Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Confessions of a Picky Eater

I am a picky eater. I am a lot more adventurous in my eating than I was when I was a kid, but I am still picky.

If I could just stop being a picky eater, I would. It would make eating out and dining at friends' houses easier. And it would travel even more fun- no more lunches like the one I once had in Tokyo, where we couldn't read the menu, and no one spoke English. So we were reduced to trying to guess what the little plastic meals on display represented. Was that nondescript brown square breaded chicken? Pork? Fish? Or something stranger? Hubby happily pointed at a plastic meal, confident that he would like whatever came out. I was practically paralyzed with fear. I was really very hungry. But what if the plastic meal I pointed at represented something I didn't like?

Given this genetic inheritance, it is not all that surprising that Pumpkin has also turned out to be a picky eater. I obviously want to help her learn to like as many foods as possible from an early age. This desire initially manifested as an interest in Pumpkin's eating habits that bordered on obsession. What should her first food be? When should we introduce finger foods? What finger foods? I googled on these things incessantly.

Of course, this obsession did nothing to improve Pumpkin's eating habits. I eventually realized that I needed to chill out on the subject. I decided to read the book about how to feed your child, Child of Mine, by Ellyn Satter, and follow its advice.

A funny thing happened while I was reading this book, though. I discovered that I actually knew more about how to handle a picky eater than I had initially thought. After all, I had first hand knowledge of what goes on in a picky eater's mind! So I ended up formulating my own plan, based largely on Ellyn Satter's advice, but also incorporating what I know about being a picky eater, and bringing in some thoughts I had while reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

From Ellyn Satter's book, I took the idea that I can't force Pumpkin to eat, and that trying to do so would just set up a contest of wills and turn dinner into an unpleasant experience. I like her mantra that it is the parent's job to decide what to serve and when to serve it, and it is the child's job to decide whether and how much to eat.

From my personal experience about being a picky eater, I took the following things:

1. There are some foods that actually make me gag if I try to eat them. For me, these include iceberg lettuce and beans. In both cases, it is a texture problem. I will not eat these foods, and actually threw up once when the issue was forced.

2. There are some foods that just taste really, really bad. The scientist in me suspects this is due to the particular variants of taste receptors I have. The eater in me just knows that I can't stand peas, and will never like peas, no matter how many times I try them.

3. When I was younger (OK, and even now), I would often dig in my heels and refuse to even try something new if someone made a big fuss about the fact that I didn't want to eat something. I would be particularly stubborn if someone tried to reason with me and make me see that I was just being silly by refusing to try the food. I was (and am) far more likely to try something new if the fact that I am not eating it is just ignored.

Finally, Michael Pollan's discussion of the omnivore's dilemma (our need to figure out what to eat, because our biology does not do it for us) made me think about just how hard it is for a baby to learn what is safe to eat. There are so many things out there that a baby could eat that would have disastrous consequences. It is really sort of amazing that they will eat anything. With this in mind, it is not at all surprising that Pumpkin will ignore a new food the first 5 times it is presented to her, nibble a tiny bit of it and spit it out on the 6th through 10th time, and then finally eat some of it on the 11th try. This is good behavior from an evolutionary standpoint!

So, what method did I come up with based on all of these ideas? It is very similar to Ellyn Satter's suggestions, with a few twists:
  • We offer Pumpkin some of whatever we are eating.
  • We make sure there is plenty of some food that we're fairly confident she will eat at every meal. I deviate a bit from Satter's recommendations, here. She recommends making that fall back food bread. It often is in our house. In fact, we always have bread at dinner. But sometimes we make a couple of chicken nuggets or other main course food to offer with our meal, as well.
  • Pumpkin has always been on the small size for her age, so our doctor told us not to limit her access to any food she likes. Therefore, we tend to give her as many crackers (her favorite food) as she wants. She can always have a cracker or two with her meal, just by asking for it.
  • We pick a new food we want to introduce, and offer it frequently over the course of a few weeks. This will often (but not always) lead Pumpkin to eventually try the food. This is how we got chicken nuggets on the menu in the first place. We also successfully introduced tortellini this way. Right now, we're working on corn. We're at the nibble and spit out stage....
  • I look at what Pumpkin likes and try to think of other similar foods that we could introduce to slowly get her used to new tastes and textures. Based on her initial love of crackers, we added dried snap peas and some freeze-dried fruits. Once she clearly liked chicken nuggets, we moved on to little frozen fish sticks (we have a roughly 50% success rate with those).
  • I try to make sure that no one makes a big deal out of what Pumpkin won't eat. If she doesn't want something, she doesn't have to eat it. We are trying to teach her to just leave it on her plate, but right now she just hands it back and says "no".
We've been patient and stuck to this plan, and we have slowly seen the list of Pumpkin-approved foods grow. There are several dinners we can make now that we are fairly confident she will eat. She continues to grow and thrive. And I don't stress about food nearly as much as I used to!


  1. Perhaps you are a "supertaster" and Pumpkin has inherited your trait?

  2. Way to go mama! I'm so impressed at what you were able to figure out about yourself and your child and really come up with a plan of action.

    I love the Child of Mine book. It really helped me approach food in a more laid back way that I would have otherwise. I have the Omnivore's Delimma, but I haven't started it yet. It's on the list.

    Glad to hear that pumkin is trying new things and getting a bigger repetoire of foods! One thing we just discovered is that our little one LOVE cereal! She was already eating Cheerios dry and she loves milk, so together isn't been a winning combination. Just like you said, we see something she likes, and try to find other things similar or variations on the same food.

  3. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Can't find your email address, but thanks for your kind comment. It's always nice to know someone is reading and liking it.

    Good luck with the food...

  4. Anonymous4:19 PM

    I like your approach. It makes a lot of sense. My husband and I were both forced to eat stuff when we were little, and as adults we eat pretty much anything. We have the bad memories though--liver for me and pea soup for him--so we don't want to try the same strong-arm tactics with our kids.

  5. Hi Moxie readers! Since Pumpkin is a lot older now (over 2), I thought I'd update a couple of things.

    (1) Once she started reliably eating bread and a couple other things, we eased off on the "she can always ask for a cracker" aspect. Now we are more likely to tell he she can have a cracker with her dessert/before bed snack.

    (2) We noticed that she is more likely to try something new if she also has something she knows she likes on her tray. So we often give her one chicken nugget + whatever we're having.

    (3) We definitely build on what she knows. When we noticed that she was starting to eat pasta, we started making lots of different pasta dishes for her to try. We're in a similar place with rice now. She does, however, sometimes ask us to wash off her pasta. Really. We take it to the sink, wash off the sauce (not even very thoroughly), and then she'll eat it.

    We have yet to find a veggie she'll eat (at least for us- day care says she eats carrots there. At home she crunches on them and then spits them out) but she eats several fruits now, which is way better than I did when I was a kid.

  6. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Thank you Cloud! (from a Moxie reader with a very very picky daughter...)

  7. Anonymous4:37 PM

    Your plan of action makes a lot of sense. After my initial distress, I'm feeling better about any impending pickiness now. At least it will make for good blog posts, since there seem to be plenty of parents out there who struggle with this. I'm going to have to check out Child of Mine.


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