The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 17, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Snacks spoil son's palate

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — At first, we just thought we were lucky. We had a little boy who would eat almost anything we put in front of him: carrots, avocados, green beans, squash, broccoli, lentils, chicken, beef, oatmeal, yogurt, eggs, pasta.

There was nothing he turned down, nothing he refused. Flavor-packed soups and casseroles were exciting. Bright veggies and fruits were thrilling.

Because he was so enraptured by food, we didn't hesitate to sneak him the occasional treat after he was old enough to expand his palate. Bits of cracker or cookie were offered. Drips of ice cream and pudding were shared.

Before long, he was snacking with the best of us, grabbing graham crackers and raisins from the pantry like he expected nothing less than instant gratification. Snacks became the new way to play. Out with the toys, in with the munchies.

And consequently, out with the wonderfully varied eater we'd known up to that point.

Within the course of a few short weeks, he began turning away from carrots and bananas. He pushed chicken off his tray and threw fits when he couldn't have crackers instead of chili. He spit peas down the front of his shirt and threw oatmeal on the floor.

I've been through bouts of picky-eating with both of my older kids. They're fairly good eaters, but it's been a process -- a mind-numbing, stick-in-the-mud process.

So to see our sweet boy go from laid-back and pleasant at mealtimes to picky and frustrated was disheartening.

The more we tried to pinpoint the source of his displeasure, the more sure we became that he wasn't just developing a picky palate. To turn away from his favorite fruits and veggies in what felt like one fell swoop had to be something more than a growing distaste.

It seemed that our problems began when he was introduced to the world of snacks. The crackers and desserts were infinitely superior to any squishy bananas, and since he'd gotten wind of the good stuff, he'd no longer found a need for the real good stuff. It would be hard to keep the snack food away from him with big sisters parading it around each afternoon, but it seemed like the only way to get him back to normal.

Normal being subjective to my own hopes, of course.

After limiting snacks, our second step was to be firm at mealtimes. Not "mean and scary" firm, just patiently unyielding. If he refused green beans and pork roast, pointing to the pantry or the refrigerator in exasperation, we didn't give in. There would be no substitutions.

For him to realize that dinner is non-negotiable, we would have to keep trying the meal at hand. When he got mad and refused, mealtime would just be over.

The first time this happened, he went to nap time on an empty stomach. When he woke up hungry, he ended up eating his entire lunch, followed by his favorite dessert, blueberries and cheese cubes.

It was only one battle won, but it was important. It was the first battle won. It was the impressionable battle won. It was proof that what is on the plate is meant to be eaten, even if you'd rather have pretzels and applesauce.

Toddlers develop tastes just as we all do, and I think he might always spit peas down the front of his shirt. But as long as our kids grow to know that snacks don't count as meals, we can learn to work together through the culinary preferences and triggered gag reflexes of childhood.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.