Picky Eater Revolution

January 16, 2007

One of my best friends from college days has four boys ranging in age from eleven to six. She’s a fabulous mother, full of energy and wisdom and humor. This tidbit she said to me years ago when Abby was still a baby and I was debating how to get her to sleep through the night came back to me today: “Oh well, whatever you do, you can always un-do it later.” There’s such grace in that, I think — the realization that as parents, we will screw up, and we will sometimes take shortcuts that benefit the situation at the moment, but don’t benefit our child in the long run. And the fact that we can change course, that every minuscule decision is hardly life and death, provides freedom for a perfectionist like me.

We are currently in the process of a pretty unpleasant “un-doing” in our house right now. Abby, who will be nine next month, is an extraordinarily picky eater. I’ve read lots of books, talked to lots of people, received a lot of unsolicited advice and criticism, and the bald fact remains: my daughter is picky. I can theorize a lot of reasons why she is like this — she’s sensitive (oh so sensitive!) to textures and smells and tastes and I truly don’t think many foods taste to her the way they do to me; she likes the control (and I wonder where she gets this from…really) of not eating when I want her to eat; she is slow at adapting to new experiences and new food truly makes her nervous…

I guess I’m a little defensive about her eating (and frankly, Rob’s no prize in the eating department either, but he’s slowly expanding his palate — Dan on the other hand will eat anything so long as it doesn’t talk back), because people have oh so many opinions about what I, as mother, have done to create this issue.

You should always make her clean her plate.

Don’t make it a battle, no matter what you do.

Just keep offering her the food. You know it takes 14 exposures of a new food before it’s accepted by most kids.

She’ll grow out of it.

You need to show her who’s boss.

Guess what? Not much of this is helpful when you have a picky kid. I don’t know why she doesn’t like baked potatoes. I don’t know why any ground meat makes her gag. And believe me, if all it took were 14 exposures, the kid would be eating squid in its own ink by February. On the most fundamental level, I have come to believe that parents don’t create picky eating, that this is something hard-wired into a person. I suspect that the range of food she enjoys will always be somewhat limited.

But…and it’s a significant but…I believe that I have been complicit in facilitating her picky eating, primarily by allowing her to fill up on snack-type-food. Somewhere between Tim traveling and my mom getting sick, I sort of threw in the parental towel here. So she didn’t eat the chicken and rice at dinner? Maybe later she would have some crackers. It’s tough when you have a skinny picky kid because you fear her getting too hungry or actually losing weight. As it is, she’s gained a reasonable amount each year to be on the growth charts in the lower percentiles for weight. And she’s a fairly healthy kid, though her complaints of tiredness have been part of the reason that we’ve decided to take on the challenge of helping her become somewhat less picky.

I’m wary of battling her because I fear that she could head down the eating disorder path at some point. But I’m really really trying not to make this about food per se as it is about healthy lifestyle. The new family policy is that she has to at least try (even one bite) of what she thinks she won’t like, because even though there are some foods she will probably never like (see ground meat above), there are plenty of other foods that she truly might enjoy if she can get over her anxiety about trying them. I always try to have at least one (or two if possible) thing she’ll eat at every meal, so that every bite doesn’t cause war. If she doesn’t eat what I’ve asked, I don’t make a big deal about it, but tell her that she may not have a snack later if she gets hungry.

You would not believe the hysteria at my table the last few nights! Abby wants her snacks, and has clearly relied on them waaaay too much. So I feel like I’m doing the right thing. Most of the time. But gosh, it stinks to undertake a task that you know will make your child miserable in the short term, and I feel guilty for my part in allowing the situation to get to this point. But God’s mercies are new every day for me and for her. And so we keep moving forward.


17 Responses to “Picky Eater Revolution”

  1. Oy vey. I’m sorry.

    I heard a report on NPR last year about a researcher who believes that extremely picky eaters are suffering from a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Apparently the treatments range from medication to behavioral and cognitive therapies.

    Don’t know if it’s true, but made a lot of sense when I heard it discussed.

    Not having that problem with my kids (who will — and DO — eat just about anything), I’m not sure it’s my place to give you advice. But I will pray that y’all will know what to do.

  2. Beth Koruna said

    Thanks, John. I actually looked that up on the internet and found the original article that they were talking about on NPR. It does make a lot of sense — I can see definite traits of OCD as well as sensory integration stuff (Kori and I have talked about this) in Ab. I may have to make an appt. with the pediatrician so that I can run some of this past her. Gah! Nothing’s ever easy, I guess!

