not raise a picky eater if I could help it.
So this is what I recommend:
- Start early. Like, in utero if you can. Eat tons of veggies, even if you hate them. Hold your nose and swallow.
- Eat what they eat. You don’t want a diet of goldfish crackers and veggie straws? Neither do they. Eat whole, clean foods. Kids learn to eat what you eat.
- Skip the baby food. They don’t need it. As soon as they start solids, introduce literally what you are eating just chopped up small. Gone are the old days where you introduce one food at a time every three days to look for allergies.
- Eat together. (see #2). If you are eating burgers, fries and coke, they see that, and will eat that way too (hey, nothing wrong with a good burger, I’m just saying, you imprint healthful food choices early, save yourself years of drama).
- Portion control. The federal Women’s, Infants and Children’s program (WIC) from the FDA recommends two tablespoons of each food item per year of age (1) (A two year old would have four tablespoons of chopped steak, four tablespoons of brown rice, four tablespoons of chopped asparagus etc). If they want more, serve in complete portions or just serve seconds of the veggies, maybe the proteins. They don’t need all the extra starch.
- Serve veggies first. Your kid allergic to anything green? Not a vegetable fan? Serve the veggies first. As I prep dinner, I plop a few veggies on the plate for them to munch on. A) it keeps them away from under my feet–why do kids do that??? and B) they are hungry, and it gets them used to eating their vegetables first.
Here’s Mattie at age 3 eating at a graduation party. SO great that he can go anywhere and I don’t have to worry about “kid food.”
So you say, THANKS (with sarcasm) but my kid is 4 and it’s to late to go back in time.
Well here is the thing. Mattie went through a picky phase at age 5 and briefly at 7. All of a sudden he only wanted hamburgers, macaroni (from a box) and peas. So here is what we did: No burgers, no macaroni, and no peas. We had lots of salmon, brussels sprouts, steamed veggies, and whole, organic, clean foods. We also didn’t make it a “thing.” Dinner was dinner. If you don’t eat, then we can save your plate and you can eat it later when you whine at me that you’re hungry.
No fighting, no attention, and no, I wasn’t worried that he would starve. Kids will eat what you give them when they are hungry, and they will test you. This is the hard part. you HAVE to stay consistent with this and resist the urge to fight or have a two bite rule.
That worked on occasion, until he figured out that he could make it to breakfast and then have all the yummy breakfast food he liked. So we started to save his dinner for breakfast. Again, no fight, just here is your plate.
“Oh what’s that? Mommy can’t hear whinny voices. I can only hear nice voices” [continues with dishes or packing lunches or watching the news].
I know, it sounds exhausting, and it is. But it pays off. We got through those phases and he will eat anything in front of him, and PS, so do our two other kids (Ages 4 and 1!)
Need some help to reinforce this? We have a tool for you. We don’t do a lot of product reviews on this blog (On Amazon yes, I mean, we clearly have strong opinions). We are incredibly picky when it comes to products for our kids. But seriously, this is a pretty amazing tool for reinforcing healthful choices (and it really keeps you accountable because if your child can read, you better be sure to have all your food groups covered!)
Fresh Baby sent us these plates and cups, and although they recommend them for kids 6+, my toddler loves his (Note: He is not the type of kid to throw his plate overboard. Aubrey at 1? Absolutely. Michael? Nope.)
The come with a colorful comic book design that had my kids oohing and ahh-ing right out of the box.
From Fresh Baby:
Fresh Baby’s 4-Section MyPlate provides a blueprint for healthy eating at each meal.
Two of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight is by eating appropriately-sized portions and getting plenty of variety from the different food groups. This 4-section MyPlate offers:
- 8-inch eating area sized for children (6 and older) and adults
- Divider marks (not sections) for 4 food groups
- Illustrations are healthy reminder to eat a variety of foods
- Supports USDA MyPlate icon
We also use these cute little cups, perfectly labeled so you can control how much milk your child is getting. Our pediatrician recommends no more than 8-10 ounces per day total of ALL dairy products. I like to do 2-4 ounces of non fat milk only at meal time, and if they are still thirsty, fill it up with ice water!
So we didn’t do a vegetable with breakfast, although an easy way to get them in is via omelette (chopped finely if your kids aren’t veggie fans just yet), or in a smoothie.
Here is a great resource from Be A Healthy Hero.
From Fresh Baby:
Aligned with USDA MyPlate, our MyPlate Dairy Cup Comic Book Design provides support for drinking an appropriately sized dairy portion at mealtime.
- 8-oz fill lines
- Transparent blue makes filling easy
- Visual and text for the dairy group
Easy for all the kids to use, and a special shout out to another favorite, Lolla Cup!
Need more Specs?
Size: 10″x 10″ x 0.5″
Material: Polypropylene (#5 PP)
Safety: FDA food-safe, Lead, BP-A & Phthalate free
Our kids are fans! With only three, these are constantly in the wash. Good thing they are dishwasher and microwave safe!
Note: I am not a doctor. I don’t play one on TV. Please see your pediatrician for questions related to your child’s nutrition!