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Picky Eaters

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7 year old with eating disorder?

June 2011

My 7-yo daughter has always been a picky eater, but recently refuses to eat anything but pasta, pizza, sweets and juice. When I don't give in to her demands, she won't eat anything. She is concerned about getting ''fat'' even though she is naturally very lean and long. She also says no food in the world (except the aforementioned) tastes good, it's a chore to eat, and she doesn't want to eat when she's unhappy (which is often.) Additionally, she is having major tantrums and generally defiant/difficult behavior. She screams when asked to comply with basic requests and goes into frequent crying fits saying things like I've ruined her life because I never played with her when she was younger (not true), and it's too late to do anything about it now. I've spoken to her pediatrician and my therapist about this, but would like more recommendations. I would greatly appreciate any referrals/recommendations for play therapists, nutritionists, books, eating disorders centers who have dealt with similar issues. Thank you very much. Worried Mom


Make meals for your family and eat what you have prepared to model normal eating patterns for your daughter. Don't provide pizza, pasta, sweets and juice. As far as I know, 7-year-olds don't have eating disorders. If your daughter is concerned about getting fat I wonder where she is hearing that type of message. As a mom of two daughters, I've never heard any of that in my household.

It sounds like you need to create meal-time routines for your kid and spend meaningful time with her. My hunch is that she is asking for more time with you and trying to get attention through her picky eating. In my opinion she doesn't need any specialists, she simply needs your attention and proper modeling. Have fun and spend more time playing with her and preparing healthy and delicious meals together and I bet her behavior will improve. Good luck. mom of healthy teen daughters


Wouldn't have posted, because I am no expert, but I saw a posting with a message that didn't acknowledge that there might really be a psychological problem. Sure, you can try positive feedback methods. No point in creating big issues if small intervention will work. However, if that doesn't work... I received one of those medical magazines from Sutter health, I think. It talked about their eating disorder clinic in San Francisco. Most common ages are in the teen / preteen, but they mentioned treating kids in the 7-9 year old range as well. psychological factors are real. wishing your family health

3 year old picky eater

May 2004

Our 3 year old has been becoming even more of a picky eater than he already was. We try to let him eat the foods he likes within reason (has to have some balance, not too much sugar)and just try to offer other foods without forcing them, but his palate is becoming more narrow (ie he used to eat noodles with minced spinach on them but will now pick it off). We've tried to make a rule that he has to taste something that we're serving (he can spit it out if he doesn't like it) before we'll make him something different but that leads to refusal and power struggles with him shrieking that he's hungry but refusing to eat anything except crackers. I love the idea that he needs to taste a new food or the food on the table but not quite sure how far to take it. The times we've said that he can't have anything else to eat until he tastes something of what we're serving on the table has led to major meltdowns with a screaming hungry tired child and frustrated tired parents. Help! What are we doing wrong? Are we taking it too far or not far enough? frustrated


Been there... still there... our picky eater is almost 5. I've read all the books and articles, talked to his pediatrician, other parents, and it's still a problem.

He'd live off carbs if we let him - pirate booty, chips, bread, pasta, rice. So we try try try to stick with the healthier options only, telling him that's all that's available right now. Again and again I'm told ''if he's hungry, he'll eat'', but the thing is, he'll eat the pasta, leave the veggies, say he's done and then beg for food at bedtime, when he really IS hungry and therefore can't get to sleep because his stomach's growling. So, I try to feed him a healthy dinner almost within minutes of getting home after work, sometimes as early as 4:30, telling him he can SNACK later when mommy and daddy eat dinner.

His only video/tv viewing snack he can have is raw veggies (I know - you're not supposed to let kids eat while they watch because they don't pay attention to their hunger, but that's exactly what gets the food in his mouth), and I've started measuring portions of his snacks so it doesn't get out of hand, and letting him know just how much he can have per day.

Some days it works, some days it's tears and bad behavior. Not a lot of advice, I'm afraid, but just to let you know you're not alone, and hopefully you'll get further than we are. Just Another Mom


I just had to reply because my 3.5-year-old son just overnight turned into a picky eater. At the same time, however, my 7-year- old daughter has seemingly come out the other end of the picky tunnel. She now eats pretty much eats what we're eating, herbs, spices, sauces and all. I'm amazed. Starting at 3, she fell off all foods that weren't white (white rice, white bread, pasta with NO butter or anything on it...)I remember getting really upset because she'd go for a weekend eating only dry toast! And yet here she is; tall, healthy and always hungry. I'm trying to keep her example firmly in mind when my son turns up his nose at anything that isn't Dino Nuggets.

Also, a nutritionist once told me that most toddlers will get just what they need nutritionally over the course of a week, believe it or not. They're not going to get what you consider three squares a day, but if they eat a PB&J, some pasta, some apple juice and a bowl of grapes, they're covered. Summer's coming - Will he eat strawberries? Peaches? Can you pretend broccoli is a little tree for him to eat? Might get a bite into him that way. Edamame beans? Those are fun, and really nutritious.

Anyway, I hope my example helps - try not to freak out about it because as long as he's growing, he's really fine, and chances are he'll grow out of his pickiness some day in elementary school. Good luck! Julie


My kids are good eaters. It may just be luck or heredity but these are the general guidelines that we try to follow:

1. My husband and I are NOT picky and do not have a lot of food restrictions--we do try to eat very healthily.

2. Believe that your child will NOT starve or even go hungry that long. (You REALLY have to believe this.) Believe that if your kid is really hungry they'll eat anything.

