Your Toughest “Picky Eating” Questions Answered! (Part Two)

Maryanne Jacobsen, MS, RD
Maryanne Jacobsen, MS, RD

Earlier this week I posted part one of our reader Q&A with registered dietitian Maryanne Jacobsen (Raise Healthy Eaters) and today she answers more of your questions about “picky eating.”

Q:  How far do you push to get your kids to eat? My son is very skinny and though we have almost no junk food, he often refuses to eat what we eat for dinner, though he cries and says he is hungry. Should I just let him go hungry if he refuses the family meal? He won’t even eat pizza!

 Jacobsen: The research is clear that pressuring kids to eat actually has the opposite effect on appetite and intake, meaning it turns children “off” to food. I recommend giving children room by following Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding and make sure you have at least one thing your child is likely to eat at the meal.

But sometimes picky eating may be caused by an underlying issue. For example, if a child has undiagnosed reflux or a food allergy, eating is going to hurt so they will eat less. Or they may have sensory processing disorder and need a more thoughtful approach to increase their food variety. In this post (content also in my book), I help parents decide if their child needs to seek professional help.

Q:  Any suggestions on how to get kids to truly give new foods a try? I heard some parents make their kids eat three spoonfuls. Would love to know your thoughts.

 Jacobsen:  Some parents who choose the three-bite rule may have initial success, but it may not last. One study showed that 70% of college students chose not to eat food they were forced to eat during childhood. That being said, a small proportion of students said being made to eat helped to expand their food preferences. My guess is that less-picky kids may respond better to bite mandates than kids that are more sensitive to tastes and textures. And if a kid is eating foods because his parents make him, he won’t necessarily eat those foods willingly in the future, as the study suggests. So, to be honest, success of “getting kids to eat” can be tough to measure during childhood. Are they eating the food to please their parents or because it is a true preference?

Hands down, the best way to inspire children to eat is not about any one strategy, but helping them learn and grow with food. When we are too focused on the outcome (eating), we don’t do a good enough job with the teaching part. In my book, I use the analogy of growing a plant. First, is choosing the right soil and seeds, which for eating is regular, enjoyable meals with a good variety. But some plants need more or less water and sunlight. Parents can do the equivalent of over-watering their child by exerting too much pressure. And of course, some kids may be fine with little pushes. Know your child, but most importantly, take that long-term view with feeding.

I have found that providing more information about the food to kids helps and bringing them in the kitchen is always a bonus. I might let them know why I think they might like the food (it’s like the X you love, except it’s prepared a bit differently). But I pretty much leave it at that.

Q:  How important is variety if you have a child who has a well-balanced, but monotonous diet?

 Jacobsen:  In my other book, Fearless Feeding, my co-author and I help parents understand how to meet their child’s nutrition needs at every stage. Children don’t have to eat a huge variety as long as they are consistently eating from these six areas — protein, grain, dairy or non dairy alternatives, fats, fruits and vegetables. Most kids can get by on a variety of fruits with a small amount of vegetables. Even when kids eat from all food groups there are usually two outliers: vitamin D and DHA and EPA. Most kids need supplemental D to get the recommended 600IU, and if no fish is eaten, a parent may want to consider a supplement to provide the healthy fats DHA and EPA.

Q:  How developed are kids’ taste buds? Can some kids really feel that some things taste stronger than others?

Jacobsen:  A child’s taste buds are growing and changing just like everything else about them. What we know is that young children are more likely to taste bitter compounds in food (think bitter, green veggies) and they have a biological preference for sweet. Salt is also a preference, but it is learned. A small portion of kids may be “supertasters,” something that mellows with time but is brought with them into adulthood.

 *   *  *

Many thanks to Maryanne for taking the time to answer TLT readers’ questions!  As I noted in part one of this post, I received so many questions that not all could be submitted to her for a reply, but if “picky eating” is an issue in your house, be sure to check out Maryanne’s excellent new e-book From Picky to Powerful.  

