My preschooler eats crap and I want to change that. Help!


dcrachel

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I have a VERY spirited (which is a nice way of saying ornery) four-year-old girl who does not eat anything good. I can not force her to do anything against her will, especially put food in her mouth (and I'm not a push over, believe me). She still drinks a lot of milk, often chocolate, and eats the occasional scrambled egg or slice of cheese. The rest is junk (and some of the "healthy" stuff isn't so great either): Pirate Booty, fish sticks on rare occasions, corn dogs, crackers, popcorn, etc. Essentially, she eats the way I modeled eating for a very long time. I have no one to blame but myself, but now that I want to make a change, I need help.

She is at her most temperamental, ornery, stubborn, boundary-pushing phase of development. Is this the best time to start making dramatic food changes? If I just dive in head first, how do I do that? I've read a lot on Everyday Paleo and Paleo Parents about "letting your kid help with the cooking" and "don't offer anything but what the family eats for dinner" and "always offer healthy foods and someday they will eat it." My kid cooks with me all the time, but refuses to eat it. I offer her everything I eat, and she refuses to try it. If I do convince her to try it, she licks it, declares it gross, and moves on. We don't have "family dinners" because her dad works nights and it's just me and her, so really just me eating.

Should I start with one thing first? Like, gluten free everything and then move on to the next step? Or is cold turkey better?

Every day is a struggle to get her to do anything. I'm in my Whole30 and have more energy than I used to, but the constant nagging can really bring me down. Any help?

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I am not a parent, but I do have a lot of experience with kids. I'd like to encourage you that ANY time is a good time, especially with kids. The sooner the better! Childhood is such a critical time in development and learning, establishing good habits, and expectations. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be. Have you looked into any of the children's books (Eat Like a Dinosaur, Paleo Pals!) out there that encourage kids to eat Paleo? These would be great points for conversation. You could also make it fun by incorporating dramatic play (a play kitchen, healthy "play foods", a cute apron/chef's hat), which is a necessity at her age, and have her make things for you and serve you. That's also a fun and easy way to talk about/reinforce it. I am also a fan of being upfront and honest with kids, explaining the benefits of eating certain foods (give you more energy to play, make you faster/stronger, help you learn/get smarter, grow, etc.) and the disadvantages of eating junk (makes you tired, grouchy, sick, etc.).

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What do you do when she refuses to eat what you serve? Do you make her something else? I have found that my two year old will refuse to eat something at first, but when she figures out that she isn't going to get something else, she will come back in a bit and eat it. Kids won't let themselves starve. She may go to bed hungry for a night or two, but eventually she will learn to eat what you are serving.

Just stop buying the junk. If it isn't available to her, she can't have it. I don't enforce a strict paleo diet on my child (or my husband) during the day, but our dinners are compliant. We make one dinner and that is that. You can still have family dinner with just the two of you as well. Have her help you set the table. Turn off the TV. Don't let her leave the table until YOU are done eating.

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I am the mom of two grown boys and a kindergarten teacher, I would suggest you buy a paleo cookbook and involve her in the shopping and cooking. Most of my students bring in terrible food and it does affect their learning. We did a farm unit a couple of years ago and used what we got at some local farms to cook at school. At the time the school had a kitchen we could use we are now in a new school without a kitchen so we can't do that anymore but we do use a crock pot at times and some other portable cooking tools. Children love to cook. I would also look for a child's apron and chef hat and some of the children's tools for cooking and make it an adventure.

Also, agree stop buying the junk if it is not there she can't eat it. I think it is Paleo Parents that have a cookbook for children.

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There is no difference between a child carb addict and an adult carb addict. Carbs and sugar feed the mood swing beast. Take the carbs/sugar away, take away the ornery and moody.

I am probably stricter than others when it comes to children, so please don't take it the wrong way, lol. Everyone has their own ideas about parenting. :)

Unless the child is sick and cannot eat, they should eat what is served. If they don't like it, they don't eat. Believe me, they will not starve. In Europe, kids do not eat their own special food. They eat the same thing as the grownups. They don't usually snack on junk food constantly. At least they didn't before, perhaps it has changed now, I don't know.

Anyway.