3. What you put on the table at any particular meal is what is going to be eaten at that meal. I wouldn't dream of making anything special for someone to eat--I'm too lazy! If your kids doesn't like it they don't have to eat it. They don't have to eat anything at all but they can't have crackers or junk for snack later--they have to have real food and you get to decide what that real food is going to be and when it is going to be served.

4. Try not to have any junk in the house. Try to give only meal foods at snack time (especially when you're trying to re- establish good eating habits). I set my toddler son down at the table when he is hungry for dinner before the rest of us are seated and give him his vegetables first and he eats them up because he is hungry. I do NOT hand him a cracker while he waits for dinner.

5. I think the way a Kaiser handout puts it is--You get to decide WHAT and WHEN your child eats. They get to decide WHETHER and HOW MUCH to eat. (I may have gotten that slightly wrong but you get the gist.) That means you have to take yourself out of control of whether and how much your child eats (no forced tasting) but you really have to put yourself (and not your child) in control of what is eaten (no crackers for dinner) and when it is eaten (it isn't lunch time now. At lunch you'll have a peanut butter sandwich if you're hungry.)

6. Try to act like you are doing your child a big favor in allowing them to eat such wonderful food you've provided. They are NOT doing you a favor when they are eating.

I think once the whole issue is no longer about control then you can do little tricks like no dessert until you finish your milk. And I do limit the number of cookies they eat so I don't follow the kid controls how much to eat rule there. hope this helps


See my posting above regarding the 14 month old. Some of that may be helpful to you. If the only foods on the table are healthy, varied and lovingly prepared, eventually your child will try some of it. If we change what we offer to suit their narrow band-width of tastes, we, the adults, are endorsing them as healthful and nourishing, even if they aren't really. Nori
I just got through reading about this very topic in Ellyn Satter's excellent book, ''Child of Mine, Feeding with Love and Good Sense.'' (She's also written a book called ''How to get your kid to eat...but not too much''). She's a pretty well-respected child nutritionist, and her take is that the ''one bite'' rule causes exactly what you described -- power struggles.

She talks a lot about the division of responsibility -- the parent is responsible for what goes on the table and when, whereas the child is responsible for how much he/she eats, if at all. Getting a toddler/preschooler to try anything, especially food, is really hard, and you just have to let them do it on their own timetable. She says that you might have to introduce a particular food to them 15 to 20 times before they are willing to take a bite. (My 3yo son went from staring at green beans on his plate, to just licking them, to gobbling up a bunch of them at a Chinese restaurant over the course of about six months.) You should never force your child to eat anything.

She suggests NOT cooking special meals for your child, and always offering what everyone is having. He can eat as much or as little as he wants of any dish, or not at all. Keep one starch like bread or rice available, in case he rejects everything else. Don't worry, he won't starve. He won't be malnutritioned. He'll pick up a protein with breakfast, or a fruit with lunch or snack and OVERALL, have a balanced diet. His willingness to try new foods will slowly creep on him, but he'll surely start placing judgements on certain foods (veggies=bad, dessert=good), if you try to force, manipulate or bribe him.

Finally, she puts a lot of emphasis on making mealtimes pleasant and fun -- not completely focused on the food he won't eat, but on conversations, etc. - Hope this helps


Welcome to the club of picky eaters! I used to eat everything my mom put on the table for the family and my daughter doesn't. Well, then again, she probably observed early on that my husband and I fixed whatever we felt like at the moment and that it's often something different. While we always share the experience of sitting together at the dinner table, we won't necessarily share the same food. So, we ended up giving her a menu of easy fix choices and taught her once she made her choice, there was no changing her mind. (While I would never withold food from her - only food can cure a cranky hungry child - the consequences for changing her mind after her requested dinner was fixed would be so unattractive, that she learned right away).

My daughter turned out to be a good, hearty eater, just very selective (specific bread, specific jam, specific pasta sauce...) We chose the reward principle to get her to try new foods. For each new food she put in her mouth, she would get one sweet tart. Since I never introduced more than 3 new foods per week, that never became a problem. But she discovered a few new things she liked. Also, her afterschool program only serves organic food and she tries things there she wouldn't try at home. Once in a while I check in and these items will become popular at home too. (Ever mushed a few rasberries into black beans? It's a big hit right now, topped with grated cheese). Anyway, I don't know if my daughter will ever take a liking to all the wonderful ethnic food around here and she still won't eat anything leafy, but she gets all her basic food groups in other ways. I just started looking at food as calcium, protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. I don't care so much what she picks, but she actually gets it all and she loves fruit. Fruit is the only dessert she knows. There is an allowance of three pieces of sweets per day (only after dinner and she learned not to ask for it any other time during the day because this is what her body is used to) and pieces may be ''lost'' for really bad behavior. When she was three she gave me such a bad tantrum over cookies I had bought that I told her I would stop buying cookies if that is what I have to deal with. And I did. Of course, we'll buy them as a special treat in a cafe, they are just not available at home. We also don't have sodas in the house. We like vitamin and calcium fortified juices, but it takes the whole family to have the same attitude about nutrition. You and your spouse are the role model for better or worse nutrition. Anonymous


Tension over food at family meals

Jan. 2004

I'm hoping for some advice! It seems to be an issue with my husband and I lately, so I thought I'd ask other parents their opinion. We have a 5-yr-old and a 2-yr-old. I usually cook most of our dinner meals, and I have a pretty good idea of what our two daughters will eat. So I don't often try too many new recipes, but cook a few simple meals that I know they will eat.