  3. Nope. But your friends love you. So that should help, right?

  4. Amanda Anderson said

    Hi Beth,

    I’m Amanda from church, I met you briefly once, and I read your blog because I’m a stalker like that.

    I just wanted to offer you a word of encouragement, because reading about Abby’s eating habits sounds just like me as a kid! I wouldn’t eat potatoes, eggs, noodles, any type of casserole, I particulary remember hating cream of mushroom soup. It was all texture for me.

    Now, my husband and I are friends with the McCollums and everytime I go over there John or Kori serves something I haven’t tried and I have to say I am substantially less picky than I used to be! I ate Cauliflower Soup once (which is something I would have rather died than eaten as a child). I still won’t eat sour cream, but I try it everytime to see if I like it (I still don’t!).

    Anyways, all of this rambling to say it’s sounds like you’re doing the best you can, and to let you know other kids existed like her (me) :).

  5. Beth Koruna said

    John — Friends loving you makes all the difference in the world!

    Amanda — yay! I’m glad you commented. Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve read a couple of things that say that if kids are still picky at age 9, then it’s pretty much entrenched for life (considering Abby will be 9 in a month, I DON’T find that so encouraging!), so it’s good to hear of people who got less picky as adults. Maybe the key is exposing her to John and Kori’s cooking! I don’t much like sour cream either, and I DESPISE mayonaise — too…gloppy…hmmm, wonder where Abby gets some of her issues???? 😀 Thanks for reading, Amanda.

  6. Erica said

    OK, that whole “being a picky eater at nine entrenches one for life” thing is SO NOT TRUE and I am a living example of it. Do not even GET my mother started on how picky I was. Or how I hid every vegetable in a crafty hidden ring under the edge of my plate so that my mother would think I had taken that “one bite.” And she cleared those plates every night … did she really not notice? She must have!

    Also, not only did I start recovering in High School, but Amanda really is doing MUCH better with the trying of and enjoying of all the bizarre foods that we throw at her.

    Just for fun, you might want to snuggle up with your kids and read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (the first one) by Betty MacDonald. The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker chapter is particularly applicable to your situation and will make you happy that you are not parenting Allen.
    Who really existed.
    I taught him.
    He ate only oatmeal, boiled chicken breast, and apple sauce.

    Go easy on yourself.

  7. Beth Koruna said


    I look at that list and think, “Damn, a protein, a grain, some fruit. Pretty good.” (I’m not saying that I’m not a wee bit skewed here! :>

    I love the idea of the book — that’s one we have not read and it sounds like one they would all enjoy, and NOTHING is better than the warm little bodies leaning against you in the evening!

    What do you think made you less picky in high school? My biggest concern for Abby is protein — the child does not like meat, except the occasional chicken nugget. Won’t do eggs. Peanut butter, cheese (only shredded and not melted, of course) and milk are mainstays. She will eat some fruit and a couple of veggies. But heaven forfend anything would be MIXED UP…thanks for the “go easy” advice — I can get pretty stressed about this and it brings about that lovely mix of maternal concern and GUILT. Urgh..

  8. Erica said

    Dude, it’s time to try the tofu. Seriously.

    What broke me out of it was my introduction to Chinese food, which didn’t happen until 7th or 8th grade I think. Late, late, late. My Mom had a habit of boiling vegetables until they were dead, and she totally cops to not being the happiest cook in the world. After Chinese food showed me that somewhere in the world there were means of preparing vegetables that I might not hate eating, I had a dear friend in college from South Africa who determined that she would teach me to like spicy Indian food if it was the last thing she did on this planet. Desi was not the sort of person who failed in such tasks, and also, she’s a mean cook.

    Tofu. Let’s try it. Soy beans are also pleasing, much better for me than other legumes. Dal (Indian lentils) is another good option. But both tofu and soy beans can be stirfried with anything and yum! If she grows up to be a vegetarian she’s going to have to eat the tofu. Amanda chops firm tofu into chunks and deep frys it in a wok, sprinkles on sea salt, and serves it with sweet dipping sauce. I wonder if your child would eat that. Plain, yet, mmmmmm. Folks in Japan would eat it plain with a little soy sauce. Buy the soft stuff, whip it into a smoothie and she’ll never know the difference. If she’ll eat a smoothie, that is.

