Picky eating stage: Passed! Level up!

Caution:  minimal science below.  If you want citations, good luck with that.  (Hungry Monkey does summarize and cite much of the research if you really want cites.)

So, supposedly kids whose moms eat varied diets while they’re pregnant or nursing are happy eating more different foods than moms with boring diets.  I believe the research that came to these conclusions involved carrots.

As we mentioned before, there’s no real science on what order to start foods.  Different cultures do things differently and the human race would probably have died out a long long time ago if there was only one way to get kids started on solid food.  People say things about starting rice cereal first or not starting rice cereal first or starting veggies but not fruit first etc.  I kind of doubt that it matters if a kid’s first taste of food is banana or broccoli, but some people think if you start with a veggie you’ll get a less-picky eater.  We didn’t start with rice cereal because refined grains aren’t allowed in our house (insulin problems).  (If you care, banana was our first food… DC was not interested in solid food one day, then next day ze stole my banana from my hand and ate it.)

All the baby stuff says to keep introducing things until kids like it.  Our kid started solids late and was only interested in things ze could pick up with hir pincer grasp, but ze would eat *anything* in that subset.  (The only mushy things we gave were naturally mushy things, ze did love applesauce and oatmeal and bananas.)  At this stage we got lots of compliments on what a great eater ze was.

Then suddenly, without warning, somewhere in the mid to late 2s, DC stopped eating vegetables entirely.  And anything green.  If you stuck a green apple lollypop in hir mouth, ze would totally eat it, but would not touch it unless you were sneaky about it.  Once-loved avocados were picked out and refused from everything (very sad, though we were always happy to take the leavings.  Nom.).  Fruit was hit and miss (except bananas, our go-to snack).

The internet was not helpful.  Lots of the same advice with no research behind it… don’t make a big deal of it, don’t let kids have separate meals, allow a boring back-up meal, etc.  Hungry Monkey totally was helpful!  Apparently the picky eating stage coincides with mental categorization.  Many green things are bitter and dangerous.  Therefore kids will mentally group all green things together and avoid them.  Don’t reinforce that grouping.  As the child gets older, the child will be better able to separate out that apples are not avocados are not broccoli are not turnip greens.  There may still be likes and dislikes, but the categories will be smaller.

And almost all kids go through the picky eating stage.  Even kids of food critics.  Even kids of famous chefs.  Most will grow out of it if just left alone.  Plus even the pickiest get enough vitamins and minerals throughout the week so long as they’re only offered healthy options.  (Processed foods designed to fool our palates like chicken nuggets or potato chips or soda can be a problem though.)  The Hungry Monkey guy told his daughter she would like more foods as she got older, and she believed him.  “I don’t like this now,” she would say.  So we did that too, “Auntie #1 didn’t like onions at your age either, and mommy didn’t like tomatoes, but we like them now!  Maybe one day when you’re older…”  I think that growth rather than fixed mindset about food helped everybody not stress or focus on the pickiness.  Temporary problems are easier to deal with.

By the end of the book, the author’s daughter was just starting to like a few more foods.

For us, the change was more immediate.  About 2 weeks before it happened, DC realized that avocados were actually quite tasty.  A miracle.  Then on day t-1, DC fussed about us adding onions to the food and having to pick them out, as usual.  It was such a PITA, that when DH made spaghetti the next day, ze kept the onions aside and only added them to the adult plates (I would never do this because I am a much lazier parent and perfectly happy to tell a fussy kid to either pick them out or leave the table if ze can’t stop fussing).  DH told DC that he hadn’t given hir any onions.  DC demanded onions.  Okay… you can have onions.  DC ate the onions.  We quietly contained our excitement.

Day t+1, DC ate everything offered to hir.  It was as if that entire 2-3 years of picky eating had never happened.  DC has been trying new foods and eating almost everything ever since.  Ze still has strong preferences (ze eats the yummy stuff first), but there’s no fussing, no refusals, no ages spent picking things out… an amazing change.

This change happened at the same time as lots of sleeping and a few potty accidents– signs that DC was undergoing either a growth spurt or developmental change.  So… as we say in our household, DC leveled up, and picked “eating a variety of food” as a new skill (also some math).

Oh, btw, even during the picky stage, little kids seem to LOVE sardines.  Like beg for them at the grocery store love.  I loved them too, even though I don’t care for them now.  Apparently they’re full of all sorts of good stuff for growing bodies (and, depending on the kind you get, are low on fish-related toxins).  We both love eel!  Also frozen peas, which are apparently magical.

