“We could never eat like that – my child is such a picky eater!”
I hear this from frustrated parents all the time – in fact, I used the very same excuse for years. Our daughter, Kid1, was a picky eater.By the time she was 11, she was down to a diet of sugar and milk. The foods she would eat were plain pasta, mac & cheese, cheddar cheese, cookies, candy, ice cream, most fruits, raw carrots, the barely cooked stems of broccoli, buttered toast, white rice with cinnamon sugar, plain mashed potatoes, and milk. She would go on kicks where she would eat a protein food for a while and then would totally go off it. The three protein foods she would occasionally eat were plain bean burritos, lentils, or peanutbutter and honey sandwiches. She had decided to be a vegetarian at age 4 and could detect (and reject) even the slightest hint of hidden broth.
I know this is more than some kids eat, but we found it a challenge. She never even made it onto the growth chart. She would eat extremely small portions of foods. Even with foods she normally would eat, she’d have one tiny bite and keep it in her mouth for 5 minutes or longer, making faces, sometimes spitting it out. She also could go without eating for days at a time if she didn’t feel for what was offered.
We tried all the standard advice for getting picky eaters to eat, without stressing too much about it. Being unschoolers, we had the philosophy that kids will self-regulate, and naturally choose a healthy diet over a period of time. That worked for our son, but not our daughter.
After her dad and I split up when she was 7, and over the years she slowly stopped eating almost anything at our house. She actually told me that she didn’t have to eat because she could have whatever she wanted at his house (3-4 day alternating schedule). When we kept a food log for her because my mom was afraid she was anorexic we found out that she was eating only a couple hundred calories a day at my house and several thousands each day at his house. One of the first days recorded included at her dad’s included: cheesecake, Popsicles, candy, cherry pie, milkshake, a few french fries, a bite of a garden burger, and flavored yogurt. He didn’t start off feeding her this way… he was frustrated with the daily battle of trying to get her to eat anything else.
Last year, a couple months before our family went gluten-free, my partner and I decided this couldn’t go on. We talked with her about our concerns about her nutrition and her vegetarian choice. With a vegetarian diet (and any diet) comes a responsibility to make sure you get balanced nutrition. She wanted to see if her tics could improve, if her moods could improve, and if her growth curve would pick up. (She is the size of a bottom-of-the-growth-chart 9 year old at age 12.5). We told her that if she had strong feelings about being vegetarian, she had to make the case, and she also had to take charge of her nutrition. Otherwise we would expect her to eat what the rest of us were eating. She decided to try what we were eating.
It was a very slow process. We’d put one tiny piece of each thing we were having on her plate, and she had to try it. She would only take the tiniest nibble. But she did desensitize herself to the idea of eating meat. She was still extremely picky. One day TinyHands got takeout at Burgerville and the burgers got switched. She ate her brother’s meat burger in its entirety. When they picked him up he noticed the mistake. That was the first time she’d eaten more than half of a burger, ever. She started trying more foods a little more willingly.
Then last November we realized we needed to try a gluten-free diet for our son, Kid2. The kids’ dad went along with it, which helped the selection of food at his house. When the packaged gluten-free food continued to be a problem for our son, we decided to try the GAPS diet. Their dad participated in that as well.
Kid1 had a miserable first week or so, but was game to try it. After a full week of nothing but the soups, both the kids were eating what was served with enthusiasm. Each new food addition became exciting, and they both started eating a lot more, too. When we reintroduced fruit and when we reintroduced cheese the kids started getting more picky again. We have learned that when this happens, we have to cut back on that stuff and eat more soup and basic vegetables and meats.
My picky girl, who last year only ate a few bites of mac & cheese and pie at Thanksgiving dinner had a full plate this year. She ate roasted turkey, chestnut-pork stuffing, cranberry sauce, roasted brussels sprouts, roasted cauliflower, green salad with walnuts & apple, then went back for seconds on turkey. After that she had two slices of squash pie with almond crust (1/2 cup of honey in the whole thing), and some homemade ice cream.
When people say their kids will only eat starch and dairy, that is a big warning flag to me that those foods are a problem. It takes a lot of doing to get over the withdrawal from those foods (gluteomorphin and casomorphin actually have addictive properties) and move on to new foods, but it can be very well-worth the hassle! I could relate to the difficulty, because when I changed my diet I might as well have been kicking street drugs. When it’s that hard to change, I think it’s a sign that a change is overdue.
We were lucky that Kid1 was willing to try making a change. However, that willingness didn’t come easy, and she still struggled through it. There were days when she didn’t eat because she didn’t like what was offered, but now she feels better, and actually likes to eat in a way she never did before.