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Picky Eating

You were so thrilled that Jimmy was a great eater. He used to devour everything, from seafood salad and vegetable soups to beef stew and even avocado. When he turned fifteen months old, though, his eating habits took an unexpected turn. Out of the blue one day, instead of gulping down his lunch as usual, he eyed his plate a moment and then swept the entire lunch onto the floor. No matter how you pleaded, he wouldn’t reconsider his decision not to eat lunch. You tasted the food to make sure it wasn’t spoiled. You ate, humming with pleasure, to show how you liked it and how he would too if only he tasted a teeny-weeny bit of it. You tried other dishes. No luck. Jimmy found it all quite entertaining.

Now, the only thing he’ll touch is plain pasta, potato croquettes, pizza, and hot dogs, and only if served in front of his favorite TV show, and all subject to a meticulous inspection for hidden vegetables. What’s with Jimmy all of a sudden?

Welcome to the assertive stage of development, the moment when kids discover that options exist. They strive to demonstrate their individuality by exerting their own choices, thereby limiting yours. This assertiveness manifests itself in several different ways. Try, for instance, to dress Jimmy in a jacket of the “wrong” color and you could end up in a serious wrestling contest: From his two-foot-high perspective, the “right” jacket is the red one.

The discovery of a panorama of options goes hand in hand with a desire to actively reproduce pleasant sensations (e.g., ice cream) and avoid those that seem unpleasant (e.g., spinach). Prior to this age, Jimmy is undiscriminating in his tastes. Nor does he realize that he could potentially get something even “better” with a little fussing, so he pretty much eats whatever is placed in front of him. Unfortunately, this easygoing attitude is short-lived. Like Jimmy, most toddlers come to frown upon the very same foods they once ate happily and without complaint.

Jimmy’s motivations do not necessarily reflect strong, lasting convictions. His day-to-day choices are often determined by transient, arbitrary notions about, say, colors and textures, notions that could turn on a dime. Toddlers can be made more amenable than they appear, as I will explain in a moment. But first, let’s ask Jimmy “Why on earth would you turn down this beautifully balanced, nutritious meal that your mother cooked for you with love and devotion?”

“I want something sweeter.”
Jimmy has developed his preferences, and sweets and their derivatives are at the top of his list. The propensity for sweet tastes originates early: I don’t know many infants who don’t go for seconds when teased with ice cream. This is not to say that Jimmy’s insatiable sweet tooth is set in stone from the start; I often observe that when parents have been very “sugar-conscious” from the beginning, their children show less interest in sweet foods later.

Jimmy’s new food inclinations include “fast” and “slow” sugars. “Fast” (or “simple”) sugars are a major constituent of juices, fruits, and any food containing processed sugar. The term “fast” describes how they’re rapidly metabolized; it has nothing to do with how fast they go down. “Slow” (or “complex”) sugars are the main component of pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, and cereals. (They get digested more slowly than simple sugars.) Hence Jimmy’s predilection for “white foods.” He may refuse broccoli, not because he really dislikes it but because it’s just not sweet enough for him.

“What else you got?”
Jimmy will try this approach to find out if you are ready and willing to give him something more palatable when he pushes his food away.

“Too green.”
Color plays a role in food rejection. Green is often perceived as unappealing by our little creatures, so they shamelessly spit out iron-packed vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and green beans. Certain mealtimes may recall gory scenes from your favorite teenage horror movie.

“Too mushy.”
Food texture may also trigger refusal. Although there are no universal rules here, most children prefer crunchy food.

“And what if I don’t eat?”
For exploratory purposes, Jimmy may clamp his mouth shut when confronted with tomatoes, just to see what your reaction will be. For one thing, he truly enjoys watching you play “airplane.”

“Too much pressure.”
Jimmy may perceive your sudden interest in his nutritional intake as pressure. Pressure can range from gentle suggestion to outright insistence. Even your ecstatic praises when Jimmy polishes his plate could turn mealtime into a performance at which he must succeed. Parents who themselves were pressured to eat as children tend to be more anxious when their own children refuse food, which in turn produces even more pressure.

WHAT TO DO
The best reasons for a toddler to eat are hunger and pleasure. The worst is to please Mommy and Daddy. Healthy eating habits should be introduced at an early age. Unfortunately, too many of our kids become pasta-pizza-hot-dog eaters, and those bad habits tend to persist with age. Here is my recommended mealtime strategy:

For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, try to give him the same foods you eat.
There is no need to analyze the contents of these meals as if you were a scientist. Use good common sense to create a varied diet that will take care of all his nutritional requirements. In general, a meal should be a balanced combination of different food groups: a protein source, such as meat, fish, tofu, or egg; a starch, such as pasta, rice, or cereal; and some fruits and vegetables. Serve a glass of water for his beverage; there’s nothing wrong with water, and it doesn’t stain. Serve the food in courses, one after another or all at once, whichever you prefer.

Now sit back and relax, or even better join in. Mealtime is not only about nutrition; it’s also a precious opportunity for family bonding. Let him feed himself. He’ll eat whatever he needs. That may mean nothing, half of it, the whole thing, or even seconds!

If he eats nothing, simply remove the plate, take him out of the high chair, and go on to the next activity. This is particularly easy when the food goes overboard. If he eats half his meal, do the same thing.

If he cleans the plate, you scored! But don’t slather him with praise.

If he asks for more, oblige by adding a little more of everything. Here again, no big party is needed to celebrate your victory.

Between meals, serve light snacks such as fruit and crackers with milk or water.

If you’re at home, make snack time a sit-down, fun event.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don’t ask Jimmy to take a few more bites for Mommy, Daddy, or anyone else.

Don’t invent ingenious tricks to get more food in.

Don’t use the TV or any other distraction to increase his intake.

Don’t spoon-feed him when he can feed himself. This will introduce pressure and interfere with his own regulation of hunger and satiety.

Don’t empty the fridge to find a food he might prefer. At the next meal he’ll be waiting for that nice display again. And that display will end up including the usual suspects; pasta, pizza, hot dogs, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Don’t serve the meal a half hour later if Jimmy changes his mind. This is not the Hilton. The next food service will be the scheduled snack two hours later, even if your customer acts a little disgruntled by banging on the fridge, which you should treat as an inappropriate behavior [See: Discipline and Boundaries].

Don’t continuously dispense snacks (crackers, chips, goldfish, fruit rolls, and the like). The same goes for numerous bottles of juice and milk. When mealtime arrives, Jimmy won’t understand why you just sat him down in front of all that food when he isn’t hungry.

Don’t give vitamin tablets to replace the nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Vitamins are commonly added to many packaged foods, including junk food, so even with a so-so diet, vitamin deficiency is unlikely. And, no, they won’t increase his appetite.

Don’t give him highly caloric shakes from a can. He won’t take them, and if he does he’ll have less appetite for real food.

In Summary
By now I’m sure you get my point. When you see the early signs of a picky eater, don’t be afraid to let Jimmy get a little hungry. Don’t insist, don’t suggest, don’t bribe, and don’t replace what he won’t eat with what he will. He won’t starve by missing a couple of meals. Hunger will be a strong incentive to try those ugly string beans, which he actually may end up liking. With this approach, you’ll become one of those parents who brags: “This kid gulps down everything we put in front of him.” No need to expand on how it happened.