Changing Your Approach: How To Empower A Picky Eater

Empower Your Picky Eater To Make Heathly Food Choices

“You’re going to sit at this table until you finish everything on your plate.”

“You’ll eat this or you won’t eat anything at all.”

Those words are burned into my brain. Thinking about them makes me cringe and bring back awful memories of sitting at the kitchen table, staring at cold, gross vegetables on my plate, wishing that I was anywhere but there.

Just saying them makes the back of my mouth tingle, my saliva production kick into overdrive, and my all too familiar gag reflex start to act up.

I have some terrible memories of having to eat foods I didn’t like and crying at the kitchen table.

  • Once, when my aunt forced me to eat beans at her house, after I repeatedly told her I didn’t like them, I threw up across the entire kitchen table during dinner — and then I got in trouble for it!
  • At my grandma and grandpa’s house, we were constantly yelled at for being picky if we didn’t eat everything at dinner — and then my parents were blamed for it, as if it was their fault the mushy vegetables made us gag.

At school, my friends would share the same horror stories from dinner the night before. It was normal to receive a plate of food from your parents, grandparents, or other family members and be expected to eat everything on it no matter what was on it. That’s just how it was done.

I know I’m not the only one with these food stories.

I vowed that I would never make my kids choke down cold, soggy vegetables and food they didn’t like, while they fought back powerful urges to barf right there on the kitchen floor. I laugh about it now. Heck we all do! But at the time, it wasn’t so fun!

Changing Our Approach To Eating

As a child, I wasn’t empowered to take control of my own eating. I don’t think many in my generation were. Our lunches were packed for us, dinner was made for us, our after school snacks were set out on the counter in advance. We had to ask every time we wanted to eat, and often we were told what we were allowed to eat and when. There was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and dessert. We all sat down together to eat dinner and we all ate the same thing. That’s just how it was done.

This wasn’t a bad thing. For as many bad memories I have about food, I have many more good ones.

Overall, my family ate a ton of dessert. We even ate dinner at 5:00 pm everyday so we’d be hungry for dessert before bed. We celebrated everything with dessert. My mom also let us have input on what we had for dinner and what went into our lunches, We always made the grocery list together, and got to pick our favorite foods, dinners, cereals, and more — but every one in a while, we’d get a pesky vegetable item that (to a kid) was just gross. When other kids had sandwiches and carrots, we had chocolate chip granola bars, fruit snacks, and chips.

As a kid it was awesome! As an adult, not so much.

For many years, I struggled with food. Suddenly I could make all of my own choices and eat anything I wanted whenever I wanted — and I did. I didn’t fully understand the idea of eating a balanced diet, how much my body needed fruits and vegetables, or how little dessert I really should be eating based on the fact that I sit at a computer all day every day. I didn’t know how to cook, but could bake pretty much anything. I almost never drank water and I ate out too much.

I was a mess and it took a long time for me to take charge of my own heath and what I was eating. A big part of my journey was to change the way I approached eating and the way we approach food with our children.

I had to find what worked for me and what worked for our family.

  • We all don’t eat together every day because we’re not all hungry at the same time and I believe you should eat when you’re hungry and not eat when you’re not hungry.
  • We all don’t eat the same thing at every meal because we all don’t like the same foods. If the kids don’t want to eat what I make, they make their own meal.
  • We all make our own decisions about food because every member of our family needs to learn how to make healthy, smart choices — and mistakes are teachable moments.
  • We all eat different amounts of food because we all have different biorhythms and sometimes our bodies need more or less food depending on exercise or growth spurts.

We all simply do what makes us feel the best.

I Have A Picky Eater

My son Carter is what many would call a picky eater.

As a baby, he wouldn’t ever take a bottle and he wouldn’t ever eat a bite of baby food. He doesn’t like hot food and he doesn’t like really cold food, he won’t eat meat, and he has issues with the texture of many foods, so he doesn’t like to eat most fruits and vegetables.

Again, most people would call him picky.

I call him decisive.

He has always know exactly what he likes and doesn’t like to eat. He eats only what he likes, only when he is hungry, and only until he is full. If we’re going out to a restaurant and he doesn’t like the food, he’ll eat before we go or after we get home.

And he pretty much never complains about it because he knows it is his choice.

Pick Your Battles: Embracing Your Picky Eater
The most exciting thing about eating in Hawaii? The breakfast buffet had unlimited whole wheat toast and butter!

Really he just doesn’t care that much about food. For him, it’s a necessity, where as for me, it’s a joy.

