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Is mealtime a battlefield? How to feed your picky eaters.

by Meagan Francis on November 10, 2011

how to feed picky eaters

I was a picky eater as a kid. I didn’t like anything spicy. I didn’t like textural surprises, like chunks hidden in sauces. Actually, I didn’t like sauces much, period. I liked my food plain-Jane and predictable.

I did eventually outgrow my pickiness. I grew to embrace spicy foods, ethnic foods, sauces, and new flavors and textures. But it took a long time. And I wasn’t going to get there before I was ready.

Looking back, I can’t remember my mom ever making a big deal about eating. And I’m so glad she didn’t. We were expected to make a reasonable attempt at finishing a meal, but she never forced us to clean our plates. She expected us to be polite at the table, but she well knew we weren’t going to fall over ourselves in raptures about every meal. We were allowed to pass on a small number of veggies (we each got to pick a specific veggie we were never required to eat; mine was cooked carrots) and if the meal was something out of the ordinary or strange to us, she looked the other way when we mostly just pushed it around on our plates. But mostly we dealt with our less-than-fave foods the way kids have for generations: we gulped them down between swigs of milk and bites of bread. Mom didn’t seem to get too worked up about it one way or the other: she provided good food, and it seemed up to us to figure out how we were going to consume it.

Owen Is Disgusted

“Cawwots, AGAIN?”

I’ve tried to carry that attitude forward with my own kids, but things seem to have gotten more complicated since my mom was raising (and feeding) us. Modern parents know so much about nutrition, about toxins and pesticides, about food allergies and sensitivities and omega-3 fatty acids and brain development and antioxidants and trans fats and chemically-engineered foods than our mothers would ever have imagined. All this knowledge has made feeding picky kids feel like a huge minefield. What if they decide they won’t eat anything green during some crucial developmental phase? What if we push them too hard…or not hard enough? What if they really only eat foods in nugget form for the rest of their lives?

picky eater

“I know you made me a plate of antioxidant-rich veggies, but how ’bout we get some fatty, salty, chemical-laden fast food instead, mmm?”

One thing that reassures me to remember is that picky kids are nothing new. Kids have been turning up their noses at green beans and gulping down carrots with milk since long before chicken nuggets became a childhood staple. At the same time, our current typical American diet is heavy on fried, processed, and heavily sugared and salted foods. It’s not good for us, it’s not good for our kids, and once kids are used to those flavors it’s really hard to get them excited about fresh cauliflower.

There are dozens of strategies for dealing with picky eaters, but here are some of the ones I’ve found most effective in my home.

1. Figure Out Your Goals

We all come to the table with different desires for our kids. Maybe you just want your child to eat a balanced diet and don’t particularly care if she consumes the same two meals over and over to achieve it. Maybe your children already eat pretty well nutrition-wise, but you want to encourage them to embrace new flavors and try new things. Maybe you’re not too worried about either of those things, but would like them to learn to be more polite about their pickiness so you don’t have to hear a chorus of groans every time you set down a plate in front of them. It’s a good idea to know which goal or goals you prioritize most highly, because chances are good you won’t be able to meet every goal at every meal.

2. Look At The Big Picture

Think of your child’s diet a week at a time, not a meal at a time. Every dinner does not have to be perfectly balanced as long as it all balances out over a few days to a week or so. If your kids snub their broccoli in favor of pasta even though you know they like broccoli, maybe it was just too much food for them to take in at one time. Try serving the broccoli for a snack later, with some dip.

3. Cater Within Reason

What I won’t do? Stand by the stove from 5 until 7 PM every night whipping up separate made-to-order dishes. What I will do? Create meals with enough variety on one plate that everybody can find something to eat. For example, I’ll serve up spaghetti noodles with meatballs, with sauce, with butter and cheese, or with olive oil and a bit of salt (or any combination of the above.) There’s a veggie or two on the side. Perhaps a pre-made salad in the fridge for those who want one. And whole-wheat bread and milk to round it all off. Some nights, a particular child might just eat peas, bread and milk. But you know, when you think about it, that’s not such a horrible meal in the grand scheme of things.