I was extremely picky as a kid, and I hated most foods. Eventually, I ate - when I got hungry enough. My mother refused to buy junk food for us. The worst thing we had in the house was grape jam. No soda, no chips, no desserts, etc.

If I wanted a snack in between a meal, I got handed a piece of fruit. There were no other options. I ate the fruit.

I guess it worked out okay, because I made it to 56, lol.

Everyday Paleo has a good cookbook for parents, as well as a book for kids.

I wish you the best. Remember, if you don't buy it, they cannot eat it. :D

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As a middle school teacher and mom of two girls, ages 21 and 23 (which, I suppose makes them young women!), I absolutely, wholeheartedly, 110% agree with everyone who said get rid of the junk. Kids will not starve themselves-if the junk is not there and the only thing available to her is fruit and other healthy food, she will eventually eat. And it will be sooner rather than later, trust me!

Like you said, she eats the way you modeled for the first four years of her life. YOU are her biggest influence right now. Model healthy eating, have healthy food available and she will come around. Yes, she may be cranky at first, but she will come around!

I cringe every day in school when I see the crap my students eat. I pray that they get something healthy at home, though I doubt it-so many of them bring the crap, so I imagine that's what they are eating at home too!

I never made something different for my daughters, with one exception-my youngest has a shellfish allergy, and we all love shellfish, so if that was on the menu, she'd get something else. Otherwise, dinner was served and they either ate or not. I can think of only one or two instances that they didn't eat. And remember, even if she is nibbling here and there, she's probably getting enough to eat. Little ones need less than we do!

So be strong Mom! You are doing a good thing for yourself and your daughter!

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Cadence,

My kids have gone through "no-protein-at-all-ever" phases, too, but it's never been as intense as what it sounds like you're working with. What are the chances that this is a control battle? From what you've said, his issue isn't with the taste or texture of meat. It sounds like his issue may be with you asking him to (or in his mind, making him) eat something he doesn't particularly want to. Kids at that age are continually exploring their autonomy, discovering that they are in control of their own minds and bodies and learning that we, as parents, cannot read their minds or move their bodies. These seemingly random exercises of will come and go and take some really interesting forms.

I suggest a little experiment: Give him a week of no nagging, no forcing, no rules. If he eats fruits and veggies well, let him load up. Fill him full of whatever fats he'll eat. Take the pressure off and don't even address the issue. But, don't take him to any restaurants either. He eats what you've cooked - protein or no. Just see how he reacts. If you want, you can cook some of the proteins he normally enjoys other places but don't ask him to eat them. (Don't restrict them, just don't bring it up.) There's a chance that, once he sees that you respect his autonomy, he'll choose to partake with you. If he doesn't, then you can start working through some other plans. At the very least, though, you'll get some fight-free meals under your belt and it will help return the sanity we so very much need as parents.

The guiding principle I use with my girls is this: As a parent, I can control what they eat in my home. But life is so much more than being told what to do. I want my girls to learn how to eat - what, when, why - and (IMHO) deciding what goes into their mouths is a part of that.

Hope this helps you!

I still love this post from Robin on another thread. A little different issue, but I believe the experiment part is applicable.

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What do you do when she refuses to eat what you serve? Do you make her something else? I have found that my two year old will refuse to eat something at first, but when she figures out that she isn't going to get something else, she will come back in a bit and eat it. Kids won't let themselves starve. She may go to bed hungry for a night or two, but eventually she will learn to eat what you are serving.

This is so true. It is easy to just throw in the towel at the end of the day when you're just fed up with the fits. I doubt there is a parent that hasn't just given their kid what they wanted to make the complaining or crying end. But that sets up an expectation and now you're dealing with manipulation.

My daughter just turned two and she's learning the art of manipulating. It's crazy to watch this unfold. I think I have the upper hand, all the control, and then I look back on something and realize she played me. Wow.

I think the easiest way to break a bad habit for a kid is to not allow the temptation to use it be there. Right now we are trying to break the milk bottle to sleep habit (I know, I know) and the only way we have any success is when there is just zero milk in the house. That way, no matter how horrible the day is going and how desperately I want her to sleep, I can't just reach into the fridge and end it.

