Breaking a Picky Eater: New Series

I’m starting a new series on picky eaters here on Food for My Family. I’ll look at different reasons kids might be picky eaters and how one approach doesn’t work for all children, and we’ll hear from other parents who may be going through similar trials to find out what worked for them and what didn’t to give you ideas on how to approach the subject with your kids.

My youngest is a picky eater; however, I don’t like to call him that. So many children are pigeonholed by that term. Instead, let’s call him a particular eater.

Early on, Magnus (now 2 years old) decided that certain foods were to be detested. Cold cheese was the first thing we noticed him refusing. I had placed cheese cubes on his plate along with small grape pieces. He unassumingly plucked one up with his chubby sausage fingers and fumbled it towards his mouth.

The minute that cheese hit his tongue, he would revile, making the sourest of faces. His round little cheeks sucked in, and his little bird mouth opened and spat. I didn’t think much of it really, but it was after continuing to offer cheese in different meals and on its own that I realized he really did not appreciate the cheese that so many of us know and love (and many love it a bit too much, if you ask me).

The interesting thing about my small son’s aversion is that he will consume cheese in the right medium. For instance, if the cheese on pizza is nice and melty, he has no problem scarfing it down, but the minute that cheese begins to cool to a static solid, it is gingerly removed from the pizza and discarded off to the side.

It’s not only cheese that Magnus rejects, though. Just a few nights ago he was happily lapping down turkey and wild rice soup for dinner when he came to a larger chunk of cooked carrot. The carrot, perhaps because it was cut into a square and posing as cheese, was removed from his mouth and examined. Some nerve it had, occupying space in his wild rice soup.

With my oldest turning 11 in just two short months and my youngest currently navigating his way through “particular eating,” I thought it would be a good time to talk about picky eaters and what we’ve noticed as our four kids move through the different stages of childhood development and different stages of eating.

So, what would you like to see? What questions or issues should be addressed? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. I think that it’s great that you are addressing the fact that our kids face different challenges. It’s also really important for families not to “label” their kids – since they will often behave in such a way to reinforce what you think of them. Our daughter has professed herself to be picky, but then says that she is working to change that since she’s missing out πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve actually heard that “particular eaters” (and I have two of them in my house) are “super tasters”. Most grow up to be foodies when they are older, but because they are supertasters as kids, they often have issues with certain flavors and textures. I think I actually was like this as a child as well…most of my dislikes had to do with the “texture” of something. As I grew up, I was mature enough to get past a lot of that, but it’s an interesting theory. I’ve found with my two particular eaters, it’s a matter of them trying things a few times and a matter of me accepting that there will be things they will not eat, and that is ok. I just need to keep putting the choices and the options in front of them and asking them to continue to try things. In my house, you can’t say you don’t like something until you’ve tried it. Am looking forward to this series!!

  3. I have the Oscar winner of picky eaters. She only eats carbs. Despite threats, warnings, rewards, hoorays, you name it. Have even gone to see a doc over the eating and the “plan” my middle was on….well, gone. There is hardly any tasting and dinner ended up being miserable. Now, we just give her things we know she likes. Worst part is that she’s taught my youngest to be picky. I’m praying that something just clicks and soon.

  4. I am a super taster, and I don’t ever remember being a picky eater, but I’m sure not all super tasters were picky eaters. That does make sense though. I’ve never really thought about it like that. My mom’s main complaint was that I wouldn’t stay in my chair and so dinner was a battle that way for her.

    My son is incredibly picky. And on top of it has a severe peanut allergy. We’ve been to therapy for his eating because he was at a point a couple of years ago that just being at the table with new foods caused severe meltdown tantrums. After the allergic reaction to the peanuts he really backed off food and was afraid of everything. Now, he’s still picky though we’ve made some improvements through the therapy and lots of encouragement at home…but it’s still a struggle. He has this habit now of being picky and doesn’t really understand how or why it started. To him, it’s just how he is. And it’s really discouraging.

  5. My youngest is 15 and is a picky eater. My two older kids (age 27 and 24) went through the picky eater stages too. I just dealt with it at the time. I didn’t change my cooking habits. If they didn’t like the food I made they didn’t eat it. 98% of the time there was some part of the meal that they managed to eat…so they didn’t starve. The Taste of Sweet by Joanne Chen tells of supertasters — but mostly where sweets are concerned. But reading the book you can understand the where and the why people have different food preferences. I believe dinner time shouldn’t be a battle over what and what not to eat and my methods seem to have worked for my two oldest…they both love all kinds of foods be it tomatoes, onions, lettuce…so I have hope for my youngest – provided the food I offer her is nutritious and eye appealing. I’m looking forward to this series.