Did you or your kids go through a picky eating stage?  Did it pass?  What do you suggest for someone with a picky eating 3 year old?

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38 Responses to “Picky eating stage: Passed! Level up!”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    My husband actually gets credit for this one. We say “you don’t have to eat it, you just have to try it.” We implemented this rule because my older son used to turn his nose up on foods that he’s never even eaten before. Half the time he liked them, the other half not. Sometimes he refused altogether, so we’d bribe him with junk. “If you take a bite of this vegetable, then you can have ice cream for dessert.”

    He went through the same thing your kid did…started by eating everything..we congratulated ourselves for being such good parents and then one by one, he stopped eating veggies (not so much with the fruit though), til the only thing he ate was things that were totally bland and colorless. Then one by one they came back into the diet. At age 3 he literally gagged and almost threw up on a chunk of broccoli by 5, it’s back on his list of favorite vegetables.

    I remember liking sardines as a kid. I’ve never tried feeding them to mine though. We’ll have to experiment with that. I used to love smoked whitefish, but I know that’s kind of an ethnic thing to like…not a regular kid thing.

  2. Kellen Says:

    I’m still a picky eater… the vegetables coming back didn’t start ’til I was 19 and I realized that sweet potato was good. I’m okay with baby spinach now (that’s new this year. I’m 24, still adding the veggies slowly), still hate tomatoes.

    What I *do* like is apple/celery mixed in with my tuna fish/chicken salad. Or cucumber on a sandwich where it adds crunch, but I can’t really taste it, and I’m not just munching on cucumber alone.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m a super-taster, so spinach didn’t come back until high school with the discovery of spinach stuffed pizza. I also remember hating tomatoes and not wanting to hate tomatoes– I’d try them every year and they would still be gross. But one year they were good on a Whopper and I was able to finally appreciate them. Now I love a good tomato.

      I still don’t like tuna fish salad. Tuna sushi is good (though I try hard to order the more sustainable kinds), tuna with macaroni and cheese is good, but tuna salad is icky. I LOVE chicken salad to pieces. (So long as there isn’t too much mayo.) I don’t know what my problem is there.

  3. frugalscholar Says:

    A great thing about being a lackadaisical parent is that we hardly noticed if our kids were picky or not. We were too disorganized to come up with a plan or enforce rules. Now that they are both in their 20s–both are adventurous eaters.

  4. Cloud Says:

    @frugalscholar, if you didn’t notice, I suspect that your kid wasn’t very picky. My 4 year old has a very limited range of foods she’ll eat. I buy the link to categorization, but I sure don’t understand her categories! I can’t imagine not noticing that she won’t eat 99% of the foods offered.

    I’m sure she’ll eat more as she gets older- I was a picky eater, and I did. Like @Kellen, I’m still adding foods. I’ll be (pleasantly!) surprised if we get a dramatic transformation like the one you describe, though.

    A lot of my pre-motherhood ideas about what I would and would not feed my child went out the window when confronted with a real child and real life- chicken nuggets/tenders, for instance are one of the few foods she’ll eat at a restaurant, so she gets them more often than I would have thought I’d allow. I like to eat out and I don’t like a whiny, over hungry kid (she won’t, by the way, reliably eat bananas, so your “have a banana instead” approach won’t work for us, unfortunately. None of her reliable foods lend themselves well to be kept in my purse as a dinner substitute at restaurants.) So she eats chicken tenders.

    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with the “don’t make a big deal out of it” advice. We never make a big deal out of what she will and won’t eat, and we try to keep other people from doing that (which is hard- I’ve had to repeatedly remind my sister who is otherwise an awesome aunt). I also agree that a lot of the advice on the internet is crap- and some of it sounds cruel to me as a picky eater myself. And very judgy. So I vent about that on my blog some. And my daughter’s eating habits can definitely be frustrating, so I vent about that, too. But to her face, we try to be very blase about it all. We emphasize that she’ll probably like things when she’s older, too. She agrees, and says things like “when I’m ten, I’ll eat that.” I was hoping for five, but I guess I’ll take what I can get!

    This old post of mine is still a fairly accurate description of our approach and my thoughts on the subject. Although she never did take to corn.

    My younger daughter, on the other hand, is taking a more standard toddler approach to food, so while she’s a bit picky now, I suspect that she’ll be eating more things than her sister does when she gets a little older. Time will tell!

  5. prodigal academic Says:

    My kids (2 and 4) are picky with strange tastes. Neither will eat fast food (usually a good thing, but annoying on road trips). They will beg for more turnip greens, goat cheese, or seared duck, but turn their noses up at even homemade chicken nuggets and fish sticks. They won’t eat any frozen processed foods (which is also annoying at times).