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Book Review and Giveaway: The 52 New Foods Challenge

If we could somehow channel all of the collective thought, time and energy parents devote to getting kids to try new fruits andEat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per Day vegetables, I think we could solve most of the world’s problems in short order.  Few feeding issues cause as much angst, and the advice we receive from the experts couldn’t be more contradictory.  Here’s just a sampling:

  • Parental modeling of fruit and vegetable eating will eventually lead to little fruit and vegetable eaters. (Action for Healthy Kids; Ellyn Satter, child feeding expert)
  • Parental modeling is “an overly simplistic solution to an incredibly complex problem.”  (Dr. Dina Rose, It’s Not About Nutrition)
  • Kids should be required to take a “no thank you” bite.  (Meal Makeover Moms)
  • Requiring a “no thank you” bite is intrusive, crosses the line of parental responsibility and actually slows down kids’ acceptance of new foods.  (Ellyn Satter, child feeding expert.)
  • Serve your kids lots of different, interesting foods, never short-order cook for them, and all will be well.  (Mark Bittman)
  • Do all of the above — and watch your child still refuse to eat vegetables.  (Your own humble TLT blogger)

As I wrote here a few weeks ago (“Getting Kids to Try New Foods: My Advice“), an approach which works well with one child can completely backfire with another.  You have no choice but to trust your instincts and look for techniques that fit with your own parenting philosophy.

52 new foods bookI wanted to provide that bit of perspective before introducing today’s book, The 52 New Foods Challengefrom mom, author and game creator Jennifer Tyler Lee.  Some of you may already be familiar with Tyler Lee from her popular Crunch-a-Color game, which grew out of a system she created to get her own two children to try new fruits and vegetables.  The game was named one of Dr. Toy’s “10 Best” in 2011 and 2012 and has been endorsed by food notables such as celebrity chefs Rachel Ray and Jamie Oliver.

As with Crunch-a-Color, the essence of the 52 New Foods Challenge is encouraging children to try new fruits and vegetables in exchange for points.  The book takes a year-long approach, asking kids to try one new produce item each week for 52 weeks.  Points are awarded in varying amounts depending on the challenge and can later be redeemed for various treats.  Tyler Lee cautions that these incentives should not be things like ice cream or screen time, instead suggesting positive, non-food rewards like a family trip to the beach or extra play or story time.  The book is replete with related recipes, fun family activities, colorful photography and useful charts listing what’s in season at different times of the year.  It also includes a glowing foreword by Chef Ann Cooper, aka “the Renegade Lunch Lady.”

For some parents, though, the notion of using any kind of extrinsic reward is troubling.  There’s always the worry that kids will engage in a desired behavior only so long as rewards are handed out, and that they’ll fail to internalize the desired lesson.  Tyler Lee anticipates and addresses this criticism head-on in the opening of her book:

The issue of points and rewards is a thorny one. . . . What happens when the points go away?  Will [your child] cease to eat healthy when there is no tangible reward?  I firmly believe that making healthy eating a game allows you to leverage extrinsic motivation to tap into intrinsic motivation.  Gamification, or the idea that game techniques can be applied to real-life situations, is spreading rapidly and can be skillfully applied at your family table to make healthy eating fun for everyone involved. . . . It’s a positive, reinforcing cycle.

Once again, I think this is a question each parent must decide for him or herself.  But it’s worth noting that many adults certainly respond well to competition, games and prizes to encourage health-promoting behavior, like using a fitness tracker to compete with others or giving themselves non-food rewards to celebrate and encourage weight loss.  And in Tyler Lee’s experience, her kids may have started out being motivated by the points and rewards but eventually came to enjoy fruits and vegetables in their own right.

If The 52 New Foods Challenge sounds like the solution to your kids’ fruit and veggie resistance, here’s a chance to win a free copy of the book!  Just leave a comment below by Wednesday, November 19th at 6pm CST to enter the drawing.  You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner, and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.  I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too. This offer is open to U.S. residents only.

Good luck!

[Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of this book for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

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Some Dark Musings on the “Food Pouch”

Many of you read an article in today’s New York Times on the growing ubiquity of “food pouches,” i.e., fruit, vegetable and grain purees for young children, packaged like this:

I’d certainly noticed the recent proliferation of these squeezable foods in my own market, but with a 10- and 12- year-old at home, they didn’t make much of an impression on me.  But today’s article describes how parents are relying on these pouches not just as snacks but as meal substitutes for young children too over-scheduled — or just too distracted — to sit down for a family meal.

For example, the Times reporter describes how enthusiastically his 22-month-old daughter has taken to the squeezable meal:

After gymnastics class one Saturday morning, when she’d had little breakfast, she slurped down a mash-up of blueberry, pear and purple carrot. The next afternoon, on the way to a party, after a skipped lunch, it was a mixture of zucchini, banana and amaranth.

