HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Dealing with a discerning diner

Do you have a picky eater? Here’s how to take the food fights out of mealtimes.

By Sarah Henry

For every child who eats oysters, offal, and okra there are plenty of kids whose diet consists mostly of plain pasta, cold cereal, and French fries.

Parents of particular eaters can find mealtimes both a challenge and a chore. There's concern, too, over whether a kid with a limited diet is getting all the nutrients needed for growth and development — especially in light of the recent collapse of a 17-year-old British girl who’d survived on an exclusive diet of fast food chicken nuggets since age two.

Doctors diagnosed the teen, who says she's never eaten fruits or vegetables, with anemia; she is also being treated for nutritional deficiencies. Her mother, according to news accounts, has tried to get her daughter to eat a more varied diet.

So what's a parent of a choosy chowhound to do? Nutritionist Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, has reassured thousands of stressed parents with her straightforward advice. Satter's mealtime mantra: "It's the parent's job to plan meals, cook, and get dinner on the table," she says. "A child is responsible for what, how much, or even whether, he eats." It’s a concept, she says, that many parents have a tough time getting their head around.

Satter's reputation for helping families handle eating issues is firmly rooted in what she calls her Division of Responsibility in Feeding philosophy. Serve food family style, she says, which leaves the decision about what gets consumed solidly in your child’s corner. "You make a variety of foods available — don't limit the menu to only the food your child will eat," explains Satter. "Take 'no' for an answer, and set the tone for a calm, pleasant mealtime environment without pushing or pressuring."

What to serve?

Healthy meals consist mostly of a range of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and carbohydrates (preferably whole grain). High-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie, and low-nutrient foods — such as sodas, sweets, and chips — are best kept as an occasional treat, not a regular mealtime feature.

Sounds simple enough, but any parent of a picky eater knows that most nights their child will nibble on a small range of acceptable foods. Food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel has chronicled her veggie phobic son's refusal to eat any vegetables for six years. Six years. That fact doesn't seem to faze Satter, who counters that the child will come around, likely in his teens, as long as he has repeated exposure and no badgering to eat his greens.

For parents who value a diverse diet and edible exploration — and who flinch when perfectly good food winds up in the compost bin — dinnertime can become a battleground. Debbie Koenig, author of Parents Need to Eat Too, documents her ongoing food fights with son Harry, 6, on her blog.

Koenig has resorted to tactics familiar to other parents of fussy eaters: bribing, rewarding, and cooking with her son in an effort to expand his edible universe. She recently revisited Satter's strategies to put a stop to the culinary conflict in her home, which had escalated, she says, because of her own control issues.

Parents of multiple children offer perhaps the best evidence that parents should not take a picky palate personally — or as a sign of failure on the feeding front. "We've fed our kids all the same food and we eat a healthy, balanced dinner together almost every night." says Elizabeth Ozer, mom to Sam, 16, Max, 14, and Emilia, 7.

"Our eldest had sophisticated tastes from a young age, with risotto a favorite before he could say the word clearly. Our middle child went through a phase where he'd basically only eat fried foods like chicken fried rice, and our youngest likes a variety of foods while avoiding others," she adds. The family compromised by cooking fried foods at home in canola oil — a healthier choice than fast food versions — and always had other options available — such as salad — at every meal. It worked. "Today, our middle son eats salads, vegetables, and mussels, which are his favorite food," says Ozer. "He still enjoys French fries — which go well with mussels — and he is a healthy, fit teenager who likes most foods now."

Why all the food fussiness?

Some children are fussy because they are especially sensitive to sensory input, like the son of food writer Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules. As a youngster, Isaac would only eat bland, beige or white food as a way, his dad discovered, to reduce sensory input. Happily, most kids, outgrow such food aversions linked to this sensitivity, and Isaac has, too. The college student's acute sense of taste guides him in the kitchen — and makes him a keen critic of others cooking, including his dad's.

Pollan isn’t the only foodie father with a picky eater. In his book Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, Matthew Amster-Burton chronicles how, at an early age, his daughter Iris packed away pad Thai and spicy enchiladas, spinach and Brussels sprouts. Amster-Burton assumed it was because of his culinary skills and no-compromise approach to child feeding. Every seasoned parent knows how this story turns out: at age 2, Iris suddenly developed strong opinions about what she’d eat — mostly plain, white foods without any sauce — her dad’s preference for spicy food be damned.

Iris's about-face didn't freak him out: a limited eating range may frustrate parents but it’s not a medical problem, in the vast majority of cases, , although there is evidence that picky-eaters tend to weigh less than non-picky eaters.  (The case of the British girl who ate exclusively chicken nuggets was a medical issue, and one in which earlier intervention of some sort was called for. Also, some behavior dubbed "picky eating" may actually be a response to an intolerance or allergy to a food. If you suspect this could be the reason for your child's choosiness, you should consult a pediatrician.)

Amster-Burton checked with another source — his mom — and discovered that for about seven years he only ate Cheerios, mac ‘n cheese, pizza, white chicken meat (if it didn’t touch anything else), and PB&J's. Amster-Burton isn’t the first parent to pass on his particular palate. Research reveals that a child may well inherit food fussiness and fear of new food, according to a 2007 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

It's frustrating to have a fussy eater when you're the one responsible for putting a meal on the table that everyone in the family can eat. But rather than “hide” unfavorite foods (a controversial practice) or make two meals, Amster-Burton looked for way to satisfy his taste buds and his kid’s.