    We have them try one bite of anything new, but they can refuse to eat more if they don’t like it. I don’t make separate meals (unless it is something expensive for a special dinner). They fill up on whatever components of the meal they like, but can’t have dessert unless they eat a reasonable portion of whatever is for dinner. We don’t fight with them about eating, just table manners. :-)

    So far, it has worked for us.

  6. hush Says:

    Amen to this: “And almost all kids go through the picky eating stage. Even kids of food critics. Even kids of famous chefs. Most will grow out of it if just left alone.” Exactly.

    For a 3-year old with a highly-sensitive, risk-averse palate I suggest a weekend spent in a large rental house with a family of children roughly her age and older who eat lots of different foods. Monkey see, monkey do. It worked for us. And don’t keep chicken nuggets, chocolate cookies, and sugary drinks in the house – or that’s what they’ll demand instead of the culinary goodness on the grown ups’ plates. Duh.

    I’m also a believer in the concept of asking kids to please take at least two “Thank You bites” of the food in order to thank the chef for his/her efforts – I learned that from reading Sharon Silver’s excellent little book “Stop Reacting, Start Responding.” Author Ellyn Satter also has my respect for her thoughtful writings on children, families, and eating.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Even as an adult, I will choke down 2 thank you bites (great phrase!) of something I hate if a friend has gone to some effort in making it. I will try to disguise it with side dishes, but I will put a little on my plate and take a bite. Good life skill to learn. (Note to #1: this does not give you license to deliberately make me eat things you know I hate!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Here #2, have some lobster covered in um… mushrooms…. and uh some orange juice. I made them from scratch.

        Though a lot of the things you used to hate you have come around to. Like avocado!

  7. ianqui Says:

    I’ve always wished that hush’s advice would work with Yo–let him see what other kids are eating and he’ll want to try it. But I guess that’s the problem with a kid who’s kind of spacey and not very susceptible to peer pressure (in any way–food, potty training, consumerism on display at birthday parties…)–he can’t be swayed by that. He’s also not amenable to the “take a bite and see if you like it” approach yet, which may have something to do with the fact that his expressive ability seems a bit delayed. He can, however, be bribed, so we’ve gotten him to try a couple of things with the promise of Veggie Booty afterwards.

    Ugh. I could go on and on about Yo’s irritating palate, but I’ll spare you all the details. I’m just gonna hope that sometime before he’s 18 he’ll start appreciating that I like to cook and that I often model eating interesting new things in our house.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If nothing else, some day he’ll be able to feed himself, and then presumably move out, and I have faith he’ll eat enough to stay alive until then! Sneaky trick: I would often eat things at my friend’s house that I wouldn’t eat at home, if that’s what their family was having and I was over for dinner. Maybe eventually that’ll work, some day…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        hungry monkey notes that the peer effect (and the making it/growing it yourself) thing works well after the standard picky eating stage, but generally not during it… He makes a pretty convincing case that nothing works during it except waiting it out.

  8. Donna Freedman Says:

    As a kid I wouldn’t eat sauerkraut, which was easy to avoid because it was served only at school lunch. I don’t know if I’d like it now. Maybe I should try it somewhere.
    The other food I wouldn’t eat was broccoli, which my mom bought chopped and frozen. She boiled it to nothingness and then sprinkled vinegar on it. The combination of overcooked broccoli plus vinegar offended my sense of smell and I refused even to try it. All of us did, in fact; Mom was the only one who ate it. At age 21, after reading “Laurel’s Kitchen,” I tried steaming some fresh broccoli and found I liked it a lot.
    Generally speaking the rule in our home was this: The faster you eat, the more likely you’ll get a second helping. We were all quick plate-cleaners, the better to request another spoonful of mashed potatoes.
    P.S. We all loved lima beans. That’s because we grew them ourselves. In fact, sometimes dinner was lima beans served with butter and milk. Some people find that appalling, but I still think it’s really good.

  9. PQA Says:

    Mine is too young to be a picky eater yet but I am a big fan of not having food and eating be a big deal. The best advice I got was to not get hung up on the day to day intake but to keep an eye on the weekly intake. That made since to me.

    I do want to repeat my father’s restaurant policy though. When we went out to eat (often at fancier restaurants) we were allowed to order anything we wanted.. anything! If we didn’t like it we could have something when we got home. We were encouraged to be adventurous and we were. As a 8 yr old I came to love steamed mussels/clams and would always order them when out to italian food. Sadly I was never allowed to take the shells home like I wanted though :(

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      After you try taking the shells home once, you find out why you generally shouldn’t. Seems like fun in restaurants though!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I disagree with my esteemed co-blogger. We have two sets of shells (from the last two times we ordered things on the half shell). They’re fun.

