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How to Deal With Picky Eaters

Advice from a pediatric nutritionist, a lunch lady and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

“Remember the story Green Eggs and Ham?” I asked my three-year-old daughter, as we sat at the kitchen table, deadlocked over her refusal to try just one bite of kiwi. “Remember how the guy said that he didn’t like green eggs and ham, but Sam I Am said that if he tries it, he might actually like it?” And with that, my daughter agreed to try the kiwi, and much like the unnamed dude from the Dr. Seuss book, she actually liked them. Let me tell you, in that moment, I was a damn proud papa. Not only did I get my kid to try a new food, but I was impressed that she understood the parallels between the book and our present situation. Dad of the Year right here. Go me!

That trick worked a grand total of one time.

Since then, and for the better part of the last year, my kid’s palette has gotten to be more and more particular. Frankly, things haven’t been this bad since she transitioned from breastfeeding. Generally speaking, I can get her to eat pizza, nuggets, a quesadilla, and of course, pancakes. This kid eats so many pancakes that I wouldn’t be surprised if she fucking bled syrup. Fortunately there a few fruits she eats and some vegetables too, so at least there’s some balance in her diet, but she outright refuses to try anything new lately, and the more I try to force the issue, the more stubborn my kid becomes and the more stressful dinnertime has become.

I also don’t know how to react to her stubbornness. Do I make her eat everything on her plate like I had to do when I was a kid? Do I tell her she can’t have dessert unless she tries whatever new food I want her to? Do we sit at the table in a tense standoff until one of us caves and gives in? I need some real help on this issue, and Dr. Seuss has taken me as far as he can on this one.

Basically: How do I deal with my picky eater?

The Expert Advice

Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, registered dietitian and founder of NYC Eat Well: As a toddler, you have control over two things: When you potty train and when you eat. And once they figure out that they can control that, they’ll control it simply because they have no control over anything else.

The first thing I tell parents is to not make it a battle because you’ll always lose. You can’t make them eat, and I don’t believe in making a child finish their plate. Instead, I encourage parents who are struggling that it’s their job to make healthy meals for their child, and it’s the child’s job to determine how much of it they eat. Who knows, maybe the child had a bigger lunch? Children have the ability to self-regulate, and I feel that part of the reason why we have such an overweight nation is because we eat when we aren’t hungry.

All young kids are picky eaters to some degree or another, but if you’re trying to get your child to eat more foods, I encourage parents to always be introducing new things to their children. Introduce the unfamiliar food with familiar foods, so that they have something they already like and are comfortable with. I also encourage parents to steer away from pre-packaged food. For example, if you get the pre-packaged chicken nuggets, those chicken nuggets taste exactly the same every time they have them. But if I make my own chicken nuggets, they may taste a little different each time. By giving them pre-packaged food, it narrows their palette because they’re always expecting something to taste a certain way every time they eat it.

You can also try to introduce new foods in different ways. So if they don’t like the texture of a certain fruit, you can make a smoothie out of it, or a frozen pop. That way it’s more fun and they’re still getting that nutrition. Or you can have toys at the table that are exclusive to meal time, so that they’re special. You may also encourage them to try new foods or difficult foods with a reward system, so you can give them a sticker for each bite they take. I usually say stickers just because they’re cheap, but it can be other things too. Just not food: I don’t believe in food as a reward because when you do that, you’re basically telling the child that an M&M is worth more than a chicken nugget, and that can be a problem when they can make their own food choices later.

If problems persist, you may want to reach out to a dietitian, but the problem may also not be dietary, it may be behavioral or some other sort of issue. For example, if your kid eats anything with grandma but won’t with you, that’s more of a behavioral thing, and it might be worth trying to figure out what grandma does. Either way, if it becomes a serious problem you wouldn’t consult a dietitian, but a behavioral therapist. Or their pickiness may be a sensory issue, in which case you may consult an occupational therapist.

Letitia Van Husen, a lunch lady: I’ve been working in a cafeteria for 29 years. The first 10 were in Fonda, New York, when my kids went to school there, and I’ve spent the last 19 years serving food in Johnstown Elementary in Upstate New York.

