Feeding a Picky Eater

by Nancy Kalish

Feeding a Picky Eater

Omigod, she’s actually eating it, I think in amazement one morning as I watch my daughter scarf down an entire apple without any prodding. I feel like dancing around the table, but out of fear that she’ll stop chewing, I try not to make a big deal out of what is, for me, an extremely big deal.

Just a few weeks before, getting 8-year-old Allison to eat an apple  — or any other healthy food  — was a major, exhausting production and had been so ever since she was a toddler. At around 2, she developed a loathing for formerly beloved foods, such as sweet potatoes, oranges, and turkey, and the list of what she would eat shrank until it included just macaroni and cheese, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate milk, and very few fruits  — all in minuscule quantities. Our dining table became a battleground where my husband and I pitted our weapons (logic, bribes, threats) against our child’s (a cast-iron will). We were defeated every time.

What’s made the difference this morning is that we finally have a strategy. Here’s how I was able to break our miserable cycle and what you need to know  — and do  — to get started right with your baby.

Nancy Kalish is a frequent contributor to Parenting and Family Life.

The First hurdle: From Breast to Bowl

Surprisingly, we’re all born hyper-fussy about food. “Babies are hard-wired to like sweet things and reject sour or bitter ones,” says Leann Birch, Ph.D., head of the department of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “This is because in nature, sweetness is an indication of energy-dense foods, while sourness may be an indication of poisonous ones.” Unfortunately, this nifty survival tactic can throw parents off when it’s time to make the transition from the breast or bottle to solid foods. “The first time you put a spoonful of applesauce in your baby’s mouth, he’s likely to happily accept it,” explains Birch. “But the first time he tries a spoonful of pureed green beans, watch out!”

At this point, many parents decide that their child despises green beans. So they try other foods, only to get the same discouraging response. The common result: They end up labeling the child a fussy eater, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Don’t give up so quickly. “Babies are likely to reject a new non-sweet food five or six times or more,” says Birch. “But experiments have shown that if you’re willing to persist, your child will accept some of these foods eventually.” So wipe those beans off your face and keep at it.

To improve your chances of success, serve foods that she can feed herself. “Babies are so intent on mastering eating skills that they’re more likely to try foods that they can practice with easily,” says Parenting contributing editor William Sears, M.D., coauthor of The Family Nutrition Book: Everything You Need to Know About Feeding Your Children From Birth Through Adolescence. “Babies also like to dip and dunk. After they’re one, providing some guacamole, healthy salad dressing, or yogurt is a good way to get them to try new foods and to boost the meal’s nutrition.”

The Vicissitudes of Toddlerhood

Beginning around age 1, Emily Rosenzweig refused to eat anything except bland white foods such as cottage cheese, yogurt, or plain pasta. “Now that she’s 3, she won’t try something new even if she’s starving  — and even if it’s white,” reports her mother, Pam, of Millburn, NJ.

Regardless of whether you flunked Baby Feeding 101 and failed to offer green beans the required number of times or your child sailed through babyhood with a tummyful of healthy foods, toddlerhood presents special mealtime challenges. Some stumbling blocks and ways to triumph:

Minor rebellions “Developmentally, kids this age are very oppositional, and if you push them, they may reject foods just to see your reaction,” says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense. Solution? Don’t rise to the bait. While it’s okay to give in to your child’s whims now and then, don’t make a practice of it. “Erratic eating is also normal at this age,” says Satter. “Your toddler may want white yogurt one day and pink the next because it’s her new favorite color, and if you don’t mind keeping both on hand, that’s okay.” One-food eating jags are nothing to worry about either, says Dr. Sears, as long as the favored food is nutritionally sound, like pizza or peanut butter sandwiches.

Drinking problems “In my experience, too much milk and juice is actually a leading cause of poor eating. Both are high in calories, so they dampen a child’s appetite and displace other foods from the diet,” says Will Wilkoff, M.D., a pediatrician in Brunswick, ME, and the author of Coping With a Picky Eater: A Guide for the Perplexed Parent. Although your child can have unlimited water, she should drink only four ounces of milk at each meal and four ounces of juice twice a day at snacktime, Dr. Wilkoff says.

When Stephanie Mullen got this advice from her pediatrician, she decided to break her 2-year-old daughter’s milk-bottle habit cold turkey. “It was really scary,” recalls the mom from Blauvelt, NY. “Matilda went on a hunger strike for two full days, but I stood firm. On the third morning, she woke up ravenous and has been eating better ever since.”

Improper portions Perhaps the most common cause of problems is the gap between how much parents want kids to eat and how much they can actually consume. “Colin, who’s 2, will take three bites of a sandwich or three spoonfuls of spaghetti, then claim he’s done,” says his mom, Lisa Perry of Malden, MA. “It just doesn’t seem possible that he could live on such a paltry amount.”

“Remember that a toddler’s stomach is the size of his fist,” says Dr. Sears. “Put his fist next to a plate and you’ll see if your expectations are too great.” In addition, he’s growing only one-tenth as much as he did as a baby, so he consumes less. For most toddlers and preschoolers, then, three square meals is an unrealistic and unnecessary goal. A child can eat a good breakfast, a so-so lunch, and then next to nothing for dinner and still be perfectly healthy. You’re on the right course, say experts, if your child’s height and weight are continuing to follow the proper curve on his growth chart.

