At a recent orthodontist visit, my 9 year old daughter was given bite blocks that prevent her from biting her teeth together. “You’ll need to make sure she doesn’t eat food that requires much chewing,” the orthodontist told me. My jaw dropped and I watched his expression that I assumed was judgment when I described how limited her diet already is. As someone who will eat just about anything, I’ve historically had a low tolerance for picky eaters, you know…those adults who ask a million questions in restaurants before ordering, or vegetarians who hate vegetables (I dated one of those once). Then I became Bakha’s mom and I had to expand my views.
Due to her early institutional diet and years of malnutrition, Bakha has been a picky eater since I adopted her. Apparently, she wasn’t a picky eater at the orphanage. Her caregivers told me she’d eat anything. But the first night I took Bakha out of the orphanage to the hotel, she refused her dinner. I naively thought she would gobble up food from her culture because it would be familiar. I quickly realized the food of one’s country is not the same as the food of one’s orphanage.
I spent the next several years expanding Bakha’s repertoire of foods. I had worked for years as a speech-language pathologist, often working with children with feeding disorders, so I understood the reasons for her food aversions and I knew the methods that should help her increase the foods she’d accept. Here are some of the tips I incorporated into our mealtimes (for more tips click here, ):
- Try adding a small amount of a new texture to a preferred texture. If the small amount is accepted, add slightly more each time the preferred food is offered. The same can be done with new flavors.
- Kids are more likely to eat if they see others doing the same. That is especially true when they are fed in the presence of other kids who are eating, and is often how they acquire a liking for a new food.
- Encourage your child to be active before meal time – if possible, time outside in fresh air stimulates appetite.
- If your child tends to fill up on fluids, offer drinks at the middle or end of a meal.
- Lots of praise for trying new foods or finishing a meal can actually backfire. If your child realizes how important his eating is to you, he may use it to gain the upper hand at mealtimes.
It did take longer than I expected, but little by little Bakha added new foods. After we’d been home a week, I let her drink milk out of a bowl after she’d picked out each piece of cereal. After that she accepted milk. At three months home, she watched a little boy repeatedly ask for more pesto at dinner and she was intrigued. Pesto has been a staple ever since. At six months home, I put four small bowls of mac and cheese in front of her and let her try different toppings. Soy sauce won out and it’s still the only way she’ll eat cooked cheese. At twelve months home, she discovered that everything tastes better with turkey bacon. She’ll now eat oatmeal if it can have bacon crumbled in it; her pizza consists of crust, pesto, and bacon. She recently tried an omelet (a bacon omelet, of course). Yes, some of her food choices are a bit odd, but they are her own choices after years of never having choices about what she could eat, when she could eat, or how much she could eat. They are powerful choices, and it’s always in the back of my mind that as important as the nutritional content of her food is, her relationship to food is even more important. It’s one she’ll have for the rest of her life.
So when the orthodontist told me that her slowly expanding diet would have to be limited again, I swallowed hard and waited for his judgment. His response? “I completely understand. My kids are picky eaters, too. Any suggestions for me?” Oh boy, I thought, just get me started…
Do you have suggestions that work with your picky eater?