Last night my husband cooked dinner. He made a casserole dish and I just knew the kids wouldn't go for it, but I didn't want to intervene. So of course, he dished out the food, and our 2-yr-old was not interested at all! Our 5-yr-old looked at the food with a sad face and began to cry a little bit, saying that she didn't think she would like it. My husband got upset because he put all the work into making the meal and she wouldn't at least try it first. Alas, I talked to her and she did actually eat some of it and stopped being sad.

This scenario has happened before. My husband hates to see our 5-yr-old cry over things like food. He says it makes him sad, too. I say, go ahead and let her be sad if she wants to and talk her through it. And then I try and encourage her to taste the food before she decides if she likes it, or not. (The crying is another issue. I say it is o.k. to cry and my husband gets upset over her crying for seemingly little things).

I really don't want this tension or negativeness around eating. Eating should be enjoyable, with the family sitting around the table. My husband expects our 5-yr-old to eat what is served her. I realize that kids have likes and dislikes, but how far do we go in enforcing what she eats?

My parents used to make me sit at the table sometimes until I finished a meal. (It was probably lima beans or brussel sprouts!) I would never do that to my kids. Anyways, every parent wants their child to eat healthily. How is the best way to deal with picky eating at the dinner table? I want her to eat, but I don't want to be so strict about it. (I am not as worried about our 2-yr-old...I just offer her what we are eating and if she eats that is great).

I didn't mean to write so much, but it is all so fresh in mind. Any advice would be much appreciated! Alexis


Hi. We have twins, age 5. One is an omnivore; the other is more selective. I got a book when they were younger, ''Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health'', with a few strategies for picky eaters; basically the author says to remove all pressure and serve lots of variety. She also has a ''rule of ten'' or something, meaning don't give up on a food until you've offered it ten times (not in the course of one meal, however!). I've followed her advice since the kids started solids and credit it with the relatively nutritious diet they follow today. Having twins gives us the advantage of realizing just how much/little control we have over forming their appetites; mine have had their ''omnivore'' and ''more selective'' predispositions from the get-go, and I've fed them both the same from the beginning. But the strategies I learned from this book (which places a huge emphasis on nutrition) may well have saved the picky eater from a nutrition-free life.

We, too, place a big emphasis on enjoying mealtimes. I try to ensure this in two ways: We do occasionally make things that they won't eat, and in that case we offer the same labor-free alternative every time: bread and cheese (or rice and cheese if there is some left over from another meal). I also serve vegetables at snack time (usually steamed broccoli, cauliflower or carrots with or without parmesan cheese), because if it's the only thing to eat, they clean it up. When vegetables have to compete with other things on a plate, they invariably get left (by the selective eater; the omnivore eats everything). That way, I'm sure they're getting what they need at some point in the day, so we can all relax at mealtime. That said, we strictly enforce a ''no sweets without 'growing food' first'' rule, and limit sweets to once a week (although the holidays are killers!). This does act as an incentive! Focused on Food and Fun


Well, my kids are pretty much the same ages as yours, and we have precisely the same issues and even a similar mealtime dynamic at our dinner table. It is incredibly disheartening to cook a meal (often one that I think my kids ought to like, esp. when it is something like a casserole or soup, and I know they like all the component parts) and have it be summarily rejected without a taste. For my older child, we have the ''one-bite rule.'' He has to eat one bite of most foods, and if he doesn't like it, we let it go. (At least, I do -- his dad needs to be reminded about the rule sometimes). We will implement this rule with our younger son when he's older. We make an exception to the rule for food we know won't go over well, mostly highly spiced or strongly flavored foods, in which case we'll often make an easy entree (e.g. pasta or toasted cheese) for the kids. I don't usually make special foods to tempt their appetites, and if they refuse their dinner, they don't get other foods, apart from maybe a banana or something like that. Wendy
I think ''Eat Your Dinner'' is somewhat draconian -- the goal is a child that enjoys eating with the family and eventually eats a variety of foods. I don't think forcing will get there. I think it's only fair that your child get some familiar, healthy foods at each meal. Think about how you'd feel if you wandered into a restaurant that served a cuisine you'd never had before and were forced to eat whatever they chose to give you. (Like going back to the 50s and having to eat fried liver, overcooked brussel sprouts, and jello.) We usually have some child friendly food available at every meal (pasta or rice or cheerios and carrots or green beans), then we put a little of the new food on the plate (when my daughter was younger, sometimes we put it on a separate plate), and ask her/tell her to try it. If she doesn't like it she can spit it out (we learned this technique from one of my husband's collegues who had an older child, who was willing to try almost anything). We've also had discussions about the value of trying new foods, and theoretically my daughter agrees that it's good to try new foods. The other side of this is adult expectation -- I'm the person who prepares most of the food in my house, and I've learned that my daughter is almost never going to eat much of an unfamiliar food, so I shouldn't get too invested in preparing something special, unless it's for my husband and myself. Good luck. avoid the food wars
The conventional wisdom seems to be: Serve your children the same food you eat, and expect them to at least try it. But don't force them to eat or punish them for failing to finish their food. (Teach them how to politely not eat what's served them. This is a more important social skill than many realize.) And try to provide a varied, nutritious diet (don't fall into the trap of always having tater tots yourself because your kids like them) but if you're faced with a picky eater, try to include at least one thing at each meal that you know the picky eater will like -- say, always have dinner rolls or carrot sticks as a side dish if the main dish is new or disliked. A night or two of bread and milk for dinner never hurt anyone, and offering it at dinner is better than allowing her to get you to fix her a special snack when she's starving before bedtime.

