I have committed acts that, if you had predicted them to me five years ago, I would have said you were crazy. I have used a $200 All-Clad saucepan to make blue play dough. I have served macaroni and cheese from a box to adults I am not related to. I have ended relationships because I couldn't bear to hear one more story about how someone's toddler gobbled up everything from spiny sea urchin to pickled asparagus, while mine greeted every meal with thinly veiled suspicion that I was trying to poison him.
"Don't make mealtime a battle," said all the books. "Don't take your child's picky eating personally"—advice I found preposterous. I'm a passionate (and professionally trained) cook. I grew every single cell of this kid in my own body. How is that not personal?
In the beginning, my child was a voracious and appreciative eater, and introducing him to the foods I loved was a delight. I didn't believe in bland food for babies; whatever I made at mealtimes, I just mashed up a little bit, and he ate it. Roasted golden beets in tangerine vinaigrette. Garlicky white beans and greens. Vegetable-packed soups, stews, curries, dahls. It was no surprise that his first words were all foods (one of the cutest being "chickpea").
And then came toddlerhood—the age, experts agree, when picky eating begins. Toddlers are on the go, frequently snacking, and they've got lots of stored baby fat to subsist on, all of which makes them less likely to sit still for a full meal. They're also just beginning to experiment with how much control they have over their environment. "Toddlers are naturally resistant to many of the things their parents do," says Dr. Bob Sears, son of the renowned pediatrician Dr. William Sears, co-author of The Portable Pediatrician, and father of three. "Refusing foods is just part of the toddler mind-set."
Around the time my son became a toddler, my work schedule got busier. If I came home late, I'd make us something fast and easy, like a quesadilla or a grilled cheese sandwich. I'd use whole grain bread and organic cheese, so we weren't exactly eating fast food every night, but it wasn't what you'd call a balanced diet. When I did cook, he'd refuse 90 percent of it, and while in principle I firmly believed in saying, "This is what we are having for dinner—you're welcome to eat it or not, as you choose," the practical reality was that when his blood sugar dropped, I had a pint-size sociopath on my hands. So I'd let him fill up on a few fail-safe foods. Before I knew it, those were the only foods he would eat. I hovered. I wheedled. I argued. Frustrated and dispirited, I began to dread dinner. It was a battle, and, oh boy, was it personal!
A Healthy Start
Every day, we hear more about the links between diet and long-term health—the benefits of eating a well-balanced and plant-based diet, and the negative effects of consuming processed foods that have been stripped of their nutrients. Studies suggest that what you eat while pregnant and breastfeeding can affect the flavors your toddler will tolerate. So can a baby's first exposure to solid foods, which is why some experts advise introducing baby to vegetables before fruit. Even genetics is now thought to play a role in picky eating. There's no shortage of advice about how to cajole, entice, or trick kids into eating a healthful, well-balanced diet—and no shortage of guilt for the moms whose kids stand firm in their refusal.
But most experts agree that as long as you're offering your kids a variety of whole foods to choose from—and not making an issue of what they will or won't eat—the picky-eating phase is just that, a phase. They'll likely come out of it by the age of four or five, says Sears, who added that my dilemma was far from uncommon. The trick, he says, is being willing to keep your eyes on the bigger goal of raising a healthy eater. "Toddlerhood is when parents come to a crossroads," he told me. "Do they stick with offering the healthy foods they were committed to, and let their kid barely eat for a couple of years? Or do they bring out the less healthy foods they know their kids will eat, just to get in those calories? In my opinion, it's much better for a child to pick his way through a healthy meal, even if he barely eats anything. "
I was tired of arguing over every stalk of broccoli, tired of preparing endless iterations of bread and cheese. But more than that, I didn't want to lose sight, in this battle of wills, of what was really at stake. Getting my recalcitrant offspring to take a bite of spinach might be a victory in the short term, but I knew that in the long run it wasn't the way to teach him to appreciate the taste of good food and to recognize how it feels in his body. When it's no longer my job to feed him, I want him to have learned how to feed himself.
Just as I can't pinpoint exactly when I went astray, so the way back was subtle, too. Gradually, I backed off a little. I let go of the worry over what my kid would and wouldn't eat, and started paying attention to my own appetite again. I made what sounded good to me and watched as my son was drawn in to the tactile process of cooking. The question of dinner changed from what to feed him to what we could make together, and in the process we both discovered some new favorite dishes.
Perched attentively on a stool at the kitchen counter, he tore chard leaves from their stems and sprinkled Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs over the top of a gratin. He stirred slivers of toasted almonds and dried apricots into a sunny yellow Quinoa Pilaf With Saffron and Orange Zest. He scooped balls of fragrant cantaloupe and honeydew melons to make a salad. He has become a pesto pro, feeding fresh basil, parsley, and even steamed broccoli into the food processor with almonds and olive oil. I respect his likes (mushrooms and leafy greens) and dislikes (tomatoes and olives). We talk a lot about fresh, homemade, whole food—how it tastes and why it's good for you.
Sweets and treats are on the menu, too, but they're almost always something we've made together. And once in a while, on the nights we're just too tired to cook, we have "crazy dinner" (raisin bran and sliced watermelon was one especially memorable meal), when anything in the fridge or the pantry is up for grabs. This arrangement has an added benefit: I'm much less likely to make an impulsive junk food purchase at the grocery store when I know that bag of marshmallows could become dinner. My son is almost seven now, and while I can't claim he eats everything we cook together, I'm happy to say that dinnertime is fun again.
Last night I got home late. I steamed some butternut squash tamales we had gotten at the farmers' market over the weekend and hastily heated pinto beans from a can. "Did you make these or buy them?" my son asked, prodding the tamale on his plate with a hint of the old suspicion. I started to explain that I hadn't made them but that someone else had, when I saw that he was already eating and I realized how far we'd come.
Tips, Not Tricks
You can feed your kids well and keep your sanity in the process.
Feed Yourself First. It's just like that safety talk they give you on the airplane about putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child. Take care of yourself by choosing the wholesome foods that please and sustain you. Stretch your own boundaries by experimenting with new flavors. In the process, you'll be modeling healthful eating habits.
Be Patient but Tenacious. "I served kale or collards or some kind of green to my kids every day for almost two years before they ate them," says Terry Walters, the author of Clean Food and Clean Start. "I never made them eat it. But I wanted them to know that this is what dinner looks like." Studies show that repeated exposure to foods really does affect how likely kids are to eat them, so keep trying.
Snack Smart. Dinner isn't the only time to think about nutrition. Dr. Bob Sears reminds parents that snacks are a low-pressure opportunity to get in more of the good stuff (and avoid the bad). Here are some ideas to try: apple slices with almond butter; fruit and vegetable smoothies; raw veggies dipped in mashed black beans or hummus; yogurt, with a little honey and cinnamon stirred in.
Make a Cooking Date. Choose a new recipe each week and involve the whole family in peeling, mixing, grating, and stirring. Then sit down together and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Think "Go-To" not "To Go." In The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Real Kids Will Love, Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin suggest having a handful of "faster than drive-through dinners" in your weeknight repertoire, including meals like poached or scrambled eggs over sauteed greens or steamed rice and veggies topped with feta cheese.
Give Yourself a Break. "Let go of the idea that you're going to be perfect 100 percent of the time, because it's just not going to happen," says Bader. "It's kind of nice to say, 'I'm doing a good job, and I'm headed in the right direction.' Sometimes it just feels good to be in that place."
Extra! Try this kid-friendly recipe for Saffron Quinoa with Apricots and Almonds.
Charity Ferreira is Executive Editor at Yoga Journal and mother of a formerly picky eater.