Picky Eaters

I think I’m making a side dish.
The kids think I’m trying to trick them into eating something gross.

When I write a story that mentions my kids are picky eaters (or, StarchAndCheeseitarians, as I call them), I get at least one comment that starts “I’m sorry, but”, then continues something like this…

“Why do you let children dictate family meals? Don’t give the kids any options. Eventually, they’ll get hungry enough to eat what you serve them. That’s what my mom did for me/that’s what I do for my kids. Now our little angels eat everything we put in front of them, and love it!”

When I read these comments, here’s what I get from them:

“You, sir, are a complete failure as a parent. You’re letting the inmates run the asylum. So, let me tell you how to raise your kids. Show a little backbone, put those rug rats in their place, and they’ll fall into line. They’ll all be eating brown rice and braised kale in no time.”

I always delete my first response, then my second. By the third try, I’ve calmed down enough to leave a neutral response, something like “I’m glad that works for you. It doesn’t work for my kids.”
One commenter actually got right to the point. “I’m not trying to be mean…but this is exactly what’s wrong with America…” I deleted that comment without bothering to respond.

I got yet another comment like this after my New York Times interview. I wrote this post so I can email a link to it every time I get one of these “helpful” suggestions.

I’m jealous when I read these comments. These people don’t have kids who are picky eaters. I do. My kids are very particular about what they put in their mouths. And it hurts me. I love food, all kinds of food, and I love cooking. I cook a wide range of foods for the kids. And, some of the time, my kids absolutely refuse to eat what I cooked.

I’ve already tried everything the commenters suggest. Cook and serve unprocessed foods? That’s what this blog is about. Expose them to fruits and vegetables? My kids grew up going to the farmers market and the CSA with me every weekend. Don’t give them any other options, and wait for them to get hungry? Tried that. My kids dig in their heels, and one is willing to skip entire meals if they don’t like what’s served. I’ve tried a “one bite rule”, to get them to taste things over and over, and get used to the taste. This resulted in gagging more often than not.

To try to save my sanity, and come up with strategies to get my kids to eat healthier, I read up about picky eating. Here’s what I learned.

All kids are predisposed to like fatty and sweet. Kids get a strong aversion to bitter tastes starting at about eighteen months. In nature, bitter usually associates with poison, so this was a good evolutionary strategy – right around the time kids learned to walk, they started to dislike bitter.
This is why chicken fingers with french fries and barbecue sauce is on every kids menu in the country. Kids want the fat, sweet, carbs, and bland.

After that, the science of kids taste gets muddled. There are a lot of things tied in with our sense of taste, and different people can have wildly different taste experiences. A lot of tasting is biology – tastes are hard wired into us. As an example, some people are born with a set of genes that makes them sensitive to bitter tastes in green vegetables. (See the NOVA link on picky eaters, below).

Kids aren’t all the same; they have a range of taste sensitivity. Some are “live to eat” kids, who will eat anything. Most are in the middle, where they prefer fatty and sweet foods, but can eat vegetables grudgingly. Then you get to the picky eaters, who for one reason or another, view wide swaths foods as “gross”. Their tastes, like their personality, are a part of them. Parents can help expand those tastes, but we can only help so much – to a large part, the kids are who they are.
*I have a range, even in my own kids. One is a middle of the road eater, one leans strongly towards the picky side, and one is deep in the picky camp, with a very defined list of what is acceptable to eat. As in, no fruit or vegetables. Yes, this terrifies me.

The good news is, as kids get older, their tastes change. The range of food they’ll eat expands dramatically, usually in their teen years. In other words, most picky eaters grow out of it. I can see hints of this in my kids; the variety of foods they will eat keeps expanding. I keep exposing them to things, and hoping for a big breakthrough…but we’re not there yet, and I constantly worry that we will never get there.

Judgmental parents are confusing their good fortune with good parenting. They got kids somewhere between “live to eat” and “middle of the road”. I got one in the “no way, no how” camp. But these parents believe all kids are exactly like theirs, in the middle of the road, and just need a little push. And they can’t wait to tell me the error of my ways. If I would just use a little tough love, everything would sort itself out, and my picky eater would suddenly become an omnivore.