You might want to read _How to Get Your Children To Eat (But Not Too Much)_ -- I've forgotten the author's name. I haven't read it myself but many of my friends, especially those with a history of ''food issues'' themselves, recommend it.

About the crying, I have no advice. I've been at something of a loss to deal with similar behavior in my own son! But fortunately, my husband and I don't seem to have any major conflicts over how to handle it, at least. Sounds like you and your husband need to have a little heart-to-heart about that one, and agree on what you'll do and whose 'rules' will apply in what situations. anon


I think that it does not make sense to force kids to eat things they don't like or want. I do encourage my son to taste things before rejecting them, but don't make a big deal of it, and if he eats little or nothing some nights, I just let it go. He's clearly not starving. If I make something that I know my son doesn't like (say chili, which is too spicy for him), I try to make at least one thing that he DOES like (say cornbread) as part of the regular meal; and I try to always offer at least one vegetable that I know he will eat at every meal (I keep some frozen, so that if my husband and I have asparagus, I can give my son some carrots). He can also always request applesauce after the meal is over. If your husband wants to make ''different'' food, you could also offer a vegetable or bread that the the 5-year-old does like, and then just not make a big fuss. If she's amenable to a bit of VERY GENTLE persuasion to try a bite, great; otherwise, let it be. My parents forced me to eat fishsticks, which I hated. I was an adult before I would even try anything that had spent a major portion of its life cycle in the water, and even now, though I like fish, I sometimes have difficulty eating it. Karen
While I agree that it is important to not cater to evey whim of your child, and it is good that she at least try new foods before deciding she doesn't like them, I think it is unreasonable to force anyone to eat something they don't like. (How would you like it if you went out to eat and someone else ordered something for you that you didn't like and then made you eat it?) Definitely make different foods now and then, but I wouldn't pressure the kids to eat any particular amount more than a taste. You don't have to make a separate meal for them, just allow them to subsitute something easily made (like peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, bread, fruit, etc.) if they don't like the main course. It definitely doesn't seem worthwhile to turn the dinner table into a battle ground. Good luck! Frances

4-year-old is set in his ways

My 4 year old is a very picky eater. After reading "Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health" by Roberts and Heyman, I see many ways in that I have reinforced him in this habit over the years. He also permanently stops eating something if I make too big of a case about how good it is for you. The variety in his diet is more limited as he gets older.

I want to broaden his horizons, but he is quite set in his ways. I have recently stopped making a separate dinner for him, but he's quite unwilling to try new foods.

Has anyone had success with their picky eaters?


I too have a picky eater, and it is a pain in the neck. He is branching out a bit though, at age 8. We have a system to try to compromise. Tuesday is "choose day"; he gets to choose the dinner menu for the family (either together with, or alternating with, his younger brother). Friday is "try day"; he tries something new. Sometimes he has suggested what the "try day" food will be; he chose Indian food once, which we thought was a terrific idea. Leslie
My 5 year old is a picky eater. My 9 year old was a picky eater at different times.

My advice is don't worry and don't make a big deal about it. It can be very frustrating and we worry that they're not getting the nutrients they need (how nourishing is raisin bread and cheese?????) Remember they're a lot smaller than we are so their requirements are less. Fresh fruit will go a long way in the vitamin dept. Cheese does have protein and calcium though personally I don't feel lots of dairy is a very healthy idea. What I feel is important is to give them food thats pesticide and preservative free. I buy organic food and keep very limited sugar foods in the house. If your child has energy and looks healthy, probably he's probably doing OK. My pediatrician has reminded me many times that they won't starve. My 9 year old son still has somewhat of a limited diet but he'll eat salad. No fish or chicken or red meat (occasionally a hamburger). My little one will eat tofu but no vegies....I hope my experience helps ease your anxiety. It's a tough one. Good luck. June


