Picky Eaters

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Help, hope, and hard lines for kids who say "yuck!" to almost any food.



Related reading on PSP:

Hiding Vegetables

Debating the D word: Dessert


Original poster:


I have a five-year-old who loves to eat cereal, milk, and brownies.  She could live on the stuff if I let her.  She won't eat fruit unless it's apple. She won't drink juice unless it's Juicy Juice apple juice or Sunny D/Tangy.  She won't eat veggies unless it's carrots. She won't eat meat unless it's chicken nuggets or vienna sausages (and it depends on the brand as well).  She won't eat beans unless it's refried beans from a can. She won't eat pasta unless it's macaroni and cheese.  She won't eat bread unless it's white sandwich bread with no crust.  She doesn't like sweets (except brownies), jelly, or honey.  She does like kiddie yogurt, peanut butter, saltine crackers, chips, and eggs.  She loves cheese, and she likes the white rice from the Chinese food restaurant (no other).  I'm concerned that she might not be getting enough nutrients, and she refuses to take vitamins.  She doesn't like Pediasure or anything like that either.  Every day she eats waffles or pancakes for breakfast, and I serve her whatever we have for dinner.  If the food I make is not on her list of favorites, she will take more than two hours to eat.  It has become extremely frustrating.  I want her to develop healthy eating habits and to enjoy eating instead of thinking that dinner is a chore or a punishment.  And forget about lunch at school:  most days she only licks the peanut butter off the PB&J sandwich.  Any ideas?  Cute stories about broccoli trees and making her choose dinner or helping me cook it doesn't work either.  I also don't want to have to cook something especially for her at dinner or have to send her a special lunch every day at school.  I want her to learn to eat normally.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated


Answers, includes advice from newer and similar threads:


It's normal:

"I have no advice--and a son, only 19 months. who has a very short list as well--but my mother reminds me frequently that I ate only cottage cheese and applesauce in separate bowls with separate spoons for many, many years.  I didn't actually really enjoy food until I was in college.  Today I eat normally.  I'm still kind of picky but I can find something on nearly every restaurant menu and still like new recipes. This doesn't take away the frustration you must be experiencing, but hopefully it will make you feel better about the lack of normalcy."


Wait until they get older:

"My husband thought I was crazy to put up with this, and I myself was starting to despair as the years went by and he was as picky as ever.  Finally, finally, at the age of 12, he is now trying new things.  The list of things he will eat has probably doubled over the last six months.  He is still "picky" by any reasonable standard, but things have improved a lot.  I'm not sure this was the right approach, and I don't know if he'll ever eat like a "normal" person (not sure I really do, either), but I think it was the right way to go, for him."

"I have been blessed with two kids who never went through the extremely picky eater stage, but my husband has told me that he was the kind of kid who would only eat a very limited list of foods and took the same lunch to school every single day in elementary school.  When he went to college is when he really started trying new foods, and now he's a much more adventurous eater than I am, or most people I know.  (At one point, he was looking for a Peruvian restaurant that served guinea pig because he wanted to try it. Didn't find one, though.)  He figures if some people eat it and like it, he's willing to give it a try.  And he likes almost everything.  He says his mom didn't try to make him eat what he didn't want to eat.  She gave him what he liked, and eventually his tastes evolved.  I think that's generally the best way to handle a picky eater.  Once they get past the toddler stage, it's hard to "fool" them by sneaking stuff they don't like into foods they do like, though I suppose it's worth a try.  It seems like your kid has a fairly long list of acceptable foods.  (I've known kids who used to only eat about five things who are now healthy teenagers.)  So give them what they like, offer other stuff but don't make a big issue out of it if they refuse. This too shall pass.  And probably before they go to college.  (except for fruit), so I was good and ready for meals once they rolled around.  No one told you to clear your plate, but you knew you'd just have to go hungry if you didn't eat what she provided."


Don't force food:

 My son was even pickier than this, if you can believe it.  I was also a picky eater as a kid, and I thought my parents' approach of "You'll sit at this table until that plate is clean, young lady!" was the wrong way to go.  So with my son, I never forced him to eat anything.  The only real rule was that he had to have some form of vegetable or fruit with his dinner, and, luckily, he would eat salad or cut-up raw veggies.  I made him his own separate dinner on nights when I knew he wouldn't eat what everyone else was eating.

"If your child pushes his or her plate away without touching it, do not lose heart.  It is my experience that picky eaters are not born, they are created.  If you are quite sure that what you are offering them is delicious (would you eat it?), then simply smile and tell them that dinner is in front of them, and if they do not wish to eat, they do not have to.  Then walk away.  Do not beg, cajole, bribe, or offer alternatives.  Every parent I know who has played out the struggle of wills has regretted it; don’t engage."


