I have a sweet little girl who is two. I wish you could all meet her. She is pretty awesome. She is silly, adventurous, curious, and funny. She loves to read, dance, visit new places, and show off for people. But most of all, she loves to eat! Stella has always been full of energy and she has always been right at the top of the growth charts. She was born a hefty 9.1 pounds. She is in the 100th percentile for height and 93rd for weight. And let me tell you, she is always hungry! She loves to try new foods and she is always asking me for more food. Her favorite food is peanut butter. She also LOVES avocados, tomatoes, beets, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, beans, edamame, hummus, applesauce, yogurt, cheese, blue berries, black berries, bananas, mangoes, pineapple, green beans, raisins, oatmeal, pears, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, pomegranates, Brussels sprouts, nuts and seeds, all grains, and potatoes. She loves all sorts of flavors and amazes me with the things she will eat. She likes plain Greek Yogurt with no sweetener, she begs for plain unsweetened kefir, she loves really sharp cheeses, she can down the nastiest of my fresh veggie juice, and she will eat a whole grapefruit with no sugar.
My mother in-law is always telling me that I should write a book about preventing pickiness in kids. I always kind of laugh and brush it off. I could never write a book on this because I am no expert and my ideas are pretty simple and could be covered in one chapter. So instead of writing a whole book, I thought I would write a post about my experiences keeping Stella fed over the past two years. This post is just some of my current thoughts and a record of some of the things that worked for me. I am in no way making dietary claims or parenting claims. I am a first time mom and have only been feeding a child for two years, so there is still much for me to learn. I may even change how I feel over time about things. I may do things differently with my next kid and I may even need a whole new approach as Stella gets older and more opinionated. But that’s why I wanted to write all this down. I want to keep track of where we started. Maybe this post will help someone, and maybe it will just help me to look back at this when I am starting kid number 2 or 3 on solid food.
I am not going to delve into the whole formula verses breast milk debate. Stella was formula fed from day one because of a medication I medically cannot stop taking. What ever you choose is up to you. I am going to skip past the first 5 or 6 months and go straight to introducing solids. Then I will talk about my overall rules for feeding babies and toddlers to prevent pickiness. I’ll end with some “in the moment” kid feeding hacks for those days when your kid decides to be picky despite your best efforts.
I am also not going to tell you when you should give your baby their first bite of real food. The recommendations change all the time. My pediatrician told us to wait until Stella was 6 months. But your child will give you signs that he or she is ready. I think Stella was around 5 1/2 months when we started giving her infant oatmeal and pureed vegetables. At first I was all gung-ho about making all of Stella’s baby food homemade. It was great. She loved it and I loved it. I also wasn’t very strict about only giving her homemade baby food. I gave her homemade some of the time and from the jars some of the time. Once she started eating finger foods, I gave up on making pureed baby food and just used up my stock of baby food jars.
HOW I MADE STELLA’S HOMEMADE BABY FOOD: I basically just steamed or roasted what ever fruit or veggie I wanted until it was really soft and then pureed it in the blender. I added water as needed to adjust the thickness and texture. Then I spooned it into ice cube trays, covered them, and let them freeze. I then popped the cubes out into a Ziploc baggie and labeled the baggie. I kept a bunch of sandwich size baggies all inside a gallon baggie to give an extra layer against freezer burn. When it came time to feed her, I just pulled out a cube or two and microwaved them for 20 seconds or so. Microwaves can heat food unevenly, so if you do this, make sure you stir it all together and test it before giving it to your child. I kept the frozen cubes for up to 3 weeks.
Some people like to take a whole evening and cook up a whole bunch of veggies and fruits to stock up for the next few weeks. I found it easier to just do it while I was making dinner. If I was using sweet potatoes in dinner, I would peel an extra potato or two and let them steam while making dinner. Sometimes I would go out of my way to prepare something, but I usually just used ingredients I was already cooking with and made extra.
Here are some of the things I liked about making my own baby food:
- Homemade baby food doesn’t have that yucky “baby food taste”.
- You can only get limited flavors in the jars. I don’t think I have ever seen a Gerber jar of baby zucchini or cauliflower.
- When a baby is first trying purees, they may not eat very much at once. Its nice to have smaller servings so you don’t waste half a jar that your baby can’t eat quickly enough.
MY RULES FOR FEEDING BABIES AND TODDLERS:
1. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “KID” FOOD: As soon as your child is big enough, start feeding them what you are eating for dinner. This is probably the hardest part, because that means you, the parents, have to be eating a variety of healthy food! Make nutritious dinners full of veggies and feed your kids the same meal. I don’t believe in making a yummy vegetable stir fry for the grown ups and giving chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese to the kids. Don’t make a separate dish without mushrooms for your kids. Just make it the way you normally do and serve it to them. They can avoid the mushrooms if they want, but present them with the same dinner you are eating.