      • Donna Freedman Says:

        I bought a box of snail shells at a rummage sale for a dollar. It was the box, with its descriptions of these premium shells (to use used when serving escargot, apparently) that charmed me.
        After showing it to a couple of friends and to my great-nephew, I realized there was no reason to keep the shells. So I donated it back to the same rummage sale the next year. :-)

  10. Perpetua Says:

    I really thought that my DS’s aversion to eating foods offered at daycare would wane once he saw all the other kids eating. Wrong! Mostly he just goes every. single. day without eating any lunch at all. The providers know this now so they stock him up at morning snack which he’ll usually eat. He’s a typical picky/ ultra-sensitive – he had strong aversions to texture as well as complex flavors. He won’t eat sauces or soups of any kind. One time I made him take a bite of those canned raviolis for kids and he almost vomited. There was a couple dreadful weeks when he was living on yogurt, fruit, and goldfish crackers. (This was when he was adjusting to the new daycare and wouldn’t eat the food, which upset his digestive cycle dreadfully and he got really constipated which made him eat even less.) Thankfully he loves fruit! So he eats a LOT of fruit. We’ve recently started the thank-you bite (thank you, Sharon!) in the hopes that he’ll eventually realize there’s some stuff that isn’t “yucky”. I’ve also now forbidden calling the food I make “yucky”. He and his sib do usually get separate meals, though because they go to bed so early. We try to eat together as a family, but it doesn’t happen that much. #2 on the other hand is a goat. We don’t do dessert, so that solves that potential issue. He eats sweets earlier in the day. On the up side, he doesn’t really like “junk” food either – no breaded fried chicken for him, or hamburgers, or fries, or super sweet things. I’m not concerned at all.

    • bogart Says:

      LOL, yes, when my stepkids were teens (which is when I became their stepmom) I had to institute the rule that there are only 2 things it is acceptable to say when dinner is put on the table: “Mmmmm, yummy!” or “Gosh, I think I’ll go make myself some Mac’n’cheese.” As opposed to, you know, “Yuck!”

      My little one’s not great about eating supper, usually, but I’ve mostly come to accept this as just not his big meal of the day (though his actual manners, as opposed to his eating, drive me nuts. Use your fork!). He does eat enough stuff, and varied enough stuff, that I ignore details, though there are definitely tendencies leaning toward too much junk and not enough “good stuff” that I try not to be too casual about (i.e. not to tolerate in too blase a fashion). Mind you I’m one of the moms who classifies granola bars as “junk” which isn’t intended to argue with my position but just to be clear I’m not saying he eats, e.g., mostly pop-tarts.

    • Cloud Says:

      My four year old regularly skips day care lunches, too, or only eats the bread. I have stopped arguing with people who say that the magic way to handle picky eating is to just refuse any other option. She’d rather go hungry than eat something she doesn’t like. For that matter, so would I most times. I’d have to get pretty hungry to want to eat octopus, for instance. I’m not willing to starve my child in the name of getting her to eat her veggies. She eats what we eat most nights. But what we eat always includes bread, so that she won’t starve. And I have absolutely no problem with reserving some pasta without sauce for her when we have pasta.

      Actually, I think a lot of the angst over picky eating is misplaced. Yeah, my daughter will probably get better as she gets older. But so what if she remains a picky eater? Picky eating isn’t a moral failing. If my biggest failure as a mother is that she won’t eat broccoli, I’ll count myself lucky.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The Hungry Monkey guy says picky eaters get their nutrients. (Though I did know a guy who got scurvy in college… OJ with his limited diet fixed that up.)

      • Cloud Says:

        He got scurvy? That is simultaneously awesome and horrifying.

        I catch some flack from some judgy foodies sometimes about how unhealthy my diet supposedly is… but I check out great- cholesterol is good, blood pressure is low, BMI is a tad high, but that is mostly due to my lack of exercise. I’ve even got good bone density (I’ve always loved milk products in just about every form).

        My grandparents have appallingly bad diets. My mom and I were just joking this weekend how we could track the hatred of veggies from my grandma down to my daughter (via my dad and me). And yet my grandparents are fairly healthy 90-somethings, still living independently. So who am I to judge if they want to eat milkshakes for lunch some days?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yup, scurvy. He went to the doctor for thrush (yes, only babies are supposed to get this… yes, white fuzz on the tongue of an 18 or 19 year old boy is really gross), but the underlying cause was scurvy. Apparently only eating bacon cheeseburgers (with nothing, not even ketchup) and diet coke from the cafeteria 2 meals a day actually isn’t healthy.