One night, when his daughter wouldn’t eat dinner in her high chair, he discovered:

moments later, my wife had given the freed girl a Yogurt Mish Mash pouch with berries, bananas and beets. She ate it while jumping around the living room, playing trampoline.

Now, I really try not to get judgmental here on The Lunch Tray when it comes to parents’ struggles to feed their children well.  My attitude is that we’re all in the trenches together and whatever works for you and your family, more power to you.

And yet . . . and yet  . . .

Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Karen LeBillon’s French Kids Eat Everything,* which describes, among other things, how deeply the French abhor between-meal snacking, eating food anywhere but at the table, and letting kids dictate their own menu.  Or maybe it’s my (shaken but still continuing) support for the basic theories of Ellyn Satter, the childhood food expert, whose central thesis is that parents, not children, should decide what, when and how food should be eaten.  Or maybe it’s because my own kids were trained from an early age to sit at a table, dine at regular meal times, and generally eat whatever I and Mr. TLT were eating (with minor modifications as needed).

Whatever the reason, I just could not read this father’s account without my inner voice screaming, “No, no, no!”  (Or maybe, due to Karen LeBillon’s influence, it was “Non, non, non!”)

Now, I have nothing against packaged snacks, which I certainly rely on when we’re pressed for time.  But when slurp-able pouches morph into actual meal substitutes, we need to step back and ask what is getting lost in the process:

Instead of being trained to sit at the table and eat with others (a slow and admittedly painful journey for all concerned), this author’s toddler is learning that squirming and complaining in her high chair will be rewarded not just with free play, but also a sweet and filling treat.  For that reason, she doesn’t ever get to experience the logical consequence of demanding to be let down from her high chair at a meal, i.e., feeling hunger pangs until the next scheduled meal or snack time.  So when the author mentions in passing that his daughter skipped breakfast one day and lunch on another, I think we can fairly draw the inference that she’s already figured out there will always be a tasty puree at the ready.

And what about this idea of purees, anyway?  While I have nothing against the occasional breakfast or snack-time smoothie, I have to believe that an over-reliance on “drinkable foods” could seriously impede a child’s acceptance of those same foods in non-pureed form, especially in these early years when expanding a child’s palate is critical.  Put another way, for the same reason I’m no fan of food “sneaking” (a la Jessica Seinfeld), getting beets into your kid via a pink, berry-flavored puree is no victory if your child won’t go near a roasted beet (or even stay at the table long enough to have the chance.)

But whatever my concerns, it looks like I’m in the clear minority.  The Times reports that:

Plum Organics conservatively estimates that its sales of pouches for babies, toddlers and children will be $53 million in 2012, up from around $4,800 when it put out its first pouches in 2008.

And the trend isn’t just confined to the toddler market.  Remember last year when I told you about PepsiCo’s forecast that the future of snack food is the “snackified” beverage?  That led to their introduction of Tropolis, drinkable fruit for older kids and adults (skewered here by Stephen Colbert).  At the time, one beverage industry commentator said:

If you are in this business, you want to get something into a consumer’s hand and get them put it down as fast as possible. And these products, it’s a whole lot easier if you have something that is, say, a combination of drink and a beverage where you don’t have to peel the banana or literally chew the apple. So you get the same kind of satisfaction from getting fruit or a dairy sort of product in a form that’s sort of between a food and a beverage. It’s convenience. The American consumer’s too lazy to chew, so you have find something where they can have their apple or their pear in a semi-liquid form.

With sweet liquid calories linked to obesity, do we really want to set very young children on a path of “lazy eating” via “drinkable” food?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

* Review and giveaway of French Kids Eat Everything next week!

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Will The Kale Wonders Never Cease? (Words of Hope for Parents of the “Picky*”)

So, for any TLT newcomers out there who haven’t read about my struggles, I have one child, now nine, who has continually astonished me since age two with his stubborn stance against vegetables.  While there have been little pockets of success over the years (remember the spinach malfatti and the “Miracle Mu Shu Vegetables“?), it’s been a long slow road, and he still generally spurns anything green (or orange or yellow) on his plate.

