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Picky Eating Peer Pressure

Picky Eating Peer Pressure

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve read your blog for years now as your younger boys are just slightly older than my 2 boys. I love everything you’ve had to say about Ellyn Satter, and bought the book but was always hesitant to try it. My older son is 6 and is extremely picky, with a very short list of foods he will eat. Not included on this list are things you would think he would be ok with like plain pasta (although he’ll eat mac n cheese), bread (although he loves pizza, but only from 1 specific restaurant) or even rice. So whenever I think I should try Satter, I can’t even think of what foods to put out that he would even try. I’ve been making him his own meal, and don’t mind doing it, its been working for us, and I know at least he’s eating something at dinner and it’s not a battle.

The issue is my 3 year old. He has always been an adventurous eater, loves broccoli, shrimp, chicken and while less willing than he used to be to try new things (and less likely to eat a sizable dinner), will do so, except recently he’s realized his brother gets pizza or pancakes for dinner and instead of eating his meal which he would like, insists he wants the same thing as his brother.

So I feel like I’ve reach a cross roads, where I have to bite the bullet and try something different so that my 3 year old continues to eat a variety of foods but I don’t know how to approach it with my 6 year old who refuses to try anything really. I could count on 1 hand the number of new foods he’s tried and he won’t even try bread which it seems is the fail-safe. He also many times will try something slightly different, take one bite, say he likes it, and refuse to take a 2nd bite.

I feel like he just will never eat dinner or will cry for the entire meal and it worries me. I know his fear of new foods is real and I don’t like the idea of traumatizing him. Also, he doesn’t like sweets, so dessert isn’t an incentive (although I know Satter doesn’t use it as one). I feel like I’m choosing one child over another and no solution can work for both.

Please help!

You know what I’m gonna say, right?

We all know what I’m gonna say.

But BEFORE I say it, I will say this: I was you, once upon a time. I was in this EXACT SAME predicament. I had an older child who ate nothing. NOTHING! And then by some miracle, had a second child who ate everything.  They were even spaced exactly three years apart, like yours! And I’d grown complacent and hopeless about the older child’s eating habits (he had oral motor and sensory/texture issues after all!)…until the younger child started mimicking them, and demanding the same babyish, restricted, and nutritionally-questionable menu.

That was the kick in the pants we needed. We plunged headfirst into the Satter method when they were 5 and 2 years old and never looked back.

By 6 years old, it’s not just okay to eat such a limited list of foods. Something’s gotta give. Every once in awhile it’s cool to have a fun kids-only  dinner, but not every night. Pizza and pancakes are Sometimes Foods, You say it’s not a “battle” but only because you’ve thrown up the white flag of surrender and your child is now the Reigning Boss of Dinner. And now he’s winning his little brother over to his side, and pretty soon you will be short-order cooking nutritionally empty meals for both of them.

You CAN do this. You CAN take back control of the dinner table AND (even more importantly) expand your picky child’s diet to include more variety and better nutrition.

The problem is that yes, you just have to DO it. Like a Band-Aid.

If they don’t eat, it’s okay. They will not starve. They will not be traumatized because you are not going to force feed them, or punish them, or make any demands of them at the table other than to sit and keep you company.

“I don’t like this. I’m not going to eat it. I’m not even going to TASTE it, so there!”

“Okay! That’s fine. Would you like to talk about (school/Ninja Turtles/Minecraft/whatever) while I eat?”

When we first started out, my oldest’s list of acceptable foods was impossibly short and getting shorter by the month. We were completely at the mercy of his food whims at home and at restaurants, as even his acceptable foods had to be presented a certain way, much like your son’s one preferred source of pizza. He was truly a terrible eater and I’d (rightly or wrongly) gone along with it because of his sensory issues. I really believed he was flat-out incapable of handling certain foods and textures. I was wrong.

He’s 10 now. He continues to have some issues with very dense meats, like steak. He still tends to chew his food into a pulp before swallowing. He will always gravitate towards the carbs and leave the vegetables for last. None of these issues mean he can’t eat and enjoy 99% of the meals we make. I don’t force him to eat steak, but I’m not going to make him his own plate of chicken nuggets in its place. He can eat extra of whatever grain and vegetable sides are on the table instead. He knows this, he accepts this, he eats because he is hungry and that’s what’s on the table. His favorite meal I make these days are three-cheese calzones with mushrooms and kale. Not bad for a kid who used to live on peanut butter sandwich crackers.