I would find a couple of healthy foods your kid likes, abuse the crap out of them and then let her come to new foods over time. That way you ease the stress on yourself a little while putting her in a position where she'll accept you're not giving in, "this stuff is boring", and maybe it's time to try something else. This works on adults who radically change their diet (I hated vegetables until I went vegetarian and only came to them out of sheer boredom). Just don't give her any other alternatives. If this means she only eats grilled chicken breast and fruit for two weeks, so be it. Good luck!!

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When I worked 2nd shift, the only food stores open after I got out of work was the c-stores and a 24 hour Walmart. Not my favorite store, but when they are the only one open, they have to do.

I was shopping there near the end of a draining week. Needless to say I was both tired and hungry when I got there. I grabbed a few frozen meals, and noticed they had some frozen kids meal package on sale for 40 cents or some ridiculous price. I bought a few of them.

I reached home and put one of the kids meals in the microwave. It tasted damn good...but after I ate it I swear I was more hungry than I was before I gobbled it down. I was actually angry that I had to wait another 4 minutes for the next one to cook in the microwave....and that's not like me. I think I ate three kids meals and then an adult meal before actually feeling satiated. I don't know what in blazes were those additives that seemed to instantly warp my attitude and mood...but I have to admit it that it creeps me out that kids are eating this stuff. I had no idea the meals were like that.

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I totally hear you. I agree with what a lot has already been said so I won't repeat anything. I do want to share one thing though. I have a 3 yr old and we've been on the same path as you. I'm eating really healthy and he doesn't like a lot of the healthy stuff. I do not buy crap but there are still some things I DO buy that I shouldn't. What worked for us was finding something healthy that he WOULD eat. He is so not into eating vegetables right now. He won't touch them, but one day I juiced a bunch of veggies in our juicer. I was doing this once a day.

Well, he LOVES juice but I never buy it for him. He only drinks water so have "juice" is a treat. He asked if he could try my juice, probably just making the assumption that it was fruit. (I do put one apple in with all the veggies but for the most part it's just carrot, kale, cucumber, celery, ginger, lemon or some other combo).

He drank my entire juice the first time he had it. i was blown away. He won't touch a green bean, but will drink an entire fresh veggie juice. So I decided not to worry about the veggies he WASN'T eating. I now make a juice a couple times a week, wish I could do once a day. And he drinks his portion every time. He loves it.

I share that to say you'll probably be surprised what she'll grab ahold of to eat. And I also implemented the policy that "this is what's for dinner. You eat it or you don't eat anything else until breakfast." Sometimes he eats it right away. Sometimes only a bite, but then comes back to it at the table an hour later and eats more.

We also have a "spit it out" rule. If we offer him something new, he has to try at least one bite. And he's allowed to spit it out if he can't handle it. I would say he'd spit things out 100% of the time at first, but now he's liking more and more things. Last night he tried sauteed zuchinni with some cheese on top. He tried one bite and spit it out...then ate some later when I wasn't looking. haha.

Hang in there. You're a great Mom and sounds like you're modeling great behavior now that you're eating healthy.

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"What do you do when she refuses to eat what you serve? Do you make her something else? I have found that my two year old will refuse to eat something at first, but when she figures out that she isn't going to get something else, she will come back in a bit and eat it. Kids won't let themselves starve. She may go to bed hungry for a night or two, but eventually she will learn to eat what you are serving."

We also have a newly two-yr-old. She is thrilled at the possibility of refusing to eat what we give her (even when we know she likes it!) We are introducing the idea of a "No Thank You Bite", asking that she take one bite and then, if she still doesn't want it, she can choose not to eat it. She's a little young to really understand but she loves to yell NO FANK YOU MAMA after she takes one bite so it must be fun. We also packed one drawer in the fridge with anything we'd be happy for her to eat anytime - cut up fruits and veggies mainly. Carrots and apples are a big favorite. She knows it's her drawer and even if she won't eat what's on the table for dinner, she can always have something from the drawer.

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Carie did most of the talking for me (my hands thank you, friend!), so I'll just add this:

My four-year-old is very attached to her everything right now. Everything is cherished and if it's taken away for a moment, then it must be forever. This is totally developmentally appropriate (and totally annoying). What we do, even with food, in these cases is make it clear when the insert object here will be appropriate to have again. Same goes for food: Some foods are anytime foods, some are sometimes foods, and some are never good choices (gluten and high fructose corn syrup. And yeah, she knows to ask about both...). If I was making the transition right now, this is what I would do:

1) Remove all the food you are not willing to compromise on. That line is yours to draw, but be sure you're okay with everything you leave in the house. (Example: my kids eat popcorn. I'm okay with it.)

