About that picky eater (again)

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 2, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,
I have a picky three year old that has a very limited diet. He refuses to try any new foods, it has been exactly a year since he has tried something new. I can remember exactly what it was and he mistook it for something else because it was dark.

His overall diet is actually quite good and likes most fruits, yogurt, cereal that is high in fiber and low in sugar, crackers, etc. He will eat a variety of healthy foods, but the are generally very light and only snack type foods. My problem is that he eats no meals with the exception of pizza and chicken nuggets (only certain brand made at home). I try to give him more of a variety serving other things for lunch and dinner, which ultimately always go to waste.

My question is, how much should I worry about this? Should I continue to serve food I know he won't eat, or make him chicken nuggets all the time? I get so frustrated and now it is causing my two year old daughter to model the same eating habits. I also do not exaggerate when I say he sometimes goes days with only yogurt, fruit and dry cereal......so then I cave in and make nuggets or order pizza because I feel he has got to be starving!

Any help would be appreciated as well as suggestions on how to get three year old to try new foods???!!!!

From: Stephanie, Norfolk (MA or VA?)


Dear Stephanie,

Picky eaters are mostly made, not born, meaning that even though some kids have idiosyncratic tendencies (to texture, taste, color, smell) they turn into pickiness because we enable them. And frankly, he doesn't sound all that picky to me.

Assuming your doc says he's healthy, stop worrying and back off. The more of a fuss you make -- wringing your hands literally or figuratively -- the pickier (for real!) he'll get. Don't cater to him, but don't deprive him, either. Don't talk about every mouthful he does or doesn't eat. When you put a meal in front of him, it should be nutritious, pleasing to look at, and it should always include at least one food you know he will eat, even if it's nuggets or pizza. (Experiment with some ways to make nuggets more healthy, or to add toppings on pizza.) If you need to say anything, say this: "My job is to make our food healthy and tasty. It's your job to decide which food you eat." Once you make that distinction clear to him, he will feel in control and be less likely to use food as a source of control. But don't make these statements unless you're prepared to follow through.

Children are creatures of habit, and sometimes those habits can be, well, odd. It takes 10 to 35 times seeing the same new food on the plate before it's no longer "new." That takes a lot of patience for parents. For some kids, the texture of a food is more of an issue than taste, while for others, it's color. Present a variety of each, but don't push anything. Eat meals as a family as often as possible and make it as pleasant as possible, not expecting him to stay longer than he is able.

For more ideas, and an interview with eating specialist "Ellyn Sater,read here.

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7 comments so far...
  1. I STRONGLY encourage to look into Ellyn Sater's division of responsibility. It was exceedingly helpful to us. My husband had very strong opinions about the kids eating, what they ate, when, etc. Following the division of responsibility really made a difference and now our mealtimes are much less stressful, I don't worry about their eating anymore, and I have become less of a short-order cook. We still rely on the childhood staples (nuggets, etc), but my kids now eat hummus, whole grain chips, mangoes, etc. Veg choices are still pretty narrow, but last night my daughter tried Sloppy Joes. I also have found the cookbook 6 O'clock Scramble by Aviva Goldfarb (thescramble.com) to be really helpful - concise recipes with common ingredients, kid friendly, easy to make, and she includes veg in many meat recipes so the kids get better nutrition without knowing it.

    Posted by Michelle May 2, 12 09:18 AM
  1. The child likes yogurt, fruit, dry high-fiber cereal? That's pretty good. He also seems to get enough of these foods that he is not hungry for a main meal. Maybe you need to reschedule the time when food is available. Because if the kids are full of healthy snacks then supper WILL cause a feeling of nausea. And if supper is scheduled late for the adult(s) coming home from work, the kids will be eating too close to bedtime to want much food.

    The place to start expanding this diet right now is by adding pieces of lowfat mozzarella cheese to a fruit plate. Let him help you cut up this pizza cheese. Serve this at the table to teach the kids to eat at the same time when the adults eat your regular cooked meals.

    Remember these are 3YO and 2YO so they will have small appetites at any given time. Once the kids can sit down at the table actually hungry (and maybe 4 YO is more realistic), then you can worry about what food you are cooking for them.

    At that point you stop allowing snacks an hour before the meal to make sure there is some appetite...then the portions can be small. Keep the menu simple like baked pieces of meat, steamed veggies, baked potato pieces or plain rice.

    But I have to say that in my family the babies all wanted adult food like beef stew as soon as they could eat mashed up food. The most exotic combination was cabbage steamed with tomatoes and onions (very good even for kids). The meat was stewed, or baked with pepper, garlic, and onions that become milder with cooking. I remember that the food tasted good even if it sounds very plain. My mother had no time to cook fancy meals except for Sunday dinner.

