Written by Hillary K. Kotwal, MS, RD, LD, Certified DPP Life Coach
Maybe we are actually picky eaters too. But, hey it was a catchy title. So what do we need to know about pickiness? Where did it come from and where did it you go?… yes that was a Cotton-Eye Joe reference. I couldn’t resist.
Our taste starts to develop in utero. And quite frankly, being pregnant is not conducive to eating vegetables, especially in the bouts of nausea and possibly even hyperemesis if you’re one of the lucky ones. Thankfully, most of it subsides by the time our little ones start to develop taste buds and start to drink our womb juice (yes, amniotic fluid). Interestingly, eating carrots and garlic and yes even coffee influences what your children prefer when they start eating around 6 months. I know when I was 6 months, I certainly had a coffee cup in hand.
Sure, there are some exceptions. For example, my mom ate so many tomatoes during pregnancy, and those are probably on the top of my bleh list. And sometimes we have aversions to meat during pregnancy, but our kids come out carnivorous as a T-Rex. But science suggests that if we eat a wide variety of foods during our pregnancies, our babies will less likely be picky eaters.
Cool you say… I’m not pregnant anymore. You have another chance! Breast milk, the golden liquid that it is, has various flavors just like womb juice. So when we eat spicy food, our breast milk actually sometimes gives our baby heartburn. Aside from heartburn, they will likely accept spicy foods better than if their moms didn’t eat spicy foods while they were nursing. Or if we eat cheeseburgers and fries… well our little monster is going to prefer cheeseburgers and fries every dang time over a carrot. Okay, let’s be real… anyone would choose that. But you get what I’m saying. Flavors pass through our breast milk and help our kids be less picky in the long run. So boobie juice for the win. Formula feeding is great for the mamas that had trouble breastfeeding or the ones that didn’t have the support they needed in order to breastfeed. However, formula only has one flavor… for 6 months, the monotony can build a picky eater. For this reason, since college I’ve always had the dream to isolate flavor compounds of food that could be introduced in micro-amounts in various formulas. I’ll get there one day! And for these mamas, there’s still hope. Read on.
Babies 6+ months
Babies that are starting on solids, for the most part, welcome food with an open mouth (aside from lemon). It’s called the honeymoon phase.
This is the best stage to try it all. Asparagus, carrots, avocado, potatoes, onions, spinach, berries, bananas, apples, oranges, cucumbers, bell peppers, oh and soooo much more. Try it all. Give them quinoa or rice to make messes with (the confetti of food). Let them bring it to their mouths instead of spooning it to them… at least, most times (I gave my 11 month old butternut squash soup tonight and was not about to let her paint with soup.Not tonight, because it’s a Monday night).
Let them feel different textures and taste different flavors/spices and smell various smells and see different colors and hear what it sounds like to eat it all. Oh and don’t forget various temperatures. Do it all at this stage if you can because they are about to get picky… And if they haven’t seen it or tasted it… You better believe they are going to be scared of it (neophobia). Asparagus is scary AF if you haven’t ever seen it before, just saying… they look like alien tentacles (that’s what one of my friend’s calls it so her kids will eat them actually..but oh so scary!). Try all the things (with safety in mind of course. I like those mesh pacis and my blender for smoothies. Hint: I hide spinach and carrots in every dang smoothie, but be forewarned, don’t try bell pepper… just saying).
For those of you saying, I don’t have any babies anymore and my toddlers are picky as dog poo. Mama, take some deep breaths right now. There’s hope. Read on.
Repeated Exposure, Naming Foods, Modeling
Introduction and reintroduction is a real thing. Sometimes, all we need is one screaming fit because there is something green touching their mac & cheese, to never, ever do that again. But we have got to do it again. And again. And again until it’s “normal” in the eyes of a toddler. Which could be a really long time… In our house, we do mac & cheese with bell peppers and broccoli in it. No questions asked. That’s our normal. Sometimes we eat the veggies, sometimes we don’t. But they are there. Maybe the first time you do this, you can call it confetti mac & cheese or forest in your noodles. Come up with some really cool names and eat it with them. Name broccoli trees or spinach leaves. Pretend you’re dinosaurs or queens where you eat with your pinky up. Have fun with food.
