Picky Eating & Mom Guilt
Thanks for answering my sunscreen question this summer. Blue Lizard sunscreen for the win!
I have a feeling I know what you are going to tell me but I still need to ask this question. I have a four-year-old who is extremely stubborn about food. He doesn’t seem to have texture issues and we can often get him to try a bite of something, which he will declare to be “good” and then rub his tummy obligingly and then refuse to eat the rest of. Mostly we make him things that we know he will eat, and I KNOW. I KNOW. I even bought the Ellyn Satter book. But he’s on a pretty steady diet of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese.
The thing is, I feel like Satter would work better if I could be in charge of what my son eats all day because I could make sure he got something he would eat. But we are two working parents and he is in daycare all day and he doesn’t eat there, either. They offer him many different kinds of foods, which he does not eat. “What did you have for lunch?” “They had meatloaf and green beans and mashed potatoes.” “What did you eat?” “Nothing.” Sometimes he eats the bread.
So we tend to make something we know he will eat for dinner, since it’s our one meal together and it keeps it from being a battle. I feel a certain amount of shame about it but I also literally don’t know what else to do. We started off so well with baby-led weaning and he ate what we ate but we do a lot of tomato-based soups in the winter and he wasn’t big on tomatoes or soup and we never got fully back on track.
I’m asking now because I feel like it gets worse in the winter and I wondered if you had any tips for us. Pickiness? Stubbornness? Texture issues that we aren’t paying attention to very well? Should I really let him go to bed hungry when he’s being hungry all day? My brother was kind of like this and now he’s a foodie so I confess I have been hoping it will just eventually work itself out, but we had a couple of Chinese food incidents that went badly (aka he wouldn’t eat anything) so I am disappointed and unsure about what to do.
Working Mom, Some Guilt
Mealtime Mom Guilt
Yep. You already know the answer. But let me try to put you at a little more ease with the answer. Consider this a similar nudge into a guilt-free zone like our recent sleep-training-guilt Smackdown.
So sure, some super picky kids grow up to be perfectly normal — or even adventurous — eaters. My husband and I are both prime examples, as we both had very limited acceptable food choices (and incredibly long lists of unacceptable foods) well into young adulthood. Neither of us would try anything new or weird or different until we were in our early 20s. TWENTIES!!!
Now, of course, we lovvvvvvvve food and cooking and trying new cuisines and ingredients. (Our new neighborhood has the most amazing Korean food! I can’t believe the number of dishes I’ve never tried before!) But oh my lands, look at how long it took and think about how many YEARS our parents had to put up with us and our pickiness. My mom rarely short-order cooked for me, but our family meals were DEFINITELY kept super limited and repetitive to accommodate my limited preferences. (And, okay, my Dad’s, because he honestly was pretty picky too.) I was rarely challenged or expected to eat outside my bland, mushy comfort zone, and once I became a teenager I actually got even WORSE, because I was able to just buy myself a slice of pizza a dozen times a week or skip the family dinner and make myself some boxed mac-n-cheese or a PB&J at 10 pm if I felt like it.
I can’t say for certain that one or more of my kids won’t make similar choices, once they gain more independence and aren’t relying on me to provide as many meals as I do right now. But I’m still happy we’ve had as many years as we’ve had where my kids 1) eat exactly what we eat, 2) understand that they either eat what we eat or go hungry, and 3) are no longer freaked out by the New or Different so we can take them to different restaurants and expose them to different cuisines. And for all of those things, we are completely indebted to the Satter Method.
Don’t worry about the daycare meals. The Satter Method starts at home, and dinnertime really is the best meal of the day to focus on. My kids tend to get whatever they want for breakfast, and eat lunch/snacks at school (either packed or school-provided, but either option is always super kid-friendly and non-challenging). He’s not even eating at daycare, from the sound of it. So he’s coming home HUNGRY.
But he’s also coming home knowing that you will cave and give him chicken nuggets or mac-n-cheese, because he also knows that it stresses you out when he refuses to try anything different.
Time For a (Complete) Change
In my experience (and others, given the feedback I usually get whenever I discuss the Satter Method here), it’s really best to just rip off the band-aid and go Full Satter, going cold turkey on the short-order cooking or sneaking in boxed mac-n-cheese as a “side.” (Unless you guys are eating the mac-n-cheese as well, it doesn’t belong on the table. You both model for him by partaking and trying everything you’ve made, so even the kid-friendly sides/carbs need to be something you guys eat as well.)
And yes, like the pang of guilt over letting a baby cry in the crib for a few minutes, you do need to brace yourself for a couple nights of him going hungry. It’s…kind of how he’ll learn that his food whims will no longer be catered to and he’s (in Satter’s words) no longer allowed to “jerk you around at the table.” HE WILL NOT STARVE. Repeat that a million times. HE WILL NOT STARVE.
As I think I’ve written about before, you can insert a post-dinner and pre-bedtime “snack” at a set time every night if the hunger starts interfering with his sleep. He gets this snack regardless of whether he ate dinner or not — this is not a dessert or a “reward” for eating dinner. It is a set, HEALTHY snack, and can even be somewhat challenging, like a new kind of fruit or cheese. At dinner, you remind him that if he doesn’t eat anything, he will have to wait for that snacktime. If he skips dinner and sleeps fine, tell him he has to wait until breakfast.
Much like sleep training, we saw results in about three days. Our pickiest eater (who did have texture/oral motor issues as a toddler that I admittedly probably catered to/used as an excuse for far too long, because I completely underestimated him) gave up on night three and just ate what I put in front of him. It got steadily better after that, and before we knew it we’d completely assimilated his meals into ours and dinner was no longer a battle.
And that’s the thing. You’re short-order cooking for him because you don’t want dinnertime to be a battle, but the end result of the Satter Method STOPS dinnertime battles (and the white flag of nugget surrender) FOR GOOD. You just…gotta do it. Pick a night put your foot down and tell him he is a big boy and Mommy is not going to make him little boy food for dinner anymore. Then read and reread Satter until you have nerves of steel and the Division of Responsibility imprinted on the inside of your skull. (It is your job to put food in front of him. It is his job to eat it. IT IS HIS JOB TO EAT IT.) Ignore the whining, tantrumming, noodling over the chair in HOW DARE YOU SERVE NON-NUGGET CHICKEN misery. You do not engage, you do not care if he eats or not. (Even though duh, of course you care. He just can’t know that.)
He might not eat much. He might finally start eating the food at daycare instead. Which is fine! He has plenty of opportunities to eat and has regular access to food, so skipping a nutritionally questionable dinner of super processed kids’ food isn’t going to cause him any health problems. But by taking back control of your family meal together, you’ll be able to nurture better and more healthful eating habits that WILL actually benefit him in the long term…and allow you to let go of the guilt/shame you’re feeling about his eating. Which is HIS JOB, not yours, remember? So it’s not your responsibility to feel guilt/shame/disappointment over it, either. You can absolutely course correct here, guilt-free, I promise.
Published October 14, 2015. Last updated January 31, 2018.