When my husband and I started talking about having kids and parenting philosophies, I was eager to discuss how to prevent picky eating.
Since I was a teenager, I had struggled with multiple chronic illnesses but found that a majority of my symptoms were relieved through diet and lifestyle modifications.
I knew that eating well made me feel better and I wanted to set the right foundation for our own kids.
I was so excited to birth with a midwife and exclusively breastfeed our firstborn.
My vision for my birth plan and recovery went down the drain when I went into labor at 33 weeks.
Why I Was Even More Determined to Prevent Picky Eating
Even though I was able to have my son without any interventions for me, I felt like my son got all of them.
He was born too early to breathe on his own so the nurses whisked him away to the NICU after they got the first breathing tube inserted.
I only got to see the freckle under his chin before they took him away so I knew that he was my baby when I got to see him again.
The doctors immediately put him on preventative antibiotics because there was no known reason why I went into labor so early. I had no risk factors. I was assured that this was the best course of action because he was likely fighting some type of infection that caused him to be born early.
After 5 days of tests, we found out that I had been exposed to a rare bacteria that usually causes stillbirth through mechanisms similar to meningitis. The crazy thing about this gram-negative bacteria is that it has no effect on adults and only infants are vulnerable.
This meant two stronger antibiotics and appointments with an infectious disease specialist.
I know I’m not the only mom whose kid has been put on antibiotics soon after birth.
If you have a C-section, Group B Strep, or your kid swallows amniotic fluid, it is standard practice to give your infant antibiotics to treat or prevent infection.
However, studies show that antibiotics within the first 6 months of life are correlated with common childhood autoimmune diseases like asthma and allergies.1
Supplementing with Formula
Another issue my son had as a preemie is that his kidneys were not fully mature so his body puffed up with edema and fluid swelling. The best solution is to add more dry calories to a baby’s diet.
I was really disappointed that the doctors wanted to add formula to the breast milk that I was working so hard to pump. After consulting with the doctors, we told them that my husband and I are both sensitive to soy and corn so we would not be using the formula the NICU provided.
The doctors hesitantly agreed to allow us to try an organic cow’s milk formula that we felt had fewer ingredients that were problematic. But if it didn’t help him gain weight in two weeks, we would have to use the NICU formula.
The organic formula (plus MCT oil) helped him gain weight without edema.
After we had finished the last round of antibiotics, my poor son broke out into terrible baby acne. I hoped and prayed it was his body trying to push out the side effects from the harsh antibiotics.
We finally got to take him home after five weeks in the NICU. We noticed that he had a bright red anus and he would get bad rashes.
The NICU instructed us to continue supplementing my breastmilk with formula until he started solids, but our holistic pediatrician agreed that we could try taking him off the formula as long as we observed his weight.
He was fine on just my breast milk for the next two months, except he continued to have a bright red anus that would break out into rashes from time to time. We tried different ointments, different diapers, and even bare butt time.
A Dairy Sensitivity
I was fortunate to have a four-month maternity leave.
I pumped like crazy those first four months to have frozen milk for when I went back to work.
However, at three months and three weeks, We had no luck with getting rid of the bottom rashes so my holistic ped asked more about his medical history and suggested I cut dairy out of my diet.
She noticed a trend in her practice that infants who are put on antibiotics and have supplemental formulas, tend to develop food sensitivities to the ingredients in their formula.
Her hypothesis was correct.
When I cut the dairy from my diet, his bottom began to heal.
My conundrum was that I had to return to work in half a week and I couldn’t use any of the breast milk I had been pumping the last four months.
I heard on a Weston A. Price podcast that in South America if there isn’t a wet nurse available, they would use bone broth as a supplement for infants.
RELATED: Does your child have a dairy sensitivity?
So we asked our holistic pediatrician and she agreed that we could rotate either homemade or high-quality bone broth like Kettle & Fire when he was above 4 months of age. (The regular bone broth that you would buy from Costco is really high in sodium and not safe for this use.)
We began with 1 tablespoon of bone broth and within a week worked up to a 50/50 mix of my pumped breast milk and bone broth while I was at work.
An Imperfect World
My best intentions to exclusively breastfeed my child for the first 6 months of life were thwarted when:
- I had a preemie who required dry calories from supplemental formula
- He required antibiotics for a life-threatening infection
Nevertheless, I was determined to raise a healthy eater.
And I’m sure that many of you have also had to make compromises on your kids’ health, whether it was supplementing with formula or letting them eat the food provided at school.
I had to remind myself that even though breast is best, being fed is still good.
