Mothers Of Picky Eaters (M.O.P.E.). I’ve often thought there should be such a support group. If you have a little Princess or Prince with “discerning taste” you know what I’m talking about (if you don’t, please read this anyway so you’ll understand and won’t try to give advice!). Take the following test to see if you have a Picky Eater in your house (check all that apply):
You know you have a child with “discerning taste” if...
- Your first thought when your family is asked over to eat at a friend’s house is “Will there be anything my child will eat?”
- He/she sits at the dinner table and immediately bursts into tears.
- You are not above bribery (i.e. “If you will just eat one bite of Grandma’s roast without whining...”).
- You’ve ever caught yourself being excited that your child tried a doughnut (or other worthless food) because at least it’s something new!
- When eating away from home, you have discretely eaten food off your child’s plate so it looks like he/she actually ate something.
- You make a special trip to that one store for that certain brand of that one thing that he/she ate that one time.
- Your family is limited to restaurants that offer French fries.
- When eating at a restaurant, you order something off the kids’ menu - even though you know your child won’t eat it - because you don’t want the waiter to think you don’t feed your child.
- In desperation, you find yourself using that silly line about “starving children in China” that your parents used and you vowed you’d never say.
I’m actually a Registered Dietitian. I’ve spent time studying the nutritional needs of children and there was a time when I imagined feeding my future children. My children would love fruits and vegetables. The theory was: if a child is only offered nutritious foods from the beginning, he/she will develop a taste for those things. And mealtime should be a pleasant and positive occasion, right? I imagined my child sitting in her highchair, happily stuffing squares of tofu and steamed vegetables into her chubby cheeks.
Then I had a child. Not just any child - the World’s Pickiest Eater (I’m sure of it!). I still remember the fateful day that I put her in her highchair for the first time. It was the day I had been waiting for for so many years. From that first attempt at rice cereal, until now - nearly seven years later, meals have been a constant struggle.
When my daughter went in for her one-year well-child visit, the doctor gave us “the talk” - the your-child-is-falling-off-the-growth-chart talk. She was dipping dangerously down below the 5th percentile of weigh-for-height. For the next few months, we tried desperately to get her weight up with PediaSure, butter and/or dressing on everything, and anything she would eat. I imagined my child being labeled “failure to thrive” going through life with a feeding tube. On the next visit to the doctor, however, the growth chart revealed that she was maintaining her weight and following her own growth curve appropriately. Whew! The damage was done, however. To this day, plain milk is intolerable and bread must have at least an inch of butter to be palatable.
Sometimes I think back and wonder where I went wrong. Oftentimes, I am embarrassed to tell people that I am a dietitian. “Um, yes, I’m a dietitian ... and yes, my child only eats five things.”
Before I make the situation seem terrible, I should mention a few things about my picky eater. Most of the things she likes are actually quite nutritious. She loves vegetables (albeit with their appropriate amounts of ranch dressing or butter). Her one-and-only bread is the whole wheat baguette from the Fred Meyer bakery. She drinks only low-fat organic milk (cooked in the microwave for 30-33 seconds with approximately 1 tablespoon of Ovaltine).
And then there’s the advice you get from well-meaning folk. You’ve probably heard it all. “If she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat.” “You’re feeding her too often.” “You’re giving too many choices.” “When my kids were little____.” You’ve probably also received “the look”. You know “the look”. It says “I’m keeping my mouth shut... but you are clearly catering way too much to that child.”
I’m not writing this merely to vent about the past seven years (however, that’s been helpful!). Actually, I want to point out some positives and give some hope to other M.O.P.E. members!
Here’s some things I’ve learned:
- Don’t panic! Remember the one-year well-child visit? Apparently, that same scenario is extremely common. I’ve talked to many other moms since then who went through the same scare. The physician had them worried sick and the child continued to grow and thrive at his/her own rate. Of course, there ARE situations where real physical problems exist. You can pay attention without panicking.
- Everything is a phase. For several months following being sick and vomiting, Faith would only eat dry cereal, crackers and popcorn. We worried ourselves sick. Then, slowly but surely, she started to incorporate a few fruits and veggies. Soon she was back to her “normal”.
- Reinforce the positive. Have a reward system for trying new foods. Make positive statements such as “That’s great that you like to eat your vegetables. Protein foods are really important, too. Would you like peanut butter or a piece of cheese for your protein?”
- Teach children about food and nutrition. Talk about nutrients and the foods that they are in and talk about it during meals. Find books and activity sheets that teach about what happens to foods when we eat them.
- Don’t let the child see you sweat. So much of the Picky Eater Syndrome is a control issue. If the child knows you are worried sick about their nutritional intake, he/she will milk that for all its worth. Pretend that you are not concerned. Here’s where the Love & Logic philosophy is helpful. “I’m sorry you don’t want to eat your dinner. You will be really hungry later.”
- Allow the child to make choices where appropriate. We all have preferences and that’s okay. Let the child have a part in making decisions in his/her nutrition. “Would you like peaches or apples for your fruit today?”
- Involve children in food preparation. Kids are more likely to eat a food that they helped prepare.
- Plan ahead. Before eating away from home, prepare your child. If age appropriate, talk about being gracious and saying “thank you” rather than whining or asking for something else. For younger children, take something that you know the they’ll eat (so the host doesn’t have to worry about what to feed the little one). Older children can either eat what is set before them or wait until later.
- Take advice with a grain of salt. The fact of the matter is, only you know your child. Someone else is only seeing a small glimpse of the big picture. The observer may see a child that is only eating two things at a meal. You see a child that has just tried something new! Don’t throw out all advice, however. As with any aspect of parenting, keep an open mind and glean from the wisdom of others.
- Model good eating habits. It may not seem like your kids are paying attention, but they are. They should see you enjoying a variety of healthy foods. “Mmmm...this is yummy broccoli. Want to try some?” (I’m still waiting for this one to work, by the way!).