I’m pretty sure I drove my parents crazy as a kid. I was what one would call a “picky eater.” All I ever ate for dinner was plain pasta or rice with butter, peas, and occasionally chicken. Sure the typical hot dog or pizza would pass my jawline, but put some meatloaf in front of me and I was throwing a fit. Milk was my jam. I probably drank so much milk that I had a minor undiagnosed iron deficiency anemia. It took me till college and dating my current wife to try eating a raw onion or salad. Steak? Ya, I might have tried a bite. My parents never made a big deal about it that I remember. I’m pretty sure no matter what my parents made for dinner, there was always a small sauce pan on the stove boiling away for my daily peas portion.
When I became a dad I swore it would be different. Nowadays I will eat ANYTHING you put in front of me. I wanted my kids to be the same. When our older son was first starting to eat solids I would make all kinds of foods for him; the one that stuck the most was mushrooms. Seriously? What kid likes mushrooms? But as an infant and toddler he would devour them. As long as I was making them, he would eat the whole batch. Simple sauté with olive oil; let them soak in white wine for a little bit in the cooking process. Ya. We got fancy with it.
But then something happened. Life got busy. With that, foods became more streamlined, and the mushroom supply in our house dried up. We probably went 6 months without making them. Finally, they made it back on the menu, and you know what happened? He wanted nothing to do with them. He hated them. The texture. The taste. “No thanks, daddy.” I was shocked.
Why the sudden change in flavor preferences? Well, it wasn’t sudden. It was a 6-month learning process we had unknowingly put his body through. It’s simple – our bodies get used to what we give them. Everything we expose our body to is a stimulus, and just like potty training, sleeping, exercise, etc, routines control how our brain functions. When he was little, the act of eating mushrooms was a routine. He was used to the flavors, the smells, the textures of it when chewing, and how it felt when he swallowed it. When we took it away for an extended period of time, his routines changed, as did his preferences in flavors and textures. Parenting fail right there.
In the office I get a lot of parents who bring their kids in struggling with eating healthy. Vegetables are always the culprit. Why is that? I remember growing up and every Saturday morning cartoon show (yes, that was a thing then) depicted eating your veggies as something “yucky.” The typical American diet now consists of a lot of foods that are soft, mushy, salty, and sweet. Ever since prepackaged foods became a thing this has been the trend. Next time you go to the store, take a look. Once you leave the produce section this is all you find. When our body is used to these textures and flavors that is all our body desires.
The same goes with our gut. The bacteria in our intestines are constantly changing. Those bacteria are heavily influenced by the food you present to it. Certain food sources allow some bacteria to grow more while preventing other bacteria from proliferating. There is even evidence out there now that these bacteria in the gut may also directly influence the brain’s desire for food types. Imagine millions of tiny creatures in your intestines controlling your eating habits. Crazy, right?
So how do we correct this in our kids? Just like everything else in life – it is all about routines. Below is a quick list of things you can start doing RIGHT NOW to help change these habits at home.
- Exposure. Make sure you have a vegetable option every day. I am sorry my Nebraskan compatriots; corn doesn’t count. That seems to be every one of my patients’ favorite vegetable. You must expand outside the simple. Utilize greens, oranges, reds, purples. There are a lot of colorful foods out there you can get your kids excited about if you make them part of the normal routine.
- Repetition. Make sure your child is trying this EVERY DAY. Just like with learning to walk, ride a bike, and drive a car, you have to practice to get your muscle memory trained. To get your palate adjusted and have your gut familiar with these foods you have to condition it. We have rules at dinner – you can’t have any seconds of the main course until you take at least one bite of the vegetable presented. It has to be a REAL bite. Not a nibble. You have to chew it and swallow it. Want desert? Eat all the vegetables. No exceptions. This works in some cases. Other kids may require some type of reward chart to get the ball rolling.
- Positivity. Make the experience a positive one with eating these foods. Maybe it isn’t vegetables you want to improve but other types of foods. Whatever it may be, discuss why they are good. Don’t make it a lecture, but use positive words associated with those food types. Don’t make it feel like a chore to eat the vegetables. “Protein is good for your body.” “Veggies will help you stay healthy.” “No, we don’t need to have desert EVERY day and here is why.”
- Time. Some kids will literally sit there for hours staring at their plate. This not only causes stress for them but also their parents. Create a timer for meal time if you have to. Thirty minutes is all you need to eat a normal meal. That’s what we do at our house. Didn’t finish your dinner? Ok. But we aren’t doing snacks tonight before bed. Your child will survive a night without a full dinner. Don’t let meal time control your whole evening or how the mood of the day is going to go.
- Snacking. Try to minimize it. I am ok with healthy snacks between meals (sometimes you can branch out to a less healthy variety), but don’t let them snack their way to dinner. We try to cut off any snacks at least an hour before a main meal. We also avoid heavy drinks like milk during this time as it can fill the stomach and prevent their hunger drive from hitting appropriate levels.
- Let them make a choice. Sometimes with kids all they want is the ability to choose. If you tell them you HAVE to eat this, they didn’t get to choose that. No matter what food you have prepared, they will most likely fight you on it. If it is vegetables you struggle with, ask them – “Do you want peas or broccoli tonight?” No extra choices. Just two. Is meat a problem? Chicken or beef. Whatever it may be, the act of choosing is sometimes enough to get them to try it. Heck, you can even make a fun chart in the kitchen that has various food options divided into food groups. You can have them help you select the choices throughout the week, marking off the ones you have already tried. Have an older kid struggling with this? Have them help you cook and meal plan. This allows them to feel more involved in the process and improves meal time demeanor.
Again, this is all about establishing a routine at home that eventually becomes second nature. At the end of June our younger son wanted pizza for his birthday meal. We got it, ate it, and as we were cleaning up he suddenly pronounced, “We forgot a vegetable! We didn’t eat one with dinner!” “Ya, mom and dad forgot to make one,” we said. “But that is ok because we will do it tomorrow.” My kids aren’t incredible vegetable eaters, but they understand it is part of the daily routine and expectation. It doesn’t always go well at meal times, but the routine is still in place.
Don’t get me wrong. Some kids go through texture preference changes in life no matter how hard you try. Other kids have significant texture and sensory issues that truly affect their eating. That is a more complex situation than the one I am presenting today. Those children typically require referral to a speech therapist trained precisely for that type of situation. If your child has been diagnosed with something like this, it can be a much longer process on training the body to accept different textures and flavors.
Do your kids struggle with any specific food types? Picky eaters? Comment below and let me know. We all go through it at some point. There is nothing perfect about meal time, nor is there a perfect plan to make it go smoothly. But if you start to establish routines early in life it allows for much less headaches later down the road.
Remember, embrace the imperfect.
Imperfect Dad, MD