No end in sight of picky eaters

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 23, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I am at my wits end with my 4-year-old daughter. All she basically eats is cereal, beans on toast, sausages, pizza cheese, banana sandwiches, and some fruits. This may seem good but she is so selective on when she like them and it takes her forever to eat that I have to check she has eaten anything off her plate.

She keeps getting down from the table .... although she is very good most of the time but I spent the entire feeding time telling her to eat.

I know I have not been strict enough but when I do introduce new food or she smells her brothers food she is completely repulsed. I think even if she starved for 3 days she will still want beans on toast. I am worried she will develope an eating phobia and my ped has advised me to put the food in front of her and it is tough luck if she will not eat but that is easier said than done.

I am not looking for a miracle fix but guidelines I guess on what to do as I am not sure she will ever venture onto pasta as I think she is terrified of new food.

I cook all my kids food and she does cooking at school but rarely eats what they cook unless it is cake.

Sorry for moaning on but I feel like a failure as a mother as all her friends sit and eat and she looks at the food like it is poison!!
Please advise.
From: Dee, London

Hi Dee --

OK, this is the last picky-eater question in this space, I promise. Well, for a while, anyway.

First, your pediatrician is giving you good advice. Follow it.

Yes, It is  easier said than done. But it's the only way to go. You've already got a child with disordered eating; progressing to an eating disorder is far more likely when she gets so much attention from you for all of her eating behaviors.

Secondly, read this posting on picky eaters and all the comments from some very thoughtful parents, especially Irene (#2), Carol (#25), Jonquil, (#37).

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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6 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's articles about picky eaters point out the food choices and the behaviors. These are two completely separate aspects of "picky" eating and parenting principles (not styles). FYI, I am looking at becoming a dietitian if I can work home visits into the counselling.

    Taste is a matter of physiology--this 4 year old is choosing foods that are high in sodium and potassium. That is useful in predicting what similar foods she will find to her taste.

    Smell is another matter of physiology-- different people react to different odors. Remember that durian fruit stinks rotten but tastes great--so maybe more cold foods (plain baked chicken, raw veg, yogurt) might be an idea. See the many comments from the other picky eater columns.

    Now the biggie--behavior patterns that apply to adults and even dogs/cats (I have had the privilege of observing their choices). The getting up and down from the table is the clue here.

    The pediatrician's recommendation might have included a time--set a visible kitchen timer for 20 minutes, take the plate away at the ringing tone, and no snacks after that. Just explain the rule (call it the doctor's orders) and DO NOT nag--it rarely takes more than three days of quiet plate removal to inspire concentration on the table.

    And the interaction with brother--no matter what order of birth is--might be an indication that the 4 year old needs/wants more one-on-one interaction with one or both parents and has to get it at the table.

    NEVER FORGET--The first baby gets used to a year or more of undivided attention from parents, grandparents, and frequent visitors that they can recognise as individuals by the age of 8-12 months. The addition of another baby has to respect that the first child still needs one-on-one time.

    Sit down for 15-20 minutes with this 4 year old and a book after supper, without any mention of her eating, and she might not feel the need to get attention at the table. If this works then you know what some of the problem really is.

    What I got from my stay-at-home mother was the knowledge of how much time it takes to raise multiple children. I have seen some parents fail to make the time, because they thought that having two or more is "just like having one". My mother did not go back to work until the youngest was in school for the full day.

    This is something that should be planned for by both parents before the second pregnancy so that family finances are not compromised. My father was a skilled labourer and spare time gardener. Careful planning is how my mother managed the finances.

    And it has been a real pleasure for me to say "Mom was right" when my siblings accuse me of sounding like her as I quote her ideas.

    Posted by Irene December 23, 09 11:06 AM
  1. Try to figure out if there are other issues at hand: sensory processing disorders (maybe an issue with textures, etc.); Celiac, Crohns, etc.

    Definitely try to eat as a family, at least half the time. Some folks like to eat as adults, separate from the kids--but then the kids never learn that people really like to sit down and enjoy their meal and the company (yes, its hard with kids making you crazy, but you're the only role model for this).

    We found that one of my kids is very curious. So she'd always say no thanks when offered something, but after watching Mom and Dad simply enjoy it....her curiously nearly always gets the better of her and she wants to try it. We don't make a big deal out of anything, if they say no thanks, then that's it.

    Its not ideal for kids to get extra attention via food, as well as they need to learn to trust their own judgement. Yes, sometimes they are wrong, but they need to learn to make their own decisions. So when you ask a question (do you want x?) and then ignore the answer, it doesn't help them make their own judgements (especially important with food) and they can begin to question their own thinking. Also, no means no....even with foods. Respect the decision OR phrase is in such a way that's not an option (Not, "would you like some peas" "No" but rather as, "do you want peas or carrots"). Then go ahead and dish one out.

    If our kids refuse dinner, they can have cereal (no other options) and if they do so, it rules out any chance of dessert (which we do not eat regularly anyways). After that, the response is, "you can eat as much as you like at breakfast"

    Good luck!

