I’m Not Hungry; How to Get a Picky Eater to Eat When They Refuse

Lately, I’m convinced my three-year-old is conducting an experiment to see how little a preschooler can eat and actually survive.

We recently had a four-day weekend, and by day four I couldn’t even remember the last full meal she had actually eaten. Her hunger strikes are epic. I’m sure she would prefer to live on snacks (crackers, applesauce, and cheese) alone. I am ashamed to admit that her diet consists mainly of carbs and dairy with some fruit mixed in so I don’t feel like a complete failure of a mother.

If it’s a vegetable, she won’t touch it.

I have to sneak them in – mix them in smoothies, blend them into a sauce, buy the pasta and crackers made with vegetables. I have tried adding cheese sauce to broccoli, brown sugar and cinnamon to carrots, and bacon to green beans. She still would rather take a hard pass than take a bite. She will gag and cry until the pleas for “just one bite” feel like I’m torturing her and I give up. I choose to surrender rather than listen to her gag on one more bite of a cheese covered broccoli tree. Really, this is nothing new.

The food battles started early.

She has never gained enough to keep her doctor happy. We get told at nearly every well-check that she is underweight. I just figure someone has to make up the bottom percentile on that old growth chart!  That’s our tiny Madeline. We did baby led weaning when she was small. Her first food was avocado. I thought that if she ate the foods that we were eating she would get used to our style of cooking and she would be a better eater. I laugh at myself now.

We gave her lots of variety.

She tried (and liked) lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. I loved going to the farmer’s markets and picking out fresh fruits and vegetables, knowing that I was feeding her the very best. There really wasn’t much she didn’t like.

And then she turned two.

Suddenly vegetables were awful and were to be avoided at all costs. Even coming from two fairly picky parents (yes, she comes by this trait honestly) she took pickiness to a whole new level. She would skip dinner then eat what’s on her plate most evenings. The chicken and pasta she loved last week is now the chicken and pasta that she says she will “never again” eat this week.

I’ve learned to pick my battles.

When she’s hungry she’ll eat. I keep reminding myself that she really won’t starve herself. That it’s better to let her decide when and what to eat than to force food on her and set her up for unhealthy relationship with food in the future.

But it’s so stressful.

I see her at almost three and half years old still fitting into a 12 month pair of shorts and I wonder if she will ever start to gain weight on the proper growth track. She’s often mistaken for a two year old, until she opens her mouth and starts talking, due to her small stature and I feel like a failure. I remind myself that she’s our tiny but mighty girl.

I know she needs to eat better, but how?

We’ve tried bribery. “Take two more bites of your green beans, and you can have a treat after dinner.” Nope. She suddenly hates ice cream, cookies, and candy too. We’ve tried seasoning it in ways we know she likes. “These carrots taste like your favorite – cinnamon. Yum, try one.” Nope. She couldn’t care less. Force doesn’t work. “You have to sit here at the table until you take at least one bite of your broccoli.” The kid would fall asleep at the table before giving in. She is stubborn. Another trait she comes by honestly I’m afraid.

So what does work?

Shh… Don’t tell her she’s drinking spinach.

Hiding them. A green smoothie, pasta sauce blended full of vegetables, mac and cheese sauce blended with carrot puree. If she can’t see the vegetable, she will eat them just fine. Letting her have a choice. “You can eat green beans or carrots tonight it’s up to you.” But my favorite by far is letting her help cook with me.

Involving her in the whole process makes it more fun.

Some of my favorite memories from childhood are of standing at the kitchen counter helping my grandma and my mom cook. By allowing Madeline the same special memory making moments I’m hoping that she takes more of an interest in what goes into the meal, onto her plate, and ultimately what she chooses to eat. Her favorite things to make so far of course are pizza and cookies. She is three. Each week as I make out our menu, I try to think of at least a couple meals that will allow her plenty of hands-on experience in the kitchen.

The bonding time is worth the extra dishes and mess.

Madeline carefully pouring in the brown sugar.

Pre-measuring out smaller portions of ingredients so that all she has to do is pour and stir helps keep things simple and easy for Madeline. I also use this time as an extra learning experience.  Having her count as she pours and measures, counting scoops or the number of eggs we are adding. Teaching her simple math and fractions. We talk about our days as we blend and mix. It has become one of my most favorite times with Madeline, and she has become a great sous chef.

We made a deal.

She gets to help cook, but if she cooks it, she has to at least try it before asking for a peanut butter sandwich instead. So far this is working. Since she sees what is going into the food and gets to take small tastes as we cook along, she loves to nibble on shredded cheese, she has been more likely to try a few bites of the finished meal. There is a sense of pride for her knowing that she helped make dinner. She is always excited to tell her dad what she has made for him, and more often than not that excitement has led to her actually saying “dinner is yummy, we did a great job.” Which is the highest of praise coming from a picky preschooler.

We still struggle.

There are many nights where a peanut butter sandwich is requested and I cave. She still won’t willingly be eating broccoli anytime soon, but we are getting there. She tells me that she will try more “when I get bigger.” I keep reminding her that she needs to eat her healthy foods in order to get bigger and stronger. Maybe sometime she’ll request a salad for dinner instead of a peanut butter sandwich, until then I’ll just make sure I keep sneaking in the vegetables and hoping for the best.

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