This picky eating may be about inconsistent parenting

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 25, 2013 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Dear Barbara,
My son (4 yrs 10 mos) has never been a good eater. For lunch or dinner he'll eat only Mac and cheese (one specific brand,) hot dogs (but not with grill marks,) cheese pizza, chicken nuggets (fast food and one supermarket brand) or peanut butter sandwiches. He eats a little more at school but not much. My husband and I recognize that we have indulged this behavior but we've tried (for short periods of time, eventually giving in) to feed him other foods with the hope "if he's hungry he'll eat" but it's been a year with no improvement and even regression (recently refusing the supermarket nuggets for example.) His pediatrician spoke to him about trying new foods to no avail. We bribe him with books, toys and candy but he still tries nothing. We take away privileges (tv, iPod) but he doesn't seem to care.

Additionally he's started peeing his pants and wetting his bed in the past couple of months after being dry for over a year. I don't know if these behaviors are related but they are both troublesome. He lives in a secure, happy home. Attends and thrives in a wonderful school, has lots of attention from family and friends.

The frustration of these behaviors is increasing and we don't know what to do. We've cut back on snacks and plan to cut them entirely. But he's a high energy boy and I worry about his health if his diet doesn't improve (snacks are usually fruit or goldfish crackers or pretzels, no major junk food.) I'd really appreciate any suggestions for both issues because I'm at my wit's end. Thank you.

From, Rachel, Wellfleet, MA

Dear Rachel,

I suspect the behaviors are related and here's why: Children thrive when they have consistent structure. It's what makes them feel safe.

Here's one way to think about it: Imagine your child lives in a box. He feels safe and secure because he knows exactly the shape and strength of the sides. Every now and then, though, just to be sure -- as an experiment, as a test, and yes, sometimes because he wants more control -- he pushes against the sides. What happens if I push here? What about here? When the side has some give to it, he's curious but not worried: Huh. What does this mean? If I push it again, what happens? What about this time? And this? If the box responds in the same, consistent way each time,even though it's different than before, no big deal, the box has changed shape but it's still safe. But if the box responds differently each time? If sometimes a side is just mushy, but other times there's a gaping hole in a side? Eventually, that gets scary. So what's a kid to do? Keep pushing on the sides! When will the box feel safe? This time? This?

I'm likening your parenting to the sides of a box that isn't consistent. Your son has reached the point where he regressing because the sides have totally fallen apart for him. He's had too much control, and he's exhausted from it.

The best way I know to fix this is to set clear limits and consequences and to follow through all the time in a safe, consistent way. Remind him of the limits before a particular behavior might occur. Not as threat, not in a angry way, just as a reminder. Let's say you've had a problem with him marking up the walls. Tell him: "In our house, the rule is, we color only on paper, not on the walls. If you color on the walls, I'll have to put the markers away where you can't use them." He might color on the walls just to test: does she really mean it? Calmly, matter-of-factly, without fanfare, take all the markers away, put them in a box high on a shelf he can't reach. Tell him he can have them again when he promises to use them only on paper. He might test it again, the next time, because he's trying to figure things out: "Will that happen again? Really?" So you repeat your same behavior, too. He'll get it: This is going to happen every time. I guess I don't need to test it any more.

Assuming you have eliminated the possibility of food allergies and medical issues, which it sounds like you have, given your pediatrician's involvement, here's how it could work with food: always prepare something for each meal that he typically likes but also put some things on his plate that he might not like.Think of this as division of labor, a concept that comes from Ellyn Satter: It's your job to put healthy, tasty food in front of him. It's his job to decide which of it he will eat. Tell him that. Trust that he will not starve himself. Don't make yourself crazy over what he does or doesn't eat, don't prepare something different. He doesn't like this today? "Oh, I thought you did. Well, it's your decision." Here's are two things to remember: He will not starve. Picky eaters usually are not born that way. Click here to read a conversation I've had with Satter.

This is a process, it takes time. Months, not days, not even weeks. But once you get on firm footing again, you can be more and more flexible. Oh -- and I suspect the bed-wetting will diminish as well, assuming you have ruled out the possibility of a medical problem.

