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Strategies for Picky Eaters

It's always interesting to see which parenting issues bring out the judgmental comments. As my readers know, breastfeeding is something that I feel strongly about. When I say that I feel strongly about it, I mean that I feel strongly about it being supported in society. I don't judge mothers who can't or don't want to breastfeed, because I know how hard it can be. I've been there. I do find, however, that some mothers who found breastfeeding easy are quick to judge. I think the same is true with picky eaters, as you'll see from some of the comments on my guest post today over at Simple Bites. Thankfully, doing what is best for my family is more important to me than what other people think. :)

Two Picky Eaters, One Dinner

My kids both have a list of foods they’ll eat and foods they won’t eat. Pretty normal, right? The problem, however, is that I can count the foods they’ll both eat on one hand.

She won’t eat meat (except sometimes burgers or bacon), hates most sauces, isn’t a big fan of starches, and doesn’t like anything mashed or pureed. He won’t eat any legume or fruit or vegetable (except potatoes) unless it has been pureed or cooked into something else that masks its texture. What is left that they both like? Not much more than eggs, pancakes with maple syrup, cheese, bread and chocolate.

Cooking a meal that both kids like can be extremely challenging. While the advice to just keep trying and just get them to taste one bite has its place, that approach can also wear on you after a while. It isn’t a lot of fun hearing “I don’t like it” day-in and day-out.

So at our house, I like to balance putting new foods on the table with some strategies for pleasing everyone and providing balanced nutrition without cooking separate meals for each family member. 

To find out how I do it, click over to my guest post being featured today on Simple Bites...
« From Toddlers and Tiaras to Sext Up Kids: A Dangerous Path | Main | Is 6 Months of Exclusive Breastfeeding Unrealistic and Idealistic? »

Reader Comments (30)

I think the picky eater issue is very similar to the sleep through the night issue. Unless you've been there, done that it doesn't make sense to you! Our kiddo will eat almost any food (especially if he's in the bathtub!) but has yet to sleep through the night. People say "We do this and it works, why doesn't YOUR kid sleep better?" Kids are just made differently! I've learned this lesson very well in the past 1.5 years of parenting :) Thus picky eaters get my respect and any healthy food I can find for them!

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I practice your strategy as well, although MOSTLY I make what I make, and they eat or they don't. I do make them taste one bite, but beyond that the only thing I ask is 1) don't whine about it, and 2) they have to wait until snack time to eat again. But, as I tell them, it's their belly, and only they can say if it needs food or not. While I would never custom make a dish for any one person in my family, I do alter things reasonably within the meal to meet certain people's likes and dislikes like not putting spicy stuff in until the kids have eaten, not putting sauce on noodles or meat, etc. Or if I'm making a veggie that I know no one likes (no one in my family besides me likes squash, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes, but I love them and feel serving them is important) I make an additional veggie that is more crowd pleasing, and it's not that much of a stretch because I often make two veggie sides with a meal. Like you say, it's not an all or nothing thing, it's about balance. I guess I'm a little lucky, only one of mine is super picky and she seems to be slowly growing out of it (so slowly, but enough to give me hope!).

I think my biggest problem is that because my oldest is picky and my second isn't, I blame myself for her picky habits. When she was young we didn't have the best eating habits- she ate a lot of chicken nuggets and other processed foods and our diet was generally not very varied. By the time my son was eating solids we were eating a much healthier diet with a huge variety of meat and fish, grains, and veggies. I like to say that I have escaped the whole mom guilt thing because, with most things, I just refuse to have any of it. But when it comes to food and what my kids put in their bodies I carry a lot of guilt (but that's a whole other story...).

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrandis

story of my life. My oldest is soooo difficult. I have to come up with unique ideas and make sure he eats.