(And like, ONLY the peanut better sandwich crackers from Trader Joe’s, at that.)

The fear of new foods is very real for young children, but is a very conquerable fear. And I think as parents we have a real responsibility to help our children conquer their fears in general, and this one is no exception. You can start with his preferred foods, served ever-so-slightly differently. Opt for a different pizza style or topping. Homemade mac-and-cheese instead of the boxed stuff. (Or even a different pasta shape or sauce color, if you want to take baby steps.) Add some chicken or peas or broccoli to it — my middle son will eat plain broccoli by the bowlful, my oldest hates it plain but LOVES it mixed in with his Annie’s.

(My youngest will eat around the broccoli and leave most of it, and that’s also okay. At least he’s not recoiling at the sight of it and rejecting the entire meal because GREEEEEEN STUFF. And he will eat chicken or peas mixed in.)

It took about three days for my oldest (at 5 years old) to finally grok to the New Dinner Order and realize that no, I wasn’t going to cave and make him something else. He was hungry. He ate. It wasn’t even anything all that amazing (I think our big breakthroughs were fishsticks and a cheeseburger), but it was huge for us at the time.

So for dinner tonight, just cook something. Spaghetti and meatballs with salad and garlic bread. Chicken with rice. Shrimp and grits. WHATEVER you were planning to make before reading this column. Put it on his plate and his brother’s plate. And…that’s it. He doesn’t have to eat it. He obviously more than likely won’t eat it. You can stem any tears and upset by reminding him that no, he doesn’t have to eat or try anything (although that would make you super happy!), and no one is going to sit there haranguing him into “one bite” or punish him if he refuses to eat.

Then change the subject and let him talk to you about something he enjoys talking about. (In my experience this tends to NOT be what happened at school or any topic I’m interested in, but to keep us all from focusing on and getting irritated by the whole NOT EATING thing, we go with the painstakingly long and detailed descriptions of TV shows.) Remind yourself that he will not starve. It is not the end of the word if he skips dinner, because breakfast/lunch/snacks are right around the corner. Focus on the quality of his potential calories over the quantity, because that’s his body’s responsibility to regulate.

If you guys dine out, he is allowed to order whatever he wants from the menu, because that’s how restaurants work. But at home, unless he’s doing the cooking, he eats whatever you make for the majority of the family, because that’s how life works.

(Note that eating out becomes SO PLEASANT post-Satter, because my kids don’t demand that their favorite foods look or taste that one specific way, i.e. non-boxed mac-n-cheese, a burger on a different kind of bun, pancakes with fruit inside instead of plain, etc.)

Our youngest, despite NOT being all that picky in general,  has been in full-on dinnertime rebellion mode for months now. I fully admit to sinking to his level and letting it become a thing.  (We’re doing much better, having given ourselves a Satter-style pep talk about NOT ENGAGING or CARING. and last night he inexplicably cleaned his plate.)

It DOES wear on you, night after night, watching your child not eat. I get that. I’m not going to sugarcoat that part. But then I look at my older two boys — one fully reformed picky eater and one who never lost his sense of food adventure to peer pressure — and remind myself that it’s worth it. He will eat when he’s hungry. He will learn to try new foods. He will not be the boss of you (or his brother) at the table. You can do it!!

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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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Comments

  • Cassandra

    Oh Oh OH! I’ve got this 6 year old! Kind of. Won’t eat ANY type of pasta (including mac’n’cheese), any rice-like product, or any potato (including french fries!) He hasn’t touched a vegetable of any sort (unless hidden in a sweet baked good) for several years. He will only eat fruits (which I refuse to serve as dinner), dairy, and a limited selection of meat.

    He has whatever main meat we are having. FULL STOP. And he can slather it in as much ketchup/honey/mayo as he wants, but that’s his dinner and he WILL eat it.

