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Diary Of A Picky Eater

I graduated from college with a degree in nutrition and a sure knowledge of how our bodies need a variety of foods. But contrary to everything I've learned, my 3-year-old daughter, Luca, seems able to subsist on noodles, bread, bagels, and cereal  -- foods that are essentially flour and water  -- interspersed with an unpredictable morsel or two of meat and certain fruits. Vegetables Luca regards as "yugly" (yucky and ugly); they're not even allowed on her plate, let alone in her mouth. Her white, starchy little meals are so bereft of most proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that she seems surely on the road to dietary disaster.

But then I look at Luca  -- sprightly, energetic, and keeping up with the growth charts. How can she be breaking all those nutrition rules and getting away with it? Should I be watching for signs of scurvy?

Looking for relief from my concern, I decided to keep a record of every bite Luca ate over the course of a week and conduct a reality check on her diet and my perceptions.

Elaine Khosrova is the food editor for Healthy Living.

Day One: Friday

BREAKFAST

Off to a wholesome start, with 1/2 cup cereal with milk and 1/2 banana. Luca thought the slices of banana would like some raisins to snuggle with in her bowl, so we added about a tablespoon. But having imbued them with lifelike qualities, she now didn't want to eat them. I had to convince her that they'd be just as happy snuggling in her tummy, so she tried a few.

SNACK

(at preschool) 1 slice challah bread.

LUNCH

1 cup chicken noodle soup, sort of. After insisting on using a fork, Luca extracted just the noodles, pushing aside the chicken, carrots, and celery. She dunked 4 wheat crackers in the broth and relished the sodden pieces. Also consumed: a thin strand of string cheese, tied into a bow.

SNACK

1/2 cup popcorn. (So call me irresponsible: Popcorn  -- as well as some of the other things I give my daughter  -- are considered choking hazards for little ones. But Luca chews carefully, and a grown-up is always with her whenever she's eating. Besides, I always cut up and peel the apples and grapes I offer her.)

DINNER

While Mom, Dad, and 10-year-old brother Alex (who was always an intrepid eater) were enjoying Thai-style swordfish, asparagus, and rice, Luca had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and 1/2 cup orange juice. (While I made the sandwich, I envisioned my mother saying, "You spoil her. She should eat whatever you put out or nothing at all." It's true that everyone in my family always ate whatever my mom made. But now I realize why  -- it was plain and predictable food, boiled and buttered. Just the kind of minimalist fare that children relish. Should I cook like that, without seasonings and spice?)

BEDTIME SNACK

6 seedless grapes.

Day Two: Saturday

BREAKFAST

Luca woke up at 9:00 A.M. to find her best friend, Sara, in her room. (She had been dropped off for the morning.) Too excited and surprised to sit down to breakfast, Luca didn't eat until about 10:30, when she and Sara decided to have a picnic in her room. We put down a green towel (for grass), borrowed the flowers from the dining room, and set out a few stuffed bunny rabbits and Alex's rubber snake. In such good company, and inspired by Sara, who was also eating, Luca devoured 1 waffle with syrup, 1/4 cup seedless grapes, 1/4 bagel, and 1/2 cup milk. Not surprisingly, breakfast (the only meal unadulterated by vegetables and Mom's provocative seasonings) seems to be her favorite.

LUNCH

1/2 slice pizza.

SNACK

1/2 chocolate-chip granola bar, 1/2 cup apple juice.

DINNER

1 cup macaroni and cheese, 2 slices of turkey, and an orange. She tried to give the steamed broccoli with a smidgen of butter to her brother. I think Luca believes that Mommy and Daddy don't care who eats the vegetables, as long as they disappear.

BEDTIME SNACK

1/2 cup popcorn, 1/2 cup milk.

Day Three: Sunday

BREAKFAST

Luca wanted scrambled eggs like the rest of the family but only if she could cook for everyone. It took a while for her to mix up 6 eggs, but she was proud of her contribution. Luca polished off around 1 1/2 eggs, 1/4 bagel (no cream cheese or butter), and 1/2 cup milk.

LUNCH

(at Aunt Jackie and Uncle Bob's) After Luca refused a tuna fish, grilled cheese, or turkey sandwich, Aunt Jackie asked her if she'd like some banana. When she handed Luca a perfectly nice 1/2 banana, Luca wrinkled her nose. Ever patient, Aunt Jackie sliced the banana into a face shape on Luca's plate. Luca gobbled it up. Later she had 1/2 cup Cheerios with milk, 3 vanilla cream cookies, and 1/2 cup orange juice.

DINNER

We ate out with a grown-up friend at a restaurant that serves hearty fare. Our choices included fried chicken and pork chops with heaps of mashed potatoes, broccoli, and carrots, plus guacamole and corn chips.

As we all dug in, Luca seemed overwhelmed, searching the table for some small and recognizable morsel. Everything was rejected. Even her Ken and Barbie dolls didn't want this food: Ken stomped on the corn chips; Barbie ran from the evil broccoli.

Back home, Luca was happy with reheated, leftover macaroni and cheese (about 1 cup).

BEDTIME SNACK

5 seedless grapes, 4 pretzels.