For years we relied on Pedisure, which gives all nutrients, but I have finally taken the bull by the horn but it's not easy while he's bucking his way out of it.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarina K. Villatoro

I had an interesting conversation about this with my sister. Because it is so easy to say "If you just don't give a kid options, they'll have to eat stuff eventually!" She was saying that in Senegal where she is living, the kids aren't picky eaters - they eat what's served, because that's all there is, and that's that. While I have close to zero knowledge of cross-cultural picky eater studies, from my (albeit limited) public health nutrition knowledge, there is a fair amount of focus in the field of childhood malnutrition on teaching parents to actually monitor what their children are eating and teaching them what foods are appropriate and will provide nutrient-dense calories for their young children. Separate from the issue of being able to afford sufficient food, there are definitely cultures where there's a plate of food set out for everyone to take from and if you eat it, great, and if not, no one is looking. Even if parents are looking they may not realize that the foods the child is eating are not appropriate/sufficiently nutrient dense. I think picky eaters can be both born and made. No one is creating picky eaters in those societies by over-deferring to their likes/dislikes, but the born picky eaters might be eating very little, or very little variation, and be the children who end up malnourished and/or micronutrient-deficient. Yes, parents in the developed world will make a concerted effort to ensure their picky eaters eat balanced diets and take in sufficient calories. That's actually a good thing!

Well said. I completely agree.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Great post. I like how it includes everyone in the same meal without much additional work. So many women are obsessed with food, so I like that your approach is low-key while allowing for individual taste. I really hate the forced eating line of thinking and feel that it makes it more likely there will be an unhealthy relationship with food later on.

I was considered a picky eater as a kid, and there are still foods that I won't eat because of the clear-your-plate approach in childhood. I've also learned that I have actual medical conditions that have influenced my tastes my whole life, even before I knew of the issue - I had my gallbladder out in my late twenties and that finally explained my problem with grease/soup broths - my gallbladder had never been managing the fat digestion correctly. Yet, at 2 or 5 or 10 or 20, I never would have been able to explain WHY I wouldn't/couldn't eat those items.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbit

Thanks for this post Annie. My children are in the finicky eaters category, as I was as a child. My almost 5 year old has improved a lot and I am confident the two year old will too, in her own time. In the meantime we use these kids of strategies. For example, with chili con carne the eldest will have the meat out of it mixed with rice. The younger will only get the beans and eat the rice separately. And they both prefer raw veges, so we set some aside before cooking ours. Not that hard.

I would love to take them out somewhere and not worry about what to order for them but I guess we'll just have to wait for that.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

To say the kids are picky would be incorrect. To say that they are continuously going through picky phases would be slightly accurate. Too bad they don't go through it at the same time...or with the same foods.

On the one hand my strict European upbringing (which didn't seem strict to me at the time at all) was this: breakfast, lunch, dinner is ready. It's on the table. Eat it, or not. This is what there is.

Snacks? We didn't have them. We did get to pick an apple if we were hungry between meals, but it wasn't an issue. Snacks is a North American thing and being Swiss, and having lived there and here, I can say that this is a true statement.

But like you and so many we too share this problem of 'picky eating'. Honestly, sometimes cooking is a chore, and I love cooking. Sometimes I pull the European strings and she'll just have to go hungry till the next meal. And sometimes I spend the entire day making meals and snacks. It's enough to make me cry.

Ultimately I don't know if all this hassle is worth it. I could tell you an egg salad sandwich story (maybe I'll blog it sometime) that will have you nodding your head in agreement...

Enjoyed your post on both sites. And the comments too! It's an emotional topic, isn't it...

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

I have to say, I can't see how most kids manage without snacks. My kids need them and frankly so do I. I have to eat 5 times a day myself as I have a fast metabolism, and so do most kids.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

I agree Tamara! I think my daughter inherited my husband's high metabolism & she really needs to snack throughout the day.
I commented over at simple bites, but forgot to say that despite the nice "it doesn't matter as long as it works for your family" comments, I think long term damage can occur as a result of stricter feeding practices sometimes.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermary

I believe that it is healthier to eat around five times per day than just three times. That doesn't have to mean constant doling out of snacks though. I think there is a balance in there somewhere (even if it is hard to find sometimes).

