From the day we began introducing solid foods, my oldest has been an incredibly picky eater. (Now that I think about it, maybe it started even earlier when he had trouble latching. Does that count?) Now he’s eight years old, and for the sake of my own survival, I had to learn how to feed my picky eater without losing my mind.
We had moments when we tried to insist on two bites of everything on his plate. Or just one bite. We had moments when we gave up entirely, feeding him nothing but Chick-fil-A, mac n’ cheese, and PB&J. One summer I tried to teach him about food groups, only to have him insist that he needed to eat from the “cookie group” and “ice cream group.”
But then one day, I stumbled on the Instagram account @kids.eat.in.color, and my life has never been the same.
I know, I know. It’s a dramatic claim to make about Instagram. But it’s true. Kids Eat in Color is run by a registered dietician (and mom of two spunky boys) Jennifer Anderson, and while I love everything she has to say, one lesson, in particular, has changed our mealtimes forever.
The idea is this: Division of responsibility.
Anderson says that to feed my picky eater without losing my mind, the most important thing to remember is that my child and I each come to the table with different responsibilities.
It is my responsibility to choose what is served and when. It is my child’s responsibility to choose what to eat and how much.
And that’s it. This is how I feed my picky eater without losing my mind.
It’s so countercultural and counterintuitive to let my kid just refuse to eat what’s on his plate. Sometimes I think I must be crazy. But the truth is–it works. When we are abiding by this division of responsibilities, we have fewer power struggles and arguments. I’m not begging my kid to just try a bite or lecturing him about how hungry he’s going to be later.
For each meal, I make sure to offer at least one food item he already likes, which Anderson calls the “safe food.” If he asks for something I haven’t served, I say, “That’s not on the menu right now.” Does he still sometimes whine about what I’ve served? Of course. But I’m not compelled to argue back or negotiate–it is what it is. “You don’t have to eat it,” is a daily refrain around here. There will be another food he likes at the next meal or snack.
Do we do this perfectly? No. Sometimes I feel like a pushover when we’re eating with my in-laws, for example, and I see how my sister-in-law asks her kids to eat what’s on their plate and they actually do it. Sometimes I want to roll my eyes or protest when a grandparent chimes in with the “eat just one bite and then I’ll give you a cookie,” bribe. Other times, I catch myself doing those very same things. But slowly but surely, I’ve grown more confident that this is the best way to feed my picky eater and help him grow more at ease around new foods.
It strikes me that “division of responsibility” isn’t only a helpful strategy for picky eating. It’s really just an exercise in boundaries. It’s my job to buy laundry detergent, but it’s my husband’s responsibility to wash his own clothes. It’s my responsibility to be honest about what I can or can not add to my calendar, but I am not responsible for how other people respond. Division of responsibility reminds me I am only in control of so much–in parenting and in the rest of life, too.
I wish I could say this strategy turned my picky eater into an adventurous (or even semi-normal?) one. I can’t go that far, but it has changed all of our attitudes around mealtimes. It has relieved a lot of the tension at our table, and without that added pressure, I have seen my son become more willing to try new things and less likely to meltdown at mealtimes.
As challenging as it sometimes is, I’ve learned to hold my boundaries and trust the process. It turns out, social media can be good for something after all. If I ever meet Jennifer Anderson in person, I will have to resist the urge to hug her like a crazy person. She taught me how to feed my picky eater without losing my mind, and I’m grateful for the more peaceful mealtimes every single day.