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Dealing With a Picky Eater

May13

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Hi Amy,

I love your column and your blog–I’m so glad you write all that you do because in addition to pure entertainment (deodorant drama!!), you always give great advice. And now I really need some.

My son, at 13 months, is turning out to be SUCH a picky eater. I’m completely baffled. He only wants to eat pureed veggies and fruits (with the exception of bananas–he loves them. I swear the kid is part monkey.)

Advice Smackdown ArchivesHe’ll usually eat chicken or turkey, most breads and cracker-type snacks, but no actual veggies. I’ve tried green beans, corn, peas, spinach, lima beans, squash, and avocados among others. He either refuses to touch it or if he puts it in his mouth, he then spits it out immediately. And here’s the weird thing, usually I can take the exact same veggies or fruits and throw them in the food processor to puree them, and then he’ll scarf them down. I asked my pediatrician about it and she said so just keep trying (that whole bit I keep reading about kids needing to try something 10-14 times before they decide to like it). And that’s fine, I guess, but in the mean time he needs to be eating healthy stuff and I’m worried that I’m not helping by continuing to let him have purees. I realize he could have texture issues, but I don’t have any clue how to tackle that.

My husband and I eat a fair amount of vegetables in front of him. And when he won’t try something, we always eat a piece of whatever it is so he can see us eating it. And each time my son then picks up a piece and tries to make us eat another one as if to say “okay, if you like it so much, just eat the rest.”

Somehow I feel like we’re on the path to having a kid that refuses to eat anything but ketchup-soaked chicken nuggets (even though I know that’s a bit premature.) But I’d like to make sure I’m not missing something obvious here and I’d love any advice you can provide.

Thanks so much!
Rebecca

“Ketchup-soaked chicken nuggets.” HA HA HA HA.

HA HA HA HA HA HA.

You know what my 4.5 year old won’t eat? Chicken nuggets. Or ketchup. Hamburgers. Meatballs. Turkey. Fish. Lunch meat. Beans. Rice. Vegetables or fruit (fresh or cooked, pureed or sauced). He once ate nothing but peanut-butter sandwich crackers for a month. He only recently decided to eat a FRENCH FRY for the first time ever, and this was a victory of like, raw asparagus spear proportions. He will reject foods on the 10th try; he will reject foods on the 30th try. He will not use a fork or spoon voluntarily; he will not tolerate foods being mixed up or dipped in anything. He will watch me prepare his foods like a hawk to make sure I’m not trying to sneak anything extra in, ever since he realized I was putting pureed veggies his macaroni and cheese. He’s lived on a diet of milk, breads, pasta, cheese, nuts and dry cereal for years, and we’re JUST NOW managing to get him to at least taste new foods. He still doesn’t like them, but he’s putting them in his mouth and swallowing them without gagging. Much.

I’m not telling you this to scare you, but more to underline a point that 1) I am probably not the best person to give you advice here, and 2) Noah remains on the 95th percentile for height and 50th for weight, and is perfectly solidly healthy.

Of course I wish he would eat more foods. I wish we had more freedom to go to different restaurants as a family. I wish I could stop hiding fruits and green vegetables in gross-colored smoothies everyday. (He will thankfully drink them without protest, but only if I serve them in a “Dora cup.” And don’t get me started on his attachment to the sippy cup and the Great Big Boy Cup Wars of 2009.)

But he’s FINE. He’s HEALTHY. He’s STRONG. He’s GROWING. That is what’s really important, and the thing I have to remind myself at dinnertime every. night. when he flat-out refuses to eat a single thing on his plate and willingly chooses to go to bed hungry. Again. Oh my God.

(On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Ezra. Who is just now starting to exert some picky-ish preferences and reject some of the things he used to eat, but still generally will eat whatever is in front of him when he realizes we’re not going to make him something else. He eats a really nice variety of fruits and veggies and meats and grains and textures, uses a fork and a spoon, has a seemingly bottomless appetite…and is barely hanging on to the 10th percentile for weight. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND CHILDREN SOMETIMES AT ALL YOU GUYS.)

The best and only ADVICE I can give you is to buy Ellyn Satter’s book How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Much. It’s a great book, even though (obviously) it didn’t really change the course of Noah’s diet all that much. It did keep me from losing my mind over it though, and stopped me from making some food-related mistakes. (Playing short-order cook, where you cook separate kiddie meals and/or immediately whip up a replacement for every rejected food, being the most serious.) The book basically stems from one tenet: You are responsible for putting food in front of your child, and that’s IT. It’s all them, after that. Whether they eat, how much they eat, etc.