Let me know if you do ever write up the egg salad sandwich story. :)

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I've been reading so much about picky eating. Klaw's going through a tough stage & with his already limited diet (max 6g fat/day), I am struggling. He can't not eat. It's not an option to let him skip a meal. Things that worked for me as a child are dangerous for him.

Going to read your post now...

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDana K

I left a comment on Simple Bites trying to reply to one of yours and it didn't end up in the right place. Also, I was reacting to a couple of judgmental comments and then I saw that the vast majority were actually positive. So now I feel like kind of a dope. Sigh.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterallison

The egg sandwich story mentioned above has developed into saga part II and is definitely blog-worthy. Will tell all when I have the stamina to vent it out at Javaline.


March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

I was an extremely picky eater as a child and received VERY little accommodation on it from anyone beside my mother. As an adult I realize that I had some sensory issue relating to smell/texture that I have mostly grown out of, specifically squishy or soggy foods like oatmeal, bread, cream of wheat, cereal with milk on it, etc.

I think that this is FAR more common than people are willing to admit. I COULD NOT stomach certain foods that everyone assumed children would like and was often downright bullied by adults because I wouldn't eat certain things. My grandmother, who I dearly love, refused to give me a second fork when I didn't want flavors mixing. I, of course, cried and was extremely upset, but now I can't understand why making a meal easier for me to eat was such a big deal.

Honestly, I still have some weirdness about food because of the way people treated me for being a picky eater. I regularly eat before I visit people because at some point I learned that it's just easier to say you aren't hungry. Potlucks are awful for me because I hate not knowing what is in every dish. I have grown out of a lot of it and am willing to try anything, but there are still foods I would rather go hungry than eat because of the smell or texture. I can't change my taste buds to fit what my grandmother thinks I should like and it's incredibly frustrating when I read comments about how parents shouldn't accommodate the needs of their child. If my experience is worth anything, your children are far more likely to grow out of being a picky eater if you insist that everything is tried once and then be patient with them rather than making them go hungry or force down food that they hate.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrequent Lurker

I'll also add that being a picky eater my whole life has made me an excellent cook and I loved moving out and being able to choose what and when I got to eat. I can detect flavors and tell what's present or missing much better than my husband can and I thoroughly watching other people enjoy what I cook.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrequent Lurker

I've found the work of Ellyn Satter ( http://www.ellynsatter.com/ ) very helpful with my picky eater. He's still picky - but so was I as a child - but it's definitely reduced the battles. She talks about a division of responsibilities: the parent's job to determine what goes on the table and when mealtimes are (including snacks). It's the child's job to determine what to eat from what's on the table, and how much of it to eat (including nothing if they want, but a fixed serving of dessert.) Even a one-bite rule has been shown to make it even harder for kids to be willing to try new things.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLibrary Mama

I agree with that philosophy. The only problem is that if I did just that, without incorporating the strategies that I talked about on my Simple Bites post, then my kid wouldn't be getting adequate nutrition.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I appreciate your comment, allison. My post over there went live at midnight and by the time I woke up in the morning, there were two judgmental comments and no supportive ones. The tone of the comments certainly did change over the course of the day, but I was a bit surprised when I first woke up.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I find the more I eat meals with fewer fast-burning carbs and more protein, the more likely I am to eat just three times a day. And these aren't big meals either. Depends how much physical work I'm doing though.
In a culture of stricter feeding practices I don't think kids would likely be damaged. Most will grow up thinking it's completely normal to eat only at certain times of the day. I am now more convinced than I used to be of the benefit of having kids eat in a routine way. When people have a routine, they tend to get hungry at predictable times.
My partner has an 10-year old and 8-year old so thankfully they are old enough to somewhat reason with. The 10-year old is much pickier and could barely list dinner foods she would eat without a fuss but persistence in getting her to try things has paid off as she now likes parsnips, carrot soup and squash. The kids know if they're reasonable about properly trying food, we'll be reasonable about not making them finish everything. I think they're realizing we don't love everything we eat. If we cook something that just tastes just okay, we still eat it to have a nutritious dinner and not waste and will try to improve the taste next time.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLyndsay

