“Picky” Eaters: Cutting Yourself Some Slack

Regular TLT readers know about my one child who has been a veggie-phobe since age two, continually astounding me with his refusal to eat vegetables, no matter how deliciously prepared or how much the rest of the family is enjoying them.

There have been glimmers of hope, and I’ve shared those here.  There was that day in 2010, now known as the Miracle in Houston, when the Veggie-Phobe nonchalantly picked up an ear of corn as though he’d been doing it all his life (not!), and there was also the Feast of the Blessed Malfatti, when the VP learned that some dark green Italian pasta dumplings were chock full of spinach, yet he continued to eat them with gusto.

The latest news is that my son has started to like basil pesto, a favorite of his sister’s, and homemade pesto is a great way to sneak in all sorts of dark greens along with the basil, with no one the wiser.  (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m on record as being opposed to such tactics —  “To Sneak or Not to Sneak:  Hiding Healthful Ingredients in Kids Food” — but since dark leafy greens actually have a place in some pestos, I give myself a pass.)

But those are the bright spots in my son’s (mostly) veggie-free world.

Example:  the other night I served steamed, buttered haricot vert at dinner, one of my favorite vegetables.  The beans were tender and delicious and, despite the fact that I generally agree with kid-and-food expert Ellyn Satter that parental pressure usually backfires, I urged my son to just try them.  He put a single green bean into his mouth and then began to gag violently, tears streaming down his face.  And his reaction wasn’t for dramatic effect; he’d seemed open to trying the bean, or at least resigned about it, and then looked utterly distressed once it was in his mouth.

This is what I’m up against, people.

Interestingly, my son recently told me that his third-grade class did an experiment to isolate the “super-tasters” in the group.  Using a kit like this one, the students tried to detect a particular bitter flavor, an ability which is the hallmark of the super-taster.  I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that my son was able to taste it, lending anecdotal credence to the theory that super-tasters often struggle with eating vegetables.

So what’s prompting this post today?

Just a reminder to myself that parent can do everything “right” — model good eating habits, talk about healthful eating, expose kids to gardening, involve kids in shopping and cooking — and still face a long, slow road when it comes to actual food acceptance.  Which echos this comment, once left on TLT by reader Shira, blogger at Garden for Dessert:

. . . . My youngest is also terribly picky despite the fact he has been exposed to a steady stream of healthy food (I’m a vegetarian, and am pretty careful about what I eat). Tofu, legumes all sorts of veggies, he’s been exposed every day of his life, and still won’t try them (okay we are also making some slow progress on veggies).

Another argument I often hear “experts” say is if you grow your own veg, and have the kids help they’ll eat it. No dice on that one either. I’ve grown my own vegetables (March-Oct) for at least 10 years. My kids don’t know anything different than helping in the garden and my younger one continues to resist.

Thanks Bettina for sharing this and making me feel less like a bad mom! :)

So I guess that’s my point, in a nutshell.   To all of you out there in my particular boat, let’s stop labeling our kids as “picky” or ourselves as “bad moms.”  Instead, let’s take a deep, collective breath, slow down our timelines, tamp down our expectations, and agree to compare notes when our kids are in college.

I like to think that by then my son will be able to eat a buttered green bean with pleasure.

But who really knows?