Believe me, I tried. Eventually, I got tired of dinnertimes full of anger, hurt, yelling, tears, threats, and tiny nibbles of food followed by gagging. I want dinner to bring us together as a family, not push us apart. What works for us is serving a bunch of different foods, keeping it as healthy as we can, and serving something the kids will eat at every meal. (Which is usually a carb, like bread, tortillas, or rice.) Then, we let them eat what they want, and I try not to get pushy or obsess about it. Some days are successes, some are failures, but we seem to be headed in the right direction.

If this is such a painful topic, why do I write about it in my blog? Why not just ignore it, so I don’t have to deal with all the back seat parenting? Because I’m not alone. There are other parents out there, struggling with what their children will (and won’t) eat. Some of them have kids that are just as picky as mine. I hope sharing my experience helps them out. Also, writing it out helps me work through my own issues. It took years to figure out how to eat with my kids, and it is still difficult. But I believe in the value of family meals and home cooking, in eating healthy and eating a variety of fresh food. So I push on. I hope I’m showing others a way forward too.

So, to everyone who wants to tell me how to feed my kids:

The way I feed my family offends you. You assume what works for you will work for everyone. I wish it worked for us, but it doesn’t. I’m glad it works for you, really, and I hope it continues. Your kids will be better off for it. But can you do me a favor? Can you assume I’m not a bad parent, and I’m doing the best I can for me and my family? Thanks.


What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? (He asks, hiding behind his desk chair…) Leave them in the comments section below.

Resources:

A quick summary of the science of picky eating, from NOVA scienceNow. [PBS.org]
The Science of Picky Eaters
Picky Eaters: Expert Q&A

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic is a picky eater turned foodie, and wrote a book about it:
Parents of Picky Eaters, It’s Not Your Fault [nytimes.com]
Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate

Ellyn Satter wrote the book(s) on picky eating, and how to deal with it without losing your mind:
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook

Related Posts:

DadCooksDinner Loses Weight…Then Gains Some Back
Family Dinners and Small Kids
Family Dinners and Busy Kids

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28 Comments

  1. Shane K /

    I’m with you on this one Mike. I have two kids, 11 and 5. My 11yo will try most things, but still likes the sweets more than anything, and pretty much only eats Broccoli and Artichokes (with LOTS of butter each) for veggies. My 5yo is autistic and his diet consists of Grilled Cheese, Peanut Butter Sandwiches, Baby Pancakes, Baby Carrots (rarely), Broccoli stem only, and Apples… oh… and Hershey Chocolate Bars (Hershey brand only). If he doesn’t like the look of it… he won’t touch it, literally won’t touch it or pick it up. And I thought I was a stubborn person until he came along. I’ve had people say to dig in my heels and push my 5yo son to try more things. I just look at them dumbly and tune them out. Every kid is different and sometimes we have to go with the flow, even if that means making brocolli every night because that is the only vegetable my kids will eat.

  2. Janice /

    It does my heart good to read this. I have three, the youngest, who is only just turned 1, is the ONLY good eater. The other two are deep in the picky zone. Parents who do no have picky eaters do not understand. They just don’t And it is so good that you wrote this. I wish parents would just start giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume that I don’t try everything within my power to get my kids to eat healthy. Don’t assume that I’m letting them rule the house. Like you I want to enjoy meals with my kids. I LOVE food. LOVE it. And too often it turns into fights and tears and gagging if I try to force them into eating. Really, it’s one of my biggest parenting struggles and to hear people flippantly write it off as me being a bad parent makes me want to punch someone.

    So thanks for this post! And even thought I won’t try to serve any of it to my kids for the next ten years, my husband and I think your food rocks. 🙂

  3. With you here as well ! We’ve only got a 20-month old, but he’s already in the picky-eater routine. Some days foods that he ate just last week he decides are no longer worthy and he’s clamping his mouth shut and twisting away. We do our best to find the healthiest food that he will actually eat (hummus on bread is a current go to snack), but crackers and chips are king. The interesting thing? If we blend it into a smoothie, he’ll eat anything. Fruits, spinach, flax meal, you name it, if it’s in his smoothie cup, apparantly it’s all good. So I suppose it all balances out…