We know the antibiotics put him at risk for health conditions so I started researching how to prevent picky eating because I wanted to give him a great foundation of health for life.
How to Prevent Picky Eating
I had already been following Katie here before I was a mom because I liked her recipes. On a whim, I attended one of her webinars about raising adventurous eaters because I wanted to help my husband eat better.
The principles in that webinar helped me to coax my picky eater husband into better eating habits and later are helping us raise an adventurous eater.
Even if you’re not preventing picky eating, but you’re working on reversing it, you’ll find many of these principles helpful.
How to Introduce New Foods to Prevent Picky Eating
At six months, my son was regularly having breast milk and we were rotating chicken, beef, and turkey broth.
We did not start with the typical rice or oatmeal for babies.
With our pediatrician’s approval, We began giving him new foods every 3 to 4 days.
We started with vegetables like:
Our pediatrician recommended emphasizing fermented and sour foods to help his taste buds adjust and to help reseed his microbiome with good prebiotics and probiotics.
To help him adjust to the flavors, I would mix the vegetables with either my breast milk or some bone broth.
No Short Order Cooking
In an effort to model healthy eating, I decided early on that we would all eat the same food together. Our firstborn was already showing signs of being a strong-willed child so I knew we needed to be intentional.
I had no interest in becoming a short-order cook who made a separate meal for the kids and adults.
After introducing fermented and sour foods, his new vegetable was typically just whatever vegetable we were eating at dinner.
Baby Led Eating
In order to avoid power struggles, we decided we would simply put food out in front of our kids. We would not be spoon-feeding them.
The only exception was if they asked for help finishing a container, we would help them with the last few bites.
Kid Decides Whether To Eat Or Not
Perhaps it’s a reaction against our parents making us finish our plates, but my husband and I agreed we would never make our kids finish food.
But we would clearly explain the boundaries that if they didn’t finish their dinner plate there wouldn’t be more food again until breakfast. And then whatever food they refused for dinner would be served first at breakfast.
Our hope long-term is that our kids learn to listen to their appetites. I had to remind myself it is my job to offer food. His job is to eat it.
This helps us avoid the power struggle of forcing a kid to eat.
As our firstborn got older, we had the typical power struggles around the table. We continued to use the principles from Katie’s picky eating course to instill healthy eating habits. I know you’ll find them helpful with your young children too.
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Lead With Your Ace
In other words, I always serve a vegetable first. I play my best card first.
We used some of the principles from Amy McCready’s positive parenting to outline the expectations for food.
Both around and outside the dinner table we have found “when/then” statements to be really helpful.
After serving a vegetable first, then we have some type of protein like a bean or meat, and only after that, do we serve fruit.
At the dinner table, we will usually say when you eat (insert veggie name) then you may have (a protein name).
This formula has worked well for us.
We also use this principle to lead with our aces when our kid is the most hungry during the day.
I have found that our firstborn is most likely to eat his least favorite vegetables if I serve them first thing for breakfast.
If he’s eaten a full breakfast and lunch, and I serve his least favorite vegetable for dinner, he will turn his nose up at it and not eat it.
So I capitalize on when his appetite is the highest in the morning and his willingness to eat food is high.
No Liquid Calories
The only drinks we have ever offered are breast milk (sometimes mixed with broth) and water.
We never did juice or other plant milk. (We have served kombucha instead of pop on special occasions.)
Our pediatrician agreed that this would be fine.
We ended up putting our Berkey countertop filter in a place where our toddler could easily fill water for himself to prevent power struggles over hydration.
Don’t Let Snacks Sabotage Mealtime
We decided to be a snack-free family for now. We have two exceptions to this.
First, if you don’t finish your lunch, you are permitted to finish it after school.
Second, if we are out in public where I know a snack will be served, I will provide a healthy alternative. For example, around the holidays there tend to be special snacks at church so I’ll pack our own veggies.
Emphasize the Wins
In order to encourage our son to eat a wide variety of foods, I began serving foods with the cooking method he preferred the most.
Before kids, my husband and I enjoyed roasted and crunchy vegetables.
However, our toddler had a strong preference for soft, steamed vegetables. And even as a preschooler, he continues to prefer softer textures over crunchy ones.
RELATED: How to perfectly roast veggies.
In order to avoid the power struggles, I have continued to cook according to his food preferences. For now, I’ll make the vegetables in the forms he is most likely to eat, even though it’s not my favorite.
After three years of age, we began using sauces to encourage our kids to eat healthy foods. I intentionally waited to introduce sauces so that they wouldn’t become a crutch. I waited because the healthier dressings tend to be more expensive. But now we regularly use Primal Kitchen salad dressings or ketchup as a sauce for rutabaga fries.
