Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Picky-Eater Cure

You know how you have a bunch of parenting theories before you have kids, and then you're excited to test them and see if you're right? Well, I had a few about eating. And with children one through four they held true. I figured that picky eaters were made more than born, and that if you just don't put up with pickiness, the kid gets over it.

Like I said, this worked four out of five times. That's an 80 percent success rate, which is really pretty good. But not perfect.

I mostly followed the rules about what to feed them and when. I breastfed. I started cereal between five and six months, when they started getting up more at night, signaling that they weren't getting enough calories during the day. I gave them rice first, then the more interesting grains. I gave them vegetables before fruit. I was a good girl.

And those first four kids ate. And ate. They were pretty chubby babies and didn't refuse much of anything. By age three they were eating salad and liking it. They amazed their grandparents and great-grandparents with the way they genuinely appreciated things like asparagus and pork tenderloin. One of them even ate food he found in the garbage on occasion. Parenting theory proved. All was well. Well, all was well once we put a stop to that garbage-eating.

And then came number five. She ate okay, but not great. She was on the skinny side, still wearing 12 month clothes at 18 months. And now she's two, and although she's healthy, she really doesn't eat much. If you give her a cookie to eat and decorate, she'll eat the M&Ms and frosting and then leave the rest. If you give her what the rest of the family is eating for dinner she loudly refuses. If you give her what she asks for she eats a few bites and then is finished. The only things she eats in any quantity are peanuts (I know, she's too young. What can I say? This is child number five, and the rules no longer apply), fruit snacks (which I made the mistake of buying a large box of from Costco, but will never buy again), and spaghetti and french fries if she's in the mood.

So, parenting theory disproved. Some picky eaters are born that way. What to do now?

1) Do not become a short-order cook. I give my children choices for breakfast and lunch. Not a choice of every possible thing, but reasonable choices between cereals or a few main-dish options I'm willing and able to make. But at dinner, I will not make more than one meal. If my child does not want one of the two or three things served at that meal, she will survive until morning. Now, this is easy for me to say because she does not wake up hungry. If she was waking up, perhaps I would allow bread or cereal for dinner. But the basic concept is still sound, I think.

2) Start working on the concept of "three more bites of this or no dessert" and then consistently enforce it. At age two, she doesn't so much understand this yet. But I'm sure the light bulb will go on soon enough.

3) Continue the rule of the "no thank-you helping." Each child must take a bite of everything offered at a meal. Now, child number five is very, very good at clamping her mouth shut. But soon she will have to follow this rule or she won't be allowed down from the table. Certainly by age three. This rule is important because it teaches respect and gratitude for the person who prepared the meal and sooner or later kids often change their minds about whether or not they like a food, but they can't change their minds if they haven't been forced to eat the food a few times. In the interest of full disclosure, my husband does not follow this rule, but the kids have managed to make the mental adjustment that it is still required of them.

4) Cut down on desserts and sweets until the child is eating pretty healthily. By pretty healthy I mean that over the course of the week their diet gives them a reasonable amount of nutrients from all the food groups.

5) Cut down on snacks to see if they have a better appetite at mealtimes. Or at least make snacks healthier if they aren't going to eat at meals.

6) Slowly work at table manners, specifically sitting at the table. Our other kids did this because, you know, they were actually eating while the rest of us were eating. This child who doesn't eat also doesn't want to be confined. So we're talking baby steps at this point. A few minutes at the table without screaming or dumping food on the floor.

7) And one more for when she's older: children should never be allowed to say anything rude or unkind about the food that is served to them. If they don't have anything nice to say about the food that has been provided, they better not say anything at all. If any child of mine says something like "I hate brussels sprouts" when they sit down at the table, they will be sent to their room while the rest of us eat. And when we're all finished they will eat those brussels sprouts in solitude. Table manners and common courtesy can be taught even if you can't teach the pickiness out of a picky eater.

8) Eventually I do think it's smart to include children in menu-planning and meal preparation. I'm not going to stop making every meal that a child doesn't like, but I do try to make things that the children prefer and lots of meals where you put it together yourself at the table so they can choose what topping they want (taco salad or baked potatoes with various toppings, for instance)

So there you have my strategy for my picky eater. What's worked for you? Or maybe a better question is, what parenting theory have your children disproved?


  1. This is almost exactly what we've done (thankfully we didn't have too much of a picky eater problem). And that idea of the "no thank you" helping? We did that too (thanks, Kent and Barbara!), and our girls STILL have to take a small bit of something they think they might not like. :)

    Great job, Nancy!

  2. Standing and applauding #7. My picky eater is now 8 and still eats just about nothing and is suspicious of all food. Can't tell you the last time he ate a vegetable. Oh wait, it was when his vegetables came in little tiny glass jars. He is healthy and energetic though. Although it defies science.

    1. I always figure you can get all the same vitamins from fruits that you can from veggies--does he eat those? I have some nieces and nephews who survived for years on chocolate milk and saltines and bacon. Somehow these picky eaters do manage to eat enough to live.

  3. Fantastic post, Nancy! I'm filing this one away for future reference :)

  4. Thanks for the comments! Keep 'em coming!

  5. I"m right there with you....we adhere to #1-8, theories held with the first 2 girls. My 6 and 4 yr. olds will eat pretty much anything and my 4 year old prefers soup, salad, hot tea and pizza with mushrooms. This third child has destroyed my meal structure, quiet meals at the table, the option to eat out, and dinner time altogether. The only reliable thing he will eat is fruit or babyfood in a pouch. Seriously?!? Babyfood still at 18mos.? The thing that drives me crazy is that he wants a snack every 30 min. if we are home! I need to figure out how to keep him out of the kitchen.

  6. Your four-year-old and mine might have a future together. He asks for salad at lunch and loves tea.

  7. On the "no thank you" helping idea, how do you deal with the child who not only clamps his lips shut but then spits out the food that you do manage to get into his mouth? We encourage him to try one bite of everything, but if he's sure he won't like it, we generally figure it's not worth the mess and frustration to try to force it, especially since he's not generally an overly-picky eater. We figure setting a good example of eating a variety of healthy food is better than making dinner-time a war zone, but if you have any ideas for how to overcome the spitting out in favor of trying and actually swallowing the one bite they're supposed to try, I'd love to know!

    1. I'd say don't worry about it until at least 3--or whenever the age is when they understand the idea of negative consequences for this particular behavior. And then I'd probably start out by only enforcing it on the days when there is dessert, so there's a tangible reward. I think eventually (like age 6 and up) you want this to be engrained so that if they are at a friend's or relative's house for dinner they show appreciation and respect by trying some of everything. But there's a long time between age 2 and 6, so I wouldn't worry about it at this point.