    We do supplement it with a limited amount of bread, though. Maybe you could play around with the type? Maybe squishy white bread isn’t for your son. Try a multgrain roll. Pita bread. Tortilla chips? Saltine crackers?

    I also found that he doesn’t like his stuff mixed up. For example, are we having stew? He likes the meat in one separate pile, the other stuff (which he won’t eat but I give him anyways) in another. It’s the same meal, but presented differently so he’ll at least eat some of it.

    Oh! And he gets as much milk as he wants with dinner too.

    But yeah, you gotta Satter him. It’ll be hard, but it will be worth it.

  • Myriam

    As your son is on the older side, I think I would talk to him 1st. Explain what is going to happen, and what the expectations are.  Plan a post-bath snack. Choose a start date and put a star on the calendar for him to know it’s coming (not too far off, maybe 3 days in advance). Make the 1st Satter meal a “favorite of his”, like pancakes, but make it for the whole family. 

    Also, you don’t talk about the rest of the day. How does he eat?

    Finally, be confident in the method. It doesn’t promise a “non-picky eater”, it promises a kid who will grow up into an adult that has an healthy relationship with food, his body and his food environment. 

  • Caroline

    Yes, I second the idea that this is happening and he needs to understand the idea. Unfortunately, because he’s been allowed to rule the roost for a while, he’ll have grasped that he is in fact in charge of meal times so it will take a bit of time to undo, but he is unlikely to die of hunger in the meanwhile.
    One thing though, no snacks that wouldn’t ordinarily be given following a non-eaten meal. If he cries in the night or is generally gnarly, ignore him flatly and give not 1 inch. I know, very cruel and mean and all that, but necessary in the very short term. I like the idea of having 1 night where you all eat what HE likes with the idea that the next night, it’s your turn! Maybe in the future he can pick a meal once a week or once in a while, but in between, it’s what you provide and that’s the end of the matter. Good luck!

  • C

    Yes to this answer!  You need to give your child the skill of being able to eat all different kinds of foods!  My husband comes from a family of very picky eaters, primarily his parents.  My husband was, until he realized that I do the grocery shopping and the cooking and don’t care if he doesn’t like what I serve and he can starve.  Now he is super adventurous and requests ethnic food on a regular basis.  His family, however, does not have a nutritionally sound diet and as a result are very unhealthy.  They have no idea how to eat healthy, prepare healthy foods in a way that is enjoyable, and will not try new things.  It’s to the point where they will push food around their plates at weddings and go out and get fast food later in secret.  It’s not fun to deal with a picky eater, I get it.  But they do learn and there are serious consequences later in life to not having a developed palate or learning to eat healthy.

  • A.L

    Just a word of caution– the Satter method does not necessarily result in a kid who eats as well as Amy’s kids. But it sure does take the stress out of dinner.
    My almost 4 year old is a terribly picky eater and we have been using the Satter method on her for nearly a year. And she still has yet to eat even one bite of dinner that isn’t spaghetti, pizza (from one certain place) or a dinner roll. Every night it is the same– “I don’t like that” followed by about five to ten minutes sitting at the table and then clearing a full plate to the sink. She has been subsisting on her cereal breakfast, PB&J lunch and 2 fruit/nut/yogurt snacks per day. And I have no stress about it.
    I don’t freak out or worry. She’s fine. She’s growing appropriately and eating healthy things outside of dinner. So I just don’t worry about it. She understand she doesn’t have to eat but she also understands that she only gets what she’s given. I take care of my part and she takes care of hers.
    So just know that following Amy’s advice may not make your kid magically decide that he wants to eat all the things you provide and become an adventurous eater. But you will learn to let go of the part you can’t control and be a lot less stressed over dinner time. Good Luck!

    • EH

      Co-sign this.  I read Amalah before my kids ever got picky, thankfully, so we’ve done Satter from day 1.  My older kid is on a year long fruit strike.  Just doesn’t like the texture or taste.  But it’s just not a big deal. Doctor isn’t worried, and neither am I.

      I also joke that he’s a picky eater who doesn’t know he’s a picky eater. We never use the words, I don’t shame him in front of other people, and I just don’t engage.  It’s funny, he’s about as particular as any other kid, but people comment that he’s a great eater – often b/c we don’t have long negotiations about “one more bite,” or whatever.  I’ve seen some kids rise to the “picky” label they are given.  

