Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Your Son a Picky Eater?

None of my sons are a gourmand's dream. Each will hesitate at the sight of new food -- and by "hesitate," I mean "politely (or not-so-politely) refuse to try." None of them are big fans of mixed foods, like casserole, even if they like all of the individual ingredients. (My boys all like ham, cheese, noodles and broccoli -- but mix those basic ingredients up in a casserole, and none of the boys will do much more than take the requisite taste.) Their list of OK foods is pretty narrow: pizza, burgers, spaghetti, pork chops, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, get the picture.

Part of it, I assume, is my fault. I'm not the most adventurous eater either. I was well into my twenties before I tried a non-Italian, non-Mexican ethnic food. Even then, I had to make a conscious effort to focus on the overall taste, and not think, "what is IN this thing?" (because God forbid if it contain an ingredient I didn't like!). To this day, I'm not a big fan of veggies and I really, really don't like fruit -- as in, I have a weird aversion to fresh fruit. If I actually force myself to eat fruit, I'm able to admit that the taste isn't so bad -- and may actually be good. But overcoming the mental hurdle is more effort than I'm usually willing to put in. Luckily, my boys haven't inherited my fruit aversion. All of them enjoy multiple fruits; my oldest, I think, could live on fruit.

The idea that my boys might have inherited some of my food quirks, though, is not so far-fetched. A 2007 New York Times article reported on a research study that indicated that 78% of kids' receptiveness to new foods appears to be genetic, while 22% is environmental.

Interesting, right? Yes. But ultimately, not helpful, because what we all want to know is how to a) make sure our kids get a balanced diet and b) help our kids enjoy food.

Techniques I've tried, with little to no success:
  • Stocking the house with mostly good food and letting the boys eat what they want. The problem with this technique, at least at my house, is that there's so much junk food in the world! My boys have an amazing ability to hold out, and junk food has an amazing ability to show up just often enough to prevent the boys from ever getting hungry enough to eat the "good food." Case in point: My Mom loves to bring over donuts. She also keeps her house stocked with treats, and frankly, I don't want to be the mom who refuses to let Grandma give the boys treats.
  • Insisting that the boys try at least one bite of every food on their plates. The big problem with this one? I don't want to have to police who eats what. Plus, my boys will eagerly watch each other for reaction. If one tries supper and makes a face, the others manage to gag or sit there stubbornly while the food remains on their plates.
  • Letting the boys fix their own simple meal after trying the offered meal. I refuse to make multiple meals. Once I've cooked a meal, I want to sit down and eat it. I also recognize the fact that not every member of the family will like the meal. So if my boys at least try the food, I allow them to get up and make themselves a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich or bowl of cereal.
  • Eliminating the distinctions between "good" and "bad" food. Essentially, this technique meant letting the boys eat whatever they wanted. They were happy. I was not. See bullet point #1. There's just too much non-nutritious food out there in the world, and I want to make sure my boys are getting the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals they need.
Now Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution and other No-Cry parenting books, has published the No-Cry Picker Eater Solution. I appreciate her intent, as well as the fact that there's a huge audience for this book. I just don't think that most of her advice is going to work for my boys. Check out this excerpt:

~ Put vegetables on a pedestal.
It's an odd fact that while vegetables are a healthy cornerstone of any diet, they are usually relegated to a back corner side dish. While interesting recipes appear for main dishes, the vegetables are often steamed or boiled in a routinely boring presentation. Start treating vegetables as the star of the meal and your kids will too.

I doubt it.

~ Name the star of the show.
Vegetables rarely get the spotlight. When kids ask, "what's for dinner?" we name the meat and starch - "Chicken and rice" or "Steak and potatoes" and don't even mention the vegetables. From now on, name the veggies first. Create a fun name for the vegetable of the day you can help your children view them in a different light. So, what's for dinner? "We're having Brilliant Bunches of Broccoli along with chicken and rice."