When my kids want a pre-bedtime snack, I’ll often choose something that fills in the gaps dinner left behind–if their dinner was high on starch but low on fresh produce, for example, snack might be grapes and baby carrots. If dinner was basically a slice of bread and some plain noodles, snack might be cheese and sliced-up apples.

Since “no touching foods!” is such a common kid preference, you can’t go wrong by having ‘separate’ be the default. Put the sauce on the side. Cut up the chicken into bite-sized chunks before you put the plate in front of your child. Perception is a big part of pickiness, and if a child feels overwhelmed by what’s on his plate he’s less likely to give it a fair shot.

4. Take Advantage Of What They Love Right Now

Two summers ago all my kids loved broccoli, and we had a thriving broccoli crop in our backyard. I served broccoli with nearly every meal for a month, up until the last harvest. Nobody complained. Should I have expanded their horizons by serving more variety during that brief window? Was I somehow compromising their diet by not offering a full menu of vegetables?

Here’s how I saw it: A bird in the hand (or stomach) is worth two in the bush (or sitting on the plate.) Broccoli is a nutritional powerhouse, we had a ready supply of it in the back yard, and the kids were eagerly gobbling it up. I enjoyed the ride, and followed the “big picture” philosophy by rounding out their snacks and breakfasts with other fruits and veggies.

You can also take advantage of ‘favorites’ by gradually making them more and more healthy. For example, my kids are pretty receptive to mixing peas into their boxed Mac & Cheese. You can omit the dubious orange powder and try olive oil and salt or other seasonings instead–kids will still recognize the familiar shape of the macaroni. If they adore chicken nuggets, try this simple, fast recipe: cut strips of boneless chicken breasts, dip in a little beaten egg and roll in a mixture of Panko crumbs, salt, garlic powder and pepper, and bake on a cookie sheet at 425 for about 15 – 20 minutes. Serve with ketchup, ranch or honey mustard. It’s easier to “healthy up” a dish they already love and accept than to try to convince them to like something new.

They might not like these today…or tomorrow…but someday they might.

5. Keep Trying.

So little Gus hates squash…today. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll hate it next week, or even tomorrow. Likewise, he may love green beans right now but decide he hates them in a month. Approach food aversions with a no-nonsense attitude. It’s only too easy to let Gus’s “pickiness” become part of family folklore and turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if those green beans and squash just keep showing up on his plate meal after meal, chances are good eventually he’ll change his mind about them. Just don’t serve huge portions. A few beans look less intimidating and if he doesn’t eat them, you won’t have to stress about mess and waste.

 

Like this post? Find 5 more get-kids-to-eat tips here!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen L November 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I followed a link to this site (http://itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com/home/2010/12/28/the-2010-top-ten.html) from Parent Hacks a while ago. It’s very much in line with your post and definitely influencing my thinking about food and eating habits.

I clicked on the “techniques to try” tag in the RHS panel and read for hours one night even though I think we’ve been pretty good at avoiding food battles. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have some bad habits around here, just that battling isn’t one of them. We pretty regularly indulge in 6 of http://itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com/home/2010/7/19/the-10-most-dangerous-foods.html

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Beth November 10, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I followed your link. Wow.

I don’t necessarily disagree with what she’s trying to say (Although I do have a huge problem with the overall dismissal of Pizza as an Evil Food, even if it’s homemade which 99.9% of the pizza my kids eat is) but her tone and attitude make me want to smack her. :) I kept hearing Michael Pollan in my head going off on Nutritionism. Am I just being cranky? She is right about a lot of what we consider staples kid foods are terrible nutritionally.

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SleeplessinSummerville November 14, 2011 at 11:28 am

Thanks for the link out! I had never heard of this blogger before, but after I read several of her articles (don’t ask me why I have so much patience) I found that she has written relevant stuff for parents with problems similar to mine.

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Tragic Sandwich November 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Baguette is still young enough that she decides what she eats–but I try to offer her a range of things.

There are two principles that I think I’m likely to stick to. First, I don’t remember ever hearing “clean your plate”–with the exception of when my aunt-to-be took me out to lunch for my sixth birthday, and that was more about being a good guest than about the food. What my parents did say was that we had to try everything, and trying meant three bites. If we’d had three bites and didn’t like it, we could stop.