Regarding advice for the picky eater: I recommend that you not make such a big deal over what you deem as 'healthy' food for your child. It invariably becomes a test of wills, your's over your child's. I became so obsessed over my first child's eating habits that I lost sight over the fact that he was just a child. He eventually became more rounded in his eating habits as a 22year old, but as a regular kid he very seldom ate much greenery, ate mostly sweets for breakfast, stuff like that. He's more open to different kinds of foods now since he's been away for college and seen what he can do with a limited amount of money. Also, his friends are a great influence on him, eating wise. I would suggest just letting him see what you are eating, don't prepare a separate meal for him, because you are just catering to his wishes. If he doesn't want to eat, he won't starve, he'll eat when he's ready (that's what my pediatrician finally told me).
I know this is not the reply you want to hear, but I feel compelled... I am a 37 picky eater. I have a very limited palate (no tomatoes, no eggs, nothing from the sea, few sauces, no ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, no cold meats, only mozzerela cheese and only if it's melted, etc etc etc) and you know what? I'm fine. I'm healthy. I'm strong. It's sometimes difficult when I get invited to people's houses for dinner and I end up feeling embarrased about not eating the fish stew, but people are pretty understanding. It's a good topic of conversation. Nothing my parents did or tried to do could have changed my eating habits. They tried softball approaches and hardball approches. In the end I think my mom just served what she was going to serve and if I didn't eat it, so be it. She also, however, capitalized on the few things I would eat (chicken) and found many ways of serving it. She also didn't sweat sending me to school with the same lunch every single day (pb & j on swedish hardbread). Keep trying to expand your kid's diet horizons, but don't worry if he just wants what he wants. He'll be ok. jill
I believe that parents should not cater to their "picky eater" by doing things like cooking them individual meals, throwing out food that they don't eat, etc. Many of my children's friends are picky eaters. I can't even begin to tell you how distressing it is for me to see them take one bite of something (eg a sandwich, slice of pizza) and then toss the rest. There were periods in my childhood (and many of my friends) when we didn't have a lot of money for groceries, and I can assure you that my siblings and I were not picky eaters. We were just grateful to have food, period. Today there are undoubtedly some kids living within a few miles of most of us who are going to bed hungry. I'm not advocating that we guilt-trip our kids, or treat them unkindly. Instead, let's gently teach our kids to not waste precious resources like food.
I have a picky eater. I don't think it is anything we have done---we have one picky eater and one child that will eat anything. ...And I think that it's dangerous to take credit for all your child will eat (just count your blessings) because that leads you down the path to thinking you are in control of your child (and guess what...!). I think children come to us as they are and it is our job to nurture, encourage, and love them for who they are. If your children have guests that are picky eaters, teach your own children to be good hosts by quietly accepting their friends and not making a big fuss over it. Let the picky eaters' parents worry about them. Believe me, they probably do! (Perhaps if the child were to be with you for a long period of time you might need to worry about nutrition, but in this case, let them worry about their tummies and you move on to bigger issues.)
I have a little girl who eats, or at least tries everything that is placed in front of her. We insist that she do that. We don't make her eat everything that's on her plate. Nor do we believe in wasting food in our family - that comes from values that are taught to us. I have the gut feeling that most UCB Parents subscribers were made by their parents to eat everything on their plates - or you don't leave the table. As we grow older, we hopefully learn from our own childhood and maybe get away from some of the things that happen to us - to make happier life for our own kids.
My daughter (3.5 years) has various dislikes of particular food but her preferences and opinions change. By now they seem to also have to do with what she sees what her friends like, dislike (eg. lunchbox sharing...). We generally just cook according to our plans (more nutritious and varied in times when we pay more attention and have a bit more time; more boring, quick and 'unhealthy' at other times). Our daughter can eat what she likes, we never make her eat things she doesn't like. We offer the food, sometimes make an effort to convince her to try at least, generally let her determine how and what food she wants on her plate. I would not cook seperately for her. This is what my mother did and I am told that I was a picky eater. My mother really sympathised with food dislikes and went at lenght to accommodate each child. On contrary, I don't really appreciate when my daughter is picky on food, but I accept it, try not to get too involved and let her do her own thing. After all, I know that the food we eat is good and that even if my daughter doesn't like some things, she is familiar with the general menu and taste of the food. Different thing when we eat out or at other people's houses - faced with some strange food I would sympathise with not wanting to eat. Ditto I agree with all the responses of please not force guests in your house to eat what you cook.

But I do believe that the parents' attitude counts a great deal. So I would disagree with one mail where it said that picky eater children just come as they are. I also think that parents influence their children on matters like waste of food, pleasure of cooking, hurry eating versus pleasure eating (as with many other things) just by the way they 'behave'. And I also sympathise with the problems stated in the first mail - of course it makes me feel bad when guests don't like the food I prepare. Maybe with little guests things are worst because on one hand one wants to 'mother' them and on the other they are not as polite as (some) adults handling this sensitive matter.


Picky eaters, nature or nurture? My parents used to tell the story of how they fed me (the firstborn) all kinds of food and never made an issue out of food, and as a kid I was omnivorous. They congratulated themselves on avoiding the pitfalls of picky eating. Then my younger brother came along, was treated exactly the same way, and ended up living on almost nothing but "yellow food" for years (spaghetti with butter, mashed potatoes, you get the idea). So much for self-congratulation.

Now I've got two boys, ages 7 and 3.5, and history has repeated itself. The older one is incredibly adventurous in the variety of foods he will eat, the younger one eats well but only what he likes. So I vote for nature. For what its worth, our strategy (with both kids) has always been "we choose what to serve, you serve how much to eat; no arguing." That's been pretty severely tested when the older one ocasionally decides the amount he wants is zero, and then either two hours later decides he's hungry and will have dinner now, or announces the next morning that he still doesn't want to eat anything. After fruitless fighting and arguing ("you have to eat; your body needs food; real soccer players eat to become strong; not eating in order to be thin will not make you a faster runner; etc.), we've gone back to the original no-arguing plan, and lo and behold, his appetite always comes back strong.