  4. Fletch /

    Mike, I found this blog because I was trying to find different things to try to feed my own picky kids. I have a 5 year old daughter that hates fruit. She refuses to eat any kind of fruit, but I’ve expose her to all kinds of vegetables and she will now eat salads, asparagus and will even let me put spinach on her ham and cheese sandwich. For me that’s a win. My 3 year old only wants his meat mechanically separated meat, basically hot dogs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets. He won’t eat any other kind of chicken, beef or pork, I’ve tried. No matter what I cook the kids have to try it. Nothing is more deflating as a parent than spending time cooking a meal and have your kids say “Yuck”! I’ve always read kids have to be exposed to different foods multiple times before they will accept it. With my daughter I’m starting to see all that exposure is starting to work. As for my son, his pediatrician said his son did the same thing. It’s a phase a 3 year old go through trying to have some control in there life. He is like if the kids are growing and healthy he doesn’t care if he eats a hot dog, he’ll grow out of it. Kids are very active and crave foods with lots of sugar and carbs. I tried “sending your kids to bed without eating the dinner their given”, and it did not work. I say all kids are different and you have to do what’s best for your family. Your doing a great job, don’t let people who think they know more about your family than you do get you down.

  5. Michael Ross /

    Mike, I think if you keep doing what you’re doing – preparing the right foods and eating by example, and getting the kids involved in cooking – things will take care of themselves. I was a pretty picky eater as a kid, but once I grew up, my tastes changed, and as I learned to cook for myself, I tried and liked more and more foods.

  6. Deanne /

    I have 3 children – and they seemed to get pickier according to birth order. The only thing I can say about the baby (now 6) and his eating habits is, “well, at least he doesn’t like pop”. As you can see I am grasping at straws. I agree with you that is the luck of the draw. Good luck (and to me, too).

  7. Great post. Agree wholeheartedly. I’ve settled on a “compartmentilization” approach to appease my vegetarian and starch-and-meatatarian daughters, doing as much plating and assembly as possible at the table. I blogged about it today (
    http://bigdinthehouse.blogspot.com/2012/08/picky-picky.html) and I’ve also posted a few recipes under the “Food” label.

  8. Tammy H /

    Just thought I would put my two cents in, feed your kids what they like to eat. Some of them may over time start to like and try more foods and some may not but the reality is a good meal time is when everyone is happy, talking and enjoying food they like. I am not syaing they should live off of macdonalds and fruit loops but thier tastes will develop and this is a process like all others when raising a child.

  9. Doctsmith /

    Mike, I have been sampling your recipes with much success for the past 4 or 5 months. I don’t think I have tried one that I or my family didn’t like/love. Sounds like your approach to kids and their pickiness is similar to mine. There is something to say for limiting their choices and not giving in to their every demand. But, as a dentist, I can tell you that what different people can tolerate in their mouth differs quite widely. Majority of my patients have no problem with tolerating different tastes or stimuli at their appointments. While some physically can’t tolerate certain things. The tongue reacts to different stimuli in many patients no matter how hard they try to help me. With taste buds on the tongue, surely this translates to food taste. Also gag reflex is so different for different people. You just have to accommodate a little. Enjoyed reading this entry Mike. (delete this part…. biology is spelled wrong.)

  10. Thank you…and thanks for the spell checking!

  11. Thank you to everyone for the comments. It’s good to know I’m not the only one out there who has to deal with this!

  12. I am not going to comment on picky kids, having no kids myself, and being a former very picky eater. I do remember though, trying things and realizing that some of the things I had been avoiding I did actually like. Just wanted to mention one more resource – Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, wrote about how she conquered picky eating, and compared and contrasted her method with Ellen Satter.

  13. Annie O /

    Just one word – BRAVO! Good for you!!!

  14. Cynthia /

    I understand where our dissenters are coming from, but they are probably from my age group (50) and older. Back when we were kids you ate it or you went hungry. (I went hungry alot…but then to this day I can go without food for VERY long periods of time, haha!) But it’s an entirely different world today. There are more supermarkets, more food, more variety, cheaper prices (albeit for lesser quality IMO). Our country is awash in food. We can afford to indulge our children. We have more money, time, and food choices. I think, in the final analysis, my generation is…a …little…jealous. And they take it out on you. 🙂

  15. Monica /

    Nothing like having children to bring out the judgie-ness in people, huh? I think you are doing absolutely right and what all the rest of us do (even though some won’t admit it): doing the best we can through trial and error. I have a feeling your kids are going to grow up and be pretty adventurous eaters! And if not…well, that’s OK too!

  16. Sherri /

    Well no real picky eaters in my home, just the midle of the road, but anytime I see a beautiful picture of green beans and especially coming from my weekly emails of wonderful cooking ideas and suggestions, I thought oh boy, he has an idea on how to cook these damn things so we all like them . . . hahahahah, I enjoyed the post nontheless and as always you have wise words for all of us! Keep on keeping on !

  17. Just made a new fan with this post. Thank you, consider your trials shared by one more reader.

  18. Like others have said, I agree 100%. I have four kids and one was such a picky eater at a young age I’m amazed he actually survived. I remember one “tough love” week where I was determined to break him of his picky eating habit. After a few nights of fighting, yelling, crying, and hurt feelings he finally tried a vegetable… an promptly threw up all over the table. We reverted to making bland grilled chicken and rice for him and that works for us.
    The good news is that now he’s in middle school and can tolerate a lot more variety than he ever did before. There’s light at the end of the tunnel

  19. Yes! I love this post. You can’t make a kid eat, poop or sleep. Believe me, I have tried and found that the battles I prefer to fight lie elsewhere (behavior, cleaning up their crap, combing their hair….. battles in which I actually have a chance of winning or garnering some sort of truce.)

    I have always known that I was just a little lucky. My 6.5 yo is a little pickier than the 5 yo, but even then, I can find something interesting for him besides chicken tenders. My 5 yo? Helped with the chicken saag last night because that is just about one of her favorite dishes ever. That girl will eat anything but fish (unless it is wrapped up in sushi, WTH?)

    But is any of this the result of my stellar parenting skillz? I wish!

    Hang tough, Dad Who Cooks, someday you just might have Kids Who Eat. Heh.

  20. Good for you. As a former “no way, no how” eater, I’m pleased to report that I do eat WAY more vegetables than I used to. I even eat okra now (stewed with tomatoes, granted, not fried, which is how my grandmother insisted I try them one evening—that resulted in what is even now called the Great Fried Okra Battle. I “won.” I literally sat at that table for four hours until bedtime, because I wasn’t allowed to get up until I ate the okra.) Also, I eat a lot of vegetarian food (because I’m cheap), and I try to go heavy on the veggies.

    My parents figured out the couple of vegetables that I would eat (broccoli with butter, Italian green beans with olives [super-yummy], and artichokes because they were fun) and rotated those out so I wouldn’t die of malnutrition. When I was younger, I just didn’t like trying new things. Nowadays, I eat just about anything (except mushrooms and corn), and my mom’s pretty pleased and is okay with me not liking those things because she knows I’m not holding on to childhood opinions but that I have tried them and not liked them as an adult.

  21. Marcia Moore /

    My method goes along with the other posters. I have, in fact, given my child the same food for four meals in a row until he ate it. It wasn’t that much of it, but he did eat it (and I didn’t starve him of other food in the mean time).
    However, that will not work for every kid. My SIL was a very picky eater. My MIL said simply that her daughter would not eat (my husband remembers this). She would not eat for days if they tried those methods. “When you are hungry you’ll eat.” Not always. However, her daughter is also a picky eater (until a couple of years ago at age 12, only ate white foods…starch and cheesitarians, but she’d eat chicken and turkey too, because it was white).

  22. Yes! I had no idea how lucky I was with my first son (he’ll try pretty much anything, but has a medium sized list of things he actually *likes*). My second son is the most stubborn, new-food-adverse kid on the planet. Ok, not really, but it feels like that. No meat, no sauces of any kind (he’ll occasionally tolerate mac and cheese), and you could not get him to try something he is not interested in unless you literally held him down and shoved it into his mouth (never done this, never will). It’s not a moral failing, it’s just his personality. Is it frustrating for me? Yes! But I’m not willing to sacrifice my relationship with my child to appease some faceless person on the internet who says I should make them eat whatever it is “they” deem appropriate/necessary. No thanks. I’ll adjust my expectations, and he’ll eat what he likes and we will alllll survive.