I still cater more than I want to his texture and taste preferences, but I’m pleased with the diversity of foods he eats.
Have Kids Help to Prepare Foods
One of my biggest takeaways from the Kids Cook Real Food e-course was to make sure I teach my kids to cook when I am not in a hurry.
This means that they do not help me get dinner on the table most days.
Instead, they help with food prep mid-morning or mid-afternoon so that I’m able to focus on them and have the patience that they deserve.
We started with a crinkle cutter on cucumbers and a butter knife on bananas.
We have graduated to using vinyl knives on harder foods like apples.
He also gets to help peel carrots and drop them down the food processor shoot.
He also loves pulsing the food processor in this mudballs recipe.
Whenever he gets to help make food, he is so excited to eat it. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting him put on the final spices before serving.
Have Kids Go Grocery Shopping
We’ve also been intentional about taking our kids to grocery stores and farmers’ markets to show them how to pick the produce out.
Having this sense of ownership makes kids much more likely to try new things.
Prepare For Special Occasions
Generally, when a child’s palate is used to highly processed or sweetened foods they will be more selective and want to eat more of those processed foods.
If you want your kids to eat a wide variety of real foods then you’ll want to train their palates to real unprocessed foods instead of unnaturally flavored processed foods.
For our family, it’s important to avoid processed foods because of our special diet, but it can also be key to raising an adventurous eater with no diet restrictions.
In an effort to not damage our kids’ emotional health, we’ve decided whenever treats or sweets are being served, we will always provide a healthier alternative for them to eat.
Practically, this means that I will always make a double batch of any healthy desserts like flaxseed muffins, parsnip cupcakes, or carrot cake, and put them in the freezer in individual silicone bags. This way if there’s a birthday party at school, I can simply put the silicone bag into their backpack to defrost during the day to eat.
It also means that we pack lunch boxes for church so that our kids have their own food instead of the unhealthy treats that are set out.
In order to help our extended family support us, whenever they have done child care for us, I always pack and provide the food for them to serve. Once they got comfortable with this, I give them a shopping list of low-prep food ideas to serve.
It only took one time for an extended family member to not offer a vegetable first. Our son only ate about 5 ounces of meat for dinner and got constipated at their house. Ever since this family member has respected that we lead with our ace to make sure that he has enough fiber in his diet.
Modeling Healthy Choices
As my son has gotten older and asked why he cannot have the treats that other kids have, I have explained to him that they hurt mommy’s tummy so they might hurt his. And I told him that I will always do my best to have a different option for him and I will never ask him to do something that I am not doing myself.
This means that even if I’m not having an autoimmune flare, I will not indulge in treats at parties.
He sees that I have self-control in these situations so he is able to have it too.
Even if you don’t have food sensitivities or follow a special diet in your family, our kids want to imitate us (see my story below) so modeling trying new foods and eating a wide variety will encourage your kids to follow suit.
Compromises with My Husband
Modeling adventurous eating has been really important to us. However, I know I cannot control what my husband will eat or not eat.
I found that the best solution was for him and me to privately discuss what foods he did not want me to serve because he would be skipping them.
So I have made these into foods that we regularly have for meals when he is out of the house. Since he leaves for work pretty early, I tend to serve these as breakfast foods:
- Yellow squash
- Butternut squash
- Hubbard squash
- Spaghetti squash
Most of these actually taste great in an egg scramble. Or I will pressure cook the entire squash and serve it with cinnamon and salt.
Recently, I mindlessly put cilantro on my husband’s salad. I completely forgot that he hates cilantro. My preschooler, who has been happily eating cilantro for years, saw my husband pick the cilantro off his salad and proceeded to pick the cilantro off of his.
I simply asked him if dipping the cilantro into dressing would make it taste better and then he ate it just fine. But I was reminded of why I serve some foods only when my husband isn’t around.
You Can Reverse and Prevent Picky Eating
Wherever you are in your journey of raising healthy eaters, I hope you’ll pick one or two of these concepts to try in your home.
You may have to go slower with older kids but using these principles and the others in the No More Picky Eating Challenge will help you raise adventurous eaters.
What strategies will you use to prevent picky eating?
- Kapourchali, F. R., & Cresci, G. (2020). Early-Life Gut Microbiome-The Importance of Maternal and Infant Factors in Its Establishment. Nutrition in clinical practice: official publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 35(3), 386–405. https://doi.org/10.1002/ncp.10490