    Yes some cultures feed the babies curry...but those babies got the curry spices with their mothers milk so they will be "normal".


    Posted by Irene May 2, 12 10:27 AM
  1. The time to stop making special meals for him is yesterday. Give him what the rest of the family is eating and let him choose to eat it or not. If he doesn't want it, fine. Next meal, do the same. Don't make a big deal out of it -- just be matter of fact.

    Yes, of course you can give him pizza or nuggets when that's what everyone else is eating.

    He'll eat what's served when he's hungry enough.

    If you don't take this tough love approach, you'll be making separate meals for him, for your 2yo, and for you and the rest of the family for years.

    Good luck!

    P.S. The exception would be strong-tasting vegetables that adults like but may be way too funky for a little palate. Corn, carrots, and peas are kid favorites for a reason.

    Posted by just cause May 2, 12 11:40 AM
  1. Children in developing countries eat the same food as their parents eat; they have no other choice.

    I agree that if the child refuses to eat, and there are no serious health issues like celiac disease, let the child go hungry until he is willing to eat whatever you are serving for the rest of the family.

    Posted by kayti May 3, 12 02:07 PM
  1. Dear writer,
    You're going to be told what a bad parent you are. You might as well throw in the towel now. Don't give him special meals. You're catering to him. It's all your fault!

    Stop for a moment and look at the whole child.

    My oldest has a bit of sensory integration disorder. She can't eat certain foods without gagging. This has lead her to avoid most foods. She's almost 10 and we started her with the "eat what you get or get a sandwich" idea when she was 3. Turns out, she will still go for the PB&J sandwich almost all of the time.

    It took time to stop and realize she wasn't just a picky eater. She was and still is having trouble eating certain foods without gagging. So give yourself a break.

    First, I would strongly suggest writing down everything your son WILL eat.
    Then I would start with the family choosing an alternate food. Just one option. Either eat our dinner or have your option.
    Then after he's accustomed to that idea, start enforcing a "try one new food a (week|every other day| every night) " rule. Even if it's only one bite, try something new. He might just like it.

    If your child is truly just a picky eater, he will start trying the other foods out of boredom. If he has a sensory issue, you may start noticing by writing down what foods he tries, but won't eat. Maybe they are too mushy, or too hard. Make notes and look at them once YOU are well fed and not tired.

    He won't starve to death and if you set up healthy choices and limited extra snacky options, you can still feed a difficult eater and he won't be ill.

    Just remember that he is a person under all of this and at 2, he can't express why certain foods don't work for him. Heck, even at 10, my daughter has to be quizzed to understand why she won't eat tomatoes.

    Good luck and remember, you are a good parent, even if dinner makes you feel like you're not.

    Posted by SPmom May 3, 12 03:13 PM
  1. I remember telling my toddler's pediatrician that my daughter would eat only hot dogs. Her response was, "What's wrong with hot dogs? Buy the best quality you can find and let her eat them." I followed her advice and added "No thank you" helpings (one small bite of something we were eating) and did not monitor her intake. I am happy to report that by the time she was 8 years old, that same toddler was eating everything. Her favorites were steamed broccoli, artichokes, and brie! As an adult, she does not care for hot dogs. Go figure. She has also never liked peas and still doesn't.

    Posted by Tricia, RN May 4, 12 09:47 AM
  1. Holy chicken nuggets! No one is saying she's a bad parent.

    Posted by just cause May 4, 12 10:08 AM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. I STRONGLY encourage to look into Ellyn Sater's division of responsibility. It was exceedingly helpful to us. My husband had very strong opinions about the kids eating, what they ate, when, etc. Following the division of responsibility really made a difference and now our mealtimes are much less stressful, I don't worry about their eating anymore, and I have become less of a short-order cook. We still rely on the childhood staples (nuggets, etc), but my kids now eat hummus, whole grain chips, mangoes, etc. Veg choices are still pretty narrow, but last night my daughter tried Sloppy Joes. I also have found the cookbook 6 O'clock Scramble by Aviva Goldfarb (thescramble.com) to be really helpful - concise recipes with common ingredients, kid friendly, easy to make, and she includes veg in many meat recipes so the kids get better nutrition without knowing it.

    Posted by Michelle May 2, 12 09:18 AM
  1. The child likes yogurt, fruit, dry high-fiber cereal? That's pretty good. He also seems to get enough of these foods that he is not hungry for a main meal. Maybe you need to reschedule the time when food is available. Because if the kids are full of healthy snacks then supper WILL cause a feeling of nausea. And if supper is scheduled late for the adult(s) coming home from work, the kids will be eating too close to bedtime to want much food.