Empowering A Picky Eater (And All Eaters)

Instead of forcing my picky eater to eat things he doesn’t like, try new things he doesn’t want to try, or eat when he’s not hungry, we have chosen to empower our picky eater to make good choices with the foods he does like.

For Example: Carter doesn’t like the texture of most fruits and veggies, but he loves smoothies and Odwalla Superfood. So we keep the refrigerator stocked with Superfood, fruits and veggies for smoothies, and three different types of organic fruit and vegetable squeeze pouches at all times. This ensures that he eats fruits and vegetables everyday, in the way that he likes them the best.

We avoid issues with our picky eater by accepting that Carter eats a very limited diet. It’s just part of who he is and we love him anyway. So to ensure he always has lots of good choices that make him happy and feel good, we always make sure we have everything he likes available at home.

Get Kids Involved In Grocery Shopping

I usually make both Natalie and Carter come with me to do all of the grocery shopping. Not only does it give Brian time at home alone on the weekends, but it reinforces that idea that making healthy choices starts at the grocery store and it helps them see how much things cost.

As soon as they were able, I’d let them make choices about what we bought. When they were little the choices were simple, like which flavor of yogurt should we get, strawberry or raspberry? Today I still let them make choices about what we buy, and we always end up getting something for dinner that Natalie sampled at Costco.

They are also learning as I am learning. I am just now learning about nutrition and healthy eating, I am learning to look for hidden dairy, and I am just now learning to cook — and my kids are learning right alongside me.

Now, they are old enough to learn with me about how the stores are organized, where the freshest, healthiest foods are, and which brand/product is the best value. (Hint: it’s not always the one on sale). And Natalie is looking at the nutrition labels with me to see which item is better for us, and learning that low fat isn’t always good if it means high sodium.

Kid Only Food Areas

We have a special kid food cabinet in the kitchen island that is always stocked with foods that only the kids eat, like Fiber One and Clif Bar Kids granola bars, fruit sticks, snack bags of Goldfish Crackers and pretzels, and other items. They keep their school lunch bags in this cabinet too so making their lunch in the morning is easier.

We also have a kid food shelf and a kid food drawer in the refrigerator, that contain only their foods, like yogurts, Odwalla drinks, fruit and veggie squeeze pouches, and their water bottles.

For the most part, all food in these places are healthy/healthier options.

Bring Your Own Food

We travel without the kids quite a bit, which means they are staying at my parents’ house, Brian’s parents’ house, or my sister’s house. We never want them to feel burdened by Carter’s limited diet and food choices or that he’s extra work. We also never want Carter to feel uncomfortable because he doesn’t like the food they have.

Now most everyone in our family has the basics Carter loves like toast and peanut butter. So we simply have him bring his core food staples, including Superfood, fruit and veggies squeezes, and yogurts.

Also, if we’re going out to eat or we’re going all day hiking on the weekend, we always make sure Carter packs his own food for the day as well — so no matter what, he has food that he likes.

Rules About Food

Today Natalie and Carter are 12 and 9. They are in charge of their own food, as they have been for several years. While they make their own breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners (unless they eat what I cook), we do have some rules, such as:

  • There should to be a fruit/veggie or both included in every meal. This can be achieved by eating a fruit or vegetable, drinking Superfood, or making a smoothie. So go ahead and eat chocolate chip Eggo Waffles for breakfast, but have a glass of Superfood with it.
  • Multiple carbs in one meal isn’t a good idea. So if you have peanut butter toast, it’s best to have it with a yogurt instead of crackers or pretzels.
  • If you want chips, have them with something healthy like a fruit/veggie squeeze pouch, instead of with toast.
  • One junk food item in a day. Be mindful. It’s okay to have dessert in your school lunch, but then you can’t have dessert after school or at night.
  • No soda. Drink lots of water.
  • No two foods in your school lunch can be similar. So you can’t have a granola bar and peanut butter crackers, but you can have a granola bar and a yogurt.

Do we ever break the rules? Of course! They exist as our best practices.

I mean, what fun would life be if we didn’t break the rules sometimes?!

We have dessert for dinner. We eat junk food all day during a Star Wars or Harry Potter Movie Marathon. We eat tons of snacks on road trips and travel days. We just try to balance out those days with healthy meals at home most of the time.

What About You?

Do you have a picky eater? How do you handle it? Do you have food horror stories too? How do you empower your family to make healthy choices?

I’d love to hear from you!

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