Look at these sweet, juicy strawberries on this adorable Santa Clause pancake. They would be devoured by any kid even a picky eater.
Two of my children picked through these strawberries as if they might find worms tunneling through the whipped cream, and they begged for buttered toast instead.
That’s right I’m the mom of picky eaters.
My children have sensory sensitivities causing aversions to certain foods.
In addition to food sensory defensiveness, my elementary school aged children have special needs and some struggle with defiance, anxiety, trauma, and/or mood issues that sometimes affect their diet.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, I solo parent most of the time and prepare all their meals.
I learned through my own parenting mistakes that some food battles are not worth fighting.
Avoiding food battles, keeps me sane. It encourages my kids to develop a healthy attitude about food. Very slowly they are expanding their palates.
Food Battle 1. Enjoy the ever changing menu of exotic foods. Life is an adventure.
In my house, we eat a rotation of the same basic, simple meals. Once in while, I cook something new.
This guarantees my kids will eat. Two of my children have growth challenges unrelated to their picky eating. I need to offer food they will eat at each meal.
If you like variety, at least serve a side your child enjoys eating.
Try this one magic phrase when you present a new dish.
Don’t expect your kid to eat the new food. If he eats it, fabulous. If not, maybe next time or never.
Whenever I make a new dish, I cook something I am excited about eating because chances are I am going to eat this as lunch for a week.
This saves money on groceries because you will waste less food. A lot of kids with special needs like routines and focus better eating foods they are familiar with.
Food Battle 2. Eat your soggy vegetables.
Some children experience sensory defensiveness with cooked vegetables or other types of food. In my defense, I am a fantastic cook and my vegetables don’t have the life cooked out of them. Yet my kids almost always reject them.
My solution is I rarely prepare cooked side dishes. My kids don’t need more simple carbohydrates. Most nights it is fresh fruit and/or veggies. I offer each child the fruit or vegetable they prefer to eat.
My kids enjoy simple foods, and this works well for them.
It’s a win, win. I save time, and raw fruit and vegetables are nutritious.
Food Battle 3. Remember to bring back the the reusable containers in your lunch box or you’ll be in trouble.
I envy those moms with beautiful bento box collections. It worked for my oldest child.
But then along came her younger siblings with ADHD. Most of my reusable containers are leaching hazardous plastic chemicals into the land at a trash dump and will be found by aliens long after the human race has expired.
Working memory and organizational skills challenge kids with ADHD. No amount of lecturing about the importance of taking care of their possessions or consequences (positive or negative) helped them.
I resigned myself to the use of ziplock baggies and disposable water bottles. It’s too expensive to continue replacing reusable containers and too high an expectation (at this time) for my children to always remember to bring them home.
Food Battle 4. Eat all your lunch. The smoothie Mama packed for you is healthier than the cafeteria food.
I don’t understand it but most of my kids love the flavorless school lunches. Some of mine buy lunch once a week.
Another child buys lunch every day of the week.
Almost every single day, the packed lunches remained uneaten by this child. There were lots of excuses.
Fine. My kids finish their lunches when they come home from school. No big deal.
Not for this child. Defiance kicked in, and lunch remained untouched. Sometimes children with traumatic early childhoods are controlling with food.
I couldn’t continue allowing meals to be routinely skipped. Not a battle worth fighting.
Now, this child always eats a purchased cafeteria lunch and a snack at home.
Battle 5. When you finish your dinner, you may enjoy dessert.
The importance of a sweet treat is something grandparents intuitively understand and drives most parents crazy.
I establish boundaries with sweet foods. It’s definitely not a free for all.
Most days we eat one dessert. Often it is a healthier homemade treat, one of my children helps prepare. It is not conditional on finishing a meal and usually served as a mid day snack.
The promise of dessert does not motivate my children to eat an undesirable food item. Plus, I add undesirable food items like zucchini and carrots into their sweets, and they will eat it most of the time.
Battle 6. Bread and cheese is banned from our house.
Many families with special needs find improvement with children’s behaviors by eliminating certain foods like gluten or dairy. That is wonderful for them.
We eliminate artificial food dyes as we found it decreases tantrums in one child. It’s an easy food to remove from a child’s diet and doesn’t require extra work from me.
There are a few exceptions to this rule.
My children suffer from no digestive issues. Absent any physical distress or orders from a trusted medical doctor, I choose not to radically change my children’s diet.
I solo parent most of the time, and prepare all my children’s food. Most elimination diets require more time for shopping and preparing food. Time I realistically don’t have to give.
A couple of my children are picky, and due to growth issues, I need to make sure I offer food they will eat.
In addition, one child has mood and defiance issues. This child becomes more controlling with food during periods of emotional disregulation.
I don’t want to create an unnecessary power struggle with my kids by removing their favorite foods like macaroni and cheese. I want them to look forward to eating their meals and create a healthier relationship with food.
Battle 7. Don’t make a mess.
When one of my children was very young, this child practically bathed in food passed the toddler age.
Grandma swooped in with a wash cloth wiping the face before the meal was over.
Likely due to sensory and emotional regulation differences, my child started screaming and crying and stopped eating. The tactile experience of food was satisfying.
Allowing a mess, encouraged better eating.
Of course, there comes a point where it is developmentally appropriate to teach children to eat more cleanly. Consider if focusing on neat eating is distracting from the enjoyment of food and healthy eating.
Battle 8. Admire and eat this artistic masterpiece I created with all the food you detest.
Unless food art is your creative outlet or you want to make something special for a holiday, it is not worth the effort. You will be disappointed when you build a perfect replica of the statue of David out of cauliflower, and your child rejects it.
Give yourself a break. Your kid will be a picky eater whether the food is ugly or beautiful.
I still make those goofy Santa pancakes each Christmas. I enjoy making them, and it has become a playful joke in our family when two of my children refuse to eat the strawberries. The other two fight over who eats their siblings’ helpings of whipped cream covered strawberries.
I am not the perfect mom. Sometimes I fall prey to the pressure of wanting my kids to eat better, but my kids eat more healthfully when I surrender control and give up these food battles.
Ease the stress over meal time by choosing to drop some of the food battles with your picky eaters. Choosing which battles to fight does not mean there are not family boundaries about food. It means you decide which issues help your children eat better and which do not encourage healthy eating. Creating a more positive family atmosphere about food will likely make mealtime a more enjoyable experience for your children.
More Special Needs Resources About Food
Food Issues: Are They Behavioral, Sensory, or Medically Related by Every Star is Different
Nutrition for Childhood Trauma by The Chaos and The Clutter
Mealtime Strategies for Kids with Hyperlexia and/or Autism by And Next Comes L
How to Help a Non Verbal Autistic Child Make Mealtime Choices by Kori at Home
How We’re Gradually Introducing New Food Into Our Son’s Restricted Diet by My Home Truths