Toddler Pickiness

Ever since Thanksgiving, Nora has been very difficult to feed because she’s been rejecting my fish and chicken stews. Since that was my main vehicle for getting a variety of veggies, grains, and legumes into her, I’m floundering again. She has also rejected plain chunks of cheese, which takes away a large category of snack food.

At the moment, the only foods she will eat in bulk are

  • fruit (berries, pears, oranges)
  • eggs
  • whole milk yogurt
  • my mom’s pork meatloaf (with cabbage, carrots, onions, and water chestnuts)
  • restaurant omelets with cheese and veggies (cannot replicate at home)
  • plain pieces of fish or meat as finger food
  • avocado
  • bread
  • Cheerios
  • chips, crackers, cookies, and other treat foods (offered sparingly)

There are a few other foods she will occasionally sample, but not consume more than a taste of. This list changes on an ongoing basis.

  • green peas
  • cooked tomatoes (for example, on pizza)
  • whole milk (on Cheerios)
  • apples
  • baby carrots
  • nori

For the most part, I’m not too concerned nutritionally, especially since I hope this is a phase, but I would like to find a way for Nora to consume

  • bone broth
  • probiotics
  • nuts and other allergens

I would also like to be less dependent on my mom’s cooking and restaurant food as a vehicle for veggies. Finally, I’d like to be able to eat as a family again without all this constant brainstorming.

I’m not sure if the best strategy is to keep doing what we’re doing (scattershot offerings that usually result in rejection but occasionally result in tasting), or try a full-court press of one item until it’s accepted. The real problem is that all the candidates for a full-court press are items we rotate or don’t eat on a daily basis – we’d get sick of eating the same veggies day in, day out, so we don’t.

  • whole milk
  • kefir
  • zucchini
  • leafy greens
  • carrots
  • sweet potatoes

One Weird Trick to Get Babies to Eat Veggies

steamed arugula with chicken stew

It’s pretty amazing. On the first page of Google hits for “how to get babies to eat veggies,” there’s a lot of advice to do the following (none of which worked for me):

  • Just keep exposing the baby to veggies repeatedly.
  • Mix the veggies with fruit or sneak it into baked goods.
  • Feed the veggies first when the baby is hungrier.
  • Set a good example yourself.

A few sites suggest mixing veggies with something other than fruit or carbs. These suggestions include chicken or beef stock, cheese, yogurt, and meat. One site even suggests adding salt or roasting with olive oil. These are all good suggestions.

But no one mentions the “F” word at all. It’s as if everyone is scared to talk about fat.

Nora will not eat plain veggies, but she happily eats bitter, strong-flavored veggies such as steamed arugula, kale, and cabbage if I chop the greens finely and add some full-fat plain yogurt, avocado, egg, meat, or fish (the ratio varies betwen 50-50 and 80-20 in favor of veggies). The fats don’t disguise the strong-flavored veggies the way added sugar or salt does. Rather, they enhance the flavors and make them taste good.

Also, vitamins in vegetables are much better absorbed when ingested with some fat. This is pretty mainstream nutritional information, but it never seems to make it into baby food cookbooks or guides.

I find it extremely sad that Americans are so afraid of fat, they try to make a virtue out of feeding babies fat-free vegetable purees. What on earth is the purpose of this convention? What adult eats veggies without a little bit of fat? Salad dressing and stir-fries are what make veggies taste good. The notion that babies are somehow a blank slate and will learn to enjoy fat-free purees if that’s all they’re exposed to seems ridiculous to me. They’ve tasted breast milk or formula; they know what fat is and they know that it tastes good.

I can believe that Nora developed a taste for bitter greens by being exposed in utero and via breastmilk, but I have a hard time believing that Nora’s preference for fat is remotely unique to her or me. It just strikes me as being too useful a survival instinct. I suspect that Americans’ preference for feeding cereal and fruit to babies as first foods creates a (diabetes-inducing) loop where sugar and carbs beget a craving for more sugar and carbs, pushing much-needed fat and protein off the table.

So. Want the baby to eat more veggies? Lay off the sugar and bring on the fat.