I'd like to add a bit more cross cultural perspectives in this topic. In some cultures in South East Asia, it is common for a totally different meal to be cooked and served for children. For example, in West Sumatra, they just don't take stuff out from a curry before you make a spicier version. They would cook a totally different type of curry for children and another one for the adults. In Central Java too, while adults enjoyed something like a spicy tempeh stir fry, kids get to eat something else such as tempeh in sweet soy sauce, or a chicken soup. This is not about catering for picky eating, but more about cooking appropriate food for kids who would not be able to tolerate too much chillies in their meal. :)

March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatadia

I have the queen of picky eaters in my house. We have a funny relationship with food, because I have to monitor every bite that goes in before it goes in (Insulin dependent diabetic..) and she eats about 10 foods...
Between my diabetes and Crohn's disease and her autism, people often ask how in the heck we're at all even remotely healthy. The truth is, I have no idea... My daughter exists on cheese, apples, grapes, chips and french fries. She won't eat meat, can not tolerate vegetables at all, things like mashed potatoes or hell, even a hot dog!! are completely out of the question. Yet, somehow, miraculously, she's not over or underweight, she doesn't have cholesterol or blood problems and other than a severe iron deficiency that may or may not be related to her anti-seizure medications, she's nutritionally sound... how does that work???
So for me, the pick eating issue is a matter of sensory work combined with a person with autism's ability to hyper-focus on one thing at a time. It makes meals awesome.
It doesn't hurt that my husband will eat anything. Literally. It makes me feel a lot better when I cook something completely random and he wolfs it down like it's candy.

March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

It's rather tiring when you're posting on something as simple as "strategies for picky eaters" (strictly a "this is what I do" type of post), and some parents get judgmental. It would be so refreshing for people to just accept that there are countless ways of doing this parenting thing. For some reason in North America, we are SO obsessed with doing things the "right" way. There is no "right way" - there's only a way that works best for you and your family.

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMisty Pratt

As I was reading the post, I was kind of thinking about the differences between my husband and me (he was/still kind of is a picky eater -- probably Annie would call him "finicky" and I'm not -- though I do have a [sadly very few!] foods I don't like, and I can't imagine forcing someone to eat a food they don't like).

Anyway, he grew up in a pretty typical middle-class household ... and did pretty typical middle-class picky-kid type stuff, like fix himself a peanut butter sandwich if he didn't like what they were having for supper, or get the mac and cheese at a Chinese restaurant if they went out. He eats pretty well now, though the list of foods he doesn't like feels long and annoying to me, but intellectually I know it's not -- he likes all varieties of foods and nearly all fruits and vegetables.

I, on the other hand, grew up poor. I mean it -- POOR poor. My familiy still tells a story about a rebellion I staged when I was 4 of 5 that involved a litany of "DON'T WANT BEANS!" because we'd had beans every damn night that week. And you know what we had that night, too? Yup. More beans.

So anyway, I think that maybe this problem of the picky eater is a good one to have -- it means that you have the time and resources to offer your kid a variety of foods that he may not like, and that he's not so hungry that he has to eat them even if he really doesn't want them. It's entirely possible that my upbringing led me to be NOT a picky eater then or now, but it's really likely that it also contributed a lot to some pretty disordered thinking about food that I carry with me as baggage (this obsession with not wasting food, finishing what's on my plate, and a pretty bad propensity to overeat or binge on treats -- my husband can wait a few hours between supper and dessert, or eat just a few out of a package of chips or cookies, while I know we'd better eat it NOW or it'll be GONE).

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal_B

This is really interesting and helpful. I've heard that "other cultures eat spicy food so children should be able to handle it", so it's interesting to know that that isn't necessarily what's happening!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

I agreed with that in principal too, but as a parent of a fussy eater (she eats more than 20 different foods now! Yay!) I've come to the conclusion that every kid needs their own unique approach.