It’s hard in my position as the menu is always pre-determined, so we’re not allowed to make the kids whatever we want — we have to follow a menu and make sure they get a balanced meal, too. The most we can do for the children is to make sure the food looks as appetizing as possible. Every year before school starts, the whole cafeteria staff attends a “boot camp” where we’re told about what makes up a meal and how the presentation is a big part of it. So, for example, some of the other girls and I will take the side dish of vegetables or the fruit and put it in a separate, single-serve bowl for the kids. It takes us a bit longer to do, but they seem to like it better that way instead of just scooping it onto their tray.

We also try to make things fun when we can, so like on Valentine’s Day, we made fruit salad where we used all red fruits, which the kids really loved. We’re limited in what we can do, but we try to make it look fun and appetizing for them. Also, if a kid wants an extra apple or something, or they take some ranch dressing to put on their pizza, I’m supposed to take it off the tray but I don’t do that. The apples are good for them, and if they’re taking an extra one, that means they’re going to eat it. With the ranch, if they like it and it helps them enjoy what we’ve made them, I think it’s fine. They’re only kids after all.

Laura Vladimirova, lactation consultant: When it comes to very young babies, generally they take well to the breast but even that can have problems. For example, babies may have acid reflux or an allergy that may make breastfeeding difficult for them. In those situations where a baby is having a hard time with breast milk, I would say try an elimination diet where you remove things from your diet for a time, like maybe remove dairy for a bit. Through that, you may be able to figure out what your child is reacting to.

More often, parents end up having a hard time getting their babies to transition off breastfeeding and onto either formula or solid foods. Formula has a different consistency to it than breast milk so it can be a bit of a transition — you may have to try this sensitive formula or a formula from Europe. It may also be the bottle that you’re using, as there are all kinds of nipple sizes out there and you may have to try a few different ones before your baby takes to one.

When it comes to transitioning to solid foods, the first thing I would consider is, how old is your child and what’s normal developmentally, but then you also have to remember that every baby is different. Pediatricians, God bless them, aren’t always so well-versed in this kind of stuff, so I’ve seen a lot of pediatricians recommend starting solids at four months of age and a lot of babies aren’t ready. A more common recommendation is six months, and that would be just when you start trying to show them some solid foods. For babies that aren’t taking to it, I often recommend parents to try “baby-led weaning,” which means that you let the child lead the way, and instead of giving them jarred food or canned food, you wait for them to show an interest in your food and when they do, you mash that up and give them whatever you’re eating.

You can give them a little bit in their mouth, but to get babies interested in food, I encourage parents to let kids explore it by playing with it, squishing it. That’s how they learn about different textures and flavors — that’s really what they need to do at that age. Also, remember that babies are grazers, they’re not going to eat a big meal.

I also encourage new parents to pace themselves. It sounds silly, but there’s a rhyme I like to use for this situation: It goes, “foods under one are just for fun.” A baby under one doesn’t need solid food, everything they need is in the formula or in the breast milk. You don’t need to put rice cereal in the bottle or any of those old tricks. So for that first year, pace yourself and let your child explore and take their time. It’s a big change, and they’ll get there. If it extends beyond that year, you may want to consult a doctor, but for that first year, it’s okay to let them take their time.

Stella, mother of three: I have three kids, and for the most part, the first two weren’t all that picky, but my third son, Tyler, is very picky. He won’t eat a hot dog. He won’t eat chicken. He won’t eat peanut butter and jelly. He barely eats anything. Most days when I send him to school, he comes back with most of his lunch uneaten, and he’ll just wait the entire day to eat at dinner — and even then there’s only a few things he’ll eat.

He likes pasta. He could have pasta every night, but he doesn’t like sauce — only butter. He’ll do a hamburger sometimes and he’ll pick at pizza, but he just refuses to eat a lot of what we’re giving him. Even when we tell him that he can’t have a dessert without eating his meal, he’ll be okay with that and skip dessert.

Honestly, it’s very frustrating, and my husband and I have a hard time figuring it out. My husband proposed the idea of taking away all the foods he does like and making him eat other things but it seemed a bit too harsh. It’s really tricky with food — you want to make sure the kid is fed and you want to be sure that you’re not making it harder than it already is on them.

We’re still figuring it out, to be honest, but right now we’re at least trying to make sure he has a balanced meal. He loves broccoli, fortunately — it’s the only vegetable he actually likes so we have that almost every night. He likes Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the mornings so he has that just about every morning. At dinner we just try to accommodate him with foods he likes, but we keep encouraging him to try new things. It’s hard, but as long as he’s fed and he has a balanced meal, that’s about the best I can do right now.