Skimpy eater (except for dessert)

Feb 2003

My 5 year old daughter eats most things that I fix for dinner, but will often balk at eating more than a few bites. She claims to not be hungry. I don't want to force her to eat, so will require only that she sit with us until we have mostly finished and then she can be excused. The problem comes when I occasionally fix a dessert. She always can find room for dessert, even if she was ''too full'' to finish her dinner. How should I handle this? I usually either require that she eat a few more bites of her dinner before she can have dessert or I pull dessert out after she has gone to bed. In the first scenario, she will want to know how many bites she has to eat of everything when she sits down for dinner ''to get dessert'' and I feel like I am bribing her to eat. In the second scenario, my husband and I are eating dessert right before our bed-time, which is not ideal. How do you handle dessert in your home? Rachel


Well, I could have written your post! Our 4.5-year-old daughter is much the same as yours (except for the part about eating most of what we serve). She ate anything when she was a baby/toddler, and it went downhill from there, alas. We don't always have dessert, but when we do our daughter pulls the same exactly line about how many bites she has to eat in order to be able to get dessert. She also claims to not want anymore, but has lots of room for dessert. I don't really have any answers to this dilemma, alas, but will look forward to reading others' responses. Oh, and by the way, my husband and I DO usually wait until after our daughter has gone to sleep to have dessert to avoid the whole dessert scenario. Lori
I sesnse you are uncomfortable using dessert as a bribe - so don't. If you only make dessert once in a while, it is part of the meal. Of course most kids prefer sweets, but if it is seen as a reward, the other food will be seen as the unpleasant chore that must be endured to reach the reward. If she is a small eater, give her a small portion of every food being served. It really shouldn't matter what order they are eaten in, if the dessert portion isn't so huge it fills her up. I believe there is nothing wrong with explaining (teacing) that we eat less of sweet and fat-full foods because they are not as healthy for us, but I don't think it should be tied to how much ''healthy'' food we already ate. In fact, this could lead to eating more than we need (most of us do that!). If there is dessert, perhaps it SHOULD take the place of some other foods, rather than being eaten in ADDITION to what we'd eat anyway (''save room for dessert''). If only healthy foods are usually offered, and she eats enough of that to be growing well, I don't think it's worth making a big issue about the occasional dessert. R.K.
Perhaps try making healthy dessert (fresh fruit etc.) and just serve it with dinner. And give a multivitamin every day. anon
What if you made sure that dessert was at least somewhat nutritious (e.g. fruit-based)? Or what if you only served dessert once in a while, rather than every night, and then served it as a matter of course, no matter how much of dinner was eaten? I think that dessert should not be used as a reward for eating a meal -- that has two possible undesirable results. First that dessert is the most desirable of all foods, second that one must eat a certain amount of a meal (or even clean one's plate), even when not particularly hungry. Both of these can result in a weight problem. I had a ''clean your plate to get dessert'' philosophy in my family as a child, and I have struggled with a weight problem, and a love of sweets, most of my life. I now have been diagnosed with diabetes -- at the relatively young age of 40. anonymous
Some things to remember: appetites in children vary with growth rates; 5 year olds are not growing too quickly and will have smaller appetites. Mealtimes can easily turn into power struggles, which have nothing to do with the food being served, and the parent will never win!

So I recommend letting your child eat the amount she wants, with no comments from adults. If you are going to serve dessert, then let her have it. If you do not want her to have dessert, then don't have it available.

To avoid the power struggle, we have started having fruit only for dessert: fresh, canned, dried. And that is the only option, this takes away the struggle for control. Once a week we will usually have another dessert. pediatric RD


Ah, this reminds me of our home! I have a 5 1/2 yr. old who eats like a bird, but always seems to have room for dessert. She will take a few bites of dinner, then say that she is full, but suddenly have room for dessert. I found that we were going down the same path -- she'd ask how much she had to eat to get dessert. Finally, I wised up. I gave her what I felt was a legitimate amount of food for dinner (much less than her 4 year old sister, I might add, but a bit more than she usually eats). When she said that she was full, I would tell her, ''Ok, if you're full, stop eating. That's fine.'' Our rule is that she still had to sit while the rest of us ate and until her sister was finished. If she asked for dessert, I tell her, ''Our rule is that you have to eat your dinner before you have dessert. You still have food left. If you are full, that is fine, but we'll save dessert for tomorrow.'' When we get the question, ''How many bites do I have to eat?'' we tell her, ''We don't bargain over dinner. If you are full, you may take your dish off and go play.'' Often, she will finish up and have dessert, but almost as often, she will take her dish off, and that's that. I think she tries it to see what we'll give in to, but I refuse to play the game, so she either finishes up if she really wants dessert, or moves on. I am adamant about not getting into the food battle, so we just state the rule and let her go from there. It worked for us! trish
We recently faced a very similar issue with our 2.5 year old. He goes to sleep a bit late (9:30 pm), so we have taken to giving him a snack before bed. At dinner, he eats what we eat, but at snack he eats pretty much what he likes (fruit, crackers, ice cream, cookies, ...). Since he clearly likes the snack better, he was beginning to eat little dinner and then ask for a lot of snack food. We, of course, wanted him to eat more dinner than snack. We were able to solve this problem very quickly by requiring that he finish his dinner (yes, all of it) before getting any snack.

We also started giving him smaller, more reasonable portions for dinner. Before, we used to give him more than he could eat, and then we wouldn't be sure how much he had eaten and he could easily manipulate us with the 'is one more bite enough' negotiation. If the portion is smaller, we can require that he finish it.