2) Go to the store, together, and pick out several anytime foods. Like Meredith, we have an anytime drawer in the fridge and a snack basket in the cupboard. Let her choose them and don't insert your opinion (this gives her the essential feeling of control). Then, portion them out and put them in an easy access location.

3) At the store, pick out a few sometimes foods. This can be anything you're comfortable with her having. For us, it's Larabars, fruit leather and chocolate pudding (I make it with coconut cream, cocoa powder and stevia). Decide on when those foods are appropriate (after a healthy dinner, etc.).

4) Cook (together if you choose), eat, and don't compromise. If she fights, remind her that you aren't going to make her eat. If she says she's hungry, point her toward her drawer. If she whines for something else, tell her why it's either a sometimes food or never a good choice. That's it. No pressure, but no compromise.

I hope that helps you. This is such an....exciting...age.

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We also packed one drawer in the fridge with anything we'd be happy for her to eat anytime - cut up fruits and veggies mainly. Carrots and apples are a big favorite. She knows it's her drawer and even if she won't eat what's on the table for dinner, she can always have something from the drawer.

This is a brilliant idea! I'm going to start doing that, too!!

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Four years old is a time when children assert their independence, which I advocate encouraging, within age-appropriate limits.

However, it sounds like your issues with your daughter's eating habits have a deeper root. You said that you've been struggling with her over everything. Maybe instead of struggling and turning every interaction into a power struggle, offer her a choice of two alternatives whenever possible. At meal times the choice could be eat to satisfy hunger or don't eat and wait until the next meal. When she is getting dressed, offer two alternatives - shorts or pants, or whatever. If she doesn't choose, you will. At that age, I also made the clock the bad guy when it came to stuff like bedtime - the clock said it was time to get ready for bed, not me.

But, the most important thing is that she's not at the most ornery, boundary pushing phase of her development. That happens when she's a teen - something to look forward to ;)

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  • 4 weeks later...

Here's one trick I cam up with last night:

My 7 year old boy is not a big protein eater and generally refuses any meat not in nugget form. I'm trying really hard to get all the processed food out of our diet. Since starting the Whole30, I've been doing a lot of cooking with ground meats - bison, beef, turkey, etc. I was making burgers last night and had a sudden brain flash. I filled a little saucer with ground flaxseed (it was what I had on hand) and made his burger into little nuggets - coating each one in the flax and then cooking them right along side our burgers. Almost no extra effort on my part and little guy ate every single one. That might be helpful if you have a nugget fan.

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There's tons of great advice in this thread. Just as a quick add on note: I read a great article about children's food tastes, and how many times, children will not like something the first several times they try it. In fact, some children won't like something the first dozen times they try it, but then the 13th time they'll be fine with it. There's assorted reasons for that, but it's worth keeping in mind. What your kid says is gross one day, they may love a few days later.

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Hi i'm a mom of a 12yo and 6yo. We've always done the "whats served is served, but you can choose whether or not to eat it" rule. I think this has helped with getting veggies in. I make a lot of stovetop casserole type things with meat and veggies. When introducing a new veg i agree with the previous posts about being persistent. Mix it in or start with a tiny serving (one bite rule). My kids had a hard time with kale, but now (as long as I don't serve it by itself) they eat it without complaint.

I'm lucky that my kids are carnivores so they will eat any kind of meat/fowl/fish. My daughter cracked me up once when we were on a school field trip to the county fair. As we walked past all different kinds of animals her first question every time was, "Can you eat that?"

Although we've been avoiding processed food for a long time, cutting out grains and dairy is new. I'm the only one in the family doing the Whole30 right now. My strategy has been to not buy something again once it runs out, or replace it with something "less bad." So kids have been getting smaller servings of rice pasta instead of wheat, yogurt ran out and is not replaced, gluten free bread, etc.