Well, last night I decided to make another batch of Andy Bellatti’s delicious kale chips, the same chips my daughter and I devoured a few weeks ago.  But I was pressed for time and instead of measuring out the topping ingredients I tried to eyeball them, and I wound up going overboard on the lemon juice and red pepper flakes.  The chips, which are inherently a little bitter even when properly made, came out way too sour and spicy.  Big mistake — or so I thought.

But I decided to serve the chips anyway, and I wasn’t even looking at first when my son — of his own free will and with no encouragement from me — took one from the bowl.


I was amazed but also panicked.  Here he was, trying kale for the first time in his life, and it was going to taste awful.  It could take years to overcome this setback!  But before I could explain that this was a bad batch and he shouldn’t make any hasty judgments about kale generally, he’d already eaten the first chip and was reaching for another.


And you would have been so proud of me, people.  While inside my head I was screaming, “OMG, OMG, OMG, did you see that?  Can you believe it?”, on the outside I was cool as a cucumber.  I didn’t even look directly at him and  afterwards all I said was, “Hey, you need to wipe some kale crumbs from your chin.”

[Sorry – please indulge one more . . . .]


So what can we learn from this development?

You Can Never Tell What Will Appeal to Kids

Trying to determine what kids will or won’t like is a futile endeavor.  For example, I sometimes serve roasted sweet potatoes mashed with a little butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and orange zest.   That dish has “kid-friendly” written all over it, right?  But my son will take only a nibble of it, at most, while the hyper-bitter, too-sour kale chips were inhaled.  Go figure.

Try Not to Pressure

It’s notable, I think, that my son took a kale chip with not a word of encouragement from me.  I feel quite certain that if the batch had come out well and I’d said something as innocuous as, “Hey, you’ve got to try one of these, they’re great,” his exploration of this new food would never have happened.  And this is what kid/food expert Ellyn Satter has been arguing all along – that even the mildest encouragement can feel, at least to some kids, like pressure, and that pressure often backfires.  Maybe your child does respond well to prompting from you, in which case, go for it.  But if repeated requests to “just try it,” or “just one bite” are not working (and they never have in my house), consider giving the completely non-interventionist approach a spin.  That said, you also need to . . .

Take the Long (VERY Long) View

As I’ve said here before, I’ve come to believe that any progress my son makes on the vegetable front is primarily a function of age and growing maturity, not some clever parenting technique on my part.  So if your four-year-old is digging in her heels about vegetables, don’t panic — but also don’t necessarily expect to see progress in a matter of months.  Maybe you’ll be lucky and she will quickly grow out of that stage, or maybe, like my son, it will take years and years.  Bottom line:  keep the faith and keep offering a variety of foods — no matter how discouraged you get.

You Need to Make These Kale Chips!

Finally, some credit has to be given to Andy Bellatti, blogger at Small Bites, for his excellent recipe, which has now converted both my children to eating kale.  My original post with his recipe and my cooking notes is here.  I also want to add a recent tip from my friend Karen who, upon hearing that the chips were not crisping up properly, suggested I use the convection feature of my oven (a button I have a tendency to ignore).  I took her advice and it made all the difference.

* * *

So if you’re a parent of a veggie-avoiding child like mine, good luck, stay strong, and feel free to compare notes with me and the rest of the TLT community.

[* =  I really don’t like the word “picky,” which labels a child from the get-go and doesn’t allow for the kind of slow growth I’ve described here.  Forgive my shorthand use of the word in a blog post headline, where brevity is needed.]


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The Halloween Candy Post, 2011 Edition

You can’t blog about kids and food and not address the looming question that comes around every year at this time:  what to do about all that candy?

Last year was my first Halloween blogging here on The Lunch Tray and I tackled that knotty question in two parts.

First, I justified (shakily) my own practice of giving out candy on Halloween (and took a reader poll to find out what treats you pass out), and then I talked about my own childhood in which I was given free rein with my Halloween candy, able to keep the stash in my bedroom for weeks on end with no parental oversight.  (My own mom chimed in on the comments section of that post to address my questions about this rather shocking practice!)

So what’s new this year?

Well, for all the reasons explained in the first post cited above, I would still be OK with giving out candy as our treat.  Not thrilled, mind you, but OK with it.  But a week or so ago I was driving with both kids in the back seat and I thought, what the heck  – let’s give it a try and see what happens.  Here’s a fairly accurate paraphrasing of our conversation:

Me:  So, um  . . . what would you think if this year we gave out something different on Halloweeen?