For more on picky eaters, click here.

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

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

7 comments so far...
  1. "Tell him he can have them again when he promises to use them only on paper." Be careful with that advice, it can turn into the child having a sobbing, wailing, sad apology and the parent immediately returning the toy out of guilt. Set a time limit: "You can have the markers back when you wake up tomorrow/after lunch," then continue the conversation with a distraction ("Let's go outside.") or walk away.

    As far as 'he will not starve,' start by preparing what he wants but in a limited amount that is NOT enough. If he usually eats 4 chicken nuggets for lunch, give him 2. Then supplement with an easy-to-try healthy kid-friendly food like carrot sticks ("Who can crunch louder? I'll go first, can you hear me? Now you!"), yogurt, sliced apple, etc. Before you sit down to eat, PUT AWAY THE EXTRA (nuggets in the freezer, macaroni in tupperware in the fridge, etc.) so you can say there is no more. Now it's not a totally unfamiliar experience for him and he will eventually eat the supplements. If he doesn't, don't snack 'til the next meal (he'll fill up on those goldfish and pretzels) unless it's lightheartedly offering that new food in an appealing way - "Oh, you're still hungry? Your carrots are in the fridge. I'll leave them on the table in case you want them! Do you want some hummus/ranch to dip them in? I'll leave that out too." "I still have your yogurt here! Let's sprinkle in some Cheerios to make it crunch!"

    Pay attention to the textures, too - If he likes pudding, he'll like yogurt. If he goes for carrot sticks, try celery next. If he doesn't like mashed potatoes, hold off offering the mashed squash. Make it as easy for him as possible remembering that this is a life skill and you're NOT MEAN. You're helping him learn to be healthy!

    Posted by JustNobody July 25, 13 09:08 AM
  1. We also have the "you have to try it" rule in our house. We tell her that we understand that she may not like everything that we like, but that it is unacceptable to say you don't like something without trying it. So, we tell her that - you don't have to eat all of it, but in order to be finished, you have to try 1 bite.
    9 times out of 10, she likes it - because we know what she likes. If she really doesn't like it - and it is something we like, we will make something for her in lieu of that next time...but we make her try a bite again. Just because they didn't like it once, doesn't mean they always won't - but I do accept that she may not like everything that I do.

    Posted by Kate Pereira July 26, 13 10:13 AM
  1. My son had difficulties with eating at the same age. He has autism and although some of the issues related directly to that, we did follow a similar approach to the one described here. The texture issue was a big one so we followed JustNobody's advice and tried to choose foods that were similar to textures he would already eat (mainly smooth). One big hit was a fruit smoothie~yogurt, milk (cow or soy), and a mix of fresh and frozen fruit. Gave him the opportunity to try new flavors in a format he was comfortable with~not to mention the nutritional value (which it sounds like the young boy profiled here could benefit from). Good luck!

    Posted by JLC July 26, 13 11:52 AM
  1. The letter writer did not say what her son is eating for breakfast -- just that for lunch and dinner he is fussy. If he is eating healthy things for breakfast, I would be less worried. Also, she says that he eats fruit for a snack -- assuming she means real fruit as opposed to fruit roll ups or gummy fruit snacks (i.e. candy) -- offer that at lunch or dinner. And given his age, will he be entering kindergarten in the fall? Or a different preschool class? These changes can be stressful and lead to the accidents he is also having.

    Posted by kj July 26, 13 12:50 PM
  1. This story could have been mine if it was dated 2004. I struggled with the *exact* same issues with my son. When he was 4.5, I met my now husband. It was really through his help that I realized what I was doing to contribute to the situation, and what I could do to fix it. Not to say he had all the answers, but he did shed a light and allowed me to see how my problems had become my son's problems.

    Not to go into too much detail, I'd love to share what we did to solve the problem. My son is now a very daring eater, and eats a well-rounded diet. When he was 5, he ate about 10 foods. No exaggeration.