Day Four: Monday

BREAKFAST

Because we were late for preschool, Luca had 1/2 bagel (buttered) and 3 gulps of milk before we dashed out.

SNACK

(at preschool) 4 pretzels, 1/4 cup apple juice.

LUNCH

(in the park) 1 1/2 slices beef bologna (the birds got the bread), 1 banana, 1 oatmeal cookie.

SNACK

She refused carrot sticks but accepted 3 dried apricots.

DINNER

The meal began with Luca's wails when we switched off her video because it was time to eat. After a short, sob-filled time-out, she returned to the table as if nothing had happened. And in fact, she was a delightful dinner companion, pausing between bites of chicken cutlet (about 3 ounces) and cheese tortellini (4) to blow kisses, sing songs, and talk to the flowers in the centerpiece. Happy as she was, she wouldn't touch her spinach and tomato salad.

BEDTIME SNACK

1/2 an apple, 1/2 cup milk.

Day Five: Tuesday

BREAKFAST

1/2 bran muffin, 1/3 cup milk.

LUNCH

At McDonald's, Luca ate a small bag of "shrench shries," 3 chicken nuggets, 1/2 cup apple juice.

SNACK

Chocolate-chip cookies (2).

DINNER

With company coming, I spent much of the afternoon preparing a Mediterranean-style menu of chicken with tomatoes, capers, oregano, and garlic, a platter of couscous, steamed carrots, roasted asparagus, a cucumber salad, and fennel rolls.

Luca helped out by tearing lettuce and setting out the spices. Because she was curious about them, I explained that they're like pixie dust  -- you sprinkle them on food while you're cooking to turn it into something special. She's a big Tinkerbell fan, but this analogy didn't encourage her to try some of the food. While we feasted, she had 1/2 apple, 10 raspberries, 1 slice of whole-wheat toast with peanut butter (about a tablespoon).

BEDTIME SNACK

The remaining 1/2 bran muffin from breakfast  -- this time with a little bit of orange juice (1/4 cup).

Day Six: Wednesday

BREAKFAST

As always, we were trying to beat the clock on this school morning. As I hastened Luca along, she clenched her teeth, gesturing that her mouth was locked.

Hoping to divert a battle, I grabbed a Barbie shoe (there's always a few scattered around) and used it as a key to unlock her mouth. She loved this new game. We repeated it until her bowl was emptied of 1/2 cup cereal, 1/3 cup milk, and 1/4 banana.

SNACK

(at preschool) A handful of raisins, 1/4 cup apple juice.

LUNCH

1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 1/2 cup popcorn, 3/4 cup orange juice.

DINNER

Luca wouldn't touch the roasted potatoes, creamed spinach, or salad, but she shocked us all by gobbling up a lamb rib chop. She'd never eaten lamb, but then again, she's never had any meat that costs $9.50 a pound.

BEDTIME SNACK

Offering Luca a dried cranberry, her brother Alex said, "Do you want to try a red raisin? They're special. Princesses eat these." Luca examined it, progressing from I'll just hold it to Maybe I'll just lick it. Finally, she slipped it into her mouth and slowly chewed: "It's a little bit good." She had 4 dried cranberries and a clementine orange.

Day Seven: Thursday

BREAKFAST

1 waffle with maple syrup, 1/2 cup milk.

SNACK

1/4 cup blueberries.

LUNCH

Inside the "cottage" we created under her brother's bunk bed, Luca and I had our lunch and then a tea party. Luca loved it and ate 1/2 tuna fish sandwich, 6 potato chips, 2 cherry tomatoes, and 1 piece of honey cake. Plus 1/2 cup "tea" (apple juice).

DINNER

Mom and Dad went out to dinner; Luca had a slice of pizza and a bowl of vanilla ice cream with lots of sprinkles.

BEDTIME SNACK

1/2 banana.

The Reckoning

And now, the moment of nutritional truth. How is Luca's eating, despite her persnickety habits? I used The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition as my reference for preschooler portions and tallied how many servings she'd consumed over the week in each of five recommended food categories. The total:

  • 43 servings from the bread/grains/ pasta category

  • 28 portions of fruit (including the cherry tomatoes)

  • 14 servings in the meat/egg/nuts/legumes group

  • 13 servings in the dairy group

  • 1 serving greasy vegetable (fast-food french fries are still potato, right?)

When I divided the amount in each group by 7 to get her daily intake, I found that she averaged more than 6 servings of bread/grains, 4 servings of fruit, 2 servings of meat/eggs/nuts, nearly 2 servings of dairy, and an infinitesimal amount of vegetable. How would these numbers measure up to the quotas of the venerable USDA food guide pyramid?

Surprisingly well. Luca's servings of grains were on par, and her dairy consumption came up only slightly short. Even the daily allowance from the meat category was satisfactory.

Her intake of fruit was double what it needed to be, and according to the Yale experts, "fruits and fruit juices can be substituted for vegetables to ensure adequate amounts of vitamins A and C." This is comforting. But the next paragraph says that veggies are rich in nutrients and parents should serve them 1 to 2 times a day. So even if my finicky eater isn't so finicky, I'll have to get more creative. Maybe I'll sneak some spinach into my next batch of brownies.

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