    Posted by Mom December 23, 09 11:54 AM
  1. "I think she is terrified of new food."
    Beans on toast and cereal were new once too, right?

    "She keeps getting down from the table ....although she is very good most of the time but I spent the entire feeding time telling her to eat."
    Try serving her dinner and NOT begging her to eat. If she doesn't eat, take away the plate at the end of dinner. If she's hungry later, bring back the plate. Why let her have all the control and power? She's the kid!

    "I think even if she starved for 3 days she will still want beans on toast." have you tried that? has she really gone 3 days without eating anything? Put the pizza cheese on piece of toast. Add the sausages to pasta. Put her favorite foods INTO a new dish so she isn't "terrified". Yikes.

    Posted by Stee December 23, 09 12:38 PM
  1. No matter how hard it is, or how many tantrums she throws, cook the meal you're going to cook and put it in front of her. She will NOT starve.

    My parents did the whole "cook her what she wants and she'll grow out of it" thing when I started putting up a fuss at 4. I'm 31. I have the eating habits and emotional food issues of a 4 year old and am in therapy to try and work through them. I have issues about foods touching, about smell, about appearance and texture, about color. I am a NIGHTMARE to eat out with/have over for dinner.

    I don't still have these issues because I want them. It's been a source of embarassment and tears since I was 15/16 and began dating. It is, quite frankly, humiliating.

    I wish that I were a kid again and someone could just draw the line in the sand for me because it's near impossible to self-impose.

    Suck it up and play hardball now because if you don't, your adult child will be far more judgmental of your choice than you are. If you do, like most kids they'll get over it and as an adult understand that you did them a favor.

    Posted by C December 23, 09 03:20 PM
  1. You are NOT alone. My son is 6 now and has lived on Cheerios for 5 1/2 years. For whatever reason he has a phobia which is what I call it too about food. Its mental and physical when around food. Your daughter probably has sensory isssues which is what he has. It makes their sense of smell hightened. He can smell me open a can of tuna when he is upstairs in his room. Imagine having NO flavor then smelling something somewhat strong? it is over whelming and upsetting to them. I have worried about it, cried about it. We have had doctors and a neurologist check him out and they all seem to think he will out grow it and that he is growing and progressing. Its "how he is wired". Do not let people tell you the "well make them eat it" phylosophy. They just dont understand its not like that. Imagine a plate of spiders...that is the equivalent of their fear of food. Its hard to never have had something common like an icecream cone with your child because they are afraid of it. Its much more than childhood rebellion. He has started touching some foods like fruit snacks and animal cookies but only to play with them...its a step though. Hang in there. Some time you will find the trigger that makes her realize there is nothing to be afraid of. she has to decide to do it. Just keep exposing her to as much food as you can. Even if its just being around it.

    Posted by Linda December 23, 09 11:22 PM
  1. please buy Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter. I am a family doctor who found Ellyn's work on childhood feeding first for my family, and then as a professional. I now work with families like yours. Your pediatrician is right, to a point, but you need much more reassurance and information. Child of Mine is a great resource. Don't give up on this. Don't pressure. It can get better! www.familyfeedingdynamics.com and check out my blog too. Good luck!!! This is so important, you are right to be concerned and now you just need a little support!
    Katja

    Posted by katja rowell December 24, 09 10:50 AM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's articles about picky eaters point out the food choices and the behaviors. These are two completely separate aspects of "picky" eating and parenting principles (not styles). FYI, I am looking at becoming a dietitian if I can work home visits into the counselling.

    Taste is a matter of physiology--this 4 year old is choosing foods that are high in sodium and potassium. That is useful in predicting what similar foods she will find to her taste.

    Smell is another matter of physiology-- different people react to different odors. Remember that durian fruit stinks rotten but tastes great--so maybe more cold foods (plain baked chicken, raw veg, yogurt) might be an idea. See the many comments from the other picky eater columns.

    Now the biggie--behavior patterns that apply to adults and even dogs/cats (I have had the privilege of observing their choices). The getting up and down from the table is the clue here.

    The pediatrician's recommendation might have included a time--set a visible kitchen timer for 20 minutes, take the plate away at the ringing tone, and no snacks after that. Just explain the rule (call it the doctor's orders) and DO NOT nag--it rarely takes more than three days of quiet plate removal to inspire concentration on the table.

    And the interaction with brother--no matter what order of birth is--might be an indication that the 4 year old needs/wants more one-on-one interaction with one or both parents and has to get it at the table.

    NEVER FORGET--The first baby gets used to a year or more of undivided attention from parents, grandparents, and frequent visitors that they can recognise as individuals by the age of 8-12 months. The addition of another baby has to respect that the first child still needs one-on-one time.

    Sit down for 15-20 minutes with this 4 year old and a book after supper, without any mention of her eating, and she might not feel the need to get attention at the table. If this works then you know what some of the problem really is.

    What I got from my stay-at-home mother was the knowledge of how much time it takes to raise multiple children. I have seen some parents fail to make the time, because they thought that having two or more is "just like having one". My mother did not go back to work until the youngest was in school for the full day.

