How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters — And What To Do About It

 

Today’s post is the second in the Around the World In Six Weeks Parenting Blog Carnival. Over the next several weeks, Deb of Urban Moo Cow, Sarah of Left Brain Buddha, Stephanie of Mommy, For Real, Lauren of Omnimom, and I will be writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.   And we’d love for you to join us!

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We’ll be exploring parenting practices around the world.  For more information about the Parenting Blog Carnival, and future topics, click here.  And join us!

And here’s today’s post, about my struggle to raise a healthy eater.

I should have known it was too good to be true.

Until my son learned to walk as a toddler, he was what anyone would call “a good eater.” I was thrilled.  I was proud.  I was more than a little self-righteous. When other parents complained and stressed out about what their kids would or wouldn’t eat,  I would give oh-so helpful advice, such as “We just let him try anything that we would eat.”  (I’m surprised that someone didn’t hit me.)

My son  loved hummus, tapanades, avocados, blueberries, olives, spinach, mangos, gnocci.  Spicy food, cold food. He ate with wild abandon and joy.  I assumed that I had somehow instilled in my son the eating habits that I had grown up with as a child.

I grew up on a small farm.  We raised much of our own food, from cows and pigs to corn or tomatoes.  We knew where much of our food came from, from the piglet being dropped off in the spring to the butcher where we took our slaughtered animals in the fall.  We ate a lot of fresh food, but we were allowed to have treats — Doritos were my personal favorite — too.  There was no “good” food or “bad” food.  Just food.  We all ate dinner together.  You ate what was given to you on your plate — the same as the adults — and then you enjoyed it.  End of story. (And if there was more to the story, my parents didn’t want to hear about it.) If you asked for something different than whatever was being served to everyone else at any time of day, my mom would refuse and tell us, “This isn’t a restaurant.”

About a year ago, once my son figured out that running around the house was much more fun than being strapped into a booster seat, his days of happy eating were over.  Each meal has become a battle, and I don’t know how to stop the fighting.  He is not interested in vegetables, in fruit, or in anything new. He will eat a bite of something here or there and then demand to get down, kicking and screaming.  I will try to feed him anything that he’ll be willing to eat any time, any where, just so I’m reassured that he won’t starve himself.  Other times he’ll shovel in so much steak — or pasta or some other food that he’s decided tastes good that day — that I’m afraid that he’ll throw up from overeating.

And after reading the chapter in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh about parenting and food habits around the world, I’ve realized it: My greatest fear has happened.  In terms of how I feed my kid, I’m an American parent through and through.  And my son eats like an American kid.  I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny it.  My son is not on the path to being a French eater who doesn’t snack, or a South Korean kid who loves his vegetable side dishes, or a Swedish toddler who sits at the table until everyone is done eating.

According to Gross-Loh, here’s what makes my son’s eating habits so distinctly American:

1.  He is used to being offered too many choices about what to eat.  Gross-Loh says that “by offering many options (and then disapproving of what our children say they want) we run the risk of socializing our kids to fight with us over eating.”  For many American parents — like me — our interactions with our kids about food is characterized by extremist thinking:  we live in fear of “bad” food — over-processed, artificial or unhealthy food of all types — and think that picky eating is normal, when cross-culturally, it’s not.

2. I worry constantly about the components of what he’s eating.  I worry if he’s getting enough protein, calcium, iron.  (And when all else fails, I get out the Flintstones gummy vitamins to make myself feel better.) Other cultures don’t think about food like that.  They think about food holistically in the context of a pleasant, relaxed, and healthy family life.

3.  My son eats much of his food at unstructured meal times.  He’s an American-style snacker and grazer.  Other cultures — such as Japan — emphasize the importance of three square meals, each well-balanced, satisfying, and carefully planned.

But here is my favorite part of the chapter, the message that I hope sticks with me as my son grows older:  American parents try desperately hard to figure out what their children’s tastes and preferences in food are — in other words, what they as individuals, like and will eat or won’t eat.  In contrast, other cultures with much healthier attitudes about food (and healthier lifestyles) have a completely different attitude about children and eating.  In their view, a parent’s job is teach a child to eat well, not to placate to their personal eating preferences at any given time.  Kids learn to try to eat anything.

According to Gross-Loh, “a good parent helps her children to learn to eat anything, and she believes that they can and will become good eaters…”

Just like the lessons about sleep from other cultures, there is so much about eating better that is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for many Americans, given the realities of our lack of structural supports in our health care system, our schools, and our neighborhoods, to adopt to our way of life.  But just the idea that being a picky eater is not biological destiny but is instead a cultural norm ( as well as a profitable business tactic by many American food companies) is something that all parents should remind themselves.