The best advice I have is just to hang in there. Years ago when i was starting out I worked in children's hospital treating behavioral feeding disorders (e.g., very picky kids who were used to getting catered to). We would offer varied good foods at mealtimes (not preferred foods) but remove them after 40 minutes and not provide the child with food again until the next meal. In the meantime plenty of water and distraction and physical activity and regimented bedtime (another area where kids get quirky). The longest a kid would hold out would be 3 days. By then they were starving. Most kids caved sooner. By the end of a week they'd be happily eating almost anything we put in front of them. It felt barbaric but worked. The hardest part was changing the parents behavior - and you've got that down already!

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

I have 3 daughters, 1 of which is still a toddler so this is easily controlled, my middle child is the most difficult for trying new foods, she is 6. I make her a part of the foods i'm making, when kids are a part of it they tend to be excited to try it out. I don't force food on her, that to me, creates a negative association with good food. I have purchased and scoured the internet for recipes for her regular fav meals like chicken nuggets and fries, i make her own breaded chicken. if she does want something like a pizza, i will allow it but i make sure there are a ton of veggies on the side which she MUST eat or I will not allow any sort of treat after which is not a good thing but it's also a bargaining tool i have. if she were to want chocolate milk i would only make the real stuff from real cocoa powder, too bad for her, this is how it is, take it or leave it :)

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actually to add to this, i found this interesting and my daughter was so interested in it. while camping last week someone had brought these mini-chocolate chip loaves, we took one and i threw it in the fire; not in a dramatic "i'm paleo, how dare you bring this food camping" sort of way while banging my chest, but just out of curiosity and because there were 1000 of them since you can buy 1000 for maybe 2.00 (exaggeration but you get it) anyways, i had my daughters come over to watch this "food" as the fire couldn't melt it, it just got hard and black and i explained how poisonous all that food is and how the fire won't even destroy it, so we had a good discussion about what they thought happened in our bodies when we ate foods that can not be broken down even by a fire. it was a good talk and i would like to think it really opened their eyes a bit, they are kids but in my experience; talking to them like they are adults and really explaining to them makes a world of difference :) while this was helpful and an interesting moment, my daughter still asks to have chocolate bars and mcdonalds all the time, so not as life-changing as i had hoped but none the less it was interesting and hopefully these sorts of experiments and talks will have her thinking about the foods she eats when with grandparents etc.

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I'm in a similar situation. I have a 4 year old daughter (also stubborn/spirited) and a 20 month old son. My son has always eaten almost everything whereas my daughter was formerly a "carb addict"-- cereal, wraps, pasta, pancakes were among her favorite foods. Also she was a cheese fanatic, I would say it was her favorite food. We did some stool testing on them and found immune reactions to casein, gluten, corn. Rice, oats, soy, nuts and a few others. Clearly, a paleo (ish) diet was in order, and thank goodness I had been wading in the paleo waters already or it all would have been overwhelming.

For us, we established a hierarchy of what was an absolute no (gluten, dairy, nuts and oats(oats are generally easy to avoid because thy are easy to spot and aren't generally "hiding" in other things) what was an intermediate option (gf items such as cereal or occasionally pasta) and what were were ok for now (corn). We cleaned out the pantry and fridge and started over. Sometimes she would ask for item X and I could honestly say we didn't have any. I started giving her choices between things we did have (we don't have goldfish but you can have a muffin (practical paleo has AWESOME muffin recipes!) or some raisins?)

It's been a gradual process but I am finding my 4 yr old more open to different things. We've played up how meat/vegetables/cocnut milk makes her strong, run faster,, jump higher (for instance we will "gossip" about her so she can hear us and say "gee, have you seen how high Hannah can jump now, it must be all that coconut milk!"). She used to eat "roll ups" for lunch everyday (whole wheat tortillas with melted cheese) and pasta often for dinner.

We explained that the other stuff "hurts her tummy" and she gets it. She doesn't like fruit (except dried) so I don't push fruit. I know she likes broccoli and peas so we eat a lot of broccoli and peas, but we will often add another veggie to her plate and not press it, just see if she tries it. Also when trying new things we are sure to include things we know she will like (like the muffins) as well as things that will be questionable, that way we established that sometimes when you try something new you like it! And sometimes you don't, and that's ok, but it was good to try. By having some good "trying" experiences, she's wiling to take the gamble on new things.

That's our experience, hope it helps!

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