As for the possibility of texture issues — well, I should have advice, but I don’t have that much. Most kids have some texture aversions (hell, most adults still have some), and as long as your son isn’t demonstrating actual problems with his oral motor skills (problems with chewing, gagging, choking, drooling), I would bet he WILL outgrow most of them. Noah’s issues turned out to be something a little more serious (he had oral hypersensitivity to the point it was classified as oral aversion for awhile), and did require therapy. Textures no longer bother him so much — we’re now just honestly stuck in the “I don’t wanna try new things” stalemate, which is tougher because he REMEMBERS all the choking and gagging from a year or two ago.

It’s always a tough call to know whether your accommodations are helping or hurting — particularly after you’ve had your wrist slapped by Satter for letting your kid rule the menu at home. I’d probably continue to offer the purees along with the unmolested veggie or fruit, and just view them as good practice for self-feeding with a spoon. Don’t make a big deal out of it — like sweeping the rejected food away mid-meal with an “OH FINE” and stepping away from the table to blend them. That’s giving your kid a sense of winning something, or getting his way. Just have the purees ready to go at the beginning of the meal and focus on getting your son to use a spoon. Maybe try gradually upping the thickness or changing the consistency by adding in some brown rice or oatmeal. Stimulating his mouth is a good thing too — let him play with an electric toothbrush and massage his cheeks and lips after diaper changes.

And lastly, for all my fellow parents of picky eaters who are looking for a quick way to get a decent amount of veggies into their kid (that doesn’t involve adding minuscule amounts of chickpeas and beets to freaking chocolate brownies), here’s our smoothie recipe, aka The Reason My Child Doesn’t Have Scurvy:

Noah’s Super Picky-Eater Dairy-Free Fruity Juice

1) In a small single-serving blender, add small servings of frozen veggies: peas, spinach, lima beans, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. (I’ve occasionally used fresh but have to use less because the taste tends to be a bit more noticeable.) I usually fill this sized blender a little over halfway with vegetables.

2) Now, we camouflage. Top it off with generous chunks of fresh or frozen fruit: strawberries, pineapple, mango, etc. If your child likes a thicker smoothie, adding fresh banana or avocado works too.

3) Then add juice — I always use a veggie-based juice like Trader Joe’s Green Plant Beverage (don’t be scared, it’s super-sweet). Add juice all the way to the top. Blend. Serve in a non-clear straw cup with a lid, if your kid is easily squicked by Anything Green Looking.

Then go have yourself a glass of wine and tell yourself “it’s a phase, it’s a phase” four hundred dozen times.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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7 Responses to “Dealing With a Picky Eater”

  1. liberrian May 13 at 1:00 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve read Satter’s book cover to cover, and I SO WANT to take that neutral stance she talks about but I find it near impossible. And my husband doesn’t help. Last night he pretty much issued a direct power struggle with our (3.5 y.o.) daughter over her refusal to eat whatever it was. But I really wish I could do that neutral “if you want it eat it, if you don’t, don’t” attitude more naturally. It’s when my daughter starts freaking out about whatever is on her plate that I start, despite my best intentions, with the “no dessert if you don’t eat dinner” thing. I think maybe we just need to stop doing dessert regularly (er, stop eating dessert till after the kids are in bed).

  2. kiki May 13 at 3:27 pm Reply Reply

    I have 3 kids. My oldest is 3 and 1/2 and an eating anomaly, she eats everything, rarely complains, has a tad bit of a preoccupation with condiments, but who cares she eats cauliflower and beets for crying out loud. My sons are 13 months old and one of them is 95% all around in size and the other is Off The Charts. The larger of the two, lets just call him Baby Huey, until a few months ago would.not.eat.anything, nada, zippo, nothing, besides bland baby cereal and Cheerios, and formula, and now cows milk. He drive me looney , people would comment constantly ” I’ll bet he’s a big eater.” Yeah, right, if you only knew the gagging and dramatics he would show at trying a new flavor, litterally giving me a look like “See, I tried it and I almost died”.

    I’ll skip to the point, I have the same philosophy and tactics with feeding all my kids and some kids are just picky, period. You can’t do much about it beside continuing to offer them a variety, all of what Amy said above. My Ped. told me 1.) keep offering the variety, they will change their mind about some things eventually they will eat when they are hungry. Give two new or questionable things and two sure-things at every meal. I always lead with the new things because if he is hungry enough, you never know. 2.) Aim for one decent meal a day and look at fruits and vegetable over the course of a week. Of course you try and serve a balanced meal three times a day, with a few healthy snacks. But if they only eat one decent meal and basically reject the other two, call it even, try again tomorrow. Their caloric needs (per pound) go down a lot in the second year because they don’t grow as rapidly. 3.) Limit the milk and juice, offer them after meals, so they do not fill up on liquid calories.