One of my biggest pet peeves is to go into the baby section at the grocery store and find all sorts of little baby cookies and yogurt that are just as unhealthy and full of sugar as the food in the junk food isles. I think that “kid food” should be the same as adult food and that it should mostly be whole foods and heavy on the veggies. We have found that when we have junky food in the house, Stella temporarily becomes picky and doesn’t want broccoli anymore because she knows that junk food is an option if she can get me to cave. The most effective way to teach kids to eat healthy is to model good nutrition and adventurous eating from when they are babies and all through their lives. We aren’t always perfect at this and we notice that the spans of time when we aren’t eating as healthy are the times when Stella is the pickiest.
Please don’t feel like I’m calling you out. There are times when I say “Ok. Eat the cheese stick you have been begging for instead of your dinner so that you don’t wake up hungry in the night.” So I’m not necessarily saying to send them to bed with no dinner if they don’t eat what you made. I’m just saying, make your lovely dinners and present them to your kids every night so that they at least have an option to try it. Don’t get into the habit of making one meal for the adults and another whole meal for the kids. And the less junk/snack food you have in the house, the more likely they will be happy with what you put on the table.
2. START FEEDING THEM A LARGE VARIETY OF FOODS AND FLAVORS FROM THE VERY BEGINNING (introducing them one at a time, of course): Banish the idea that kids don’t like spicy food or flavorful food. We started giving our daughter curry when she was really tiny (6 OR 7 MONTHS). We made it for dinner one night and she seemed to want it, so we threw a little bit in the blender, veggies and all. We spoon fed it to her and she loved it! So we blended some more and froze it in ice cube trays so she could eat it later. Now she is two and she LOVES curry. Its one of her very favorite foods. She is still free at an Indian buffet, but she shouldn’t be because she can put it away! Don’t be afraid of herbs and spices in your babies’ food. Try sprinkling a little dill in their jar of squash, or cumin and chili powder in their sweet potatoes.
We have never toned down the spice for Stella when we cook, either. We like things spicy in our house. She is crazy about Cholula sauce and Slap Ya Mama (a spicy cajon spice blend that we sprinkle on everything!). Actually, if she is uninterested in her veggies, a little hot sauce always does the trick! She really does beg for it! Not all kids are going to like spicy food or exotic flavors, and I would never ever tell you to force your kid to eat something that is too spicy. I just think that your child will be more likely to have adventurous tastes if you start them on the good stuff young.
(Stella eating and wearing Veggie Tikka Masala at 14 months)
3. FEED THEM THE FOOD THEY ARE LESS LIKELY TO BE EXCITED ABOUT FIRST: This step is two fold. First: Each day when they wake up hungry from a nights sleep, don’t be afraid to feed them broccoli for breakfast instead of pancakes and cereal. I’m not very good at making breakfast for my whole family. Its the one meal that I make something separate for Stella because I just don’t like to eat much in the morning and my husband is usually out the door long before we wake up. A frequent breakfast for her is a pile of beans, followed by some sort of veggie (broccoli, cauliflower, grape tomatoes, zucchini, beets). If she is still hungry then I offer her oatmeal or fruit or yogurt. But I know that she is hungriest first thing in the morning and that she is most likely to eat her veggies when she is hungriest, so I don’t stick to traditional breakfast foods first thing in the morning.
Second: follow this rule within each meal. I present the veggies before the fruit and yogurt because I know she would probably rather get full on just bananas. If I give her broccoli first, she will eat it and even ask for more. Its all about strategy, people. I have been doing this very deliberately since Stella started eating food and just this morning I read about a study testing this theory. School children were given a cup of broccoli to eat while waiting in the lunch line before getting their food. On a normal day 36 kids ate their broccoli, but when the kids were given broccoli before the rest of their meal, 235 kids at their broccoli. They tested this with all sorts of vegetables and it worked the same, sometimes even better. It was amazing to see the actual numbers, but I didn’t need a study to tell me that it works. I see it every day in my own kitchen. (Study from the book Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann, PH.D.)
4. DON’T GIVE UP ON A CERTAIN FOOD: Stella doesn’t really like peas. She didn’t like them from the start. But I still offer them to her because sometimes, she decides she wants to eat them. She doesn’t really like them on their own, but she loves them in soup or curry. And isn’t it the same way with adults? I don’t really like onions, but I love them in Greek salad or in French onion soup.
