Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Picky Eater = Neurotic Mother

I was SUCH an excellent parent, before I had my son.  Back then MY child was (of course) never going to use a pacifier or watch television.  MY child was going to be polite and get along well with others.  MY child was not going to be a picky eater.

I was a totally rad parent, you know, before I was a real one.

It's sort of like knowing everything when you are a teenager.  Then you grow up.  I had pretty much been having a two year long panic attack because my son most definitely is a picky eater.  I was certain this was due to some misstep I'd made, or a lack of effort.  I began to consume research regarding feeding theories, but they are like a shirt that looks AMAZING on the hanger.  Then you put it on.  The theories just don't fit us.  We looked ridiculous trying them on.

I started dreading restaurants and social gatherings because inevitably it was going to come up.  Over and over my "failing" as a mother son's picky eating was discussed by others. "You need to put him through food boot camp.  He'll just eat when he is hungry."  "Just serve healthy foods, they'll want to eat what you eat."  "Don't keep any snacks in the house and they'll eventually only eat healthy food."  "Let them eat whatever they want so they don't fear food."  And from my amazing grandfather whom I sincerely love, "My kids knew to eat what was on their plates, or else.  Just be in charge."

I'm telling you, there is no way to get a child to eat something he or she doesn't want to unless you are willing to use physical force or threats, and that's just not something of which I'm capable.

Here is a kid who ate anything I put in front of him and then one by one he began to refuse foods he once loved.  I'm not exaggerating when I say, my child is so picky he will not even eat mac n' cheese.

I was totally scared -  a mom should at least be able to feed her child!  Finally after struggling I made an appointment with my son's pediatrician and she told me 6 things that have changed our lives.  I'm prone to hyperbole.  But I mean this literally. 

1) Biology -
Apparently this is normal in children ages 18mos - 5 years.  When our ancestors were just learning to separate from their parents it was adaptive to have some fear of new things.  Otherwise..."Look at these red berries!  YUM!"  And those toddlers did not live to pass on their food adventurousness to us.  The toddlers who were skeptical of new things did NOT eat the red berries and lived to pass on their genes.

2) Genetics -
She says (and I haven't yet followed up with research because I want to believe her!) that 75% of your adventurousness in eating is inherited.  My husband was picky until his 20s, my mother in law was picky as a child, and despite his admonitions that I should get tough, my grandfather STILL is picky!

3) Weekly Nutrients-
My son's pediatrician considers it a success if he eats from all food groups in a week's time rather than at each meal.  This reduces the importance of each meal, thus reducing stress for everyone.

4) 90 / 10 split -
Have regularly scheduled meals and snacks so that food is predictable.  Eat 90% delicious healthy food and allow 10% junk / snacks.  This way children learn to regulate their own sweet or salt cravings without the added power of prohibition.  However she recommends avoiding, "Eat this healthy thing and then you can have dessert."  This turns good food into an obstacle rather than the tasty thing it should be.

5) No separate meals -
At breakfast we eat what we want and there are usually options.  We usually eat lunches at school or work.  But at dinner she says to set out several choices and that's it.  We do not make Potato Kale Curry for us and hot dogs for him.  We do, however, add rice, fruit, bread, and yogurt on the side.  And if he chooses to eat only side dishes, that's fine.  If he chooses to not eat anything, that's fine, he'll catch up at breakfast.  But, we also make sure that sometimes we all eat fish sticks together!

6) Learning about Eating
And finally, while I was worrying about each day, each meal, and each bite, she recommends thinking about mealtime as a learning experience that sets them up for the future.  When I was fighting about each bite I created a power struggle that I was unlikely to win.  In addition, if that had continued I would have taught him that food is stressful.  Instead when I focus on the atmosphere, I am teaching him that food tastes good (even if he's not ready to try it), it can be good for his body, and that mealtimes should be fun.  Eating should be joyful, not stressful!  He will eat for many more years outside my home than in it, and we want to lay the foundation for a healthy eater, even if he isn't adventurous now!

My panic is over.  My son is still picky.  But meals have become fun again and we're all less stressed.  And five is right around the corner...maybe he'll get brave and try something new!



  1. I am afraid my panic may just be beginning. P likes to eat, enjoys mealtimes and a variety of foods, but he eats very little. He asked for oatmeal for breakfast, ate a few bites then was off and running. As of this morning he is 36" tall and is back under 25 lbs. Looks like I will be posting my own eating story soon...

  2. Thanks for this! I am having the same issues. It's so frustrating. Maybe now i can relax? Probably not but maybe! lol