If he eats very little dinner and says he's done, he doesn't have to eat it right then, but he gets the same plate of dinner back at snacktime. He pretty much immediately complied and now finishes his dinner every night (either at dinner time or at snack time). The important thing is to give reasonable portions. If your daughter wants dessert, she has to clean her plate first. If you don't waffle and you don't give her any indication that you might ever bend this rule, she'll probably come around pretty quickly (if she wants dessert). Definitely don't go down the 'how many more bites is enough' road. She'll beat you every time! And don't let her talk you into the idea that you gave her too much and give her dessert without her finishing dinner. If you bend the rule once, she'll expect you to again and you'll be back where you started. You can try it with pretty small portions at first to make it easier.

On some days, my son is more hungry than usual, finishes his dinner, and then still asks for a lot of snack food. If the snack is getting too big, I'll pull out more dinner for him, and if he's truly hungry (and not gorging on snacks), he'll eat more dinner also (followed by more snack, of course!) Susanna


When I was a girl, my parents go so tired of my brothers and me demanding dessert the moment dinner was served that they began to require us to eat our dessert first! This had the effect of making us really want to eat our dinner. I remember that the ''dessert thing'' was a power issue between the kids and the parents, and once we had ''won'' we discovered we felt disturbed by the overturning of the right order of things--dinner first, then dessert.

I didn't to this with my kids, maybe because demands for dessert never were a big problem. Asking for snack at bedtime can have a number of causes. I think all the responders to this post make good points, and it's up to you to figure out what is going on with your child. If you are feeling manipulatd, you probably are. A skimpy eater needs to learn to eat when food is available. Having your child go to bed hungry once in a while won't cause any harm (except maybe to you; it's a hard thing to do). Occasionally, a child really is hungry at bedtime; I would tend to allow a snack to a child who had eaten well at dinner because s/he might be having a growth spurt. If it became a regular thing, I'd close down the snack bar at a set time. Louise


Nightly food wars with 4-year-old

My 4 year old boy is a very poor eater. Dinner, in particular, is a real challenge as he doesn't like anything that I would characterize as a "main course". No meat, fowl, fish, tofu, etc. The occasional chicken nugget, though I tried to make them homemade and struck out. All the foods that most kids love (pizza, peanut butter, hot dogs, cheese to name a few) he doesn't like. We do an awful lot of pasta (with butter only!) with one of the two veggies that he will sometimes eat. We've bought those frozen kids dinners and he wastes those too. Every night I come home, open my fridge and sigh like some miracle idea is going to leap out at me, but we end up with the same few things, which he may or may not eat. I end up screaming, threatening him with no computer or whatever if he doesn't eat at least some of it, and feel frustrated to say the least. This goes on virtually every night. I know food has become a power issue, and I know I've made mistakes, but in the meantime!! I would like to see him eat some healthy foods,and I would like some suggestions/ideas about the dinner hour. By the way, he's healthy but weighs about 33 pounds. Thanks in advance!
I am fortunate in having a 5 year old child with a great appetite-- he tries everything, especially if his parents are obviously enjoying it. Some small tips in making this work:
1. limit liquids just prior to sitting down for a meal. The tummy only holds so much.
2. figure out if he likes puree or crunch and be sure each meal has some of the texture he favors.
3. let him participate in preparing the food, including taste-testing. Running the blender, stirring, putting ingredients into the bowl/pan are favorites.
4. try to keep "the competition" for his appetite to a minimum (limit all simple carbs in the form of fruit juice (even if 100% pure), packaged cereals, crackers and chips, dried fruit, sweets, etc.)
5. As best you can (and it is often hard), support your child's choice in eating when he feels like it. More weight issues have arisen from being required to eat someone else's schedule (like at work, even).
6. have healthy snacks ready for his appetite: boiled egg, plain yogurt, steamed veggies, cooked meats, home-cooked soups, tortilla with pureed beans and cheese, and so on.
7. if he is in a childcare facility, be sure you know what he is eating during the day. You may find some answers there to his small appetite and will want to send all his food, including his snacks, to the facility.
8. Finally, I have read and heard that 4 is often a time when appetites are low. But if you have concerns, try Jin Shin. It has revived my son's appetite when I suspected something out of balance in his little body (Barbara Baiardi, 235-0616 or Leah Statman, 525-5080 are in the Berkeley area). Good luck!
First, does the child snack between meals? If the snacks are healthy, don't worry about eating at mealtimes per se. If not, eliminate them. The main point is to be sure the kid gets enough nutrition over the course of the day.

Second, give vitamins if you are concerned about nutrition. There is a kind that mimics Gummi Bears that my kids love. Sold at Andronicos and Life Extension Vitamins on Solano, probably lots of other places as well.

Third, what does your pediatrician say about the child's weight/height?

Fourth, let him go hungry. Obviously, no dessert without eating a reasonable dinner. I don't mean to be harsh, but it will definitely bring matters to a head. When he's hungry, his appetite will improve.