Extremely wary nine-year-old son, narrowed eyes visible in my rear view mirror:  Like what?

Me: I don’t know . . .  what if we had something better than candy, like toys or something like that?

[Dead silence.]

Preteen daughter:  You mean, like those fake fingers we got last year?  Those were pretty cool.   But still, how can you not give out candy?  That’s so weird.

Me, sensing an opening: Yeah, like those fingers!  And we could get other stuff, like tattoos and yo-yos.  I mean, everyone’s going to give away candy .  Maybe we’d be the house everyone wants to go to for something different.

Savvy preteen daughter:  Oh my god, Mom.  Is this about obesity?

Ha!  That’s what I get for taking the indirect approach.  At any rate, we talked the whole thing through and for whatever reason – maybe just the sheer novelty of it – my kids are totally on board with giving out something other than candy this year.  (I’m shocked at this result, by the way.) So here’s what you’ll get to choose from if you stop by the TLT house next Monday:

I can only imagine the conditions in the Chinese factories that produced these cheap trinkets and I pray there’s no lead or melamine involved.  But a blogger can only tackle so many social issues at once and this year, at least, my family won’t be adding to your child’s Halloween sugar and chemical glut.

When it comes to the consuming side of things, though, I felt quite reflective after re-reading the post about my own childhood.  I’ve often argued here on TLT that treats in 2011 can’t be viewed as they were in back in the 70s (or earlier) when our entire food environment was markedly different.  And there’s even some scientific evidence that kids don’t self-regulate as well as they used to when it comes to overeating.  But, at the same time, I’ve seen with my own children that putting too tight a lock on sweets can easily backfire, leading kids to hoard, hide and binge when they get the chance.

So this year I’m going to play the whole thing by ear, erring as much as I can on the side of giving my children more freedom, and therefore more responsibility, when it comes to managing their own Halloween loot.

I’ll let you know how that pans out.  :-)

What are your thoughts on all this?
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Monkey See, Monkey Do? A DVD Promises to Get Your Kids Eating Veggies, But I’m a Skeptic

One thing that’s surprised me about blogging is how quickly you get on the radar screen of PR people.  Not long after I launched TLT, my inbox started clogging up daily with sales pitches for anything and everything food related.  (And some of these pitches are so off the mark, it’s hilarious.  Remember this one?)

Normally I just ignore this stuff but I recently received one solicitation that was just so  . . . unusual . . . I wanted to share it here and get your thoughts.

It’s for a DVD series called Copy-Kids and, as far as I can tell, it’s nothing but video footage of very young kids eating produce.  According to the sales pitch, “It features kids having such a good time eating fruits and veggies, that when children watch it they want to join in.”

In other words, you park your toddler in front of the t.v. and make them watch other toddlers munching away with abandon on things like whole red peppers and entire heads of raw broccoli with the hope that he or she will follow suit.  My kids happened to be in the kitchen while I was watching all this, and we were howling at the sales reel’s footage of a child watching the t.v. and then “spontaneously” getting her own entire head of raw broccoli (have these people never heard of a knife?) and imitating the toddler on the screen.  Really?

As a parent who has had  her fair share of challenges getting at least one child to eat vegetables (a problem he’s now rapidly growing out of, thank goodness), I can understand the motivation behind a product like this.  But would it actually work?  I asked my daughter what she thought about it and she said, “No, it wouldn’t work, because those kids aren’t kids you know.  Like, who cares if those kids are eating vegetables?”

And that’s exactly right, in my opinion.  There is a “monkey see, monkey do” element to getting some kids to eat well, but the role model needs to be you, the parent, and the rest of your family, and maybe even your child’s veggie-loving pal down the street.  Your child cares deeply about all those people and, as kid/food expert Ellyn Satter often writes, he or she has a built-in desire to imitate and please.  So even if the process is slow, as it was in my son’s case, it’s the veggie-filled meals you eat together as a family that gets kids interested in exploring those foods.

Maybe a video like this could be a helpful adjunct to real world modeling, and I know there’s nothing new about using television to teach desired behaviors to little kids (think Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, et al).  But there’s something so incredibly heavy-handed about this particular approach, something so sterile and forced, that it makes me sort of sad to think about.

