Truce in the Picky Eater War

Two weeks ago I posted a desperate plea for help in dealing with Harry’s eating habits, and you answered with compassion and genuinely helpful suggestions. Thank you. Several folks recommended the same book—a book, I’m embarrassed to say, I own and have read several times. It’s called Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter, and it’s by far the most sensible approach to children and food I’ve encountered. Here’s what she says in Chapter 1:

“When it comes to feeding, common sense isn’t common any more. Feeding practice and advice is so negative and controlling that it causes struggles between parents and children, and much of it is misguided and even detrimental to your child.”

And a little later in the chapter:

“Children learn to eat a variety of food and take responsibility for their own eating when they are regularly offered a variety of nutritious food in a no-pressure environment. No pressure means getting a meal on the table and eating with a child rather than feeding her.”

I can’t tell you how that resonated with me. Feeding Harry has been fraught from his first moments on earth, when he was born at 37 weeks, jaundiced and with an underdeveloped suck. He stayed in the hospital an extra day, and I panicked at the thought that the nurses might feed him formula. They sent me home with a manual pump that left me sore in wrist and breast, with very little precious colostrum to show for it. I spent the night in a morass of hormones, tears, and fear, convinced that Harry would be irreparably harmed by the experience.

And once Harry was safely home, making sure he was getting enough to eat became an obsession. We had horrible luck with breastfeeding, and with lactation consultants, until I finally met the expert who solved our problems. Seven weeks after Harry was born we nailed the proper latch, but by then I had supply issues and I gratefully embraced supplementation with formula—formula is food, and Harry needed it. (Experiments cooking with galactagogues, foods that increase supply, were successful, but it took a while. There’s an entire chapter devoted to them in that cookbook of mine).

Solids added a whole new level of confusion. We’d decided to try Baby-Led Weaning, a technique I learned about on a moms’ message board, whose entire goal is to allow your baby to learn to eat and enjoy food on his own terms. In the beginning, it’s not about actually eating; it’s about exploring food and all its textures and flavors. The process sounds so sensible—and I know quite a few families who had great success with it. Unfortunately, right when we started introducing Harry to solids he slipped off his growth curve—not because of the BLW, since we hadn’t really begun yet—and his pediatrician urged us to abandon that approach and start getting relatively substantial amounts of solids into him, stat. So we spent the next few months more concerned with how much Harry ate than whether or not he seemed to like it.

We got off on the wrong foot, from Day One. Five years later, I’m trying to find my way out of this mess. And you, dear readers, have helped tremendously. A few hours after I wrote that post, once the Satter reminders began to flow in, Stephen and I sat down to figure out how to proceed. Clearly, what we’ve—I’ve—been doing isn’t working. Here’s what we decided:

  • Dessert is out of the equation. We’ll now have it every Friday and Saturday night, regardless of how much (or whether) Harry eats his dinner. The rest of the week, if he wants something sweet after dinner it’s all fruit—which he loves. That put an immediate end to his nightly query: “Did I eat enough to get dessert?” Dinnertime is already a thousand times more pleasant, simply because I don’t hear that one question every day.
  • Harry is in charge of what he eats. I make dinner every night, and I try to ensure there’s always something on the table he likes (even if it’s just fruit), but I’m no longer putting food on his plate, nor counting mouthfuls. He takes what he wants from what’s on offer, and that’s that. This is paying off already—remember how he devoured the Parchment Paper Chicken? That was all him. He wasn’t interested in trying the sweet potatoes and he wanted nothing to do with the sage, and that was just fine.
  • Because Harry’s in charge, many nights he eats very little: just plain pasta, maybe, or nothing but mangoes. Which means I’m paying closer attention to his snacks—not monitoring them overtly, but trying harder to only offer options with substantial nutritional value. Last weekend, for example, he basically skipped lunch one day, so when snack time rolled around he had peanut butter on graham crackers. I can live with that.
  • I’m trying really hard not to ask him what he ate at school each day, since I’m pretty sure he’d learned to dread my inquiries. I resumed sending him with homemade lunch two days this past week, but when the second day’s lunch came home untouched we went back to my sending only snacks. He eats the school lunch (most days: PB&J).

So far this is working largely in terms of the atmosphere at our dinner table: We haven’t had a fight about food in two weeks. The little dude still isn’t asking to try kale—or even eating the things he used to love but has lately scorned—but at least I don’t leave the table wanting to smack him.

Baby steps.

So, what do you think? How’m I doing?