Second, I’m a big believer in the “balanced day.” Balanced meals may be a great ideal, but they’re not always easy to achieve every time. Eating a variety of foods and food types over the course of the day, though, I can manage.

And I’m going to check out the tactics–because I know how we handle eating will change as she gets older.

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Jennifer L. Cowart November 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm

I just guest blogged about this a week or so ago! I’m in line with your philosophies….
http://www.goodparentgoodchild.com/5-tips-1-recipe-for-easy-family-dinners

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Renee Oberhart November 11, 2011 at 10:35 pm

I think overall this is a great article. However, parents need to think about the fact that if no techniques are working for their child (and they’ve tried many many different ways to get their kid to eat), then the child’s problem may be beyond typical pickiness. My parents were told that I’d grow out of it and that I’ll eat when I get hungry enough, neither of which ended up being true. Suddenly at 15, I remember my doctor telling me that my organs could fail at any time because I was so underweight. Here’s the situation for me: I have a mixture of selective eating disorder and oral hypersensitivity (a type of sensory processing disorder). Throughout the past 2 years, I’ve spent months in the hospital for what doctors now label an “atypical eating disorder” since it’s a severe eating disturbance but I don’t have self esteem/body image issues. I should’ve been treated for at least the oral hypersensitivity when I was a toddler (I was about 2 when I started drinking mainly juice and not eating much), but I never was because doctors always reassured my parents I’d be fine. I don’t mean to give parents anything else to worry about, but I just thought I’d give my perspective. Most kids are the typical picky eater and do grow out of it!

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SleeplessinSummerville November 14, 2011 at 10:38 am

Can you tell us something about this disorder and what symptoms parents can observe in children who are too young to talk about it? I have an extremely picky eater (2 years old) and have been working from the assumption that he’s just like me or any other picky-eating kid. I’ve never heard of this problem before…

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Renee Oberhart November 16, 2011 at 10:48 am

Hi SleeplessinSummerville,

Problems in young children that go beyond picky eating and affect their physical health are called feeding disorders. Beyond the age of 6, there is no real label for a person who continues to exhibit these behaviors. Most places don’t treat anybody older than 12 unless they have an eating disorder characterized by a poor body image. Although not an official diagnosis yet, selective eating disorder may be the adult equivalent to some of the feeding disorder types. A sensory processing disorder can play into an adult or child’s eating problems (common in children with developmental disabilities, but that’s not a prerequisite).

Here are some links that provide info about feeding disorders: http://www.nationwidechildrens.org/feeding-disorders-1

http://www.ccghe.jhmi.edu/JHI/English/Patients/Centers_of_Excellence/CE_KKI_FeedingDisorders.asp

http://feedingdisorders.kennedykrieger.org/understand.jsp

http://www.childrensmemorial.org/depts/gastroenterology/food_aversion.aspx?gaw=pediatric+food+aversion&gclid=CP2A_eK6u6wCFQIDQAodYGrypg

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Stephenie November 12, 2011 at 9:41 am

We do find that balance is the key. I try (really hard) not to freak out if they don’t eat everything on their plates. We make pizza from scratch with whole-wheat crust and lots of veggies, and don’t feel guilty about the cheese. We try to offer choices, macaroni with or without sauce, raw or cooked veggies. Sneaking in extra servings of veggies by grazing in the garden or putting out a plate of raw veggies on the table before dinner works well, too. I love your idea of taking advantage of what they love right now…I am sure stockpiling the broccoli benefits MUST have some value!

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Dana at Cooking at CafeD November 14, 2011 at 11:13 am

I love what you said about how if they chose only the bread, peas and milk for dinner – that isn’t so bad.

Yep, it would be great if every meal were a nice small portion of protein, lots of veggies and some starch – but it “ain’t gonna happen!”

Watching what they each in a day – or a week – gives you a much more complete picture.

I’m focusing on being willing to try something new. Our tastes change. And, sometimes it isn’t until we try something for the 10th or 15th time that we find we like it!
~

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Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama January 15, 2012 at 9:23 am

I completely agree with your advice to keep trying! Foods that appear to be disgusting to a toddler suddenly become a favorite a few weeks later ;-)

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