Hmmm . . .  after a review like this, maybe my inbox won’t be so clogged in the future.  :-)



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“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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Is Your Child Allowed to Use Allowance to Buy Junk Food?

It seems like most families have some sort of rule about the consumption of candy, such as allowing the eating of sweets only once a week, or no more than a certain amount per day, or maybe taking an Ellyn Satter approach and giving kids free reign so long as candy-eating doesn’t interfere with meals.

In the TLT household, as I told you once before, we effectively managed the influx of candy for a long time by using our beloved Treat Basket, a place where lollipops from the bank teller and booty from the Valentine’s Day party could reside until such time as a “special treat” was warranted.  That worked really well — until my kids got older and realized that, as with the Roach Motel, most of what was going into the Treat Basket was never coming out.

These days, with a savvy 8- and 11-year-old, things are a lot more ad hoc.  Sometimes my kids gobble up candy as soon as they receive it (as my daughter does every single Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when a certain unnamed teacher at our school hands out treats – grrr) but other times we still make them fork it over for later consumption, especially when they get tons of junk all at once, like after a classroom party.  And no matter what, I’m not a big fan of candy being stored in my kids’ rooms.  (If you’ve seen the size of Houston bugs, you understand.  Seriously, people, they’re large enough to be kept as pets.)

Further complicating the issue is the fact that a few years ago we started giving our kids a nominal allowance — just a few dollars each month, of which a portion goes to charity and a portion to savings.  With the little bit of pocket money left over, my kids used to indulge mostly in toys from Target’s Dollar Spot and/or sugarless gum.

Lately, however, both kids are asking more often if they can spend their money on candy, candy which they want to keep in their rooms and eat at will.  The Control Freak part of me is not at all happy with this idea, and as you’ve figured out by now, I’m about 65% Control Freak.  But I recognize that my kids are getting older and deserve (and would benefit from) more freedom in managing both their finances and their sweet-eating.  (In fact, one child will be heading off to middle school next year and soon a little contraband candy in the nightstand drawer could be the least of my problems.)

So, just out of curiosity, for those of you who give an allowance, do your kids have carte blanche to spend it on sweets or other junk you wouldn’t normally buy for them?  If so, do you put any restrictions at all on those purchases, like when and where they can be eaten?

Take my reader poll and I’ll share the results in tomorrow’s Friday Buffet.


Does Parental Modeling Affect Kids’ Food Behavior? One Expert Says “No”

Not long after I started The Lunch Tray I told you about Dina Rose, the blogger behind It’s Not About Nutrition.  Dina’s a mom with a PhD in sociology from Duke University who teaches workshops and provides private counseling on kid and food issues, especially picky eating.

Dina’s latest post may raise some eyebrows.  In it, she takes on the conventional wisdom that kids will eventually grow to like vegetables (or fruits, or whatever the issue is) simply by seeing their parents eat and enjoy those foods.

Back when my second child would eat no vegetables at all (a situation that’s slowly but steadily improving), I used to cling to that notion like a life raft. And I did so in part because of my general agreement with Ellyn Satter, another kid-and-food expert, who believes that giving speeches about the healthful properties of vegetables creates pressure on kids that will inevitably backfire.  According to Satter, it’s only your modeling (along with a pressure-free environment and the passage time) that will lead to improved eating habits.

But apparently Dina thinks this idea is misguided:

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t model good eating habits—it’s definitely a good idea for your kids to see you eat an apple every now and then—but I am suggesting that modeling alone won’t get you where you want to go.

Imagine being told that the best way to teach your kids to get dressed is to let them “catch” you wearing clothes.

She then gives a lot of reasons why the modeling theory may be flawed and concludes with a most un-Satter-like proposition:   what parents say about food and food choices carries more weight than what parents do.

If you have a few minutes, take a look at Dina’s post and then leave a comment below.  I’m very curious to hear what TLT readers think about this issue.



NPR Story On Picky Eaters (Ellyn Satter Haters Beware)

There was an amusing story on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday about the reporter’s battles to get her three-year-old son to eat vegetables.  An excerpt:

“I only want mac and cheese! Not peas!” he said to me recently when I tried to tempt him with something green.

I replied, “Do you want to grow up to be a big boy or a little tiny boy your whole life?” But when you find yourself pleading with your 3-year-old, stoking fears of dwarfism, it’s perhaps time to call for help.

