Monday, May 03, 2010

Advice from a Picky Eater

Can you stand one more post about food?

I've decided to take Carrot Cake Pancakes out of heavy rotation- after eating them twice, Pumpkin has decided that she doesn't like them and no amount of bribing her with bits of butter (yes, you read the right) will convince her to eat them now. Hubby and I like them, so we'll probably still have them occasionally, but not once every week or two like we have been doing. I'll give it a rest for awhile, and try again later.

However, tonight, I had a bit of a win- Pumpkin ate pasta from the same dish that Hubby and I ate, and I didn't have to wash the pasta off first (yes, you read that right, too). I have a simple pasta dish that I've been making in different variations for years. It has:
  • 1/3 package of my favorite shape of pasta (currently "Paris wheels", a.k.a. Ferris wheels, a.k.a wagon wheels- Pumpkin's name for them is derived from a Dora episode with a Ferris wheel)
  • ~1/2 cup cheese (usually feta, but in the new, more child friendly incarnation, the Italian mix of preshredded cheese- after much experimentation, I think my favorite brand of this is Sargento)
  • ~1/2 cup of diced tomatoes (I use grape tomatoes, because they require less chopping)
  • ~1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
  • Fresh basil, if available
  • ~1/2 tbs of olive oil
  • garlic salt and pepper to taste
You cook up the pasta and then dump all the other ingredients onto it in a bowl and mix it up.

Last time I made it, I reserved some pine nuts and convinced (OK, bribed) Pumpkin to try them. She liked them. I suspected she would- she likes a lot of different nuts. So this time, I made the pasta with the same cheese she usually sprinkles over her plain pasta (the preshredded stuff), and convinced her to try some of our pasta. I didn't give her any of the tomatoes, and I had to pick off any trace of basil... but she ate it. And asked for more. I'm very excited to have discovered another recipe that I can make that we will all eat with minimal modifications. (Next time, I'll leave the basil on the side, and Hubby and I can add that at the table.)

All of this has got me thinking about picky eating, and how toddlers/preschoolers eat, and how to maximize your chances of having low stress about food without just giving up and feeding your kid nothing but junk.

I've written before about my thoughts on my own picky eating. Based on my own experience, I think picky eating comes from several different things:

Taste- some foods just don't taste good to some people. I've mentioned super-tasters before, and described how green vegetables taste bitter to me. I don't think this is the only way in which people's taste preferences differ, though. Taste is controlled by proteins (the receptors on our taste buds), and proteins are produced by genes, which will usually vary within a population.

I don't think there is much you can do about foods your child doesn't like the taste of, except wait it out. There are foods that I used to hate the taste of that I can now stand to eat, even if I wouldn't consider them favorites. I put this down to the fact that your taste buds deteriorate with age. (I don't care what that article says- I think the deterioration starts earlier. How else to explain that I now like blue cheese?)

You can try masking the taste of vegetables. I find that orange juice or bacon mask the bitterness I taste in green beans. Cheese makes just about any vegetable palatable, and a good stir fry sauce can really help, too. I know that a lot of kids will eat just about anything dipped in ketchup or ranch dressing. However, we haven't really had any luck with this approach.

Texture -I don't like beans, not because of the taste, but because of the texture. It literally makes me gag. I can't explain why, but I know a lot of people who have issues with the texture of some food or another.

I don't think there is anything you can do about a texture aversion.

Neophobia- This is the fear of eating something new, which, as I alluded to in my earlier picky eater post, is not necessarily a bad thing. I will admit that I take this to a bit of an extreme, although I've gotten better at trying new things as I get older.

I think most kids have a bit of neophobia in them, too, and some kids (like, say, my Pumpkin) have A LOT of it.

The standard advice on dealing with this is to just keep offering the food. That has occasionally worked for us, but we have had better luck with a more complex approach. I try to grow Pumpkin's tastes slowly, moving from things she likes to similar foods. She liked tortellini, so I slowly introduced ravioli. She liked crackers, so we introduced dried fruit that crunch like crackers. She liked the dried strawberries, and we were (miraculously) able to use that to convince her to try actual strawberries, which she liked. (This same approach has not worked on apples- she eats dried apples and applesauce, but not actual apples, no matter how they are presented.)

I also use a bit of bribery to get Pumpkin to try new things, but I use this carefully. I think this approach can really backfire and lead to a contest of wills. So I tend to only bribe her to try things I think she will almost certainly like and that aren't too "scary"- for instance, I told her she could have a juice box with dinner if she tried one of the "grown up" pastas tonight. She liked it, and ate about 8 more with no further bribery.

Presentation issues- when I mention that Pumpkin is a fairly pick eater, a lot of people tell me that I should mix vegetables  into things she likes, like mac and cheese. This may work for some kids, but it absolutely would not have worked on me as a kid. In fact, there could be two foods that I liked, but wouldn't eat if they were mixed together. I have gotten a lot better about this as I've gotten older, but I still tend to prefer things "plain"- no sauce on my hamburger, please.

