Too much attention to what he eats can cause picky eating

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 9, 2011 06:00 AM

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Please help. My girlfriend's 4 yr. old -- My son! -- only eats McDs. french fries, Oodles of Noodles. Various potato chips. Gogurts. Chocolate milk. Of course all types of candy. Greens & fake mashed potatoes (from the box) a couple times a month. Nothing else!!! When we introduce new foods or tell him to try new foods, he gags & throws up. It doesn't matter if it's sweet or not. Please help?

From: Justin, Hyattsville, MD

Dear Justin,

I don't want to be difficult, but this eating doesn't sound all that bad to me. Gogurt? Chocolate milk? Greens? Noodles? Like I said, not all that bad. He doesn't like it when you introduce new foods because -- surprise! -- he's a kid! Kids are very picky about the way food smells, what it looks like and the texture it has. In fact, it can take a kid up to 70 times of seeing a "new" food on the plate before it stops registering as "new." Which means a parent's job is to be patient.

That said, I can understand your concern, especially with the gagging and vomiting.
If you haven't done so, you certainly need to check with the doc to make sure there is not a medical issue that's causing these problems. I'm guessing there isn't. It sounds more to me like there's a fair amount of fuss and drama that surrounds meal time, as well, perhaps, as animated- to-angry discussion between you and his mom about his eating habits. In other words, what he does and doesn't eat gets him a bunch of attention. He enjoys that attention even though it's the result of negative behavior.

If there's friction between you and his mom about his eating, especially if he hears you arguing about it, that alone can be a motivation for him to continue to be picky. If you live in separate homes, you don't have to serve the same food in each. But if you offer food that is different from what his mom offers, do it without editorial comment: no bad mouthing of the food she serves, no pleading with him to eat what you've prepared. Put the food you'd like to see him eat in front of him, make sure you include at least one food you know he will like, and then don't talk about it. If he doesn't eat, he doesn't eat. Nutritionists typically tell parents to look at what a child eats in the course of a week, not meal by meal. If and when he's hungry, he'll eat. Children do not starve themselves.

Bottom line: The more matter of fact you can be about his eating, the better. The less attention he gets for what he does or doesn't eat, the sooner his eating patterns will change. I'm not saying it will happen quickly; this is a process and a slow one at that. In the meantime, find other ways to give him the attention he craves so that he doesn't have the need to act out through his eating.

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7 comments so far...
  1. What's wring with Gogurt? I myself despise mik - flavored yoghurts are sometimes the only way for me to get calcium.

    Posted by reindeergirl December 9, 11 08:44 AM
  1. Totally disagree with Barbara about the quality of food he is eating. Everything listed, with the exception of "greens" (not sure what the lw actually means by that, and he only eats it a couple times a month) is junk. Oodles of noodles are a sodium factory. Chocolate milk and gogurt are full of sugar. I think the dad is right to be concerned about it. If the mother is not on board for changes I'm not sure what he can do. But if she is, once the medical issue is ruled out, start making changes and serving better food. It's not that hard, just slowly introduce new things and phase out the junk. He will eat - I've never heard of a child intentionally starving himself to death.

    Posted by Dad December 9, 11 08:54 AM
  1. My reading is that this kid eats starch, salt, sugar.

    Not a heck of a lot of vitamins in a few servings a month of greens. No real protein to speak of.

    Thanks dad for paying attention. You already know that the candy has to go right off the bat.

    Start with cheese pizza. Try making it yourself to limit the amount of salt. Use lowfat mozzarella or shredded cheese blend, they taste very good. Use spaghetti sauce out of the jar but don't add too much.

    Baked potato pieces are OK--cut up potatoes, shake in a plastic bag with a little oil, bake on a cookie sheet until brown. NO MORE CHIPS OF ANY KIND.

    I don't know how you start a 4YO child to eat meat. Plain baked pieces of chicken or pork cut into strips as finger food might work. Maybe you will have to add a little shake-n-bake to the baked pieces of meat for the first while. Eating with fingers is the sneaky way to make a game of eating meat.