      Regarding language, we also add “right now” whenever he says he doesn’t like something.  So, if he needs to remind me that he doesn’t like oranges, we encourage him to say “he doesn’t like oranges right now,” but that may change as we get older.

    • Em

      We’ve been following the Satter method for multiple years and my kid still eats nothing, to the point where his doctor is concerned. I would really love to hear from Amy (or other commenters) some advice for those of us whose kids don’t get with the program in three days. 

  • Holly W.

    I grew up in a Satter-method household (probably before that was a thing, actually) – no pressure to eat your meals, sure, but my SAHM was never a short-order cook. If we tried to whine about not getting what we had decided was the only thing we’d eat for dinner, we were sent to our rooms. Nobody needs to listen to that while they’re trying to enjoy dinner. With our two kids (5 and 2 also!) most nights are whatever we’re having for dinner – could be burgers and sweet potato fries and peaches, or it could be artichokes, asparagus, and chicken with some rice. They’re both hit or miss eaters, depending on how much they downed at lunch and how much they decide they don’t like it out of toddler/preshooldom spite. We tell them the only things they may say about dinner are “thank you” or “this is delicious.” (An “ew” gets a timeout after the first warning.) Nobody has to eat anything. Sometimes, my two-year-old eats all the tomatoes he can find, and some broccoli, and some chicken. Other nights he will only eat the chicken and rice. Other nights he will only eat the fruit. And he’s a chunky little man!  We just don’t make it an issue. Some nights we have a smorgasboard, and they can pick if they would like to have mac n cheese or yogurt or toast or something. And some nights we get a pizza. Those last two kinds of nights are MUCH less often though, so they count the smorgasboard and pizza nights as special, not as them getting to be in charge all the time 🙂

  • Lauren

    A big thing that helped with the dinnertime battles for us (in addition to the Satter method) was to stop giving an afternoon snack all together. Some people may disagree, but we found that the general cause for our kids to not eat more than maybe 2 bites of their dinner wasn’t necessarily pickiness, but rather that they just weren’t hungry at dinner time. So we stopped the after school snack (we eat dinner about 6), and they’re much better eaters for it. If they’re really pissy between lunch and dinner, they can choose to have a baby carrot or a piece of celery to tide them over. Not the most fun options, and generally they refuse those, to which I reply, “Oh, well you must not be that hungry then! Dinner is coming soon.” We don’t bat an eye if/when they whine about not wanting to eat what’s for dinner, and remind them, “You don’t have to eat it, but you may not leave the table until dinnertime is over and breakfast isn’t until morning.” It may not work for everyone, but this has worked extremely well for our family, and meals are no longer a battle.

  • Kay

    If you’re really wanting to address the fear of new foods and get ahead of it, I’d suggest involving your son in basic cooking and also the grocery shopping. One thing that really worked for us is on the weekends letting the kids pick out one fruit or vegetable from the produce section to take home and try. Sometimes they really surprised me with their selections! Then when we get home, if it needs to be cooked or prepared, we look up a recipe and the kids can do the kid-appropriate steps and I’ll do the rest. It’s not always a food we’ll keep in our rotation, but it’s always pretty fun and I believe it’s entirely the reason that my daughter now eats fruits with seeds. She always seems proud of “her” fruit that she picked, enough to get over her aversion to the crunchy seeds for that day. Similarly, when I ask her to help me make something for dinner, she’s more apt to try it because *she* made it. Getting them involved with meal prep lets them interact with the food in its whole state, so it could take some of the fright factor out of a totally new food.

  • Traci

    A lot of kids are picky because their parents allow them to be, but some kids really do have problems with textures or are supertasters or both. Satter won’t fix them. For these kids, it’s important that you always serve at least one item they can eat or allow them to fix a supplement once they are old enough. I learned to eat around what I couldn’t eat, but it was very upsetting whenever I found there was nothing I could handle. It felt like I was being punished for something I couldn’t control. My parents eventually allowed me to fix myself something if that happened and it really took the stress off of dinner.