(Note: I’ve never been one to calculate percentages of macronutrients, but Ellyn Satter says in Child of Mine that as much as 40% of a baby or toddler’s diet should come from fat, and that the American average of 30% to 33% is too low. Paleo Mom suggests that 40% is a sensible upper limit for most adults as well.)

Blender-Free Baby Food

I know every baby’s different, but I’m coming to think that pureeing baby food in a blender is a waste of time. If we had to do it again, I think I’d start with fork-mashed egg yolks, sweet potato, squash, banana, avocado, and yogurt, well-mixed with water or milk to make it sufficiently runny at first. Coupled with Baby-Led Weaning and allowing the baby to handle sticklike objects herself (toast, citrus wedges, spinach and lettuce leaves, cooked carrots), that’s plenty of variety in the beginning. We’d also add the occasional adult meals that call for a blender, such as hummus, leek-and-potato soup, and homemade applesauce. And we’d mash some nut butter into the mix, now that allergy research says it’s better to introduce allergens early.

Once the baby’s mastered the naturally mushy foods, we could steam spinach and chop it into any of the above items. Same with fish and well-cooked meat from chicken, beef, or lamb stew. These are all nice and soft and can be well-minced, even though they’re not liquids. Adult porridges such as oatmeal could come next.

My record says that at seven and a half months, Nora was feeding herself quartered strawberries and being spoon-fed steel-cut oatmeal, fork-mashed black cod, and fork-mashed and minced chicken and matzo ball soup. Granted, we were focused on ramping up the textures as quickly as Nora could handle, but the timeline is not as aggressive as it appears. Ellyn Satter, a mainstream nutritional authority, recommends feeding gradually thickened cereal until the baby can handle fork-mashed vegetables, thus skipping the baby food purees entirely. Starting cereal at six months and introducing fork-mashed vegetables at seven months would not be remotely out of the ordinary in her book, though she emphasizes repeated that it’s important to watch for signs of developmental readiness in individual babies rather than watching the calendar.

Avoiding the blender solves several problems:

  1. It saves a lot of hassle.
  2. It allows the parent to make very small quantities of baby food, in order to see if the baby will actually eat it before going through the trouble of freezing extra.
  3. Creating baby-sized portions of family meals rather than cooking food just for the baby makes it easier to avoid getting precious about the food the baby rejects. The adult can just eat the leftovers and clean up what’s thrown onto the floor.
  4. The baby never gets stuck on purees to the point of refusing to eat anything that’s not pureed.

Both Ellyn Satter and the Baby-Led Weaning books say that purees are remnants of the days when babies were routinely given solids at two or three months old. I can easily believe this. There are a lot more options for a six-month old who can sit up and grab things.

In the end, I guess I’m firmly in the Baby-Led Weaning camp even though we mostly spoon-feed Nora these days. Life is just so much easier when the baby eats what the family eats. We do put special effort into making sure the kitchen is stocked with staples Nora can eat every day (eggs, yogurt, avocado, fresh fruit), and we do rely on freezer balls a lot for days when we don’t cook or the family meal isn’t appropriate for a baby (like salad), but there is nothing Nora eats that we wouldn’t happily eat ourselves.

Also, our pediatrician greenlit serving family meals that contain salt right from the get-go. I think the notion that babies shouldn’t eat salt, while well-intentioned, throws yet another unnecessary hurdle in front of home cooking. We are not salt fiends, but we do cook with salt, and Nora has been none the worse for wear.

For a family that cooks real food at least once or twice a week, has a freezer, and is willing to adapt recipes a little to make sure there are some baby-friendly options in the rotation, baby food in jars is a complete waste of money and baby food recipe books are a complete waste of time.

Food Values

Jeremy wants to allow Nora to eat whatever she wants outside of the house once she gets old enough to have opinions. I’m inclined to agree, but with complications.