Hot sauce helped. And time. Now 8 years old, Iris is open to all kinds of tastes. "She likes scallions and cilantro in anything, and no longer cares about one food touching another, though she's still not a fan of green vegetables," he says. "I had nothing to do with this transformation; I just waited around until she got bored with white food."

Most kids, Satter says, do outgrow their finicky food ways. Who knows, maybe the child with definite opinions about food will turn into a teen who cooks the family meal.A parent can dream.

Sarah Henry is a Bay Area-based freelance food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

Comments from readers

"An excellent and most informative article. I will keep a more open mind when dealing with my 7 year old son's selectiveness. This article also gives me more avenues to try without showing impatience. Thank you for a very clear and thought provoking article. "
"I find the whole "picky eating" thing silly! "Eat or starve" will get you the results you're looking for. "
"My son hasn't eaten an vegetable, not including corn or potatoes, in 9 years. And the "if they are hungry enough they'll eat it" approach doesn't work, either. I don't know how many meals have come to a screeching halt because if he is forced to eat something he doesn't like, it comes flying back out of his stomach. "
"My younger son was a very picky eater. We used to say if it was white, he'd eat it. Otherwise, no. And now that he's in his 20s, he is so much more adventurous, thank goodness. I no longer have to bribe him with a dollar bill to taste a mushroom! (It didn't work, anyway. He still won't eat them). "
"what about the High-functioning Autistic Child who will only eat the same foods all the time. Eyes water and gags to almost vomit at the taste of new food. How do I continually force that to get him to try new foods. Believe me, Its tough. Its been 9 years. "
"I was going to comment on the canola oil reference but someone beat me to it: "I'm cringing at the mention of canola oil being a "healthy alternative" to fast food oils. Canola oil is made from the poisonous rapeseed plant and has been one of the biggest hoaxes played on consumers. Educate yourself! " Contrary to popular belief, the healthiest oils/fats for frying are the ones that are the most stable under high heat, meaning the saturated fats such as lard (non-hydrogenated and from healthy animals) and virgin coconut oil. "
"I'm cringing at the mention of canola oil being a "healthy alternative" to fast food oils. Canola oil is made from the poisonous rapeseed plant and has been one of the biggest hoaxes played on consumers. Educate yourself! "
"I'm so glad this wasn't the typical "Make your hummus look like a pirate." article. My son is a picky eater - he loves Broccoli and very little meat, nothing touching on the plate. So, I feed him lots of Broccoli. I am going to try this new tactic and see how it works. P.S. - he would never eat hummus just because it looked like a pirate! "
"Our youngest is a picky eater. I guess I got lucky with the other two they both eat a wide variety of foods. Recently we came up with the di(or dice) game. Our four year old rolls the di to determine how many bites of a new food he needs to try. It seems to help "
"I'm in my mid-40s. For the first 10 years of my life, my mother fed me foods she knew I hated (liver, canned peas, canned spinach, etc.), and she made me sit at the dining table until I finished everything. I would sit there for couple hours if I had to; I wasn't going to eat that stuff. DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR CHILD. What it did to me--in combination with other "clever" ideas my mom had--was created in me a warped relationship with food that I'm still dealing with to this day. Again, please do not make mealtime a battle field. You will regret it and your child will pay for it years later. "
"Good article "
"So height and weight are the only indicators of health? Read "Disease Proof Your Child" for the reality. "
""According to news accounts..." You can't possibly quote a story from the UK gossip rags as real? It makes the rest of the story lose credibility. "
"doesnt even work "
"I do not mean to offend, but I find this article (and the issue of fussy eating kids in general) absolutely ridiculous. As anyone who has raised a child knows, food fussiness has nothing to do with food. It has everything to do with a child's will to control her/his surroundings, esp. in the early toddler years. This is entirely normal, of course, but I refused to include eating in this control game. I gave only healthy meals and snacks (and decided on the portions myself) to my kids when they were young. If they didn't eat, then they went hungry until the next meal (no snacks in-between meals unless they ate the meal). Children are pretty smart, and they learn quickly that it's better to eat than be hungry. My sons are now both older and eat a huge range of foods. A little tough love early on pays off, I promise. "
"As a parent who successfully raised a picky eater, and an "eats anything" eater, who are both healthy, fit adults, I have two observations; 1. Did you ever notice that you'll eat more fundamental foods - raw carrots, plain apples, simple salads - when you're hungry? We need to let our children get hungry. Too many American parents are guilty of the "eat baby, eat" strategy...keeping foods in our childrens' hands. We need to provide more mental stimulus between meals, and let them experience a little hunger instead of immediate gratification. 2.The parent of the finicky eater needs to provide fundamental nutrients first; then treats- and we need to be creative about it.. My son, 30, recalls how I got him to like peas; I put them on a fork, and made them a game of "bet you can't catch the green bugs"... So be patient, let your kids experience hunger (scientists say it's good for us) and feed fundamental nutrients first, rewarding food last...and you'll have healthy kids who'll thank you - instead of blaming you for their obesity. "
"If there are options, kids won't eat what's in front of them. If they won't eat, they don't eat and they don't get to eat anything else. Don't buy it, they can't eat it. Pretty ideas, but you gotta live it. "