    The place to start expanding this diet right now is by adding pieces of lowfat mozzarella cheese to a fruit plate. Let him help you cut up this pizza cheese. Serve this at the table to teach the kids to eat at the same time when the adults eat your regular cooked meals.

    Remember these are 3YO and 2YO so they will have small appetites at any given time. Once the kids can sit down at the table actually hungry (and maybe 4 YO is more realistic), then you can worry about what food you are cooking for them.

    At that point you stop allowing snacks an hour before the meal to make sure there is some appetite...then the portions can be small. Keep the menu simple like baked pieces of meat, steamed veggies, baked potato pieces or plain rice.

    But I have to say that in my family the babies all wanted adult food like beef stew as soon as they could eat mashed up food. The most exotic combination was cabbage steamed with tomatoes and onions (very good even for kids). The meat was stewed, or baked with pepper, garlic, and onions that become milder with cooking. I remember that the food tasted good even if it sounds very plain. My mother had no time to cook fancy meals except for Sunday dinner.

    Yes some cultures feed the babies curry...but those babies got the curry spices with their mothers milk so they will be "normal".


    Posted by Irene May 2, 12 10:27 AM
  1. The time to stop making special meals for him is yesterday. Give him what the rest of the family is eating and let him choose to eat it or not. If he doesn't want it, fine. Next meal, do the same. Don't make a big deal out of it -- just be matter of fact.

    Yes, of course you can give him pizza or nuggets when that's what everyone else is eating.

    He'll eat what's served when he's hungry enough.

    If you don't take this tough love approach, you'll be making separate meals for him, for your 2yo, and for you and the rest of the family for years.

    Good luck!

    P.S. The exception would be strong-tasting vegetables that adults like but may be way too funky for a little palate. Corn, carrots, and peas are kid favorites for a reason.

    Posted by just cause May 2, 12 11:40 AM
  1. Children in developing countries eat the same food as their parents eat; they have no other choice.

    I agree that if the child refuses to eat, and there are no serious health issues like celiac disease, let the child go hungry until he is willing to eat whatever you are serving for the rest of the family.

    Posted by kayti May 3, 12 02:07 PM
  1. Dear writer,
    You're going to be told what a bad parent you are. You might as well throw in the towel now. Don't give him special meals. You're catering to him. It's all your fault!

    Stop for a moment and look at the whole child.

    My oldest has a bit of sensory integration disorder. She can't eat certain foods without gagging. This has lead her to avoid most foods. She's almost 10 and we started her with the "eat what you get or get a sandwich" idea when she was 3. Turns out, she will still go for the PB&J sandwich almost all of the time.

    It took time to stop and realize she wasn't just a picky eater. She was and still is having trouble eating certain foods without gagging. So give yourself a break.

    First, I would strongly suggest writing down everything your son WILL eat.
    Then I would start with the family choosing an alternate food. Just one option. Either eat our dinner or have your option.
    Then after he's accustomed to that idea, start enforcing a "try one new food a (week|every other day| every night) " rule. Even if it's only one bite, try something new. He might just like it.

    If your child is truly just a picky eater, he will start trying the other foods out of boredom. If he has a sensory issue, you may start noticing by writing down what foods he tries, but won't eat. Maybe they are too mushy, or too hard. Make notes and look at them once YOU are well fed and not tired.

    He won't starve to death and if you set up healthy choices and limited extra snacky options, you can still feed a difficult eater and he won't be ill.

    Just remember that he is a person under all of this and at 2, he can't express why certain foods don't work for him. Heck, even at 10, my daughter has to be quizzed to understand why she won't eat tomatoes.

    Good luck and remember, you are a good parent, even if dinner makes you feel like you're not.

    Posted by SPmom May 3, 12 03:13 PM
  1. I remember telling my toddler's pediatrician that my daughter would eat only hot dogs. Her response was, "What's wrong with hot dogs? Buy the best quality you can find and let her eat them." I followed her advice and added "No thank you" helpings (one small bite of something we were eating) and did not monitor her intake. I am happy to report that by the time she was 8 years old, that same toddler was eating everything. Her favorites were steamed broccoli, artichokes, and brie! As an adult, she does not care for hot dogs. Go figure. She has also never liked peas and still doesn't.

    Posted by Tricia, RN May 4, 12 09:47 AM
  1. Holy chicken nuggets! No one is saying she's a bad parent.

    Posted by just cause May 4, 12 10:08 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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