    Baby Huey now eats… well lots of things. Our biggest triumphs lately were chicken, meatballs and Pasta! Yay! I just kept throwing it out there and low and behold “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” Neither he or his brother will consume cut up fruits of vegetables off their tray, a nibble or two here and there but not much. So Amy, thank you for your Juice recipe, helping us keep the scurvy away.

    One last tidbit. The pickiest kid I ever met in my life was my cousin. At age three this child ate nothing for dinner besides spagettios and Kraft Mac and cheese. He is now a college senior, eagle scout, Vice President of his university and eats enchiladas, prime rib, shrimp sushi… In other words he grew up to be a completely well adjusted young man, even in regards to food.

  3. Lindsay May 13 at 8:10 pm Reply Reply

    When people ask what my older child likes to eat I don’t have an answer for them. My standard reply goes something like ‘he’ll eat anything when he’s hungry and nothing when he is not’. Sometimes he is not hungry for days. He is 80th for height and 25th for weight and has been since the good old days of pureed kale and plain whole milk yogurt. Today he ate an entire bowl of ground beef and beans with sour cream and cheese, followed by watermelon and a chocolate chip cookie with pecans, coconut, and granola. Yesterday he downed several bites of coconut brown rice with fish and veggies. Two days ago he would not open his mouth. Milk was it. Sometimes I look around at the heavier kids in playgroup and wish I could be a fly on the wall at their homes. Are their parents just cruising through the drive through at McDonalds? Do they whip up tasty snacks in the shape of faces? Do they stand on their heads and do a dance to convince their child to consume? Some probably do (I know some) but for the most part it seems to be the personality of the kid. I look after another child occasionally and she would eat all day if I let her. It’s pretty remarkable. I am so used to placing food in my kids’ mouths for them when they are not looking (I just fed them lunch in the bathtub) that I would not know what to do with a kid that just up and feeds himself. Although I try to keep my calm and will loudly voice that ‘food is not a battle I choose to fight’, there are still the hair pulling moments when I want to pry their little mouths open and force feed them. Then there is the other kid. He eats ALMOST anything almost anytime. But he is 15th percentile and seemingly not gaining any weight at all. All other indicators are happy, healthy, and meeting all milestones. What is a mom to do? I puree avocados and nuts into his smoothies but he thinks that is vile. I practically shove spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth but he refuses to eat anything that cold. I offer cheese but he’d rather have my spicy curry or just plain brown rice. It seems to me that he is a perfectly healthy eater…for a thirty year old, but that he will not partake of any of those great, fattening, kid foods. Ahh, at least there is no scurvy concern (good thing because smoothies are met with a firm shake of the head).

    As for the other one — what should I make for school lunches at a meat free, most likely nut free conservative synagogue?

  4. SY May 17 at 6:05 pm Reply Reply

    My sons are 9 and 6.5 years old and both are off the charts in height, but remain at about 60% for weight. The older loves any vegetable we put in front of him, roasted, toasted, steamed, you name it, he’ll eat it — his only issue is with certain fruits. The younger will eat any fruit but only likes his vegetables steamed. Both are fairly good eaters, but the younger had some food allergies when he was a baby which made him more adverse to new foods. Stick with it because now my boys will eat pretty much anything we set in front of them including sushi, salmon, hummus, etc. although Chicken Korma and couscous are still not favorites around here.

  5. Kelly May 17 at 6:11 pm Reply Reply

    First time visitor here, and I have to say, THANK GOD, this is not happening only in my house. Not that i wish these struggles on anyone, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one pulling my hair out on a meal-by-meal basis.

    Thank you for the tips and the recipe!

  6. Kate F. May 28 at 5:14 pm Reply Reply

    Yeah, when my mom went to the pediatrician worried that my brother would only eat white/tan foods, and only if they were completely separate from each other (ie. peanut butter IN A SPOON to be eaten on its own not touching the roll), the pediatrician just said “He’s at the top of the growth charts. He’s healthy. At least ONE of your kids [me] will eat; neither of mine will. When he’s hungry, he’ll eat.”

    It took until puberty, honestly, but as an adult he’s an amazing cook and incredibly adventurous eater. And in the 7-8 years of white/tan foods, my mom just made him always try one bite of what we were having, and then go toast his own damn potato roll and scoop his own peanut butter spoon if he wasn’t going to eat our dinner. She never made him anything special.

  7. AG May 29 at 12:23 am Reply Reply

    Are 13 month year olds really supposed to be able to eat whole vegetables? My kid doesn’t. She only has five teeth, and is generally a picky eater, so I’m just focused on her eating a variety of foods(even if it’s mostly purees) than worrying about what form they take. I just assumed that she’ll be more interested in eating non-purees when she gets some more teeth and is better able to chew.

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