The story features kid-and-food expert Ellyn Satter, whose mantra is that it’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what is served and where and how it is eaten, but the child’s sole responsibility to decide whether to eat and how much.

In other words: hands off.

Not everything Satter says works for me, but that core thesis has always resonated and I’ve tried my best to use it with my own kids.  Yet I’ve learned since starting TLT that there are readers who are quite anti-Satter, a topic I’ll revisit in a future post.

You can hear/read the whole NPR story here.

Grappling with the Grapple: A Confession

In a perfect world, my kids would gobble up all the fresh, organic produce I buy every week — all the clementines, apple slices, berries, and cubed pineapple or melon I put in their lunch boxes, not to mention the wide variety of vegetables I creatively prepare and serve for dinner every night.

In reality, however, it’s a different story.  With respect to vegetables, I’ve got one child who will try most of them – reluctantly — and one staunch veggie-phobe who (with a growing but still small list of exceptions) simply will not eat them.  And when it comes to fruits, the situation is often no better.  Both kids will eat fruit but they don’t seem to love it, and I often have to coax a bit to make sure everyone’s getting at least a modicum of phytonutrients in their diet.

So when, a few days ago, my daughter came home from school touting a new fruit she’d tasted from her friend’s lunch box, it certainly got my attention.  “It’s called a ‘Grapple,'” she told me.  “I really want one in my lunch.  Can you find them in the store?”

Well, I found them, all right.

For the uninitiated, the Grapple (pronounced Grape-l) is a perfectly innocent Fuji or Gala apple that’s subjected to “a relaxing bathing process” (I’m not making this up, it’s on their website) in a mix of water and natural and artificial grape flavor.*

Every food and environmental principle I hold dear was in opposition to these bizarrely grape-smelling, plastic-clam-shell-encased apples.  Why do we need to artificially flavor Mother Nature’s handiwork?  Why cater to kids’ palates, already mucked up by too much processed, chemical-laden foods?  Why does an apple need a clamshell package and why spend the resources needed to recycle it, or, worse, despoil the earth by chucking it into a landfill?

And do you know what I did next, dear readers?  I put the Grapples in my cart!

It was a moment of weakness, I admit, fueled in part by curiosity.  Just what would a grape-flavored apple taste like anyway?  And there was also that tiny maternal voice in the back of my head, the one the Grapple marketing geniuses were no doubt targeting, whispering seductively “So, what’s a little artificial grape flavor if it gets the kids to eat fruit?”

Well, the kids and I tried the Grapple, and here’s our review:  Pretty darn delicious.  They’re perfectly crisp and juicy (probably from their “relaxing bath”) and rather than tasting like grape candy, they taste more like a really flavorful, if slightly unusual, apple.  The kids LOVED them and begged for more.

So what do I do now?  Proclaim it a fun experiment, never to be repeated in our home?  Become a regular Grapple purchaser (albeit one wearing dark glasses and a trench coat)?  Reserve the Grapple for the odd treat, just like other artificial junk?

In writing this post, I can already identify in my head certain Lunch Tray readers by name (and you know who you are) who are about to cancel their blog subscription in protest.  The folks over at the Feingold Association, whose sole mission is to get artificial flavors and colors out of kids’ diets, are probably going to stage some sort of intervention.  And several of you will just cry softly, shaking your head, as you head off to pick up wholesome, unadulterated apples from your organic CSA . . . .

OK, guys, let me have it.


* The company is really squirrelly about the artificial flavoring.  Rather than just owning up to using it, which of course they have to disclose on their label, they hem and haw on their site: “Our main flavor ingredient is the same synthesized grape flavoring agent used in 100’s of other retail food items. Because it is not feasible for us to ‘crush all of the flavor’ we would need from grapes themselves, we are forced to say ‘Natural and Artificial Flavor’. The grape flavoring is the same that you would get out of Mother Nature’s grapes themselves.”

In other words, fake grape.

Reader Poll: Who Keeps the Keys to the Pantry (and Fridge) in Your House?

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the issue of control in the kitchen.

I’ve always been a believer in Ellyn Satter’s philosophy that parents decide the “when, where and what” of meals and snacks, and the kids decide whether and how much to eat.  That translates into three meals a day, plus set snack times in which the parent decides what’s served (although choices might be offered, of course).