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  1. says

    Another picky eater advice posting! You ARE turning into a dietitian!
    I think there is nothing wrong with ‘hiding’ stuff in food (heck, my husband likes it that way too), as long as the child is still offered veg in their true form as well so they recognize it later. I think when your child is old enough to reason and establish some rules like ‘try a bite’ (or 2), that’s ok for the most part. Some cases are much more difficult though so you can’t always just wave the wand and say “relax, one day the child will eat”. I’ve seen serious nutrient deficiencies and cases where the ‘picky’ eaters (HATE that word, btw) have completely turned the household upside down and tormented the parents. If you are doing ‘everything right’ and after some time it’s not working, it’s definitely something to at least discuss with your pediatrician (or dietitian) so someone can determine whether those issues are the normal stage of child development or whether there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Louise: Thank you for commenting on this! I always appreciate getting the RD’s take. In our case, I’m really not terribly worried because the VP is in fact quite an adventurous eater in other ways. There’s no ethnic food too unfamiliar, no salsa or sauce that’s too spicy for that little guy. And I am definitely NOT a parent who indulges kids with short order cooking (“Short Order Cookery – Just Say No!“) So I do have faith that in the long run, it will all shake out. (Or he’ll be a veggie hater for life, but at least the rest of his diet will be quite diverse.) But I agree, when the whole household is being turned upside down, or when a kid’s diet is seriously circumscribed, parents really should consider outside help like the kind you offer.

  2. says

    I’m also not above hiding veg in stuff – I do it all the time, because we have that gagging, retching problem too…

    However, in exciting turn of events last week, my son ate, and liked a homemade bean (chickpea) burger from Mark Bittman’s cookbook. Okay, he drowned it in ketchup, but hey, I’ll take any progress!

  3. says

    I remember being so jealous as a kid. My mom made my brother eat peas (clearly this was old-school parenting). My brother promptly puked all over the table. He never had to eat peas again. Dang. Why didn’t I think of puking on the table?

    He is now 40 and thoroughly enjoys peas. And the puking story.

    Even way back then, the word on the street was that kids taste buds are just different. They develop at different rates. Pushing things on them doesn’t help.
    And yes, there might be nutritional worries but honestly, my view is this: If you are the type of mom who knows enough to be worried about nutritional values in your kids diet…your kid isn’t going to be suffering from a few years without veggies.
    I think sanity around regular family meals does just as much good as any quotient of veggies.
    I also don’t think dark greens in pesto counts as hiding. You’re not trying to pass it off as something completely different.
    I think we ALL need to ease up on EVERYTHING. Kids come with their own genetics and preferences. The little freaks.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Just came from a screening of Race to Nowhere, so this part of your comment, Jamie, particularly resonated: “we ALL need to ease up on EVERYTHING” AMEN.

  4. says

    I swear to God I didn’t ever think of this with my first child, but with the second, the whole theory of letting them spit out food — which you’ve discussed here — has become such a revelation. However, I will freely admit that I do sometimes “push” (in Satter’s world) my kids to try the foods on their plates. I firmly believe that laying the expectation that food is a precious commodity, we are lucky to have it, and this is the food you are expected to eat tonight makes a tremendous difference in the long run. They may spit it out; they may not have to finish it; and in the case of my two, there have been occasional moments in which they decide that spitting the food out won’t be dramatic enough unless they — yes, Jamie — conjure up some puke for the table. But you know what? That “pushing” has made my 4-year-old into a kid who will try almost anything, despite sensory issues, and eats just about every veggie under the sun now (a dramatic turn from just a year ago!); and my 2-year-old has, in the space of less than a month, turned the corner back from refusing all vegetables to polishing off his portion of broccoli on more than one occasion. There’s no one right way. There’s only the way that works for you and your kids.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Bri – I agree that there is no one right way. I know parents that have had great success with the “no thank you bite” or “one bite per year of age” rule, but for others this leads to terrible, destructive power struggles. I am a Satter-ite at heart, but in practice, when I sense that the mood is right, I do push and see what happens. So I guess, not only is there no one right way for every family, there’s no one right way even for the same kid. You have to trust your instincts, as in all parenting. Meanwhile, so impressed with your kids – maybe I can just outsource this issue to you? :-)

      • says

        So true! And…PLEASE don’t outsource to me! I’ve had all I can do to make it work for the 2 I’ve got and figure there’s no way we’re “out of the woods” yet. This is probably luck, not skill!