    Snacking will sabotage any effort you make to fix problems--so give only fresh fruit pieces (NOT juice) for snacks. A few pieces of cheese with the fruit is OK too.

    Yogurt and a piece of toast or bagel is OK at breakfast--that has about the same nutritional value as a sugared cereal. So don't fight that one. Ditto for the mashed potatoes from the box--you can add milk instead of water and the kid will never know.

    Posted by Irene December 9, 11 12:53 PM
  1. Kids will often eat foods they help to prepare (and for vegetables, that they help to grow). Including him in age-apprpriate preparation chores can make some foods more "fun" to children.

    Posted by Susan December 9, 11 03:49 PM
  1. @Dad--I agree with you; the quality of this little boy's diet is seriously lacking. My son (age 5) has autism and, up until recently, his range of foods was limited. The difference was that we did not allow him any type of junk so the calories he was getting were nutrient dense. I'm not sure where Barbara is getting her nutritional guidelines.
    That said, one of the most effective ways we have found to up our son's intake of healthy food (namely fruit) is by making smoothies. Since this boy already has a taste for yogurt, it may be easier to convince him to try a "milkshake". Two or three types of fresh or frozen fruit and milk (we toss in a pinch of ground flaxseed) blended together will go a long way towards increasing his vitamin and fiber intake without excess sugar.

    Posted by jlc December 9, 11 10:41 PM
  1. When I was young I was a very picky eater. I didn't like most vegatables, rarely ate meat and would have been happy to live on canned pasta, kids cereal and soda. My mother's boyfriend tried to force me to eat better. He took away all the kids cereal and soda, tried to force me to eat vegatables and meat and whould make me sit at the table for hours trying to make me eat. It did not work, I would starve myself at home and then just eat at school or at friends houses. The only thing it did do is make me hate my mother's boyfriend and really resent my mom for going along with it.
    When I got older I start eating better on my own, I now eat all kinds of vegatables, chicken, whole grains etc... DO NOT force your kids to eat! It will backfire and do damage to your relationship with your child. I agree with the Barbara 100% stop making meal times a battle, unless the kid is under nourished leave him alone. If you are worried about vitamins try those gummy vitamins they make for kids.

    Posted by Sherry December 11, 11 02:06 PM
  1. On the vegetable front, I found that my daughter, who's not a picky eater, really started not liking vegetables at all...until I stopped cooking them. And I remember being very young and _hating_ the texture of cooked carrots, broccoli, etc. But I also noticed that she would run in to the kitchen if she wasn't already there helping, and steal pieces of the raw vegetables from the bowl or cutting board! Now, I cut raw vegetables up (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and green bell peppers are her favorites) and let her choose which ones she wants from a serving tray. I give her a small amount of ranch dressing on her plate, although she really doesn't use it. Oh! And frozen peas. Not cooked peas. A lump of frozen peas. She loves them.

    Another thing that we find works well is that we don't force her to finish her food. We might ask that she eat just a two more bites of...(whatever it is we feel she should eat a few more bites of) before being excused, but it's a non-issue at the table and we've found that by paying less atttention to what or how she's eating, she's more inclined to finish her meals and ask for more.


    Posted by Phe December 13, 11 07:34 AM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. What's wring with Gogurt? I myself despise mik - flavored yoghurts are sometimes the only way for me to get calcium.

    Posted by reindeergirl December 9, 11 08:44 AM
  1. Totally disagree with Barbara about the quality of food he is eating. Everything listed, with the exception of "greens" (not sure what the lw actually means by that, and he only eats it a couple times a month) is junk. Oodles of noodles are a sodium factory. Chocolate milk and gogurt are full of sugar. I think the dad is right to be concerned about it. If the mother is not on board for changes I'm not sure what he can do. But if she is, once the medical issue is ruled out, start making changes and serving better food. It's not that hard, just slowly introduce new things and phase out the junk. He will eat - I've never heard of a child intentionally starving himself to death.

    Posted by Dad December 9, 11 08:54 AM
  1. My reading is that this kid eats starch, salt, sugar.

