He’s there with us at the table, so we’ll count that as a win I guess. His three-year-old form takes an occasional sip of milk before he stands on his chair and turns in a circle and I must remind him once again to stay seated. He’s politely declined (we insist on always using good manners) all of the items I’ve prepared for dinner tonight. Just like yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.
It’s hard for me, the dietitian and nutrition “expert” by degree and the frustrated mom by day, to watch this scene unfold. Inwardly I cringe. All he is having at dinnertime these days is milk. My mind begins to scroll through the options. Perhaps I should stop serving milk at our dinner meal? What time has he been eating his afternoon snack? Could it be that he isn’t hungry at the dinner hour? Perhaps I’m serving dinner too late, and I’ve missed his prime eating window. Maybe forcing him to take a bite just once won’t be an issue?
It’s like my husband was reading my mind. He observes our son’s eating (or more accurately, his lack of eating) and lays down the law.
“Have you even tried your meat?” he queries. “And what about your green beans? You need to take a bite before you can be excused.”
I flinch. I know as soon as I hear the words said aloud they don’t sit well with me. While it is hard to watch my son turn down the rainbow of color on the table, it is harder still to swallow the idea of forcing him to eat. This is not the way I want to go about nourishing my kids.
I begin to wonder if he is so particular about food because of me. I was much more intentional with feeding my older two in those early years. I made most of their food from scratch. I was sure to expose them to all sorts of flavors and textures from the get-go. My son, however, had a very different eating experience. When it came time to introduce him to solids, we were living in a constant state of chaos and transition. We had sold our little condo, and we planned to “spend only the summer” residing with my in-laws, while we searched for a new place to call home. A hot Seattle house market and incessant bidding wars sent our dream of getting a house spiraling down the drain. Half a year passed while I tried to balance working part-time, playing mom to three offspring, meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking for my extended family (our “payment” for living with them) all while scavenging Redfin obsessively for potential new homes to tour.
I barely had a second to think about solids for my growing babe. Introducing new foods involved me tossing a string cheese or banana back to the rear-facing car seat behind me and praying my son didn’t choke as I drove to meet our agent at the next house. It wasn’t an ideal situation.
While it was tempting to blame myself for my son’s two-year stint of less-than-ideal eating, my intellect and experience told me otherwise. His picky eating conundrum was not my fault. It was completely normal for him to grow skeptical and test his limits during the toddler and preschool years. Even the most adventurous of early eaters commonly experienced an end to their “eating honeymoon” around age two. There were things I could do to influence my son’s eating in a positive way, but I was not solely responsible when he refused to taste broccoli.
Even though I knew it was not my fault, I felt so much guilt. I worried about whether my son was getting the nutrition he needed, and I feared the judgment of other moms when they witnessed my picky eater. I had to remind myself that it can take ten or 15 exposures to a single food item before a child deemed it acceptable and I realized I was giving up after only two or three tries. It felt so unnatural and wasteful to continue serving rejected foods, knowing they would go untouched. I was exhausted, and it felt easier just to serve the foods I knew he liked. I had grown so focused on all the things my son wasn’t eating that I overlooked all the nutrition-packed foods, like fruit and dairy, that he was consuming. I scrutinized what he chose to eat at each mealtime to assess his diet for “balance” rather than considering his intake over the course of a week or even a month. I needed to shift my perspective and think about the big picture.
This being my third time through the kid-feeding rodeo, it was more clear to me than ever that, in the same way babies are born with the propensity to be quiet or loud, outgoing or shy, children are also born with their own inherent “eating personalities.” Some are born adventurous and ready to try new things. Others are more reserved and cautious when it comes to expanding their palates. As a dietitian, I knew that picky eating, erratic appetite, a high desire for sweets, being easily influenced by the eating of peers, and getting “stuck” on a singular food item (a “food jag”) were all examples all very normal eating behaviors that every child could encounter at one point or another. My son was definitely my pickiest eater, but at that moment I wondered how we would press through this challenging phase.
My frustrations at the table led me to discover the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, the work of a fellow dietitian, Ellyn Satter. Her feeding strategy was simple, and it helped me identify that my kids and I had specific jobs when it came to feeding. It provided a framework that determined when I needed to intervene in a feeding situation and when I needed to let go. The Division of Responsibility states that as the parent, I was responsible for WHAT foods were served, WHEN those foods were served and WHERE they were served (at the table, the playground, in the car, etc.) And that was it! My kids were responsible for HOW MUCH food they chose to eat and WHETHER they choose to eat at all. I needed to prepare and offer a healthy meal and snack options for my kids, but it was not my job to get the food in their bellies.
I wondered if feeding my children could be this simple. Could I just make the food, serve it, and then let go? At first, I scoffed at the idea of allowing my kids to decide what they would eat from the options I put before them on the table. I was sure they would skip the salad and the meat sauce and only choose to eat the pasta and the bread. I couldn’t imagine how a feeding approach like this could possibly nourish my kids in a well-balanced way because they always opted for the bland, white carbohydrates.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until a work colleague suggested I increase the variety in my menu and move away from the high-carb offerings I’d been serving that I began to see how my kids’ intakes could to expand. I cut back on pasta dishes and started preparing more grilled meats and roasted vegetables, accompanied by a favorite fruit and a glass of milk. At first, when new foods were offered, the kids stuck to their familiar fruit and milk. I was tempted to try and force bites of the protein and veggies, but I restrained myself and persisted in serving the meal and letting them decide. It took a long while, but eventually, when the fruit on the table ran out, and they found themselves still hungry, they began filling their bellies with the other offerings.
I am happy to say that I am now on “the other side” of my son’s milk-only-for-dinner diet. I’ve been following the Division of Responsibility in feeding, and he has been expanding his palate some. He’s added raw carrots to his repertoire. Occasionally he will eat a strip of bell pepper. His number one meal request at present is a “hamburger without the cheese” and, sometimes he actually eats the meat and not just the bun. He has started eating sweet potatoes, only in the form of fries – but hey, I’ll take it! He still loves milk. He won’t touch kiwi because it’s green but prefers green grapes to red – go figure!
Feeding my children has been one of the most humbling and surprising and frustrating parts of motherhood for me thus far, but with patience, tenacity, and staying engaged with the aspects of mealtime I am personally responsible for, we have found our way through the challenges. I have to remind myself constantly that eating is a learned skill that takes time and practice to master.
If you’re encountering similar struggles, don’t lose heart! Keep offering the options you hope will stick and someday soon, your non-vegetable-eating kid might just snatch up a floret of cauliflower and take a bite. And it will take everything in you to keep from falling off your chair. Until that day, feed on!
**Recipes for Families, the newest free e-book from Kindred Mom, is full of meal ideas and practical kitchen wisdom from over 20 moms! Click the image below and subscribe to our mailing list and get your own free copy!
Kelsie Crozier is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and a die-hard foodie. She is the wife of 11 years to her husband and biggest fan, and the mother to three littles, ages 8, 6 and 4. They live together in Woodinville, WA where she is ever-pushing the envelope with the front yard vegetable garden of her dreams. She is passionate about living this wild and crazy life vulnerably, investing deeply in her people, and learning to do brave, hard things. She loves to write on her blog and speak to women about her journey in mothering, marriage, and eating. You can find Kelsie on Instagram, Facebook, and on her blog.