My kids are usually ravenous after school and when they were younger (and I was a much better parent) I had a snack ready for them — usually cut-up fruit and something a little more substantial, like baked corn chips with melted cheese, hummus or guacamole, a bowl of cereal, or, if I was really on my game, a homemade, whole-grain-and-fruit muffin.

These days, though, we’re all a lot more rushed, plus my kids are older and more autonomous.  They often drop their backpacks and head straight to the pantry, while I yell impotently, “No cookies!”  “Have some fruit with that!”  The result is that the nutritional quality of snacks has gone down in my house (although our baseline is still OK — you guys know me well enough by now to know that we’re not stocked up with Flaming Hot Cheetos, Twinkies etc.)

On the weekends, too, there’s more of a push by my kids to just graze at will, which I try to curb given that we still eat three set meals a day — e.g., if we’re going to dinner on at a restaurant, I don’t want everyone snacking up right before we go.  Similarly, I’ve also been getting into struggles with my son who has a tendency lately to profess extreme, life-threatening hunger about 30 minutes before dinner is ready, but who has always been skittish about fruits and vegetables.  Sometimes he’ll grudgingly take my offer of a few banana or apple slices, but other times he refuses (yet still pesters me at the stove for some carb-heavy snack he’s pulled from the pantry, which makes for a delightful late afternoon.)

All of this pressure from my kids is making me feel much more like a rigid Food Cop than I ever did before, and I’m wondering if by now, when my kids are 8 and 10, I ought to be loosening up the snacking reins.

I took an informal poll on the Lunch Tray’s Facebook page about how snacking goes in your house, and thought I’d ask the whole readership.  Let me know your thoughts and feel free to also leave a comment if the poll responses don’t fit your situation.

Halloween Heresy: Just Let Them Eat the Candy (Ellyn Satter Returns)

[Ed. Note:  Earlier today we talked about what treats we give out on Halloween.  Now, a discussion of managing all the candy that comes into your house.]

When my kids were little, dealing with the Halloween candy was easy.  I let them eat a fair amount on the night of trick-or-treating, then some more after dinner for the next few nights, and then the rest was relegated to the now-defunct Treat Basket where it was soon forgotten.  Everyone was happy.

But now that I have a savvy 8- and 10-year old who have a photographic memory of their respective Halloween inventories, I need to rethink my whole candy philosophy.   I recalled that respected kid-and-food expert Ellyn Satter had written on this topic, so I tooled around the Internet to see what I could find.  It turns out she has an entire article about Halloween candy on her website and what she wrote was somewhat surprising to me.  I think you may be surprised as well.  Here’s an excerpt:

Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity. Work toward having your child be able to manage his own stash. For him to learn, you will have to keep your interference to a minimum. When he comes home from trick or treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack time.” [Emphasis mine.]

If he can follow the rules, your child gets to keep control of the stash. Otherwise, you do, on the assumption that as soon as he can manage it, he gets to keep it. Offer milk with the candy, and you have a chance at good nutrition.

. . . . Maintain the structure of meals and sit-down snacks, with parents retaining their leadership role in choosing the rest of the food that goes on the table. With that kind of structure and foundation, candy won’t spoil a child’s diet or make him too fat.

Usually I’m totally on board with Satter’s advice, but I just can’t wrap my head around piles of candy (glass of milk or no) as an afterschool snack.  On the other hand, I do have vivid memories of being alone in my room as a child with my big bag of Halloween candy, free to eat it — entirely at will — for weeks after Halloween.  (I know! And this is my carob-and-brewer’s-yeast, 1970’s, Prevention-reading mom we’re talking about!)

Whether that was the result of lack of parental oversight or deliberate parental strategy, I have no idea (Mom, if you’re reading, feel free to comment), but I will say this:  I was neither overweight nor sugar-crazed as a result, and as an adult, I love candy and eat it often, but I rarely over-indulge.  And maybe that wouldn’t be the case if, as a child,  my candy had been carefully doled out (or entirely withheld from me).  Maybe then it would be such tempting forbidden fruit that I’d go candy-crazy whenever I had the chance.

It’s impossible to say, but I do agree with Satter’s general principle that kids need to learn how to navigate an abundance of sweets, as they will surely encounter it in the real world.  I’m just not sure how best to go about accomplishing that.

What do you think, and what do you do with your own kids’ Halloween candy?