  6. I WELCOME this topic! Just recently, I was researching on how to “sneak veggies” into my kids’ diets (ages 1 & 4). Ideas I’ve seen so far are:
    – Puree veggies and put it in the ketchup or pasta sauce (so sneaky…heh.heh!)
    – Puree cauliflower and mix it with the mac and cheese
    – Put veggies in jello (shredded carrots)
    – Put veggies in muffins (shredded/pureed squash or zucchini)
    – Make smoothies or “homemade icecream”

    I’m definitely looking forward to seeing other ideas!

  7. I feel like I’m slowly coming through this. But it’s been a rough, rough time. And who knows, it seems like these things can change overnight.

    I’ll be reading along, and taking notes. Perhaps I’ll even share our ‘under the high chair’ story.

  8. What do you do when you’re teaching your kids to be good eaters when you yourself are in fact a picky (particular) eater? My issue is all texture all the time. I’ve been this way since I was little and we were forced to try everything, twice. I’m slowly working my way into new things but texture still bothers me. With a wee one on the way, I’m already dreading the fact that I know I’ll want them to eat tomatoes although I would rather chew off my right arm then eat them myself. Good thing the husband isn’t picky… but still. I see challenges coming and don’t want to be one of those buffet moms that make their kids whatever they want. I want it to be one meal that everyone enjoys and hopefully the meal is somewhat healthy.

    • Stephanie P says:

      I myself am somewhat a picky eater. I grew up on hot dogs and lunch meat and cheese and chips and cereals and pop tarts. We had veggies and fruit but they were not in or offered at every meal.I found in my early 20s after working with kids and talking to parents that it was at this point texture issues that kept me from touching a green bean. I made a goal when I had my first daughter that I would try as many new foods as possible from there on out and that I would offer her everything so she got a chance to decide for herself whether she liked it or not. I incorporated a fruit into every breakfast, lunch, and a snack or two everyday. I had fresh or frozein veggies in every lunch or dinner and some snacks. I am still picky but I eat a lot more than I use to which is a leap for me, including butternut squash and zucchini which you couldn’t have gotten me to touch 5 years ago. My oldest daughter now 3 eats almost every veggie and fruit out there and is very healthy. My second child is a bit pickier but just offering her the same things she has begun to take nibbles of carrots and celery as if she is hoping one day she’ll like it. I dont give them praise for trying it and I don’t get onto them for eating it. I talk about the fruits and veggies and let them come up with their own conclusions about what they are eating.

    • This is me! I’m a picky adult (I do like the use of particular.) and textures are a problem for me. I love the smell of many things, and the tastes of them too but textures get me every time. I feel like a complete oddball at holidays – baked fruit is a personal nemesis. I’ve got an almost 8 year old and a 10 year old – they aren’t too picky, but I’d like to set a better example for them.

      Can you address some issues for adults who’d like to broaden their eating, as well as kids?

      • I’ll definitely look into it to see if I can find some solid advice and ask some of the adult particular eaters I know. My aunt is definitely a particular eater, as is my very pregnant neighbor, who is looking to set a good example for her baby when it arrives.

  9. I have a picky eater too. I have tried it all. Sneaking veggies and beans, V8 frusion to get veggies in- to name a few. He only eats bread, pizza, pb&j, and grilled cheese. Rewards and punishments havent worked. Please give me some new ideas!

  10. Great new series! I look forward to all of your posts!

  11. Great series! Definitely something I’ll be tuning into. My 4y/o is autistic (high functioning….but still) and is incredibly picky. He’s easily turned off by certain colors, textures, smells… It’s become a real problem. Maybe that’s something you could address in a future post?

  12. Great serious. My stepson and my husband are picky eaters. I can so relate to you about your son’s cheese aversion once the texture change. Texture seems to be a big thing with picky eaters.

  13. Whoops,I meant great series, not great serious. πŸ™‚

  14. Yes, please, to this topic. I’ve been introducing diverse foods and different flavors since my oldest was little, and he still won’t eat certain things. He loves spicy food and rice, but won’t eat things like steak or cheese, he also won’t eat anything hard (carrots, cucumber, etc) – so these are challenges. I want to make sure he has a healthy palate and a diverse one too.