And one day your child might decide they like a certain food that they have always resisted in the past. Stella did this with peppers. She would never touch raw bell peppers, but one day I was chopping some up and I handed her one and she ate it like it was candy and plowed through three or four small sweet peppers. She has loved them ever since. And sometimes kids go through smaller bouts of pickiness where one day they like broccoli and the next they wont touch it, and then a couple day later they decide they like it again. Just keep offering a variety of food, but don’t force them to eat something they don’t seem to like.
5. LIMIT SNACKING CLOSE TO MEAL TIMES: Stella is always begging for cheese or peanut butter or milk right before dinner. I don’t blame her! I am always really hungry right before dinner is ready, too! When I give into her begging, she usually doesn’t want the yummy healthy dinner that I worked hard to make. When I can get her distracted with a game or toys (or even helping me cook) and get her mind off the fact that she wants to snack, then she will eat a big helping of whatever I made for dinner. It really makes a huge difference.
6. LET THEM BE MESSY: It can be hard, but let your baby make a mess when they start eating finger food. We used to strip Stella down to just her diaper at meal time and let her go to town. She loved it. She loved the whole experience of feeling the food between her fingers and picking everything up by herself.
Once she got a little older we found the wonderful and marvelous Snap Bibs. They are lovely vinyl bibs with a sturdy snap. They are super cute, super easy to wipe off, and Stella loves her bibs. I especially love the sparkle varieties because the sparkle vinyl is so slick. Not to mention SPARKLY! Visit Snap-bibs.com to order one or follow them on instagram (@snapbibs) to get updated on sales and giveaways. (I am not being compensated by Snap Bibs, I just really love them and I really love, Katie, the owner of Snap Bibs.) Isn’t Stella cute in her gold sparkly Snap Bib?
As they start to get older, you can start to teach them manners and not to smear the food in their hair. But when they are first starting to eat solid food, let them enjoy the experience and explore it in every way.
TRICKS FOR THOSE DAYS WHEN YOUR KIDS JUST WONT EAT:
Although Stella is a fantastic eater, occasionally she goes through little spurts where she will not eat something. It usually never lasts for more than a couple days or so, but I have figured out a couple tricks for those picky moments to help her eat her healthy food.
1. Pretend They Are An Animal: If I tell her that her food is monkey food and that she is a monkey, she will usually try it. Silly, I know, but it works.
2. Let Them Snack While Helping You Cook: When Stella is going through a picky phase, I forget making her sit down to the table and eat from her bowl. I pull a chair up to the counter and let her stand on it, put her special apron on her, and let her help me make dinner. As I am chopping and stirring and taste testing, I let her snitch bites of everything. She loves it and by the end, she basically got the same dinner, just in a more deconstructed form. I usually offer a taste of the finished product and let her decide if she wants to eat a helping of it. I like her to sit up to the table and eat with the family, but this strategy helps when I know she is going through a picky spurt.
3. Don’t Dish Them Up and Let Them Get Jealous of Your Yummy Food: If I make something that I know Stella is going to be hesitant about or that she has refused before, I dish myself and my husband up a big helping and we just start eating without her. She just can’t stand to miss out on the action! Without fail she comes running into the kitchen saying “mommy’s lap!” because she wants to sit on my lap and eat all the food off my plate. Most days she sits in her own chair and eats from her own bowl, but on those picky days I can usually get her to eat by making her jealous and then letting her eat off my plate.
4. Make It Novel: If you made something that you know your child doesn’t love, do something to make it novel. It can be as simple as putting a blanket down on the floor and eating on the blanket instead of up to the table. Or making a face on their food. Or putting it on a fun plate. Or how about turning on some music and having everyone dance in their chairs while they eat? Or try reading a story to them while they eat. Tell them as long as they are eating their food you will keep reading. Just be careful, because once you do something fun and memorable, they will start asking for it every night! A good problem, I guess.
5. Have Them Pretend To Feed It To A Toy: If I can’t get Stella to eat something, I often let her pretend to feed her favorite baby doll. She always offers the baby the food and then takes a bite herself before scooping up another spoonful.
I hope some of my ideas have helped you in some way. Like I said, it is easiest if the parents are eating a variety of healthy foods and if you start when your kids are babies. In my limited experience, I have found what works for me and I encourage you to do the same. I don’t know the first thing about helping a picky seven year old, a picky husband, or a picky teenager. And everything I do know about preventing pickiness in babies and toddlers is just from my own experience. But its what I believe and stand by and so far it has worked for me! Good luck and don’t forget to stop and soak in the joy that these sweet little spirits bring into our lives. Being a parent is truly amazing. If your child is throwing all of their broccoli on the floor and screaming for candy, take a deep breath and remember that your little human being is just trying to figure out this tricky world, too.