  5. JanaC2 says

    LOVE this post! After battling an eating disorder in elementary/middle/high school, I embraced the concept of nutrient density vs. standard calorie/fat/carb counting… made a lot more sense to me and helped me battle back after docs gave me less than a year to live!
    So, fast forward to feeding a family… YIKES! I still eat very healthfully and it took awhile for me to realize #1) my kids/husband don’t like the same foods I do #2) that’s OK!!
    I use vegetable purees in EVERYTHING just to add nutrients, not to sneak vegetables… everyone knows, but they still love the cookies, oatmeal, tacos, bread, mac & cheese so I keep doing it. I feel my job is to OFFER the food (and occasionally strongly recommend a “no thank you bite”) but it is the individual’s choice whether or not to like/eat it… No battles and a lifelong understanding of healthy eating – works for me.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      JanaC2- Wow. What a powerful story. I’m so glad that you’ve recovered and that you’re able to feed your family so well, without creating undue pressure. Good for you! Thank you for commenting on TLT!

  6. says

    If a child has the “super-taster” issue, doesn’t it make sense to hide the veggies (as well as offering them in their true form)? Are there foods your son likes that cover up the taste of the veggie, and therefore allow him to eat them, but not have that over-powering taste?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Renee – I have philosophical issues with sneaking — Short Order Cookery – Just Say No! — but I am starting to wonder if for my son, the issue is texture as much as flavor (see Tari’s comment below.) That might explain why spinach in pesto is fine (and once I did one that was pretty much all spinach, very little basil), or in the malfatti, but steamed or creamed or raw spinach is a no go. Hmm. Something to think about!

  7. says

    I doubt that my younger one’s fruit and veggie phobia is caused by too many taste buds, as he’s the one in the family eating olives and pickled okra from the jar, loves really sharp cheese, etc. But he does have some sensory problems, and that has wreaked havoc with his ability and confidence to eat fruits and veg. He will avoid new foods because he’s scared – he asks me “but what if I throw up?” before trying anything he’s suspicious of. Definitely more of a texture issue with him than one of taste, but still just as phobic and frustrating. I mean, really: how can you be too afraid to try a bite of strawberry or clementine? Errrrr. :)

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Tari – that sounds a LOT like my son, not afraid of strong tastes otherwise. I wonder if for him it’s a texture issue, too? At any rate, I certainly empathize with that feeling of, “What’s your problem?? This is so delicious!” Of course, I can’t voice that, except here. :-)

    • says

      So true on the sensory issue thing! My super veggie eating 4 year old is a “sensory kid” and it definitely does frustrate me when he balks at eating fresh fruit. Strawberries are particularly challenging, aren’t they? I have to admit it drives me nuts to see him chowing down on spinach and beets and then begging me not to give him a BLUEBERRY MUFFIN because he’s afraid of the fruit. Sigh!

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Ok, that’s just funny! Spinach is OK, muffin is not? It’s like my daughter used to be – bring on the Bosnian, Ethiopian, Malaysian, etc., but don’t give me a sandwich!

  8. Sarah says

    We do the veggie purees, but not the sneaking. When my older kids (6, 4) cook with me, we add the purees together and talk about how we can boost the nutrients in all sorts of foods – we don’t always have to eat straight veggies. While I am adamantly opposed to Deceptively Delicious-style tactics, I like the idea of pumping up the nutrient value on any food we can.

    Back to the point… I’m glad to read this post, because my third child (nearly 2) eats bread and fruit, and meat and eggs only if they are slathered in ketchup. I have never dealt with this before, and I am trying to take a deep breath and be calm. Thank goodness she is still nursing, so I know that I am filling in the gaps for her. In the meantime, what is to be done besides the “right” things we are already doing and hoping that she grows out of it?!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Sarah: Isn’t it just amazing when kids exhibit these behaviors you simply never thought you’d have to deal with? It just did NOT fit my image as health-conscious food lover that MY child would be “picky” about food in any way. Well, so much for that little fantasy! From my vantage point of someone with slightly older kids, I can report that progress is slow, slow, slow but it does seem to be happening. So hang in there, and comfort yourself with the fact that your toddler is certainly not going to be deficient in lycopene! :-)

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