    I’d like to see any information/research on how to not reinforce a limited palate.
    Thanks so much!

  15. I am very excited that you are approaching this subject. This is a point of daily frustration for me. In fact, I had a friend’s children at my home today and fed all (mine and hers) lunch. Her kids ate 4 different types of fruit in one sitting and were excited about it. Mine ate 1 type of fruit with a scowl and moan! I have a 6 year old and a 4 year old–both boys. My 6 year old is better than my 4 year old but it feels like a struggle with both all the time. Like many others have mentioned, they will eat carbs all day long. I struggle most with getting them to eat fruits and veggies. With my youngest I think texture has a lot to do with it. They are also wary of anything combined, and the minute they notice a different color or texture mixed into something they are used to eating, they are done. I am not a short order cook, so their choices are what I cook. I get frustrated because most of the time, they could care less that they don’t get anything else to eat. I am open to any ideas or suggestions and look so forward to reading more comments and seeing what you have to say Shaina!

  16. Young palates are so varied and change often. I am sure you have noticed this with your 11 year old. It will be fun to read the issues and comments as they appear here. My children are grown, and neither was picky – but my husband still is. He hates lemon desserts and lemon on fish, but loves lemonade. It goes on like that. I have stopped trying to make sense of it, but I have been able to invite and encourage and widen his palate somewhat. Just keep doing what you are doing. I am certain you have tried white cheese… sometimes the colour difference can be a big surprise – and a child not liking cheddar, as it is sharp to their tender palate, will love the softer saltier mozzarella.

  17. I juice and freeze the pulp. When cooking I sneak the pulp in soups. No one knows as they can’t see it but they comment on how good it tastes. I’ll never tell πŸ™‚ I’ve started dehydrating vegs and am going to powder them and sneak them into everything. I don’t think they will be able to tell.

  18. This is a great topic to explore – I’ve heard of picky based on texture or flavor, and I’ve enjoyed sharing food with my sweet particular babygirl who is now one. She’s only completely rejected avocados, but meal to meal is very adamant as to what she will or won’t eat. She has eaten mustard alone, but refused something as simple as noodles. She will suck the bbq sauce off of the nugget but spit out the chicken. It is all erratic and what she is in the mood for day to day, so I’m always guessing. One day she’ll be crazy and excited for broccoli, the next refuse broccoli and eat sweet potato fries. She loves cheese, but may pick around it and only eat the apple. Some days pancakes, others not. It keeps me on my toes, and I still have trouble telling if she is hungry or simply being picky, but I’m starting to trust that if she’s hungry she’ll eat. And I want to try to feed her what we eat more and more. It works when we have lasagna, but not when we’re having spicy tacos!

  19. Colorado Mama says:

    Great sounding board here! It’s so important we parents share & encourage each other & not take these frustrations out on our children. Ok, so here’s a few topics I’d love to see discussed on this great new column:
    1. Hiding veggies vs. teaching vegetable appreciation – there’s a lot of vehement discussion out there regarding whether it’s ok to sneak veggies in (Jessica Seinfeld-style) or, on the other hand, if the kids never see the veg in their naked form they’ll never develop an appreciation for them. Personally, I think a combo approach is fine – I’ll slide some grated squash under the cheese on my 2 1/2 yr. old’s pizza until the day he’ll eat it as an actual side dish. In the meantime, I keep putting “real” veg. on the table every day in hopes he’ll bite!
    2. Supertasters – there’s a lot of research on what this actually entails (apparently it involves having many more tastebuds than us average folk), but I think a lot of moms fall back on this too early in a child’s life as an excuse for why the kid won’t eat what they want them to. Is my kid one? I don’t know… maybe, maybe not. I DO know that if there is a FLECK if black pepper that even remotely orbits the vicinity of his mouth he will gag & sweat as if he’s just swallowed an entire jalapeno
    3. How do you get them to try something new when they just absolutely refuse? Yes, I’ve read all the tricks… have them help cook, grow a garden, etc. etc. But you can’t just force it into his mouth! I’m lucky that my son, while refusing to try anything new, at least eats a varied enough diet that I’m not worried about his nutrition. However, I just want to cook a regular family dinner for goodness sake! And not worry that he’ll just refuse everything on the table!!!! Well at least we are no longer doing the short-order-cook thing… if he doesn’t like what’s served, he grabs himself a bowl of cereal & an apple & that’s ok with me
    Good luck everyone & I look forward to reading more!