We've worked really, really hard to expand our child's repertoire. She started out eating *nothing* - wasn't until we let her have chocolate at 14 months that she really started giving solid food a chance. I always swore that I wouldn't use dessert as a bribe, but it is directly responsible for getting her to try (and eventually like) 90% of what she eats. Sometimes though she decides she'd just rather not, which is fine. We don't make a big deal either way, but we only serve dessert once we are done main course.

We did have a problem with the one bite rule (http://parenthood.phibian.com/?ID=698) but it wasn't that she became less willing to try new things!

Anyway, I like your practical suggestions Annie (we do many of them too!)

It would also be really nice if people who visit for dinner / invite us for dinner knew instinctively how to behave around picky eaters. I honestly feel that well meaning friends and family set us back a couple of times.

Please don't comment on what or how my child is eating while she can hear you. Referential speaking is powerful! We don't want her to incorporate "picky eater" into her identity, thanks! If my child doesn't eat your food, don't take it personally. In any case, your cooking is not a measure of your value as a person.

Advice about how you encourage your children to eat is not that helpful even out of earshot of my kid, unless you actually had/have a picky eater. I'm not talking about "doesn't like spicy", either. If you've never kept track of your child's food intake by the blueberry, you simply haven't been here. And telling me my child will eat if hungry just makes me angry. My child can't afford that kind of experiment, given her weight. And yes, we did get medical advice on that.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

Arg! Principle, not principal!!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

After a little bit of trial and error, my husband and I found that the strategy that worked best with our 3 years old (2 1/2 at the time) is to simply put all the food he's allowed to eat on the table, including desert, and not pay too much attention to him. I don't mean ignore him, but we did find that when we just discuss, my husband and I, and we don't glare at our son the whole time, the food tends to disappear from his plate. Most of the time he'll start with desert, but when he's done he eats the other food as well. If he doesn't want to eat anything from a certain food group, we try to make up for it by offering something from this food group that he likes at the next family meal.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaure

Annie I'm really glad you wrote this, and I found it inspiring and a real eye opener. I do think that a lot of the time people respond to my 'problem' [my kid is very fussy] by telling me to take no shit from the kid and be firm; or stop fussing he is growing, isn't he? I don't think they really know what it's like having a kid reject everything I cook, but happily eat yoghurt and fruit and nuts .... Love the creativity and practicality behind your approach and the understanding you show your kids. I agree with that approach, and am going to try our version of it. YAY!

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermummychickpea

I have a finicky eater who will sometimes eat a lot and sometimes not at all. I think that's the hardest thing to get around- the inconsistency. Before I had a child, I was judgmental. I used to believe that kids would learn to eat (well) if parents stopped pandering to their children so much. I promised myself that we'd eat together as a family every night and we'd all eat the same thing, that I would NOT make any special foods. I used to say to my hypothetical child, if you don't like it, then don't eat it, but you aren't getting anything else.

But, then I had my child and she was lithe (like 3rd percentile in weight kind of lithe). And, I also realized that the person who really suffered from letting the child go hungry was me-- because then I had a whiny, irritable and difficult child to deal with. Sometimes I wish I could just IV some food into her. I am thankful I have not resorted to sweets or processed foods to get her blood sugar up when she goes hypo-- but sometimes I do wonder....

At this point, I've come to the conclusion that my child will eat a nutritional meal if I consider the balance over the course of weeks rather than days. There are days when she will only eat frozen waffles (for every meal). And others when she will only eat green beans. I have to believe that something is balancing out in the end as there is nothing else I can do. I cannot force-feed her and we don't have the time to prepare alternatives and options.

I envy those people whose children will peacefully and happily eat everything and seem to enjoy many different kinds of foods and flavors. I would like to believe that we will one day have that peace of mind at the dinner table.

April 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSimi

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