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Fighting the ‘Big Kid’ Food Wars

By Amalah


You helped me gain perspective once before with my frustrations about daddy watching our baby during the day. I’m hoping to get a little more of that good advice. This time, though, I’m hoping for it for someone else. My sister-in-law has asked my advice about her son. I’ve got some background in childhood education, but really nothing that will give me too much insight in to what she’s asking. I have been researching a little on my own, but I know you are the absolute bees-knees at researching, so I’m hoping you can help.

My amazingly wonderful nephew is seven (almost eight!), and, well, a handful. He’s always been a bit of a wild child; from the time he was one he would slide chairs over to their high counter, climb up, and jump off. He can almost always be found racing from the kitchen into the living room in his underwear (did I mention the kid hates to wear his clothes if it can be helped? haha) just to jump on a huge pile of blankets he’s set up on the couch. He’s a huge ball of energy, and such a bright personality. That’s not to say he isn’t calm ever, he definitely can be. He is so sweet and loving and caring. He is always trying to take care of his mother or me when I’m there, grabbing us blankets and tucking us in. He absolutely loves my 11-month-old to death, and every few days when we go over their house he cuddles my baby boy and sings to him. Then when you turn around two seconds later and he’s beating up his sister (you know, because that’s what brothers do).

My sister-in-law has noticed lately how much sugar affects him. When he’s around other kids he gets so excited to see that he is often very hands-on, lots of hugs and wrestling. Combine that with a sugar intake and he can be a little overwhelming. She said to me that the other day she barely recognized him after he had some cake at a friend’s birthday party. She also said he seemed to get tunnel vision of sorts. He was repeating over and over that there were no chairs to sit in and when she would point one out to him he just kept saying there was nowhere to sit with his eyes almost glazed over.

OK … seems like an easy solution, just cut out the sugar. The thing is, he’s an incredibly picky eater. He’ll eat peanut butter sandwiches, but only on certain kinds of bread (she’s tried to switch it up without him seeing, he can taste the difference). He’ll eat ham, but only honey baked ham … pork chops are a go, and certain mashed potatoes. And of course all the junk-food type snacks (oreos, fruit by the foot, fruit snacks, etc). He used to eat Pizza, but only from one restaurant and he has stopped eating that as well. She tries to feed him better than this; she keeps all of the good foods in the house. He just won’t eat them. She does luck out with feeding him some fruits, and he will drink milk (but only with strawberry syrup added, and he could taste the difference when she bought a sugar free version). She’s even tried to take most of the sugary junk out of the house, but it hasn’t helped. He just stayed on his stubborn streak of only pork chops, or only peanut butter and bread.

Basically, we’re trying to figure out how to get nutrition in to this kid! It’s clearly affecting his behavior. She has mentioned his eating habits to the pediatrician, and he’s in the “as long as you’re getting food into him” camp. She’s tried the Pedialytes, to no avail as well. What can we (she) do? The kid needs to eat something other than sugary things. I know you’ve gone through the picky eater dilemma with Noah. Any advice/experience/”I feel ya” vibes would be amazing at this point.

Somebody get the kid a sandwich

Okay, so the first thing I want to mention is possibly a first, even for me: I’m going to assvice an advice-seeker. You asked for help in cutting out the sugar, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not actually sugar that’s causing your nephew’s behavior disturbances, but rather artificial dyes and flavors. Because what you’re describing — tunnel vision, hyperactivity, breakdown in communication skills, eye contact and impulse control — is EXACTLY what happens to Noah when he has anything artificial. And since food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue Lake, etc) and artificial flavors/preservatives are almost ALWAYS found in sugar-y treats and junk food (not to mention BIRTHDAY CAKE FROSTING), it can be easy to mistake for a reaction to sugar.

I mention this mostly because while it’s of course possible that sugar is the culprit, some of the foods your sister-in-law is trying as substitutes (sugar-free strawberry syrup, Pedialyte, etc.) still contain those pesky food dyes and a host of crappy artificial ingredients. So she might still not get at the root of the trigger. Even once we realized Noah simply could not handle food dyes, it still took us awhile to suss out all the different sources of his exposure — flavored liquid medicines, chewable vitamins, hand soaps, kids’ bubble baths, etc. All of that had to be replaced with dye-free alternatives.

And while cutting back on the sugar intake is also always a good idea (as is being aware that it can lurk in rather large amounts even in “healthy” foods like peanut butters, breads, yogurts, etc.), if the dyes are more to blame she’ll want to shift the focus of the elimination diet. So he could continue to eat his favorite bread, for example, since I know it can be challenging to find one without HFCS or sugar in the conventional grocery store aisles.

(We’re now the nutsos who make our own bread, sweetened with honey or maple syrup, since we were spending a fortune on specialty organic loaves all the time. Because we make a LOT of peanut-butter-and-jellies around here, oh my GOD. But seriously, it’s actually not hard. We use a no-knead recipe that basically requires you to throw a bunch of ingredients in a stand mixer for five minutes.)

ANYWAY. Sorry for getting sidetracked, but I’m That Person when it comes to kids and artificial colors. They are crap. CRAP! And while Noah is super-extra sensitive, even my typical guys have behavioral/hyperactive/general-oh-my-God-CHILL-OUT reactions when they eat anything with Red 40 in it. And once you start looking for Red 40, it can drive you up the wall and send you swearing off anything boxed or jarred. (Why does chocolate cake mix have Red 40 in it? Isn’t it supposed to be brown? And why are cereal bars colored to look more “strawberry-ish”?)