“When we analyzed children’s meal patterns,” says Birch, “we saw that though they might eat a big breakfast one day and none the next, they automatically made adjustments at other meals so that their entire caloric intake was consistent from day to day.”

Interfering with this innate ability to know how much to eat can backfire. “As a mother, I know it’s hard not to become emotionally involved in your child’s eating,” says Birch, “so we beg or bribe him to take just one more bite.” But that strategy can have unwanted consequences. “You’re teaching your kid to ignore his internal signals, which can lead to overeating later on,” she says. “Plus, as soon as you withdraw the reward, he’ll often stop eating the nutritious food and may even develop an increased dislike for it.”

“It’s okay if your child doesn’t eat his vegetables one night  — or for two months straight. His brain won’t stop developing,” says Dr. Wilkoff. What’s not okay is for a parent to become so invested in a child’s eating habits that every meal becomes a source of dread for the whole family.

When All Else Fails

If the approaches above don’t help, there’s still much you can do to improve even ingrained pickiness. Dr. Wilkoff suggests parents try a very specific approach but warns that picky eating is a normal behavior that almost every child will exhibit sometime during his first six years, and while you can improve it, you probably won’t cure it. You can, however, make the family meal more enjoyable. “It’s only in a relaxed atmosphere that your fussy eater is likely to become more adventurous,” Wilkoff says.

If you’re going to try this method, you’ll need to stay strong no matter how loudly your picky eater whines and wails during the initial adjustment period. The basics of his approach:

Stop being a short-order cook. A typical dinner at Anne Whisnant’s house in Chapel Hill, NC, used to involve preparing two, and sometimes three, different meals. “I’d make dinner for my husband and myself, then make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Evan, who’s 2 1/2,” she says. “But often, even if he had requested PB&J, he’d screech for something else when he sat down, and we’d give it to him.”

Dr. Wilkoff’s advice: “Stop catering to your child just so you can see him eat.” Your job as a parent is to present a selection of healthy foods in a pleasant environment. So offer a nutritious main dish, vegetable, starch, and bread and let your child choose from what’s available.

The first (and probably second and third) time you attempt this, expect a major fit. But don’t waver. The objections will continue until it’s clear you’re serious about the new regimen. “Calmly explain that he doesn’t have to eat, but this will be his last chance for the evening,” says Dr. Wilkoff. “Then stand firm.” If he doesn’t eat at all? “It won’t kill him. He’ll make up for it the next morning. The next evening, he’ll be more open to what’s on the table.”

Serve appropriate portions of loved and loathed foods. Let’s say you’re dishing up spaghetti and meatballs, which your child likes, along with peas, which she dislikes or has never even tried. Give her a tiny portion of peas and a portion of pasta that’s slightly on the small side so she doesn’t totally fill up. Then, no seconds of anything until she’s cleaned her plate, suggests Dr. Wilkoff. You’re not trying to get her to join the old “clean plate club,” just keeping her from overdosing on one food to the exclusion of others. And if you keep the portion of the new food quite small, say, to five peas, you increase the chances that she’ll try to finish the peas in order to get seconds of spaghetti.

Don’t let meals go on ad nauseam. “If your child is going to eat anything, it’s going to be in the first 20 minutes,” says Dr. Wilkoff. There’s no point in keeping him at the table to try to get him to eat more.

Bite your tongue. None of these techniques will work unless you stop putting pressure on your child. That means no more “If you don’t eat your lima beans, you can’t have dessert,” “If you don’t finish your meat loaf, you’ll never grow up to be big and strong,” or that old standby, “Children are starving in India!”

“No one likes to be pressured,” says Dr. Wilkoff. “The typical human response is to be contrary. All you’re going to achieve is to make your child feel angry or guilty.” And there should be no discussions about eating, especially during meals. If you need to review the rules, do it away from the table and don’t lecture.

Does all this really work? Whisnant decided she’d had enough of short-order cooking and unpleasant meals. “Evan was getting worse. We were down to six foods and no vegetables, and he’d never try anything new,” she recalls. “So at dinner, we started serving the same things to everyone  — but not the same portion size. We made sure that there was at least one thing that Evan really liked, such as peanut butter on crackers, which we’d have some of too. He’d get a normal portion of that, along with minuscule portions of new foods, including our main dish. And we stopped talking about food at the table.”

The first few days, Evan left all the new foods on his plate. But the next night, he tried a bite of kale. “We were shocked!” says Whisnant. “After that, it was ravioli, pumpkin pancakes, grits, and carrots in the course of just a few weeks. And there’s no more whining or screeching.”

It was a longer haul with my daughter, Allison, who had no trouble expressing her objections, loudly and at length, to our new routine. She ate worse for the first week, and I almost called it quits. But I was so sick of our constant bickering over food that I decided to stick it out for one more week. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. The next night, I served dinner, and Allison proceeded to eat it all, including a small serving of rice, a new food for her. It helped that she wanted to tell me all about something she’d done at school that day  — and that I dug my nails into my palms so I wouldn’t say anything about the meal and break the spell. But, as I learned in the days that followed, there was no doubt that my picky eater was becoming less picky, meals were slowly but surely becoming more pleasant, and my family had finally reached a truce in the food wars.