    Our method:
    - I sat down with my son and we came up with rules. He contributed some and I contributed some, but we wrote it up together as our "manifesto" of sorts. The core of the rules were: (a) You must take at least one bite of each thing on your plate. (b) If you don't like something, after one bite it's fine not to eat it. (c) If you want seconds, you must clean your plate of all food, even offending foods. Over time "one bite" became "three bites."
    - My son's rules were things like, "Mom cannot get angry during dinner" and "Mom will cook my favorite foods on Fridays." etc... and I added rules like "No crying at the dinner table." There were specific consequences for each.
    - We stuck to this like glue. Some meals were torture. They involved him gagging on food. But slowly... very slowly... he began to change. The things that caused him to gag (e.g. black beans and rice) became his favorites. I would say from start to finish it took 12 months... but we began to see real progress in about 3 months. I know it seems like forever, but I believe the fight is soooo worth fighting. You just have to be very strong and stick to your guns.

    I hope this explanation is helpful. It can be done! Our son was on the mega-extreme of picky, and his favorite foods now are mussels, Tabasco, and homemade cilantro salsa. There is hope!! :)

    Posted by CCM July 26, 13 05:33 PM
  1. Thanks everyone for your constructive feedback. A little more detail in response to some of the questions: for breakfast he usually has a nutragrain bar and dry Cheerios, Special K or Product 19 (doesn't like when the cereal gets soggy from milk.) On the weekends he'll usually have an apple or a pear, which he does eat at dinner regularly. He also eats yogurt occasionally, but I usually end up discarding what I buy before he eats because it goes bad. He does not eat fruit roll-ups or similar processed fruit candy. My concern was mainly about protein and main courses, I think our snacks are pretty healthy (other fruits like blueberries and grapes) and how to get him to try new things, which is the greatest challenge! I appreciate the responses

    Posted by Rachel July 27, 13 08:31 AM
  1. Having a child participate in age-appropriate ways with meal prep may be a way to invest them in eating the result. Similarly, planting a child's vegetable garden may spark an interest in eating vegetables he's tended and watched grow.

    Posted by Susan July 28, 13 11:01 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. "Tell him he can have them again when he promises to use them only on paper." Be careful with that advice, it can turn into the child having a sobbing, wailing, sad apology and the parent immediately returning the toy out of guilt. Set a time limit: "You can have the markers back when you wake up tomorrow/after lunch," then continue the conversation with a distraction ("Let's go outside.") or walk away.

    As far as 'he will not starve,' start by preparing what he wants but in a limited amount that is NOT enough. If he usually eats 4 chicken nuggets for lunch, give him 2. Then supplement with an easy-to-try healthy kid-friendly food like carrot sticks ("Who can crunch louder? I'll go first, can you hear me? Now you!"), yogurt, sliced apple, etc. Before you sit down to eat, PUT AWAY THE EXTRA (nuggets in the freezer, macaroni in tupperware in the fridge, etc.) so you can say there is no more. Now it's not a totally unfamiliar experience for him and he will eventually eat the supplements. If he doesn't, don't snack 'til the next meal (he'll fill up on those goldfish and pretzels) unless it's lightheartedly offering that new food in an appealing way - "Oh, you're still hungry? Your carrots are in the fridge. I'll leave them on the table in case you want them! Do you want some hummus/ranch to dip them in? I'll leave that out too." "I still have your yogurt here! Let's sprinkle in some Cheerios to make it crunch!"

    Pay attention to the textures, too - If he likes pudding, he'll like yogurt. If he goes for carrot sticks, try celery next. If he doesn't like mashed potatoes, hold off offering the mashed squash. Make it as easy for him as possible remembering that this is a life skill and you're NOT MEAN. You're helping him learn to be healthy!

    Posted by JustNobody July 25, 13 09:08 AM
  1. We also have the "you have to try it" rule in our house. We tell her that we understand that she may not like everything that we like, but that it is unacceptable to say you don't like something without trying it. So, we tell her that - you don't have to eat all of it, but in order to be finished, you have to try 1 bite.
    9 times out of 10, she likes it - because we know what she likes. If she really doesn't like it - and it is something we like, we will make something for her in lieu of that next time...but we make her try a bite again. Just because they didn't like it once, doesn't mean they always won't - but I do accept that she may not like everything that I do.