OH MY GOD I DID IT AGAIN. Okay, stepping off soapbox for real now, and getting back to your actual question. My advice for anyone dealing with a picky eater always begins (and should probably end) with the recommendation to read Ellyn Satter’s book How to Get Your Kid to Eat (But Not Too Much). It is the bible, the gospel of picky eating. And it basically boils down to: Stop. Just stop.

Stop freaking out. Stop offering food after food after food. Stop begging, bargaining and bribing. Stop making special meals and special substitutions. Cook what you would like for dinner. As long as your child has the teeth and the motor skills to eat it and isn’t allergic to it, that’s what you serve them. If they do not eat it, that is their choice, and that is not your job. Your job was to do the shopping, cooking and serving. Once it is on their plate, it is their job and your responsibility ends there.

“But he won’t eat dinner! He’ll just wait until breakfast when he knows he’ll get Cheerios/waffles/whatever.”

Yep. Probably. But he also won’t starve.

If your nephew can eat pork chops, that suggests to me that there’s no oral motor/sensory concessions that need to be made: A kid who can chew and swallow pork chops can also manage chicken or fish or beef. Serve one of those (perhaps alongside the “acceptable” form of mashed potatoes). Emphasize that while he can chose not to eat anything, he DOES have to stay at the table with the rest of the family and exercise good table manners — no whining, tantrums, playing with food — until the meal is over. Don’t use dessert as a bribe, don’t ask for X number of bites, etc.

Eventually — I swear to God — his habits will change. He will get hungry (particularly if your sister-in-law institutes the New Meal World Order at the same time as limiting his access to sugar-y, non-nutritive-but-satiating snacks), and he will eat. He might not particularly love the food he finally deigns to try, but that’s okay too. He will probably start drinking white milk if he knows that juice or strawberry syrup is not forthcoming. If he still refuses milk, water is the best alternative. (Your sister-in-law could also try blending milk up with yogurt and frozen strawberries to see if that tempts him. Noah still has texture issues with most fruits so we do make a concession to smoothies.)  It sounds like he prefers meats and vegetables that have been sweetened or glazed, so maybe start with recipes that include a little maple syrup or honey or agave…and then be careful not to repeat the exact same presentation too often so it doesn’t become the One Acceptable Way To Eat That Food.

My picky eater lived for a year — in our pre-Ellyn-Satter days — eating the same three or four carb-based foods. Just when I thought his diet couldn’t get any more limited, he’d do what your nephew is doing and suddenly reject a previously-acceptable food, like pizza or mac & cheese. It’s a control thing. A power struggle. And sadly, the more his parents freak out and cede mealtime control over to him, the worse it will get, because to him IT’S WORKING. (Picky eaters = drunk-with-power dictators.) Restrict the scope of his control to simply what he chooses to put in his mouth and chew. He doesn’t get to dictate what restaurant the family goes to or what they eat for dinner or what goes on his plate. No one can MAKE him eat. Likewise, he can’t MAKE his family eat pork chops five nights a week, or MAKE his mother prepare two dinners.

Get him a multivitamin, switch to a natural peanut butter and stay away from uber-processed, artificial stuff like “nutrition drinks.” Put real food — real fruits, real veggies, real meats — in front of him, even if you know he won’t eat it that time. Maybe next time. But hey, little dude, this is the kind of food that is good for you and will make your body feel good. It’ll be here when you’re ready; the food that is not good for you and makes your body lose control will not.

One final caveat, though, on that note: Don’t make sweet foods and dessert into a Huge Thing That He Can Never, Ever Have. Obviously my kids are kids and they love snacks and cookies and candy. We buy (or make) acceptable versions. Organic pop-tarts, natural chocolate chips in the granola bars, cookies and ice creams made without artificial colors or flavors. If it turns out your nephew is reacting to dyes, not sugar, it’s a good idea to still let him have some damn sugar. Go out for frozen yogurt or buy him a nice cookie at a coffee shop, just because. No big deal. No big forbidden substance. Noah’s allowed to have birthday cake or candy at parties — now that the dyes aren’t regularly coursing through his nervous system, I can deal with the occasional post-party fallout, and the spike/crater in his behavior doesn’t seem to be as dramatic.

If it’s NOT the dyes and is the sugar, try baking batches of cookies with stevia or whatever and have him help. (Rather than buying store-bought sugar-free versions that can have yucky artificial sweeteners. Blech. I can taste the difference too, and no healthy seven-year-old should be developing a taste for aspartame or sucralose.) Getting kids involved in the kitchen is another WONDERFUL tactic for conquering food issues. Once they’ve had a hand in making the food, even it’s just dumping a box of pasta into the water, can give them a sense of control and ownership of the meal and make them slightly less likely to reject the finished product outright. (“Pretend Soup” is a great kids’ cookbook that I’ve mentioned before.)

Good luck, and yes, I feel ya. It does get better and the pickiest of picky eaters WILL improve and NOT STARVE. You do absolutely need to be consistent, which I know is a phrase that makes you want to RIP YOUR HAIR OUT when you’re in the trenches of the food wars, but it’s true. Consistency for weeks and months and years, too: Not just “we’ll try this for a week and then get tired of it and go back to making him an individual pork chop every night.”

We definitely had some fits and starts and times we got a little lazy and Noah started to backtrack. I’d go and re-read a chapter or two of Satter like a pep talk and get back on the Division of Responsibility Wagon. Noah’s list of preferred/favorite foods is still pretty kid-typical (though nowhere NEAR as limited as it once was), but we know we can serve regular “real” meals to him and he will eat them. Not bad for a kid who once lived on Cheerio dust and oxygen for 12 solid months.

Photo source: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 [email protected].

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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