    This is something that should be planned for by both parents before the second pregnancy so that family finances are not compromised. My father was a skilled labourer and spare time gardener. Careful planning is how my mother managed the finances.

    And it has been a real pleasure for me to say "Mom was right" when my siblings accuse me of sounding like her as I quote her ideas.

    Posted by Irene December 23, 09 11:06 AM
  1. Try to figure out if there are other issues at hand: sensory processing disorders (maybe an issue with textures, etc.); Celiac, Crohns, etc.

    Definitely try to eat as a family, at least half the time. Some folks like to eat as adults, separate from the kids--but then the kids never learn that people really like to sit down and enjoy their meal and the company (yes, its hard with kids making you crazy, but you're the only role model for this).

    We found that one of my kids is very curious. So she'd always say no thanks when offered something, but after watching Mom and Dad simply enjoy it....her curiously nearly always gets the better of her and she wants to try it. We don't make a big deal out of anything, if they say no thanks, then that's it.

    Its not ideal for kids to get extra attention via food, as well as they need to learn to trust their own judgement. Yes, sometimes they are wrong, but they need to learn to make their own decisions. So when you ask a question (do you want x?) and then ignore the answer, it doesn't help them make their own judgements (especially important with food) and they can begin to question their own thinking. Also, no means no....even with foods. Respect the decision OR phrase is in such a way that's not an option (Not, "would you like some peas" "No" but rather as, "do you want peas or carrots"). Then go ahead and dish one out.

    If our kids refuse dinner, they can have cereal (no other options) and if they do so, it rules out any chance of dessert (which we do not eat regularly anyways). After that, the response is, "you can eat as much as you like at breakfast"

    Good luck!

    Posted by Mom December 23, 09 11:54 AM
  1. "I think she is terrified of new food."
    Beans on toast and cereal were new once too, right?

    "She keeps getting down from the table ....although she is very good most of the time but I spent the entire feeding time telling her to eat."
    Try serving her dinner and NOT begging her to eat. If she doesn't eat, take away the plate at the end of dinner. If she's hungry later, bring back the plate. Why let her have all the control and power? She's the kid!

    "I think even if she starved for 3 days she will still want beans on toast." have you tried that? has she really gone 3 days without eating anything? Put the pizza cheese on piece of toast. Add the sausages to pasta. Put her favorite foods INTO a new dish so she isn't "terrified". Yikes.

    Posted by Stee December 23, 09 12:38 PM
  1. No matter how hard it is, or how many tantrums she throws, cook the meal you're going to cook and put it in front of her. She will NOT starve.

    My parents did the whole "cook her what she wants and she'll grow out of it" thing when I started putting up a fuss at 4. I'm 31. I have the eating habits and emotional food issues of a 4 year old and am in therapy to try and work through them. I have issues about foods touching, about smell, about appearance and texture, about color. I am a NIGHTMARE to eat out with/have over for dinner.

    I don't still have these issues because I want them. It's been a source of embarassment and tears since I was 15/16 and began dating. It is, quite frankly, humiliating.

    I wish that I were a kid again and someone could just draw the line in the sand for me because it's near impossible to self-impose.

    Suck it up and play hardball now because if you don't, your adult child will be far more judgmental of your choice than you are. If you do, like most kids they'll get over it and as an adult understand that you did them a favor.

    Posted by C December 23, 09 03:20 PM
  1. You are NOT alone. My son is 6 now and has lived on Cheerios for 5 1/2 years. For whatever reason he has a phobia which is what I call it too about food. Its mental and physical when around food. Your daughter probably has sensory isssues which is what he has. It makes their sense of smell hightened. He can smell me open a can of tuna when he is upstairs in his room. Imagine having NO flavor then smelling something somewhat strong? it is over whelming and upsetting to them. I have worried about it, cried about it. We have had doctors and a neurologist check him out and they all seem to think he will out grow it and that he is growing and progressing. Its "how he is wired". Do not let people tell you the "well make them eat it" phylosophy. They just dont understand its not like that. Imagine a plate of spiders...that is the equivalent of their fear of food. Its hard to never have had something common like an icecream cone with your child because they are afraid of it. Its much more than childhood rebellion. He has started touching some foods like fruit snacks and animal cookies but only to play with them...its a step though. Hang in there. Some time you will find the trigger that makes her realize there is nothing to be afraid of. she has to decide to do it. Just keep exposing her to as much food as you can. Even if its just being around it.

    Posted by Linda December 23, 09 11:22 PM
  1. please buy Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter. I am a family doctor who found Ellyn's work on childhood feeding first for my family, and then as a professional. I now work with families like yours. Your pediatrician is right, to a point, but you need much more reassurance and information. Child of Mine is a great resource. Don't give up on this. Don't pressure. It can get better! www.familyfeedingdynamics.com and check out my blog too. Good luck!!! This is so important, you are right to be concerned and now you just need a little support!
    Katja

    Posted by katja rowell December 24, 09 10:50 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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