    Posted by Kate Pereira July 26, 13 10:13 AM
  1. My son had difficulties with eating at the same age. He has autism and although some of the issues related directly to that, we did follow a similar approach to the one described here. The texture issue was a big one so we followed JustNobody's advice and tried to choose foods that were similar to textures he would already eat (mainly smooth). One big hit was a fruit smoothie~yogurt, milk (cow or soy), and a mix of fresh and frozen fruit. Gave him the opportunity to try new flavors in a format he was comfortable with~not to mention the nutritional value (which it sounds like the young boy profiled here could benefit from). Good luck!

    Posted by JLC July 26, 13 11:52 AM
  1. The letter writer did not say what her son is eating for breakfast -- just that for lunch and dinner he is fussy. If he is eating healthy things for breakfast, I would be less worried. Also, she says that he eats fruit for a snack -- assuming she means real fruit as opposed to fruit roll ups or gummy fruit snacks (i.e. candy) -- offer that at lunch or dinner. And given his age, will he be entering kindergarten in the fall? Or a different preschool class? These changes can be stressful and lead to the accidents he is also having.

    Posted by kj July 26, 13 12:50 PM
  1. This story could have been mine if it was dated 2004. I struggled with the *exact* same issues with my son. When he was 4.5, I met my now husband. It was really through his help that I realized what I was doing to contribute to the situation, and what I could do to fix it. Not to say he had all the answers, but he did shed a light and allowed me to see how my problems had become my son's problems.

    Not to go into too much detail, I'd love to share what we did to solve the problem. My son is now a very daring eater, and eats a well-rounded diet. When he was 5, he ate about 10 foods. No exaggeration.

    Our method:
    - I sat down with my son and we came up with rules. He contributed some and I contributed some, but we wrote it up together as our "manifesto" of sorts. The core of the rules were: (a) You must take at least one bite of each thing on your plate. (b) If you don't like something, after one bite it's fine not to eat it. (c) If you want seconds, you must clean your plate of all food, even offending foods. Over time "one bite" became "three bites."
    - My son's rules were things like, "Mom cannot get angry during dinner" and "Mom will cook my favorite foods on Fridays." etc... and I added rules like "No crying at the dinner table." There were specific consequences for each.
    - We stuck to this like glue. Some meals were torture. They involved him gagging on food. But slowly... very slowly... he began to change. The things that caused him to gag (e.g. black beans and rice) became his favorites. I would say from start to finish it took 12 months... but we began to see real progress in about 3 months. I know it seems like forever, but I believe the fight is soooo worth fighting. You just have to be very strong and stick to your guns.

    I hope this explanation is helpful. It can be done! Our son was on the mega-extreme of picky, and his favorite foods now are mussels, Tabasco, and homemade cilantro salsa. There is hope!! :)

    Posted by CCM July 26, 13 05:33 PM
  1. Thanks everyone for your constructive feedback. A little more detail in response to some of the questions: for breakfast he usually has a nutragrain bar and dry Cheerios, Special K or Product 19 (doesn't like when the cereal gets soggy from milk.) On the weekends he'll usually have an apple or a pear, which he does eat at dinner regularly. He also eats yogurt occasionally, but I usually end up discarding what I buy before he eats because it goes bad. He does not eat fruit roll-ups or similar processed fruit candy. My concern was mainly about protein and main courses, I think our snacks are pretty healthy (other fruits like blueberries and grapes) and how to get him to try new things, which is the greatest challenge! I appreciate the responses

    Posted by Rachel July 27, 13 08:31 AM
  1. Having a child participate in age-appropriate ways with meal prep may be a way to invest them in eating the result. Similarly, planting a child's vegetable garden may spark an interest in eating vegetables he's tended and watched grow.

    Posted by Susan July 28, 13 11:01 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

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.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives