"You don't like the banana? Do you want a circle cracker? No? What about the bunny kind? Alright, try some applesauce. Honey, you need to eat. Have some milk. No? Yogurt? Mmmmm, yummy! Mommy loves yogurt! No?" The music continues; the dance goes on.
As a baby, my oldest child suffered from a grab-bag of issues—reflux, allergies, difficulty swallowing, and a hole in her diaphragm—that prevented effective feeding. When her weight dropped so low that it endangered brain development, doctors resorted to tubes: first one threaded through her nose, and later another surgically inserted into her stomach.
She got used to milk magically appearing in her belly. Months after her original ailments resolved, any attempt to drink or eat still made her gag, choke, or vomit. The process of changing that tortured us both. At one point I was responsible for strapping her into a foam chair and holding a bottle in one hand, dangling it just in front of her lips, while flipping the pages of a board book and singing its words in a flurry of feigned excitement. We did it eight times a day for up to an hour. Rarely did she drink an ounce; rarely did I make it through with dry cheeks.
To say the experience left me desperate to see her eat would be like calling Kerry Washington "kinda pretty." My outlook on life rose and fell based on her consumption. But ever so slowly, we both learned how best to get her nourished.
Six years later, she eats everything from chicken tikka masala to salmon sashimi. Her younger brother recently demanded squid after we read about it, arguing, "Mommy, I just have to know what it tastes like." And our third began digging into the family dinner at four months old, just in tiny pieces strewn across a highchair tray.
It's all because of lessons conveyed by the occupational therapy my daughter received just after the foam chair stage.
First, there's an advised division of responsibility between parents and children when it comes to food. Ellyn Satter, the nutritionist and therapist who pioneered the concept, explains: "The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how, much, and whether." The bottom line: I choose food, and my kids get to decide how much of it they eat without parental comment. Second, therapy taught us that kids are programmed for survival. With very limited exception, babies and children will eat anything if allowed to become hungry enough. Armed with this knowledge, we made a series of decisions aimed at supporting adventurous, appreciative eating in our pickiest of eaters, including ditching the cracker dance.
1. No Substitutions (With One Exception)
Countless nights I sat down to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of my labor only to hear our 2-year-old say "no like." Grateful that she'd begun eating at all, I'd jump up to get something else. Then I gave up before the first bite, preparing a separate spread of her favorites.
I called the short-order cook dynamic unavoidable. My husband called it martyrdom. We had it out, with me saying two was too young for draconian consequences and him demanding I try. I agreed to a version with a safety valve.
At dinner the next day, we told her she could eat as little as she liked of the family meal, but there would be no substitutions; if she felt hungry at bedtime, she could have plain yogurt, but nothing else.
It took less than a week of mealtime sobbing and yogurt spitting. Ever since then, we all know the food is there, and the rest is up to the kid.
2. Give Them Control, Within Limits
Backing off also means giving children as much control over their eating as possible, finding them their own place to sit, and letting them feed themselves. It's messy, and we miss out on lap snuggles and playing the airplane game, but increased and varied intake results.
That doesn't mean they're in charge though. I can tell when my son dislikes the spicy eggplant. But if he throws it on the floor or pushes it onto the table, he will be excused from the meal. (He is allowed to silently shovel it over to what we call the "timeout section" of his plate.) If he comments on it, he'll be excused from the meal. If he gets out of his chair without asking, he'll be excused from the meal. If he puts his feet on the table ... you get the picture.
It sounds harsh, but table rules keep my kids' focus on the positives of the task at hand, and we prevent one child's distaste from influencing the others.
3. Talk About What's Nutritious and Delicious
"You're so lucky you guys got good eaters," my friend sighed the other day as she watched our kids tuck into brussels sprouts with gusto. I don't think so. Mine too would prefer pizza and fries at every meal. So would I! Salt, fat, and sugar are tasty. We make sure to talk about that fact. For years I struggled with how to teach kids nutrition without using loaded words like "calories" and "carbohydrates." Then just last May, I discovered the stoplight terminology from the National Institutes of Health: go, slow, and whoa. "Go" foods are the healthiest and can be eaten anytime in virtually unlimited amount. "Slow" foods aren't awful, but moderation is key. "Whoa" foods are the ones we really shouldn't consume—but healthy adults eat donuts anyway so as to stave off a life of deprivation. The trick is in doing so rarely and in limited amounts. These days, when we end up at a ballgame amongst all the "whoa" foods a kid could crave, ours each get to choose one thing.
4. Resist the Lure of the Kids Menu
It makes sense for restaurants to offer items that are smaller in volume and priced accordingly for tiny humans. But that's usually not what's going on. So an alternative strategy works for us: two kids split an entrée, each orders an appetizer, or we eat family style. They have more choices, and we get tastier, healthier food for the same price per child.
5. Don't Banish Snacking
Back when we were sorting this all out, my oldest still eating tentatively, we tried employing an anti-snack regimen. But not too long into it, I found myself crouching down and nibbling an energy bar behind the drums at music class in order to make it to lunch. Hiding from my toddler so I could hold her to a higher standard seemed ludicrous, and I stopped. Now when I'm hungry between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, I offer my children a snack as well. Science supports that choice. My mom recently tried to make my son eat more lunch. "You'll be hungry later," she warned. When he requested a snack after a few hours, she said, "You should have eaten your tuna. Now you'll have to wait for dinner. I chimed in that that's just not how we do it. Waiting until you're super-hungry makes people overeat. Plus, studies on both obesity and eating disorders show that forcing kids to eat when they're not hungry conditions them to mindless consumption. It also turns food into an instrument of control.
6. No Food Bribes
For the same reason, my husband and I swore off using food as a reward or incentive. It can be awfully tempting, when we're in the middle of an airport and desperate for the kids to walk from point A to point B efficiently, but we heed the research showing that making food about power, behavior, and emotion—rather than taste and necessity—is a recipe for longer-term problems, for all of us.
The bottom line: Things like genetics and the flavors a baby is exposed to in utero (or while nursing) can make a difference, but most children get their eating habits from their caregivers. Mine eat everything, because it turns out I am lucky. I’m lucky that feeding therapy taught us to set firm boundaries, enable mindful eating, and otherwise back off.