  23. My older daughter was not just a picky eater, she literally could not be anywhere near cheese. (We all thought this was funny until we learned she was lactose intolerant—duh!) Her diet was very limited—pasta with tomato sauce, chicken nuggets, broccoli, french fries, corn, chocolate… We tried to get her to try new things, but honestly, she usually gagged on them. My husband and my other daughter and I have a pretty healthy diet—no processed food, no soda or junk food, lots of vegetables, plenty of variety—so we ate what we liked and fixed pasta for her.

    Last year she went away to college, and I started hearing stories about Korean barbecue and sauteed beet greens with walnuts. When she came back, I couldn’t believe the difference—she now enjoys a wide variety of different foods, including salads and plenty of vegetables. She is not a big fan of cheese but it’s more dislike than horror now; she actually likes it in some contexts. I’m not surprised that this happened, because my younger sister was exactly the same way—she went from a steady diet of fish sticks and french fries to being the most adventurous eater in our family.

    One more thing, for those of you who are still in the thick of it: Texture can be as important as taste. Even in her vegetable-hating days, my daughter would eat pureed soups (the kind you buy in a box at the supermarket), and sometimes i would get pureed baby carrots and sneak them into her tomato sauce, or add pureed apricots to the batter for pancakes. My attempt to bury zucchini in chocolate cake, however, backfired so badly that to this day my kids view homemade chocolate cake with suspicion.

  24. I don’t have kids, so take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt…

    But I don’t understand why this seems to be such a peculiarly American problem. My friends with kids in other countries (France, Malaysia, India, Singapore) don’t experience this nearly as much as I see it here. Their kids seem to eat what’s on offer. Or maybe sometimes they skip a meal, but they generally eat the foods of their home region. Sure, there are always a few “dislike” foods that every kid is going to have (my French niece refuses to eat mushrooms, for example), but the degree this manifests itself in the USA and the way it is dealt with here to such an extreme degree, just seems bizarre to me. I mean, kids in Sri Lanka aren’t going on hunger strikes until they get chicken fingers, are they?

    I don’t know how I would deal with it myself, so I can’t say, “just do this.” But I really don’t get it when I look at things worldwide.

  25. Marvelous post. From the parent of one picky eater to another, I thank you for the affirmation that I’m doing the best I can.

  26. Wow, Jenna…that sounds awful. I’m glad you eventually got an answer. Thank you for sharing your story!

  27. Snark21883 /

    I ate with regrettable pickiness until I was about 12, then I got with the program. Kids are weird. It’s the ones that never grow up – the 30 year olds who stubbornly refuse to eat vegetables, the 50 year old who won’t eat anything but well-done beef- that wig me out. With adults, it should rightly be regarded as pathological, as an eating disorder or neurosis.

  28. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s some basis in “taste” for picky eating. There’s also no doubt in my mind that much of “picky” behavior is the game or tactic the child has learned to play in order to get the food s/he wants. Certainty number 3: parents should set the rules, and children do not.

    The rule in our house is that the child must taste, but not necessarily “eat”, all foods put in front of them. That’s it, no exceptions except for spicy food. No taste? No dessert, so it’s a choice the child makes. A taste could be just one little mouthful, no problem there. And the rule applies each meal anew, so just because you tasted an asparagus tip last month does not mean you don’t have to taste it tonight. By the way, we don’t cook special meals, they eat what we eat, always.

    A little story: we had another family over the other night, and their child was described as picky. I explained the rule to the child and said the rule applied to everyone, parents, kids, even guests! After she had tasted all these things that her mother said she would not eat we asked her “Thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumb sideways?” There was one thumb down for one thing, I think tomato salad, and some sideways thumbs for cabbage with a vinaigrette, and a beet, I think. So all those things that were supposedly inedible were actually not bad, but neither were they good. The child had figured out a way to react to most foods that convinced the parents that the child could – somehow – not tolerate the food. The parents had been outwitted. This rule gives the kid a choice, and also makes the child more honest about what’s “gross” or not.