  20. My daughter (and husband) are such picky eaters. At first it wasn’t a big deal, but eventually she stopped gaining weight. I really like this website . It really taught me a lot about why kids don’t eat and what can be done about it. It’s definitely worth checking out.

  21. Chicken Strips Rule!

  22. I am just fascinated by the whole topic… none of my kids are “particular eaters’ but that is cause they take after their dad. *I* am the WORST! πŸ™‚

  23. I am interested to see what other moms have to say on this topic. My 7yo is the poster child for “particular eaters,” although his choices are not the normal ones for a child his age. He will NOT eat noodles, cheese, any sauce other than ketchup, hot dogs, carrots, corn, or any of the other “staples” of childhood. He will eat chicken, salmon, beef (all with ketchup), homemade french fries (baked, not fried), bananas (the only fruit he’ll eat), yogurt, and green veggies – spinach is his favorite – as long as they are pureed. He has been diagnosed with something called Infantile Anorexia which basically translates to “severe food anxieties.” It makes meal time an interesting ride for all.

  24. My 4 year old is also particular- I just make a point to not stress about it. She gets offered the exact same meals and snacks as everyone else at the exact same times and if she chooses not to eat, so be it. She knows she has to wait until the next meal or snack, and that she will get the same amount of snack as her brother. We still clash a little over food, but for the most part it’s low stress. I don’t force her to eat anything (although I do require her to taste everything on her plate if she wants seconds of something, like if she wants more rice she has to taste her meat and veg), but I also don’t cater to her pickiness.

    And I don’t worry in the least about her health because everything I offer, with rare exception, is healthy and there is no entire food group she avoids, and she likes most veggies and all fruit. Several times she has eaten nothing but breakfast and one snack in an entire day, and I refuse to let it bother me.

  25. I have two girls ages 6 and 8 and they both have different food adversions. My husband is picky as well so it’s next to impossible to force my girls to eat what I make if my hubby won’t touch it either. I have come to a compromise. I still make the ‘grownup’ food but I try to make a kid friendly version that matches it. They are required to try a bit of the ‘grownup’ food but can and do resort to the kid friendly fare after the taste testing is over. Menus at my house generally look something like this.

    Adults Kids
    Roast Beef Hot dogs
    Potatoes Bread
    Green Beans Pick a Veggie
    Cut Up Veggies Fruit

    So they basically have the same item type that we do but it’s kid friendly. There are a number of meals that I don’t have to do this with (Shake N Bake Chicken, Pizza, Spaghetti, Subs, etc.) It can be frustrating but this method
    seems to work for us and I don’t loose my mind making sure they get enough to

  26. i’m glad to see this topic addressed…for many families (including my own) selective eating is much more than a toddler who refuses to eat his green beans. it’s dealing with a lot of emotion, fear, and anxiety over food. my first born (almost 4) is extremely selective, and i can see it in his eyes and feel the tension in his body when he really wants to try a new food, but is afraid of how it will feel or taste in his mouth. he takes deep slow breaths, and sometimes cries because he sees everyone else enjoying their food and he wants to like it too. this can happen with ANY kind of new food, even a cupcake! it’s hard to not make meals and food a major issue, but putting pressure on him makes the situation worse.

  27. I think it’s great that there is more and more conversation about this, it is something that many families struggle with. However, I’m not a fan of the term “breaking”. Sometimes I see feeding kids like Cesar Milan sees his dog training – he rehabilitates dogs and trains people. I do believe that the first step in addressing picky, selective, or particular eaters (whatever term you want to use) is taking a hard look at our own attitudes and approaches. Even those of us who are foodie types need to do that, revising our own expectations about what is reasonable and what is picky.

    • I, too, and not a fan of the word “breaking”–I have a particular eater, too but I don’t want to “break” her.

      • My goal with this series is to lay out some ideas for parents dealing with particular eaters. I think you’ll find that I don’t intend to break anything or anyone’s child. In fact, after hearing people’s stories, my intent is to show that every child is different and to help parents set reasonable expectations based on the child, but to also equip them with a few different techniques that may help them deal with what both they and their child are struggling with at the dinner table.

