Saturday, May 3, 2014

Coping With a Picky Eater

Disclaimer: I know a lot of you have offered advice and I'm not saying any of your advice is bad. All advice is always appreciated, even if it doesn't work for us. Taking the time to offer your insight and help is always, always something I am thankful for. Also, this is a long blog, you may want to grab a beverage.

When Jude was first starting solids (purees) he would eat anything and everything. Sweet potatoes? Sure thing. Peas? You betcha! Oatmeal, carrots, meat, you name it -- this boy would eat it. As he graduated from strictly purees to mashes, he was still a fantastic eater. Very brave with new flavors, colors, and consistencies. After about a year though, when mashes became more whole foods, he began to hesitate with new things. For no real reason.

He was becoming increasingly impatient with the spoon and wanted finger foods exclusively. Then he gave up on spoons entirely, to the point that he'd break down to hysterics if you insisted he eat from a spoon. Boycotting meals entirely. So I made a lot of the foods he would usually eat from a spoon before all this started in pick-up form. Peas were easy, they came that way naturally. For other things, like bananas, apples, sweet potatoes, and carrots I'd just cut them up. He'd eat anything this way... except meat. He suddenly would NOT eat meat under any circumstance. Didn't matter which meat, didn't matter how you prepared it, if meat touched his tongue he would start making gagging sounds, dramatically dry heave, and then stop eating. For the remainder of the day.

That's a problem.

He loved whole grain cracker sandwiches though, either with peanut butter or cheese. So I came up with the rather sneaky idea to make him meat sandwiches. Or rather, protein sandwiches, because it wasn't always meat. I'd make him several sandwiches and slip turkey or ham between the melty cheddar, or some extra firm tofu in either Swiss or even peanut butter. This became the only way to get him to reliably consume meat. I offered him meat on the side, but every time he'd refuse it. I even offered him chicken nuggets -- most picky eaters' favorite, and he was totally appalled.

Sometimes if you snuck a piece of food into his mouth he'd realize it was good and then go about eating it on his own, but no such luck with meat or tofu. Putting either into his mouth always engages a strong reaction of disgust. Like I was making him eat his own poop or something. Insistence lead to tears and boycotts. Boycotts lead to going to bed hungry (because he wold literally refuse everything offered to him post-meat experience), which lead to poor sleep, and so on.

I scoured the internet for advice. No one really had any. I asked the pediatrician for advice, they didn't really have any either. By and large advice about a toddler's picky eating boils down to two options: a big cheesy smiley face that just says, "Keep trying! They'll usually refuse a new food 5 or 6 times before accepting it!" and a cross face saying, "Make them just one thing and if they don't eat it, starve 'em out! They'll eat eventually!"

We'll start with Captain Optimism and the "Just Keep Trying!" advice and why it's completely unhelpful.

First, if you have a picky eater the way you know they're a picky eater is because you're already trying. You're trying everything, consistently, constantly. You've gone days/weeks/months trying. The reason you're seeking advice is because obviously simply TRYING isn't working out for you. So telling a parent to try is extremely frustrating. They already are. Trust me. Don't be a twat about it when they tell you that they have tried. If they weren't trying they would not have a toddler anymore. C'mon.

Then there's Commander Pessimism giving the "Starve Them Out!" advice, which has a few issues wrong with it despite being well-meaning.

I know when dealing with an extremely picky eater reacting extremely to their extremism seems legit... but it really isn't. I'm not even saying that this advice is inherently mean or something and that is why you shouldn't take it. Sure, if you starved the kid out for days, that'd be cruel and pretty negligent -- but no one in their right mind is telling you to literally starve your offspring. What they mean is more along the lines of, "If they don't eat lunch, screw it, let them go hungry until dinner time."

Now that seems remarkably more reasonable, except what about sleep? Do you remember the first several months of your child's existence in this world? How they would wake up every 1-3 hours without fail due to hunger? How they wouldn't go back to sleep until their hunger was satiated? How you were completely exhausted and sleep deprived all at once, a zombie shambling from day to day? That is the big issue I have with starving them out.

Sure, some toddlers are like little drunk people who will be playing one second and passed out the next, and you can hoist 'em up and flop them into their crib without disturbing them in the slightest. Those tiny drunks could probably sleep through hunger, even if they had trouble falling asleep because they were hungry, once they got there they'd probably be fine. That however is not everyone's toddler. Mine, for example, has a hard time falling asleep to begin with. Particularly during the day. He is also an absurdly light sleeper. And yes, I tried the "Just get him used to loud sounds while he sleeps so they don't wake him up!" approach and that created nothing but an extremely sleep deprived, miserable household. For a month. It was also advice that did not work for us no matter how strongly people tried to assure us it worked for them. Like their assurance would magically make it work for us too.

Which I suppose is the problem with a lot of advice you get when you have a baby. When it doesn't work for you the people who suggested it act like you're doing it wrong. You're giving advice to a grown adult, though. With offspring of their own. If your advice doesn't work the first time, don't keep shoving it in their face like "but maybe you forgot ____!" No. They didn't forget. It just didn't work for them. It's not personal, it has nothing to do with you at all. Your advice wasn't bad, it just isn't for them. But I digress.

In short: if I try to starve him out, I'd effectively be forcing him to give up daytime naps entirely, ruining the quality of his night time sleep, and destroying a good routine all so they'll eat meatballs. Which seems silly. It's not an assumption, it's a fact of life I've dealt with on days he'd boycott eating on his own and essentially starve himself out: no sleep. As an aside, albeit a relevant one, not only would he sleep terribly but the next day he wouldn't eat new foods any better either.

So while a valid tactic for many, not a valid tactic for us -- or anyone with a light sleeper.

My current method before lunch is to offer him one thing I know he will eat and one new thing that I'd like him to eat. That way he at least isn't totally hungry at nap time. After lunch my method is to make him a single meal. If he refuses it for hours until bedtime, I give him something else just to fill him up for a good night's sleep. Because ultimately sleep is equally important to a growing baby (it is, after all, the only time they grow).

The only advice that has a 100% success rate is patience. It may just be a phase they're going through. It may be related to teething (maybe a certain texture or temperature hurts their gums). Eventually, failing all else, you will be able to reason with them.

In the meanwhile, if you are struggling to get your toddler to eat as many veggies, fruits, or proteins as they should, you can puree them and make them a smoothie to drink. Just for peace of mind. If that seems like too much work or you do not own a blender, you can use up jars of baby food you have left over, or buy new ones, and just stir them together with a spoon. It's really easy.

I know a big concern is probably that they aren't getting enough calories or nutrients. That's where the smoothies come in. It goes down like a yummy drink and doesn't fill them up too much so they'll still feel hungry enough to eat something real. I find if you mix fruit and veggies with a little juice and yogurt, they'll drink up a serving or two of any veggie no fuss. This way you know they are getting what they need, but not discouraging them from trying new things also.

For what it's worth, for those of you who also have picky eaters and haven't been able to find any advice that works, just know: I feel your pain. And as ever: it won't always be this way.

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