Yes, eat these foods with them. If they have chicken nuggets, you eat chicken nuggets too. Don’t go and eat your salad if they aren’t offered it too. (Obviously safety is involved for salad depending on the age.. But you get my gist). What baby eats, mama eats. And what mama eats, baby eats. That’s why I’m not a huge fan of baby food. Most of them are overpriced, bland, and although convenient, have yuck ingredients that we probably don’t want our babies eating.
Playing with Food, Enabling, Talking About Food
Have you ever painted with oranges or spinach leaves, if not— such a fun activity. You could even use ranch or hummus or beets as paint. Our parents told us not to play with food. Play is SO important for kids, and playing with food is no different. My daughter plays with spaghetti all the dang time. It feels like worms, I dare you to try it. Also, play kitchens with healthy foods are amazing.
Stop cutting the crust or the peel or the skin off. Just don’t do it. It’ll become a norm. They can peel it off if they don’t want it. But friends, all the good stuff is in there and WE are cutting the crust off for them. WE are giving so much ranch that the vegetables aren’t even vegetables anymore. WE are giving sugar with their strawberries. Can’t say I haven’t done this before, but I refuse to enable picky eating anymore. No more “can’t touch this” (yes an MC Hammer reference) where we separate the broccoli from the mac & cheese.
Talking about our food is also so important, even if it’s just asking “What’s your favorite food on your plate” or “What colors do you see”. Maybe it’s the good ol’ “Carrots are good for your eyes” which can totally backfire when you are eating cookies (My three year old said, “Mama, cookies are good for your eyes.”) Insert eye roll here. We have got to start having conversations about our foods. About their fullness and hunger. About their food experiences.
Restriction & Rewarding & Reprimanding
Food restriction causes food interest. Have you ever been told on your “diet” you couldn’t eat xyz. What the heck do you want? …of course you want it. And your kids do too. Restricting sweets (like no sweets in the house at all EVER) is related to binging behaviors and also with hoarding of food (like when they hide it and hoard it). Balance. Five cookies… probably not. A cookie… probably so. Balance.
We’re a society full of rewards with food. Birthday? Cake. Holiday? Cake. Breakroom on a Friday or a Monday or a <insert any day for any reason here>? Cake. We’ve got to stop this. Pizza parties for good grades, let’s try park instead. Candy for Halloween, let’s try stamps or stickers or books! It feels good to reward our kids with food, because WE were rewarded with food. We can break the cycle if we want. We’ve just got to work at it. Every. Dang. Day.
Requiring one to finish their broccoli in order to get up from the table is in short reprimanding. And I experienced this growing up. I think many of us did. Foods should not be a punishment. Either eating or not eating. For example, you won’t get ice cream if you don’t behave.
All of these tips are research based, but we know each child is different. What works for one child, may not work for another. Please take what you like, and leave the rest.
Love Letter to the Mama Struggling with a Picky Eater
You are a superhero. Day in and day out you show up for your kiddos. There are so many things that we have to do so we don’t screw them up, right? And it can be too much sometimes. Give it up. Give up trying to be perfect right now. Stop comparing yourself to others, especially the instagram mom whose kid had Brussels sprouts tonight.
If you have a picky eater, I hear you and I see you. And it is NOT your fault. You can help support your babe through this transition in life, when foods seem scary and pickiness is the easy way. And I don’t mind helping you get through it.
If food is stressful for you, there is another way. A lot of mamas and their babes have overcome the picky stage. You will too. You’re doing your best. You’re amazing.
Your friendly non-diet dietitian, Hillary-Kate Kotwal, MS, RD, LD