Not all of us are born good eaters.  Just like many of us are not born great sleepers.  But we can be taught to have a healthy, balanced relationship with food.  For many kids, this is a skill — a “life skill,” as Gross-Loh points out — that will serve us well throughout our lives.

I’m not sure how much that is going to help me tonight when I try to get my son to eat and enjoy his peas with us.  But I can keep trying and trying.  And I can remember that many of the best lessons about good eating — eat fresh and varied foods, try everything — are what I learned as a young child on a farm.

Check out the other posts in the Parenting Carnival!  Welcome to our new members, Stephanie of Mommy, For Real and Lauren from Omnimom!

And for a little comic relief on this topic, I love the Science of Parenthood‘s Food Rules post!

We’re also giving away an autographed copy of Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.  To be eligible to win a copy of the book, just comment on one of our posts….

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. My kids go through phases with their eating. Right now my 4yo is the “picky” one. Mommy confession ~ I can’t remember the last vegetable he ate. He loves fruit, but getting him to eat more than 3 bites of dinner is a challenge. My daughter went through a similar phase, but now at 6, she loves quinoa, tilapia, steak, salmon, broccoli and a host of other foods her brother won’t touch.

    I’m reminded of a parenting article I read a while ago about getting your kid to eat veggies, and it said at the end, something to the effect of – and if your kid still won’t eat veggies, relax, they can get all the same nutrients from fruit. Really? Then why do I feel so pressured to get 5 veggies in him every day! Not that we’ll give up on veggies, but I think it’s helpful to think of not having every meal, every day balanced, but a balanced week of food.

    And my daughter now tells my son at dinner, “This isn’t a restaurant.” I must use that line a lot. :)
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Mindful Eating: We are HOW we eatMy Profile

  2. We just figured out about our 16-month old that he’s a much better eater when he’s at daycare or when there are guests over for dinner, probably because the daycare has set mealtimes and food routines, and when there are guests over or we dine out, there’s again a recognizable routine. When it’s just us parents with the boy, we are either multitasking or not sitting down and eating but more “grazing” or have a film or something going on in the background. We’ve finally started to try to change this by playing only music in the background and sitting down and chatting, and that mostly works better, especially if we’re not actively trying to make him eat – then he picks up his spoon or fork and merrily chomps away. Not easy to do though, sigh, especially since we worry about his food because he’s so skinny.

  3. I’m loving these posts!! This is all so true. My oldest daughter who is almost 11 has been a self-proclaimed vegetarian for the past 3 years because of her love of animals. However, she eats almost no food and very few vegetables. It has been a major struggle to say the least to get her to eat “healthy” while still trying to respect her decision. My youngest, almost 6, is the typical picky kid. If it’s not pizza, pasta, tacos, or chicken nuggets she’s not eating it. I try to take the approach of “This is what’s for dinner. You can eat it or be hungry,” but it is so hard to follow through when she chooses the “just be hungry” option.
    Lisa @ The Golden Spoons recently posted…Tuesday Ten – The MountainsMy Profile

  4. Hi Jessica,

    This post touches close to home for me. My childhood learned eating habits have stuck with me through adulthood, and they are not habits I want to pass on to my 7-month old daughter. Fast food was an almost daily occurrence, and our family “snack cabinet” propelled my brother and I to popularity among the neighborhood kids.

    As Sophie begins to learn to eat, I long to teach her about fruits and vegetables, family meal times and healthy eating. I dream about removing the temptation so our daughter does not have to have the internal battles my husband, Sean, and I have when it comes to junk food.

    Sean spent many years living abroad while enlisted in the Army and had the opportunity to observe children of other countries. He has long said that other countries do it better than their American counterparts; we’ve even considered leaving the States to raise Sophie, but that’s not a realistic approach to parenting.

    Your post has motivated me to purchase Christine Gross-Loh’s book. Perhaps Sean and I can learn a thing or two about how other cultures approach sleeping, eating, and education, saving us from leaving America in search of the “perfect” country to raise a child. (Although, that’s not to say I wouldn’t absolutely love the opportunity to live abroad for a few years!)
    Elizabeth Fox recently posted…Exhausted …My Profile

    • I hope that you enjoy the book and find it helpful! Where did your husband live? It would be interesting to compare his observations with the author’s. I don’t think there is one “perfect” culture in which to raise a child, but I do think that we can learn from other cultures, and that’s why I’m getting so much out of this book!
      Jessica recently posted…How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters — And What To Do About ItMy Profile

      • Sean lived in Germany for three years, and had the opportunity to spend significant time in Italy. He always comments on how impressed he was with the behavior of young children, particularly when observing a temper tantrum from a child here in the States.

        As I’m reading the book, I will definitely ask for his input to compare his experience with what Gross-Loh reports.
        Elizabeth Fox recently posted…Exhausted …My Profile

  5. Great, honest, post. Reading the group’s responses to the chapter, I find myself wondering how much the food issue is actually a discipline issue. Or, at any rate, how far the two are intertwined. Can we relate, in other words, this idea of catering to a child’s ‘individuality’ and personal preferences on the frontier of food to the way Americans notoriously give in to toddlers demands full stop? I completely agree about innate differences in this regard. I watch it everyday – twins are the ultimate science experiment! And I have done a much better job with child number four (picky eater number two) than I did with his older brother, because I have become a tougher parent over time (for better or for worse). Perhaps the take home message is that it is not a coincidence that the cultures who are better at c
    Lauren Apfel recently posted…food, glorious foodMy Profile

  6. Elizabeth says:

    My daughter is an American kid through and through. She’s 4 and one of the pickiest eaters I have ever seen. Luckily, she loves fruit and dairy products, so she gets a lot of nutrients from those. She’s very slowly starting to add foods to her list of things to eat. .

    What I’d like to know is how to encourage her to be a better eater. Once she’s determined that she doesn’t like a certain food, is it possible to convince her otherwise? I should add that she is also an incredibly stubborn child; she would rather starve than eat something she doesn’t want to eat.

    • I think it is possible! In other cultures, they get their children to try a new food many, many times before giving up and trying again when the child is older. But at the same time, if your kid is stubborn — and I have experience with that — I don’t think it helps to make food into a battle. Maybe try modeling you and your family eating and enjoying the food as much as possible….
      Jessica recently posted…How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters — And What To Do About ItMy Profile

  7. I love your take on this, and with a strong-willed “picky” toddler of my own- I can totally relate. I have thrown up my hands so many times when it comes to her eating, grazing, running around the house with food, and standing up in her highchair… the funny thing is, in the past 48 hours, as I was writing this post, she has eaten protein-rich meals, eaten tons of fruit and even some salad, and eaten in general, much more than usual! I am so torn between following their lead and trying to forcibly implement better habits. Great post!
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for real. recently posted…Feeding My American Family: The Path of Least ResistanceMy Profile

    • She obviously read your post, nice! I think we all seem to agree that toddlers pose a special problem in this regard. The question becomes how to navigate through the inevitable (and evolutionarily driven) phase of small kids becoming suspicious and less interested in food so that we come out with good eaters on the other side.
      Lauren Apfel recently posted…food, glorious foodMy Profile

  8. Jessica,
    Another really great article. My son is an extremely picky eater and has sensory issues as well (where he really will gag/throw up with certain textures and temperatures). One thing that our doctor said to me that really helped was that I do not need to worry about what he gets each day but instead should focus on what he’s getting throughout a week’s time. So if one day, all he eats is fruit and cheese, that’s okay as long as there is a balance over the week.
    While I say it made me feel better, and it did, I should also say that my son refuses all vegetables, all the time. He’ll eat chicken but not beef or pork. It’s frustrating and I try really hard to not show my anxiety over what he doesn’t eat to him. We do have dinnertime together each night but that’s become more challenging as well and I’m embarrassed to say that we’ve recently begun putting the television on so that he’ll sit and eat something (there are days when he actually eats nothing – as in really, seriously nothing at all). It’s hard.
    Oh! Not sure if it’ll help you but my son refused to eat blueberries. I’d bought some at the Farmer’s Market and didn’t want them to go bad, so I froze them thinking I’d make muffins later with them. I ended up giving him some frozen ones and he actually ate them. Maybe worth a shot to get your little guy to try a fruit?
    Thanks for this!
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…The 80′s. It’s never enough.My Profile

  9. Jessica,
    Another really great article. My son is an extremely picky eater and has sensory issues as well (where he really will gag/throw up with certain textures and temperatures). One thing that our doctor said to me that really helped was that I do not need to worry about what he gets each day but instead should focus on what he’s getting throughout a week’s time. So if one day, all he eats is fruit and cheese, that’s okay as long as there is a balance over the week.
    While I say it made me feel better, and it did, I should also say that my son refuses all vegetables, all the time. He’ll eat chicken but not beef or pork. It’s frustrating and I try really hard to not show my anxiety over what he doesn’t eat to him. We do have dinnertime together each night but that’s become more challenging as well and I’m embarrassed to say that we’ve recently begun putting the television on so that he’ll sit and eat something (there are days when he actually eats nothing – as in really, seriously nothing at all). It’s hard.
    Oh! Not sure if it’ll help you but my son refused to eat blueberries. I’d bought some at the Farmer’s Market and didn’t want them to go bad, so I froze them thinking I’d make muffins later with them. I ended up giving him some frozen ones and he actually ate them. Maybe worth a shot to get your little guy to try a fruit?
    Thanks for this!
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…The 80′s. It’s never enough.My Profile

  10. Staci Nouri says:

    I am a picky eater myself and I don’t want to rub off on my son when he starts eating.

    • I think a lot of people can relate! Maybe you could make it a “family” fun thing: to try a new food together every week and make it into a sort of game. Depending on the age of your kid, you could talk a lot about the food, where it comes from, how it’s prepared or grown. Get them really excited about learning about it. Who knows? Maybe your taste buds have changed too! :)
      Jessica recently posted…How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters — And What To Do About ItMy Profile

  11. So many good points (and comments!) here.

    I think what has hit me in reading the carnival posts and comments is how much it all seems to be ‘news’ to everyone. I have the opposite problem — having lived abroad, I KNOW all this to be true; I just don’t know what to do about it. I feel helpless!
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, AgainMy Profile

  12. Jessica, great post. Your description of your child’s quick progression from “good eater” to “picky eater” is pretty much what we experienced and actually a nearly-universal phenomenon. It is totally normal. Toddlers have lower caloric requirements then older babies, and they also have the cognitive ability and the desire for control that makes them refuse foods. It’s definitely a tough stage no matter how you handle it, so my goal is always to handle it in a way that keeps my daughter’s good relationship with food intact:) I have found Ellyn Satter’s book “Child of Mine” very helpful, and in fact I now teach a community college class with it. I highly recommend it. There is also a new book called “Fearless Feeding” out that I really like and will review on my blog soon. One of the authors just started a new picky eating series on her blog and has lots of archived posts about picky eating – all good stuff! Good luck! http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2013/07/what-to-do-when-picky-eating-doesnt-get-better/
    Alice Callahan recently posted…My Favorite Parenting StrategyMy Profile

  13. It’s amazing to me how you each got something different from this chapter, it really makes me want to read it. My son, as you know, has sensory processing disorder. He didn’t eat anything solid until he was well into 2. The thing is, I had a great advisor, my sister in Utah is a pediatric feeding specialist. She said to me it doesn’t matter if he eats it or not, but it has to stay on the plate. So, meat, vegetables and grain… always on the plate, if he threw something off, it went back on the plate. Even at snack time, there was always a carrot there. (she suggested whole carrots because I child can gnaw on them without having chunks they can choke on) Eventually he did eat. It took us years, but he’s 8 and he’ll at least try any new thing you give him. All the while we’ve been navigating 11 food allergies and trying not to create fear around food. Luckily he was the one who wanted to do food challenges when it came time to eliminate some of the foods we were avoiding. He went from being the kid who would only eat pureed food to being the kid who will try anything, but it took 6 years.
    I think we all want a magic wand. Toddlers are HARD. They are hard in every country :-) If you don’t give into the craziness by offerring the same chicken nuggets or something the like at every meal, you will see this is just a phase. I think the trap American parents fall into is giving in to the pickiness and finding some bland packaged food your toddler will happily eat (with ketchup). If you just can be ok with the same advice Kristi and I both got: He won’t starve, as long as he gets all of his nutrients in a week he’s fine. Also, Isaiah still loves things frozen, blueberries, strawberries, peas even hot dogs!
    Jen recently posted…Twisted MixTape Tuesday 15My Profile

  14. I have one picky eater and one great eater…as a picky eater myself I envy my good eater…life is SO MUCH EASIER if you are open to different foods!-Ashley
    thedoseofreality recently posted…Would You Rather: Show Up At Your High School Reunion Wearing A Bikini Or With Your Head Shaved?My Profile

  15. I wish I had seen this before; I would definitely have joined you all!
    I recently wrote about picky eaters in my family (me, when I was a kid) and my son, and how my parents dealt with me vs how we deal with our son! It’s definitely a very interesting topic!
    Roshni recently posted…A haiku (or three) for the Write TribeMy Profile

  16. Oh Jessica– I am right there with you. Wish I had good answers. Let’s move to South Korea.

    By the way, LOVE this idea you guys are doing for this series and I’m heading over to read what the rest of the crew wrote about right NOW.
    Nina recently posted…My YouTube Debut and The Problem of MementosMy Profile

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  1. [...] Jessica @ School of Smock: How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters — And What To Do About it [...]

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  3. [...] own actions and performance.  But, again, as with the cross-cultural perspectives on sleep and eating, I wasn’t sure how much this knowledge about other parents around the world would help me, a [...]

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