  • We went full Satter on my 2.5 year old 2 months ago.  I will say that it took way longer than 3 days for her to start eating anything other than bread and mac and cheese.  But! Once the we broke through the eating got better fast.  She eats kale and broccoli now and tried a pineapple this morning (bananas used to be the only acceptable fruit). I will say the month of her skipping dinner entirely was really disheartening.  What helped me keep my sanity, honestly, was buying a meal planning program (fresh 20 in our case).  This way I didn’t have to plan meals around what I thought she MIGHT eat (the first new thing she ate was definitely not something i would have guessed).  I just made the dinner the meal plan told us to make – she could eat it or not. Good luck!

  • Dee

    I live in France so granted, I’ve got the whole food culture to help me with this sort of problem, but we do what all the French parents do. Feed the kids the same thing we’re eating ( I take out any funky spices or chunks of onion or garlic) and serve the meal. My 3 year old will say “I’m not eating this!” , my 5 year old will start to dig in and mom and dad say ” Well, that’s a shame cuz this is what we’re all eating”. We ignore the 3 year old’s antics while we eat our meal and eventually he eats, not as much as I’d like him to, but food is going in his mouth. We don’t make up for his light eating by letting him load up on extra bread , cheese and yogurt after the meal. We never offer him an alternative to what is seved for the meal, and that’s how the whole country functions. Just try and ask to sub something at a restaurant in France!!!!! You will be considered, rude and difficult. It is just not done, it is not in the culture and all kids eventually get on board with it. They just gotta if they want to eat! It works.

  • yasmara

    I have a not-picky 10.75 year old and a super-picky 9 year old. Have I waited to long to fix the 9 year old? Sob! He is very, very vocal (i.e., completely bratty and unacceptable) about food he doesn’t like and I am so demoralized about dinner. I have tried not to be a short-order cook, but I admit to slipping in the past 2 years because it’s just SO EXHAUSTING to have someone scream at me that he hates the food I made (and yes, he knows that that behavior is not OK and there are consequences for it). I think there’s a definite element of hangry here – my skinny kids get so, so crabby if they are hungry. 

  • Mary Ann

    My sister was a legendarily picky eater (self-weaned after first bites of baby food, would only drink the “most expensive” (hypoallergenic) formula, ate carrots til she turned orange…) who would only eat specific brands and often needed to see the food prepared (or more typically, wanted it raw). She went vegan for about ten years. And then, at the age of 29, discovered she just doesn’t digest dairy.

    Boom. Lifetime of issues solved. She didn’t have the vocabulary for it.

  • CeeBee

    I agree that you need to stop catering to him, but at age 6 you are up for one whopping battle. Be prepared that letting this go on so long may take just as long or longer to undo it. One thing I’ve learned to do is just keep putting things on the table. Most nights I put a green veggie on the table no matter who likes it or not (including me!). This has vastly improved the variety of foods my kids eat. The second thing is that they must try everything on their plates. They can spit it out and that’s fine as long as they try it. Sometimes they spit things out and sometimes they go on to clear their plate.

    With that said, I’m going to second the comment about supertasters. I was notoriously picky as a child (meat, dairy, potatoes, fruit, junk, the end). This was just as hard as on me as my parents, who did try to shame me into eating things, and then it became very embarrassing as a young adult. I could not stomach vegetables. If my parents managed to coerce me into trying a vegetable, it wasn’t that I didn’t like it… it triggered my gag reflex which as a 30-something, I can still recall how awful it all felt. I did, however, grow up to learn to like some veggies. Sometimes I only like the taste but can’t stand textures. I eat a variety of ethnic foods and sushi/sashimi. I find veggies grown in our tiny little garden way more palatable (either less bitter greens or sweeter carrots/beans, etc) and also we live in SoCal so our produce is typically very fresh and it’s made a world of difference. I know you can’t help where you live, but I’m trying to flesh out some of the complex layers of how the taste/texture of food affects my eating. If your son is a supertaster, I’d still stick to Satter at dinnertime. I always wished my parents would have just cooked what they wanted instead of trying to cater to me because they always placed that burden on me of repeat meals.