Would your boys be tricked by "Brilliant Bunches of Broccoli?" I don't think mine would. Besides, my boys already like broccoli. I need help with the chicken! (For some reason, despite the fact that I serve it often in a variety of different ways, my boys tend to think of chicken as a "weird" food.)

~ Search out new recipes for veggies.
Try stir-frying a mix of veggies with olive oil to give them an attractive presentation and a unique flavor. Add a sprinkling of nuts or seeds or a dribble of sauce. Mix two or even three kinds of vegetables together for a colorful dish.

See blog post paragraph #1. My boys don't like (read: "won't touch") mixed-up foods.

~ Get artistic.
It can be fun to serve vegetables in interesting containers or arranged colorfully in patterns or shape.

It can be a lot of work to artfully cut up and arrange veggies that my boys aren't going to eat anyway.

~ Let them dip 'em.
Serve a platter of raw veggies with dipping sauce such as ranch dressing, yogurt or hummus Kids often prefer raw vegetables over cooked, especially if they can dip.

The only dip my boys like is ketchup. They still consider ranch dressing and hummus exotic, "weird" foods. Yogurt is OK, but the only thing they'll dip in it is fruit (after the yogurt has been mixed with peanut butter.) They do like raw veggies better than cooked veggies, though.

~ Give kids a choice.

Routinely serve two vegetables at dinner so that you double the chance your child will eat at least one. Plus, seeing two vegetables will build an expectation that vegetables are important.

Yep. It will also double the odds that I end up wasting twice as many veggies.

~ Get sneaky.
While you are teaching your child about nutrition, go ahead and hide some vegetables within other recipes to up your child's daily quota. It's easy to add chopped spinach to hamburgers, pureed squash into macaroni and cheese, crushed cauliflower into mashed potatoes, or bits of carrots and broccoli into spaghetti sauce. That way your kids get the benefits of vegetables no matter what.

Despite my boys' reluctance, I refuse to hide veggies. Isn't the point to teach them to enjoy multiple foods. Won't hiding the "good" foods just teach the kids that the food in question really is yucky? (I mean, do you traditionally hide your good china? Or good clothes?) And won't they just then be more suspicious of any food that you make? Because I'm sure that at least one of my boys would figure out what's up.

So parents -- How do you deal with picky eaters?


  1. Easy.

    Since boys are all about competition merely declare "Whoever can eat the most green beans without throwing up is the winner!"

    Since boys are about killing things merely declare "These green beans are dinosaur snakes and you're the hungry T Rex. Chomp 'em before they get away."

    Since boys are proud you might also merely dare then "You say you don't like them, but I bet it's because you CAN'T eat them. Oh yeah, you can, then prove it!"

    Not always totally effective, but it gets them eating some good stuff. When other kids come over my kids are eating onions, greens, meat, peas, corn, etc in circles around the other kids most of the time.

  2. Alex, you are brilliant. I'm going to try a few of these.

  3. Great post. We have made it a policy that they have to eat the food that is placed in front of them. I try to be sensitive to their likes; but I want them to eat things that are good for them - even if they don't like them. I have done the two veggie thing - and like it. I do make them take a little of the one they don't like. Life is about doing the hard things; and that sometimes is food too. We tried to fight the battle when they were small; and the portions smaller. Less of a fight; so when they got older it was just a given that they had to eat it. I do have one - my boy - who hates salad - it's a texture thing. So, we are always faced with refills on his drinks as he gets it down for that meal. :) Great to hear different ideas. Thanks for the post.

  4. I agree with Alex to some extent. I made a "How loud can you chomp on a carrot contest" that we all enjoyed. We all bit and snapped carrots until the bag was half gone. I too have picky eaters. Basically I do the platter with choices, and they do eat the apples slices along with the crackers and fruit gummies. I try not to give veggies more power, it is just another food they can eat if they want. I don't make a big deal out of what they eat, any more than I would if my sister was here and I offered her a variety of foods.

  5. I never serve food someone there doesn't like without having also prepared an alternative for them. I wait until one member of the family is elsewhere to make something they don't like at all.