    Other than that, don’t sweat it. She’ll be fine. NO MORE GUILT FOR YOU! But do read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Even if it doesn’t impact your situation, you’ll all enjoy it.

    And Allen? No, really, I’m not exaggerating. That is REALLY all he had eaten for seven years of life. And the chicken was not so much. Mostly it was plain oat meal and apple sauce if they were lucky three meals a day. For seven years. He looked sickly. It was disturbing. Seriously.

  9. Beth Koruna said

    Tofu…hmm…it needs to not be too squishy…I like the idea of the deep frying and the wok. And mixing it into a smoothie with yummy fruit? Diabolical and I love it! I could sell it as a milkshake. It’s all in the spin!

    Thanks for your kind words — I have a tendancy to sweat it all way too much and it helps A LOT to hear of success stories. (Why am I thinking, “Great success for you!”??? And NO more guilt for me!)

    Poor Allen. Poor Allen’s mom. At least we’re slightly more varied than that!

  10. kjames said

    girl, if i, finally at age 32, like scrambled eggs, then just about ANYTHING is possible for abby.

    what you’re doing is good. keep it up, don’t second guess yourself. it seems to me that you’re towing the right line of understanding what she needs and expecting a bit more from her. good job, beth!

  11. Tim said

    I’ll need to learn the secret for the scrambled eggs, Karen. God knows I’ve tried to get Abby to try scrambled eggs. In all humility, I make about the best scrambled eggs in all Christendom (can I get a witness?), and yet she still turns her nose up at them. Straight up, with Parmesan, with cheddar, with a little ham, with spinach and feta, hell’s bells, even french toast: nothing doing. She’s turned them all down.

    I dare not even consider whipping up an omelette.

    Come to think of it, though, I might want to give the french toast a try some weekend. Hmmmm …

  12. bethkoruna said

    Tim, you do make the best eggs in Chrisendom. In fact, do you want to have eggs tonight?

  13. Tim said

    Eggs tonight? Sure. Do the kids want French Toast?

  14. kjames said

    tim, i don’t know if you’ll like my advice. see, it was me getting pregnant with greta that started my liking eggs. i don’t think we want abby pregnant yet.
    it was weird: first and second trimester, i ate them every night before bed (this is after not liking eggs AT ALL for my entire life up untill this point!). then by the third trimester: no more. however, sometime this summer they seemed like a good idea and now i totally like them. so weird!

    the way you make them sounds fabulous. i’m not a big feta-fan. but otherwise, they sound great! randy makes them with chedder, a little milk, and ham (that’s been sauteyed first). a little salt and pepper and YUM.
    french toast… maybe if it’s less eggy? i’ve always been a fan of french toast. i actually have a good recipe for that. don’t know what i can do to help you though!

  15. BrianT said

    I usually don’t post to parents of picky eaters but I felt led that I should to you.

    I also don’t want to scare you but I’m still a picky eater at 43…bread and cheese are my staples and always have been… not much else.
    My picky eating has not affected my life much, I’m healthy, have a great wife, no kid’s (nothing to do with my picky eating), good friends, good job and love the lord.

    I think the secret to why my life hasn’t been affected much by my picky eating is my parents… they did not make a big deal about my picky eating so I never did and this allowed me to focus on just enjoy life as a normal kid.
    To this day most people don’t know how picky I really am… not that I hide my picky eating it just doesn’t come up and if it does I’m honest about it and we move on.
    My Christian upbringing I believe also had a hand in my mental well being, then and today. Everyone knew of my eating habits at church but it was such a none issue that my childhood was quite normal.

    I could go on… but I will just say these final few words…
    Love, support and nurture your child in a way that she feels that it doesn’t matter to you that she is a picky eater and also help her to focus and develop other area’s of her life… most real picky eaters that I know are quite brilliant and successful… never stop giving her food choices… for most kids it just clicks one day…
    I will be praying for your daughter to outgrows her pickiness (most do)… but be assured if she doesn’t it not the end of the world…just my opinion.

  16. Beth Koruna said

    Thanks for opinion. I think you make a very good point that we should treat her with complete love, support and acceptance no matter how or what she eats. And not make her eating the most important issue in her life.

    Thanks also for your prayers and thanks for reading!

  17. scott8035 said

    Our son has been a picky eater from the day he was born. He always liked chicken, though, and we got him to try fish by telling him it was “river chicken”. My advice is to just not sweat it, they don’t starve to death.

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