    Not a heck of a lot of vitamins in a few servings a month of greens. No real protein to speak of.

    Thanks dad for paying attention. You already know that the candy has to go right off the bat.

    Start with cheese pizza. Try making it yourself to limit the amount of salt. Use lowfat mozzarella or shredded cheese blend, they taste very good. Use spaghetti sauce out of the jar but don't add too much.

    Baked potato pieces are OK--cut up potatoes, shake in a plastic bag with a little oil, bake on a cookie sheet until brown. NO MORE CHIPS OF ANY KIND.

    I don't know how you start a 4YO child to eat meat. Plain baked pieces of chicken or pork cut into strips as finger food might work. Maybe you will have to add a little shake-n-bake to the baked pieces of meat for the first while. Eating with fingers is the sneaky way to make a game of eating meat.

    Snacking will sabotage any effort you make to fix problems--so give only fresh fruit pieces (NOT juice) for snacks. A few pieces of cheese with the fruit is OK too.

    Yogurt and a piece of toast or bagel is OK at breakfast--that has about the same nutritional value as a sugared cereal. So don't fight that one. Ditto for the mashed potatoes from the box--you can add milk instead of water and the kid will never know.

    Posted by Irene December 9, 11 12:53 PM
  1. Kids will often eat foods they help to prepare (and for vegetables, that they help to grow). Including him in age-apprpriate preparation chores can make some foods more "fun" to children.

    Posted by Susan December 9, 11 03:49 PM
  1. @Dad--I agree with you; the quality of this little boy's diet is seriously lacking. My son (age 5) has autism and, up until recently, his range of foods was limited. The difference was that we did not allow him any type of junk so the calories he was getting were nutrient dense. I'm not sure where Barbara is getting her nutritional guidelines.
    That said, one of the most effective ways we have found to up our son's intake of healthy food (namely fruit) is by making smoothies. Since this boy already has a taste for yogurt, it may be easier to convince him to try a "milkshake". Two or three types of fresh or frozen fruit and milk (we toss in a pinch of ground flaxseed) blended together will go a long way towards increasing his vitamin and fiber intake without excess sugar.

    Posted by jlc December 9, 11 10:41 PM
  1. When I was young I was a very picky eater. I didn't like most vegatables, rarely ate meat and would have been happy to live on canned pasta, kids cereal and soda. My mother's boyfriend tried to force me to eat better. He took away all the kids cereal and soda, tried to force me to eat vegatables and meat and whould make me sit at the table for hours trying to make me eat. It did not work, I would starve myself at home and then just eat at school or at friends houses. The only thing it did do is make me hate my mother's boyfriend and really resent my mom for going along with it.
    When I got older I start eating better on my own, I now eat all kinds of vegatables, chicken, whole grains etc... DO NOT force your kids to eat! It will backfire and do damage to your relationship with your child. I agree with the Barbara 100% stop making meal times a battle, unless the kid is under nourished leave him alone. If you are worried about vitamins try those gummy vitamins they make for kids.

    Posted by Sherry December 11, 11 02:06 PM
  1. On the vegetable front, I found that my daughter, who's not a picky eater, really started not liking vegetables at all...until I stopped cooking them. And I remember being very young and _hating_ the texture of cooked carrots, broccoli, etc. But I also noticed that she would run in to the kitchen if she wasn't already there helping, and steal pieces of the raw vegetables from the bowl or cutting board! Now, I cut raw vegetables up (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and green bell peppers are her favorites) and let her choose which ones she wants from a serving tray. I give her a small amount of ranch dressing on her plate, although she really doesn't use it. Oh! And frozen peas. Not cooked peas. A lump of frozen peas. She loves them.

    Another thing that we find works well is that we don't force her to finish her food. We might ask that she eat just a two more bites of...(whatever it is we feel she should eat a few more bites of) before being excused, but it's a non-issue at the table and we've found that by paying less atttention to what or how she's eating, she's more inclined to finish her meals and ask for more.


    Posted by Phe December 13, 11 07:34 AM
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About the author

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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