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Anonymous Ode to the (Parents of a) Picky Eater

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Young Girl (13-14) Holding Her Nose at the Dinner Table After a recent lively Facebook discussion about kids’ restaurant menus and picky eaters, a longtime Scrambler expressed privately to me how frustrated she was because she feels that parents of less picky eaters sometimes take a tone of self-congratulation or blame toward parents of picky eaters.  I asked her if she would share her thoughts and perspective with other Scramblers to heighten our sensitivity, so she composed this fabulous ode.  I hope we can all take time to consider her experience and try to be more sensitive to parents who are blessed with less adventurous eaters.  

Ode to the (Parents of a) Picky Eater

My 11-year-old was playing Vivaldi on the violin by age 10.  My 13-year-old places well above 99th percentile on math standardized tests and is a skilled equestrian. Both are well adjusted and have lots of friends. If you’re wondering how we did it, I can say that we don’t have cable, we do math problems for fun at the dinner table, and all of our vacations are in national parks.

Was that obnoxious? Yeah, intentionally so, so don’t write me off yet. This is pretty much how it hits my ears when another parent tells me that their child will eat anything, has never ordered mac and cheese in a restaurant, and thinks hot dogs are filth. They then usually have some pointers for me, the mother of two picky eaters, such as: require that my kids take at least one bite of new foods, repetitively offer new foods, model healthy eating, offer plenty of new tastes when they are babies, force them to eat what the adults are eating, make the food fun or clever, keep a rewards chart, grow my own vegetables, etc., etc. Thank you for your advice, but let me give you my own chicken nugget of parental insight: when it comes to your kids, you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

If your 6-year-old clamors for sushi, relishes kimchi, only orders off the adult menu, eats tomatoes off the vine faster than you can grow them, and thinks white bread is for ducks (which, by the way, is very bad for the ducks, don’t do that), then I envy you. I salute you for offering adventurous foods to your adventurous eater. I do not, however, admire you, nor do I want to know “how you did it.” I do not believe that you can take credit for that trait, any more than I can take credit for my budding musician or mathematician, other than supporting and encouraging the skills they were born with. To be honest, the only reason we don’t have cable is that we are spending too much money on violin and riding lessons to afford it.

To answer your next question, yes, we have tried every one of the conventional recommendations for dealing with picky eaters. I COOK. Like, for real. I’m more of a Moosewood/CSA/Scramble kinda gal than a Paula Deen or Martha Stewart type, but I cook a square meal every single night after work. I grow veggies and herbs and fruits, I make my own bread, butter, chips, cookies, hummus, jam, pickles, pizza, ricotta, salad dressing, salsa, tortillas, and yogurt – not every time, but when I can.  I experiment with ethnic ingredients and recipes. I’m not a purist about it or anything, we do buy Oreos, I’m just really into food as a hobby.

So, how did I do in the parenting department? My kids will try anything once, and politely. And then they will ask what they can have for dinner, because the quiche/curry/stew/tofu that WE are eating is not gonna do it. Children cannot live on One Bite to Be Polite. Could we have gone to the mat every night and refused them other options? Probably, but I decided that neither food nor the dinner table were going to be battlegrounds or power struggles in my house. Going out to eat? We found a restaurant in town that serves sushi AND the goopy orange noodles – so we call it SushiMac, and that’s our favorite place to eat as a family.

I’m writing in defense of the picky eater. A picky eater is not a poor eater. As a parent you can control what your child MAY eat, but it’s a lot harder to control what they WILL eat. It’s possible to have a very tiny repertoire of perfectly healthy foods – and what is really wrong with that? When did having a child who eats lentil burgers become a sign of good parenting? My sister’s kids are thriving (medically, mentally, and vertically) on little more than milk, Clif bars, whole wheat bread, cheese, and peanut butter. And some strategically fortified cereals for vitamins – Mini Wheats are a slammin’ source of iron, who knew? It doesn’t bother her, it doesn’t bother them, and she and her husband just eat what they want for dinner. My girls’ limited palates only bother me when I fool myself into expecting they are going to love this new cornbread casserole and get all offended when they don’t – but if I just make a side of plain pasta to go next to our puttanesca, everyone is happy and dinner is fun.

I’m not going to offer advice on trying to convert your picky eater. If you do an inventory, you’ll probably find that they are hitting most of the food groups. If you are really worried about malnutrition, ask your pediatrician. Also, go buy Bread and Jam for Frances and read it tonight. Otherwise, just keep eating what you like, try to make healthy choices yourself, and let your kids grow up seeing that adults eat stuff like soup and salads, know how to turn raw vegetables into actual meals, and make it a priority to have a little together time at the dinner table. You are quietly, gently, persistently brainwashing them into the cult of good food – and someday, when they have kids, they will be subliminally programmed to do the same.

As the parent of pre-teens, I can see the horizon lightening. They are definitely still picky eaters, but they are starting to show more tolerance for the unknown, even asking for seconds sometimes. One day, these actual words were uttered in my house: “Do I smell squash? Awesome!” (What they smelled was the brown sugar and cinnamon ON the squash, but hey.)  I don’t fool myself that this is thanks to me; it’s just a natural part of maturing. These days at SushiMac, we order edamame, miso soup, and yakitori – for the table! But not sushi. Please, Mom – that’s, like, raw fish.

Baby steps.

— By Anonymous


Wednesday 12th of November 2014

Thank you so much for the post and the comments. As a mother of one who will eat everything and anything and one who will NOT, I am very comforted!


Thursday 6th of November 2014

Love this! So true.


Thursday 6th of November 2014

As an experienced home cook, lover of all good food, 30 plus year registered dietitian, and mom of very active 16 & 17 year olds, it's very gratifying to read the thoughtful wisdom of the posts here. One additional comment I have is that some children who are "picky eaters" have sensory food aversions (often related to developmental issues) or are super tasters - very real problems. No amount of hide this/make smoothies, etc. works with these children. Working with an experienced pediatric speech therapist on oral desensitization sometimes helps increase a very limited repertoire of foods. I can tell you, though, from personal experience with my own now 17 year old high school senior who still eats no fruits and only tiny bites of certain veggies, that kids can still thrive, have good labs, grow well etc. - my 17 y/o selective eater is healthy and a competitive high school rower just recruited to a big 10 school. Their palates will likely expand as they grow, and these kinds of kids must be supported and allowed to make their own food choices at their pace.

Jennifer Susse

Wednesday 5th of November 2014

Thanks of this post. You forgot the claim that children who are breast fed (mine were) don't grow up to be picky eaters. My 13 year old is finally emerging out of the fog of pickiness, but it has come in baby steps. The first step was when he agreed at the age of 9 to try an ice cream flavor other than vanilla.

2 adventurous, 1 picky

Wednesday 5th of November 2014

Love this essay. Thank you. I am a clinical psychologist who specializes in work with children, and I can assure anyone who asks that I know all of the "tricks." 2 of my children will eat almost anything, and 1 subsists on whole grain pasta/bread, milk, cheese, the occasional egg, and anything I can effectively hide in pancake batter. I like to say there are 3 things you can never force a child to do: go to sleep, go to the bathroom, and eat.

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