For this reason, I tend to tread carefully when trying to get Pumpkin to eat things like pasta dishes. I make sure that she likes all of the ingredients first, and even then, I'm not surprised if she is hesitant to try it.

Plain old stubbornness- this is probably the most frustrating reason for picky eating, and I think this is the one that leads parents to do things like insist that a child stay at the table until she tries everything on her plate. I think that this strict approach will work for some kids but be disastrous for others. If your kid is pretty stubborn, I would NOT get into a contest of wills over food. It is just not worth it, because you really can't make a kid eat. And, as someone who has gone hungry on occasion rather than eat something I didn't want to eat, I can tell you that unless you're willing to be quite draconian, the old saw about how a child won't starve herself just isn't true.

Another common approach to deal with stubbornness is to try to reason with the child. I think this can backfire, too. I think I have mentioned before about how I stopped eating pizza because my parents told me that the red sauce on pasta was the same as pizza sauce.

I think Ellyn Satter  has the absolutely right approach to dealing with stubbornness- just ignore it. Don't make a big deal out of it, and maybe your kid will relent later, when he can do so without losing face.

I've used bribery a little bit to deal with stubbornness, too, but as I mentioned above, only very carefully. I don't usually bribe with desert or candy (at least not when it comes to getting Pumpkin to try other food- I happily bribe with candy for using the potty, but that is another story altogether). I also think that peer pressure works well on stubbornness- Pumpkin will eat somethings at day care that she won't eat at home, and I suspect that is because she loses more face for not eating things at day care. I figure that eventually, she'll let us serve her those foods at home, too.

I know that my picky eating seems completely irrational to people with more adventurous tastes. I just refer back to the evolutionary advantage of being a cautious eater- you're less likely to inadvertently poison yourself! I don't get the moral judgment that seems to get attached to picky eating. Sure, it is inconvenient for me and my family, but as long as I get the nutrients I need, why is it a big deal if I've never eaten an artichoke? And as long as we're providing Pumpkin with reasonably healthy food options, and modeling good eating behavior, why is it anyone else's concern that she has yet to find a green vegetable that she likes?


  1. I don't like popsicles. I can't stand the texture. The other night Tate ate goat cheese and roasted pepper pizza. Okay, he made me pull off the big chunks of pepper but then he ate the rest. I was impressed. I guess he just didn't notice the different cheese? I like the sound of your pasta dish - minus the pine nuts. :) Food is a personal choice and I think giving her options and making sure she's healthy is all a parent can do.

  2. paola8:49 AM

    Totally can relate to the texture thing. I love bean salad, but if I find a whole bean or a chunk of potato or carrot in my vegetable soup, I'll leave it on the side of the plate. Kids are the same. That's why I blend all our soups ( well the kids soups mainly). Barley, Spelt and lentil soup, blended for the kids, whole for us. I might be encouraging bad habits, but they are getting something in them that they would not otherwise get.

  3. Anonymous6:19 PM

    I think you have a really sensible approach with foods. I'm adventurous and love food, and sometimes it really gets me when my daughter won't eat, but with prodding from my husband, I've come around to really feel like it's not something we want to fight over. We make sure to offer new things all the time, but not force them on her.

    I think our daughter mostly has issues with neophobia and her fair share of stubbornness. We've found that she's a lot more willing to try new foods if she's not hungry. So we offer new foods at the beginning of dinner, but if she's not interested, we'll get her something we know she'll eat - yogurt or string cheese or chicken - and then try again later.

    My husband had horrible texture issues and still can't eat eggs or cheese (unless it's melted and still hot). Apparently it was really difficult as a child, since he was telling the truth when he said some foods made him feel like throwing up, but his parents didn't appreciate that. I'm pretty sure that's where his philosophy of not forcing our children to eat anything has come from.

  4. We're all pretty adventurous eaters in our family, on both sides, and le Petit seems to be as well. I agree with Cloud -- I think it is 99% determined by genetics. But he's also almost three, and he's in about his pickiest period yet.

    He's down to about three vegetables he'll eat reliably (corn, peas, the inside of cherry tomatoes) and he's similarly reticent to eat grains he's liked in the past (lentils end up on the floor, rice is shunned, he asks for pasta at every meal). At the same time, he'll eat just about any kind of fruit, loves cheese and any kind of meat, and has started eating salmon... go figure.

    I'm guessing here, but I suspect that age 2.5-3.5 may be when kids are the pickiest. Le Petit would try almost anything that he could chew (and some things he couldn't!) when he was 9-15 months old. And the number of times I've heard smug parents of babies that age brag that that their kids will try anything (I remember one particularly annoying article on the NYT). JUST WAIT, I say. There's necessarily some rejection and neophobia waiting down the line, even for the parents who think they're particularly smart or lucky in the kid-feeding department.


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