Similarly, never bribe:

"Our approach was to repeatedly offer and suggest food options but never to insist, bribe or coerce. For example:
Me: Have some of that yummy chicken.
Her: I don't like chicken.
Me: Are you sure? Yesterday you liked it. Remember, you used the blue plate.
Her: I don't want it. I don't like chicken.
Me (looking at my own plate and keeping a nonchalant tone): Ok. What about
the tomatoes?
For our kid it was pretty clearly about her exercising some control and letting her do that made us more creative in constantly offering new foods alongside some that she'd still eat (carbs and dairy) without starting a fight over food.
She will still refuse a favorite food on occasion and we employ pretty much the same technique although now we will not be quite as constantly willing to provide an alternative. (E.g., No more tortilla. What else would you like?).
Overall I could see that she wasn't losing weight, becoming dehydrated or any other serious health impact. She ate a lot of avocado, rice, yogurt and milk for a while. It passed."


Be firm:

"I recall reading in Bringing Up Bebe pretty reasonable sounding advice about feeding a baby/toddler - it's about being firm and exposure. The being firm part refers to not relenting and defaulting to the foods that the baby already likes, but instead feeding the whole family the same meal. And exposure refers to trying some foods over and over until baby gets used to it and begins to like it. I remember the book chapter suggested that all food is an acquired taste! So basically you're just getting baby into the habit of eating anything and everything."

 "An Ellen Sattyr book Division of Responsibility is a staple among nutritionists and it really says, offer healthy foods, no pressure, no bribing, and then let them eat what they want. She also focuses less on veggies specifically and talks about why young kids like high carb and high fat foods. You offer a healthy selection, include something you know they will eat and then they go from there."


Others suggest a stricter approach:

My daughter was a picky eater.  Here's what I did that might have helped make her less picky.  I made her and her 3-year-old brother eat dinner in order from most disliked to most liked foods (so veggies came first, then protein, then starch).  For months, I made her try a bite of a new food almost daily, though I'd wait a couple of weeks before reintroducing bites.  If she wouldn't try the food, dinner ended (though I did negotiate down to the most miniscule bites.)  I provided few snacks between meals, though I have found that disliked foods will sometimes be better appreciated as a snack than as part of a meal.  That's how I got carrot sticks into my children's lives, a vegetable that they hate to eat at dinner, for some reason.  I also resigned myself to the fact that on occasion she wouldn't have a meal because she didn't want to eat the food I offered and we were both just going to have to live with that because I wouldn't make a safety food like mac n' cheese.  Finally, several big food breakthroughs happened because an older child came over and ate with my daughter at the table.  See if you can borrow an older, highly-looked-up-to child to come over and eat with gusto foods that your child doesn't like


Kids will eat, eventually:

"Children are self-regulating; they will eat anything if they are hungry.  Try to limit the snacking between meals to insure that your children gets used to eating full lunches and dinners.  If your kids are hungry between meals, keep snacks small, healthy, and not too heavy."

"So, one of the most freeing toddler eating mantras I ever encountered was:  You decide when, what, and where. They decide whether and how much.  And just leave it at that. If you put broccoli on the dinner table at 6:30pm and they decide not to eat it, just let it go. Eat dinner with them and show the example of eating a healthy variety of foods, but if they don't eat anything, then that's their choice. They won't starve themselves and eventually, they'll figure it out. What I repeatedly told my daughter was, "You don't have to eat it but that's what is for dinner." And, if later she decided she was hungry again, I'd pull out the same dish again and offer it to her. (Of course, that being said, I did always put SOMETHING on the plate I knew she liked - a piece of fruit or a couple spoonfuls of cottage cheese - so there was some familiarity and dinner wasn't entirely unpleasant).  Every kid is different and it takes a TON of buy in from the parents - consistency is key. But, it really worked for us."


Try experimenting with other meals:

"Maybe lunches are a good place to experiment, since you don't actually have to view your child not eating the food.  So try not to always pack safe lunches, but also ones containing a disliked food that you would love your child to expand into."


