Have a Picky Eater? Here's A Playful Idea

My oldest (3.5) is a picky eater. And distractable. I find it hard to respect his food choices when I know that two bites of his meal isn't going to cut it. He'll ask for a snack an hour later or become a puddle on our floor. The shadow parent in me wants to grab him and yell, This is why you need to eat! In theory I subscribe to the Ellen Satter approach to food, which advocates a division of labor; it's my job to give him healthy food, and it's his job to eat. 

But I find it hard not to micro-manage. In general micro-managing often veils an anxiety or fear. So I'm challenging myself to be playful with food. Playfulness will decompress my own heightened energy around the issue, and in turn, will help my son relax. And over time build healthy relationships to food. 

I'm a big fan of giving things human-like qualities. It allows us to be ourselves without being ourselves. I can often 'play around' with an issue using animals or random objects, and it provides a novel way in to an otherwise tense issue and gives my son a way to express himself. He might become one of our characters in the story we are co-creating, or he might direct the story like it's a play. I find him open up in new ways that wouldn't otherwise emerge if I'm directly asking him a question (or telling him what to do). So here's an example of a playful food story. 

Bee and Truck Eat Breakfast

Bee and truck are ready for their breakfast. (I just grabbed two objects that were nearby. No special characters, though they may become special if we develop this story over time.) 
Bee turns away. Though he usually likes oatmeal, he doesn't FEEL like eating it. Truck, on the other hand, snarfs it down. 
Truck has lots of energy to play and do cool things, like climbing up and jumping off this mountain. 
Truck is having SUCH a good time! She's zipping around and exploring cool valleys. 
Meanwhile, Bee's friend Redbird has come to visit. Unfortunately, Bee has no energy to play and is resting in his bed. 

Bee and truck are ready for their breakfast. (I just grabbed two objects that were nearby. No special characters, though they may become special if we develop this story over time.) 

 

So I serve them some oatmeal. (The more real you make the story, the more you and your child will get into it. It may feel silly at first, but that means you're headed in the right direction!)

 

Bee turns away. Though he usually likes oatmeal, he doesn't FEEL like eating it. Truck, on the other hand, snarfs it down. 

 

Truck has lots of energy to play and do cool things, like climbing up and jumping off this mountain. 

 

Truck is having SUCH a good time! She's zipping around and exploring cool valleys. 

 

Meanwhile, Bee's friend Redbird has come to visit. Unfortunately, Bee has no energy to play and is resting in his bed. 

I will pause here to say that there is no need to reiterate the lesson or explain what is going on. (Once you go back into 'parenting' mode you'll lose your captive audience, trust me). Let the story speak for itself. Let the characters do the work for you. The story reveals itself, particularly over time, and you can have fun exaggerating it. Maybe tomorrow you play up some of truck's amazing experiences (She travels the world! She drives a long way to visit grandma and grandpa! She goes to a water park!). Bee, of course, misses out on all of his friend's fun. 

At some point in the quiet moments before bed, or maybe before starting a meal, you can make reference to Bee and Truck. Not in a You'd better be more like Truck way, but conversationally, like you're discussing two good friends.

What do you think Truck is doing right now? What do you think Bee is doing (or wants to be doing)? What could Bee do differently to help him get out and climb that mountain? 

And this approach, playful storytelling and personification, works for a huge range of ages (even adults!). Of course you need to know your child and adjust the level of sophistication and the characters based on his or her interests. One can imagine this story being told through superheroes, or legos, or a soccer ball. Have fun with it!

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota