Taming the Picky Eater

Ah, the picky eater: often the source of much angst, likely even sleepless nights for parents trying to deal with it. The “picky toddler” is almost a brand, yet parents of even school-aged children often come to me with similar concerns.

Nearly all my advice on this subject comes from one of my favorite authors, Ellen Satter. She is a nutritionist with a degree in counseling, who in 1986 wrote the book that “changed my life,” How To Get Your Child To Eat…But Not Too Much. Ms. Satter spoke at Salem Hospital in the fall of 1986, and I have been teaching her simple approach ever since.

The gist of Ellen Satter’s approach is that parents (and other responsible adults who care for your child, like grandparents) have one set of responsibilities, and little Lilly has a different one. Adults should always be in charge of what Lilly eats, as well as when she eats. Lilly herself gets to decide if she eats, and how much. Sounds pretty simple, right? So what could possibly go wrong? Plenty!

It starts with your sweet young Billy, somewhere around 14-16 months, trying to prove to himself that he’s not you, and you’re not him; that is, that he’s his own person. And how best to accomplish this? By rejecting whatever you’ve offered in any situation. And in which situations is Billy likely to really put up a fuss? When he senses that he’s found your Achilles heel, something you’re kind of worried about. And what does every mother worry about? That Billy won’t eat enough.

Many of you have heard me say that in a Sudanese Refugee Camp a child might indeed starve for lack of food, but in your home, where there is plenty of food, not getting enough to eat is only the result of a conscious choice Samantha makes.

The result? Suddenly the roles so neatly laid out by Ellen Satter have been completely reversed. Parents think that they are “encouraging” Tommy to decide if he should eat and how much, but in fact, they have been duped! Driven by their fear that Tommy won’t eat enough, Tommy has cleverly taken over their role, and now he has turned his meal and snack schedule into what I like to call a “Buffet Bar.” “Come get it, what you want, when you want it.”

At the very least, meal times become chaotic and frustrating, food mom and dad know isn’t very healthy suddenly dominates the meal schedule. At worst, I have seen children gain significant excess weight in very short order, driven entirely by this reversal of roles. It takes 3500 calories of extra food to gain 1 pound, so if Suzy weighs 3 pounds more at the 18-month checkup than the weight at 12 months predicted, then in 6 months, she has eaten 7500 excess calories. Divided by 180 days (6 months), that’s only 42 extra calories a day! To get your head around this, 1 ounce of whole milk is 20 calories, so this would be about 2 extra ounces of milk a day.

So how to fix this mess? First, adults have to be on the same page, and back each other up. Mark is determined that you continue to think he will starve to death if you don’t give him exactly what he wants, when he wants it, and is likely to put up a major fight to maintain the status quo. Thus, everyone needs to be on the same page, and agree that, no matter what, you will stick to the game plan.

The game plan is very simple: Schedule at least a day at a time, and even better, a whole week of menus, so that you know precisely what you will offer at each of 3 main meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and 3 snacks: mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and light fruit at bedtime. Many parents think the snacks are unnecessary until I point out that this way, even if Rebecca doesn’t eat a single bit at lunch, she need wait just 3 hours until food is again offered—no one will starve to death in 3 hours!

Why the bedtime snack? Parents know Jack will starve if he must go all night, having eaten no dinner. This guilt suddenly opens refrigerator and cupboard doors, making available to Jack his favorite ice cream or cookies. A pre-planned snack of some apple or orange slices (before brushing teeth) allows grownups to suppress their guilt and stick to the plan.

Toddlers and preschool children typically eat just one good meal a day, a little-known fact to most parents. Try to hang on to this when you first start (best on at least a 2-day weekend, with all adult hands on deck, backing each other up, so no one caves). And stop attempting to determine how much Ruby ate at each meal, for it doesn’t matter. If you think you need to know, I challenge you to tell me exactly how much your spouse or significant other ate for dinner last night.

A little tip for trying to get Eric to eat that broccoli he seems to hate. Your mother would have said, “Eric, try your broccoli,” meaning, you had to swallow a piece of the slimy stuff. It turns out that repetition is the key to learning to like a new flavor, especially if it doesn’t fit into one of the innate (from birth) human taste preferences: sweet, fat and salty. So keep the broccoli in its regular rotation (say weekly, not twice a day), and when it’s served, put Eric’s Spitter Cup out for him. Never heard of a spitter cup? It’s a cool “special” cup he might help you buy, into which he is allowed to spit the first bite of the disgusting broccoli just as soon as he has tasted it. He needn’t take another bite that meal, and studies show that after 10 tastes, 80% of kids will like that awful broccoli. So, over a few months, Eric will learn to like broccoli.

The promise: if you stick to your guns for a week, I promise you mealtimes will become much happier gatherings, and you will be certain your child is not going to starve.