Keep meal time neutral:

"Many articles said that's it's crucial to make mealtime a neutral event. E.g. Don't say to the kid 'good job or bad job’ if they eat or don't eat food Because then the kid will learn to use food to control the situation. I noticed this was really good advice and at every mealtime even though it bothered me so much when my son chose fried chicken over broccoli I would not say anything and just offered a variety of foods with little pressure to eat them. What I would say was a casual 'just try it - if you don't like it you don't have to eat it ' And if he said ' I don't want to try it ' I wouldn't push it and just say ' ok maybe next time then' With this attitude I noticed my son would try the food at his own pace and 50 percent of the time he ended up liking it. This may be a very slow method but so far it's worked great for us. E.g. It took my son 3 years before he would try rice noodles and now he loves it. If you are concerned about your daughters vegetable intake I highly recommend fruit and veggie smoothies / juices. Spinach doesn't have much of a flavor and when paired with apples, touch of lemon tastes delicious. Another great way is fruit/veggie popsicles. They sell them in the ice cream compartment at union market Lasagna and bolognase are great dishes to throw in lots of veggies too. And lastly I believe it's a phase. When I was young I didn't eat 1/100th of the foods I eat today. Many of the bitter vegetables I eat today required a more mature palate which I acquired with time."


How are YOU coping with it?

"I found this resource very helpful for understanding the normal development and for advice for fostering good eating. My biggest lesson has been for myself to manage the stress of feeding and the kid not eating. At home I offer one full meal to them. If they eat fine and of not fine too. Next meal will come later and when they are hungry they eat. But you have to decide what gives you more stress: an empty belly or a belly full of junk. And empty belly does no harm (of course I am not talking about not eating for days!)  And I can say that a big part about taste and appetite is genetic. One twin is a great eater and the other is super picky despite the fact that they  are both offered the exact same food since birth.


Sometimes it takes time for kiddos to get used to seeing veg:

I really wanted my children to eat salmon (which I roast with a glaze of ketchup and teriyaki, yum).  On week one, they pushed it away and ate only the vegetables.  On week two, they each took two bites.  By week three, there was no issue, and they were eating the salmon.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting them used to seeing it.  Here’s a link to an interesting article about introducing new foods at a young age: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3594675.stm

 "We were told by a feeding therapist to put out 3 foods at each meal, 1 that is a "safety" which you can usually rely on your kid to eat.  It can take 20 or so times for a kid to see a food before they are even willing to try it. Keep at it :)  Just put it out there; your job is to provide the healthy food at regular times and it's your kid's job to make sure she eats.  Don't look at the intake at each meal. See it as an over-the-week sort of intake.  Let your kid play with food. Touch is sometimes the best and first entry point. Poke it, feel it, paint with it?  There may be very little consistency!  And from our own experience, rewards like a sticker or stamp help us get our son to try something new. Even if it's just putting the food on his tongue or in his mouth and then spitting it out if he doesn't like it. Or his dad'll use reverse psychology, "This is MY zucchini. This is the way I like it. You won't like it at all. It's definitely not for you."


Engage you child in meal prep:

"This sounds like my older child, who at 6.5 now eats most foods. It was about 1-2 years when she was really picky. For lunch she ate basically the same thing every day (PBJ/carrot or apple/yogurt or cheese) and then dinner was more variety. One thing that helped was having her help prepare the foods - cutting, mixing, etc. went a long way toward trying."


Hide veggies:

"Smoothies, sauces, muffins, and dips are your friend. Put whatever you want her to get in those. Keep offering good choices and then... Let go. I know it's hard (I have a 20 month old) but your job is to make and offer good foods and her job is to decide how much goes in her body. It doesn't matter what she eats in a day at this age, it's more about what she eats over the course of a week. It's hard for me to relax when my toddler pushes her  plate away and insists on a box of berries for dinner but I tell myself there must be a reason her body wants this berries... They only thing I resist is making "kid meals". It's just not a path I want to go down."

"I'm also happy to share that I had a small breakthrough today where my kiddo actually ATE SOMETHING GREEN(!)-- I made some broccoli-cheddar nuggets that she ate when she was much younger, but I hadn't gotten around to making them in some time. I was shocked that she didn't mind the green chunks-- maybe because they were cooked down enough, or maybe because of the nugget shape (I'll admit that I called it a "cheese cookie"...) Here's the recipe (I seasoned the breadcrumbs with garlic powder, dried oregano, and dried parsley). (It's a site for baby foods, hence why it's been a while since I've used it, but I may circle back to some of the other recipes again now...!)"

"I have a picky 18month old on the lean side. So I just started to make her "ice cream" that she gets as a treat! And I really play up the treat part and that she only gets it AFTER she eats some lunch or dinner.  I blend coconut milk (or regular is fine) with coconut oil and avocado for fat.  And I have another one that is coconut milk, coconut oil, a little sugar and banana and blueberries, or strawberries, or really any fruit.  I plan to also try one where I will sneak in some kale. I think as long as I blend it and freeze it and she eats it like that I can sneak in the undesirables."

Read all the PSP tips about how to hide vegetables >