Please stop fighting with your son about food! My daughter also doesn't like meat or vegetables, lots of kids don't, so I serve her pasta, rice and all kinds of fruit, and give her a daily multi-vitamin. We never fight about food. Her pediatrician is somewhat mystified about where she gets protein and calcium (she also doesn't like milk products or beans or nuts), but she is very healthy. A person can be healthy without eating meat and vegetables.
Sounds familiar! My daughter became a very picky eater when she turned four. I consulted with her pediatrician who advised me to continue putting *healthy food* on her plate and eventually she might eat it (might take twenty times!) She also suggested that I make sure I give my daughter a children's multivitamin daily just for insurance.

Even though it's frustrating when my child won't eat the healthy food I give her, I don't worry so much anymore. I realized it's really not something that I have total control over. I once heard a pediatrician give the advice that: "it's the parent's job to provide healthy food. It's the child's job to eat it." I have taken this advice to heart. The biggest mistake you can make is to try to force them to eat anything. It just becomes a power issue.

Sometimes I make her what she likes best pasta with butter and parmesan cheese, Campbell's chicken noodle soup over rice, or macaroni and cheese or pizza with cheese and olives...but other times she is given the same thing my husband and I eat. I don't think it's a good idea to just make them just what they like --else they will never learn to eat or appreciate the taste of anything else. Once I made an egg salad sandwich and my daughter said she didn't like it. I said, "How do you know? You've never tired it. Take a bite!" She did and she loved it. I guess that shows that you never know unless you try. She is becoming a better eater now that she's turned five. She actually likes broccoli! If you're patient your son's eating habits will in all likelihood eventually improve.

My last piece of advice: don't try too hard to please them - you'll just end up frustrated in the long run. I learned this the hard way - I felt like the short order cook every night until I decided I had had enough. Good Luck!


Your post sounds like my 4 year old daughter. She has never enjoyed much variety or quantity in her diet. As a mother I found myself putting way too much emotion into her rejection of the lovingly prepared meals I would throw out night after night. I finally let go of my anger over the situation and began to focus on foods she liked and didn't try to force her to eat anything she chose not to. Over time (about a year now) she will try just about anything but immediately spits out about 90% of new things if she doesn't like it. That's OK in our deal. She has actually found a couple of new foods that she likes using this method. I prepare those foods for her while always offering the food my husband and I are eating. The arrival of our second daughter helped this situation because she eats anything and everything. I raised them both exactly the same so it allowed me to release my guilt about somehow not 'teaching' my daughter good eating habits.

Our food list includes: chicken meatballs (recipe from The Healthy Baby Meal Planner book by Karmel) which freeze well, Annie's Pasta Shells and Cheese, thigh and leg chicken meat (I buy the cooked chickens at the grocery store), any type of pasta noodles (plain), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (sometimes), pork tenderloin (when I prepare it for the whole family, I don't cook this just for her), boiled fresh shrimp, Van de Kamps crunchy fish sticks, strawberry yogurt, raw carrots (with the greens attached so she can pretend she's bugs bunny), apples, bananas and tangerines. For breakfast she eats an english muffin with peanut butter every morning. On weekends she'll eat pancakes and also likes turkey sausage (patties not links). Both of those things freeze well so extras can be saved and microwaved during the week. She is particular about brands of foods and doesn't like oranges even though she loves tangerines, likes dark meat chicken but not white meat. All of this tells me these type of kids are sensitive to flavors on some complex level that defies a mother's patience. Our list of foods are all easy to fix, it's too frustrating to spend time preparing foods that get thrown away so don't put yourself through it. I also buy all organic produce. I think kids respond positively to the fullness and quality of the flavor. I used to shun all prepared foods but broke down on that issue because of convenience. In general there's no junk food in our house.


I would not consider my daughter a poor eater, since she eats good quantities, but a picky eater. Also rejects all the typical stuff others crave: pizza, ice-cream, french fries/potato in any possible form. And she certainly does not eat whatever combinations the adults put on the table. There are a couple of things you can do: 1. Freeze a two weeks supply of a variety of dishes in toddler meal-size containers (for us that would be: pasta with red sauce, pasta with white sauce, tofu dogs cut in cubes with Heinz vegie beans and corn, fishsticks with peas) and serve whatever your son prefers from that menu. My daughter has always eaten what she requested. Breakfast is handled the same way. Do you want oatmeal, granola bar, toast with honey or jam, cereal or yoghurt? And she follows through. * Avoid the struggle at home by serving the warm meals at preschool via thermos. This is a good way for me to introduce one new meal per week, which gets rejected 90% of the time, but at least I don't have to hear the rejection of my good intentions. Of course, I always have a standard set of snack items as an alternative packed. Then serve a light cold self-selected dinner at home - he might end up with a few olives, a pickle, half a bagel with cream cheese and a few slices of apple. He may even show interest in nibbling one of your lettuce leaves covered with a yummy dressing. Sometimes my daughter repeats a breakfast item for dinner. Fine with me. However, I won't serve the "big warm meal" for breakfast. She had to accept that she has several choices within a certain set of foods and she goes along with it quite well. If she orders something and then doesn't eat it or orders more of something and doesn't touch it at all, I'd subtract a bedtime story on the grounds ! that we don't waste food. However, this does not apply if I "make the mistake" of serving her something she did not ask for/agree to or if she asked for more of something, ate some but couldn't finish it all. Since you want healthy foods: dessert in our house means choosing between different kinds of organic fruit (usually limited by her liking to apple slices, grapes, rasberries, strawberries and an occasional mandarine. She "overdosed" on bananas last year). Hope that helps avoiding the food wars.
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