        Hopefully you can both set aside your prejudices and follow along with us in the discussion on the food side of parenting.

        • I do see that so far the series has been even-handed and supportive. I think I am just reacting to the title because in talking with friends who are dealing with this the approach is to enter into a battle of wills, make the child sit there at the table for hours, and in essence, “break” the child. And that is totally not my approach. They made me feel that I’m letting my four-year-old picky eater “get away” with something because I won’t enter into those battles (as much as I really really want to). So I was sensitive to that.
          I have actually enjoyed the series so far and I am looking forward to your suggestions and ideas.

  28. Oh, Shaina, what a precious face he has. Particular eaters. I’ve got a few of those!

    To be honest, I have some fantastic theories, but the truth is, I’ve decided to choose different battles most of the time. I was always picky. And I definitely am not now.

    My little girl is picky, but she does like nuts, seeds, berries, chicken (with skin, but not without). We just keep trying with her. What still amazes me is what she now loves: nori. We told her it was seaweed/algae, and she didn’t care one bit. She climbs into the cabinets and pulls out a sheet and just snacks on it.

    Who knows?? I guess you just keep trying, but don’t make a big deal of it.

  29. Ugh, can we please change the name of this series??? I LOVE the idea of a series of column addressing the challenges of a family with picky/particular kids- but seriously, BREAKING them?
    It’s everything that I don’t want to do- I don’t want to BREAK down my child and win a power struggle. Please please please, can we talk about working with picking eaters, not breaking them??? I need all of the help I can get in this area- trust me, but I just can’t stand the connotation of needing to break our kids of this- like it’s a bad habbit.

    • Alexis, the point of the title is to intrigue people and get them reading. I hope you’ll find the information in the series helpful and not at all geared towards the process of breaking the child, but rather breaking the parents’ bad habits and attitudes.

  30. Smells good says:

    Good article,

    My oldest, 11 years old seems to eat with his eyes. He’ll walk into the house and tell me what I’m cooking smells so good. As he approaches the stove and sees veggies he instantly becomes “grossed-out.” Sometimes I can’t even watch him eat, it discourages me completely. He chews mashed potatoes, but likes fries. He eats soup without the broth. He will give in to my demands of trying foods but will always tell me he doesn’t like anything? The pediatrician says he is of average weight and size, but most of his friends are much bigger than him.

    This is why I believe picky eaters has nothing to do with taste, at least not with my kids.

  31. jennifer says:

    My son and I are both extremely picky eaters. I’ve gotten much better as I’ve aged, but still have a reputation among friends and colleagues thanks to my narrow food range and my preference for plain food. I’m not fun to go to dinner with!

    I have a couple of questions I would love to see addressed here:
    1. What are the nutritional risks of pickiness? I’ve read that parents tend to worry about protein intake, but protein is usually not the issue. Iron deficiency is a bigger problem, etc. How dangerous is it to eat only four or five different foods, over the course of several years?

    2. What is the relationship between pickiness and eating disorders? I worry about anorexia, even though my picky eater is a boy. He’s also a perfectionist, and we haven’t been great about not turning food into a power struggle, though we’re better now.

    3. What about a kid who, in addition to being picky, also has a small appetite? It seems like my son barely eats enough to keep a bird alive. I worry constantly.

    4. How do people deal with self-esteem re: eating preferences? I don’t know how to push him to try new foods, etc. without constantly calling attention to the situation and making him feel weird about himself. I think he knows that we are frustrated / worried, and it makes him feel bad. Obviously, we are working on not making a big deal about it, but how do you do that while also encouraging them to branch out?

    One strategy that has worked for us, that I think others have mentioned: Serve something the picky eater will eat at every meal, as part of the family meal (not as his/her own separate meal). Because I struggled so much as a kid to eat what was in front of me, and often ended up going hungry, I really want my son to feel like he has a right to feel full after a meal, that it’s not okay to go hungry on a regular basis (I feel like this teaches him that it’s okay to be hungry, or that getting his basic needs met is not important or not something he should fight for). So we serve a side of plain pasta, or a plate of cheese cut exactly as he’ll eat it, with whatever we’re having, and we all have a small serving of it with him, to encourage the communal aspect of meal time. This has made everyone happier: he gets food he likes, he is exposed to other food, and we are spared the frustration of watching him reject an entire meal.


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