        Adding OJ and pepperoni pizza to the menu increased his vitamin intake. His mom also sent him multi-vitamins, but he didn’t take them.

        And yes, he’s a computer programmer. Some of them do fit the stereotype!

        Don’t knock milkshakes for lunch! Or dinner! Calcium! Also vitamins if you put fruit in them. And the all important vitamin chocolate if you go that direction. And if you don’t add extra sugar, they’re glycemically balanced.

      • Debbie M Says:

        My brother got a potassium deficiency (as a grown man, around age 35) and found he couldn’t use his legs one morning. Scary! Now he drinks a can of V-8 juice every day, basically like medicine. He ate cheeseburgers AND peanut butter and jelly. Also pizza and hot dogs. But apparently not bananas or orange juice, which he also likes fine.

      • Cloud Says:

        Since they buy the milkshakes at DQ, I suspect they are high on the added sugar index. But I also think that someone who has got to be 90-something can eat whatever they damn well please!

        I’m feeling much better about my diet after these stories. I’ve never had a noticeable vitamin deficiency.

        But then, I’m still taking prenatal vitamins (I’m still breastfeeding).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think the moral is to not just live on bacon cheeseburgers… or if you do, follow Ronald Reagen’s advice and use ketchup.

      • Perpetua Says:

        Amen, Cloud! Pickyness is a physiological response, not a moral failing, for us or our kids. When I was picky, eating out was a torment to me, because everyone around me carried on a commentary about what I would or wouldn’t eat. I thought I had an eating disorder for a while! It was ridiculous. And now I eat almost everything, but I have to admit that I occasionally tell people I’m allergic to X or Y at dinner parties because an allergy seems like a legitimate social reason not to eat something whereas “I don’t like X,” comes off as rude. I felt so guilty when DS almost made himself vomit over that gross raviloli I made him eat. I distinctly remember gagging over food I was forced to eat as a child. It’s terrible.

  11. Sandy @ Journey To Our Home Says:

    Our 4 year old is stuck in a picky eating stage- and I ate a pretty diverse diet while pregnant with him. I am having a hard time with him at his new preschool because he won’t eat what I pack for him. I’m thinking i just need to send him a thermos of milk and quit having whole lunches come home. He has always drank milk as the largest portion of his diet.
    He also has to be in the right mood to want to eat sweets (which isn’t very often thankfully!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When the picky eating stage started, the preschool teachers begged us to please please please send him with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So that’s what we did. It was a big paradigm shift for us. (Especially when we’d send something ze had eaten the previous day– we’re like, you ate this YESTERDAY, why don’t you want it today? But whatever, if you want sandwiches you can have sandwiches.)

      • Sandy @ Journey To Our Home Says:

        I ask our kids what they want in their lunch. I pack it (plus a few other tidbits). So when the Boy comes home with the items he actually wanted, I get frustrated.
        And I find out the school gives them peanut butter crackers if they don’t have a lunch so they don’t starve. I’m trying to think of a nice way to tell them to let my child be hungry all day and maybe he’d eat what I packed him.

  12. Dr. O Says:

    The Hungry Monkey guy told his daughter she would like more foods as she got older, and she believed him. “I don’t like this now,” she would say. So we did that too, “Auntie #1 didn’t like onions at your age either, and mommy didn’t like tomatoes, but we like them now! Maybe one day when you’re older…” I think that growth rather than fixed mindset about food helped everybody not stress or focus on the pickiness. Temporary problems are easier to deal with.

    This is a great idea (or at least sounds like it from my inexperienced spot in motherhood). We have Hungry Monkey and have loved it so far, but I’m only a chapter in, and I think Hubby’s not much further. I’m sure we’ll get through it eventually, as well as the picky eating stage!!!

  13. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I’m a super-taster[.]

    Is there anything about you that isn’t six sigma?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Combined, probably not.

      Well, we both wish we were taller (with good reason).

      Though really, being a super taster isn’t a better or worse thing, it’s just a thing. I guess some folks can get a job using their tasting abilities, but if you’re a super-taster that isn’t necessarily an attractive idea. Though it would be cool if TMBG wrote a song about me. Too late though, I guess.

  14. Perpetua Says:

    Oh, all these stories about peanut butter sandwiches make me so sad! DS loves peanut butter,and every facility he’s belonged to is nut-free. It’s a hard, hard thing for a picky preschooler.


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