We both agreed that one of the benefits of becoming a vegetarian was that it made for an easy line in the sand. It was easy to resist pressure from well-meaning friends and family to eat meat because vegetarianism is so well-defined. (I’m sorry, but chicken is not a vegetable.) And it was easy to resist unhealthy drive-through options like McDonalds because it was categorically off limits. The line in the sand gets blurred if the family rule becomes “vegetarian in restaurants, eat sustainably at home.” What if grass-fed beef or wild-caught fish is on the menu? Or what if friends are having a barbecue – isn’t it a bit of an insult to say, we won’t eat your food because our meat is better than your? Also, it really does become easier to say “just this once” when you’re really craving restaurant steak of factory-farmed origin. Losing the vegetarian line in the sand opens the door to hair-splitting and temptation.

I guess what it boils down to is that I have several values I want to instill in Nora, not all of which are necessarily compatible with each other or easy to explain to a young child.

Food is love. Not fuel. First and foremost, I want Nora to enjoy eating. It’s so deeply engrained in Chinese culture to show love by preparing good food. I can’t imagine destroying this fundamental relationship with food by putting tasty food off limits or making a virtue out of resisting tasty food.

Eat real food. Not garbage. My hope is that if I put enough healthy, satisfying, home-cooked meals in front of Nora, I won’t be stuck with a kid who only eats Mac and Cheese and chicken nuggets out of a box. Treats are fine, but in moderation.

Enjoy eating local. Jeremy and I love farmer’s markets and CSA boxes. A good part of the enjoyment comes from enjoying the outdoor shopping experience and admiring the gorgeous produce. Food is more than what ends up on the table. It’s also the purchasing and the preparation. If those elements are enjoyable, real food is much more likely to make it to the table.

Sustainability matters, even when it’s invisible. I wish I had a sophisticated enough palate to distinguish between factory-farmed meat and fish vs. grassfed, pastured, wild-caught meat and fish, but I honestly don’t. I can’t even taste the difference between supermarket eggs and pastured eggs. So Nora will eventually have to learn to trust her brain as well as her taste buds when it comes to finding the most sustainably sourced food. (I will say that farmer’s market produce is hands down more delicious than your average supermarket produce, and garden veggies are probably even tastier.)

Temptation is everywhere. Learn to resist temptation. I hate the way Americans’ relationship with food seems to revolve entirely around resisting temptation, to the point where “healthy” food no longer even tastes good. But the reality is that there’s a lot of garbage masquerading as food out there and Nora will eventually have to learn to resist temptation. It would have been easier with a line in the sand like vegetarianism. I don’t know what we will teach without such a line in the sand.

Food is an adventure. Be omnivorous. Jeremy, bless his soul, is the least picky eater I know and I’m sure that’s a good part of the reason I married him. As a vegetarian, he was willing to try thousand-year old eggs and would have been happy to try stinky tofu and durian if any of my family members other than my deceased grandmother actually liked that stuff. Once I started eating meat and fish again after becoming pregnant, he was happy to accompany me. I made liver and onions and badly overcooked the liver, but he still ate it and said it wasn’t bad (I thought it was disgusting). Life is just too short to be picky. Delicious adventures await for those who are willing to try new cuisines and new ingredients. I admit, I’ll be very sad if my little girl doesn’t grow up to be adventurous.

Hospitality trumps special diets. This is a tough one. As a host, I’d want to accommodate someone who was vegetarian for religious reasons or gluten-free for health reasons. But as a guest, I think it’s extremely rude to show up with demands. The value I want to teach Nora is that when someone extends their hospitality, you eat what you’re served whether you like it or not, and you do your best to like it. Breaking bread is about friendship and a common roof. I want Nora to understand that sharing food with others serves not just the purpose of nourishment, but also community.

Preach judiciously. This is another tough one. Jeremy was never one to rub vegetarianism in other peoples’ faces. He just wanted to live and let live. I’ve always been more vocal about whatever food topics interested me, but even I never saw the point in guilt-tripping others for eating supermarket meat. At some level, I think we all know the system is twisted and disgusting (as Mark Bittman says, he believes that it is ethical to eat animals but not to torture them). People face it when they’re ready to face it. I want Nora to be brave enough to be an activist, but tempered enough to know what battles are worth picking. I’m not sure Jeremy and I set the best examples here. We vote with our feet by buying local, but we don’t do a lot of face-to-face (or social media) advocacy.