Picky Eating

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Dear Grandmothers: When we were kids, we had to eat whatever was on our plates without complaint, or we didn’t eat at all. My sister brings her children over for dinner and as soon as she sees what I’m serving tells me her kids won’t eat it, and starts making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them. Why are kids today so picky?

Kids today are probably not any pickier than those of previous generations. Don’t you remember slipping your mystery meat under the table to the dog, or asking to be excused and then flushing the brussel sprouts you had hidden in your napkin down the toilet?

But it does seem that children today are more outspoken about what they don’t like, and their parents somehow more willing to become short order cooks for them. Let’s assume that your sister – and other mothers like her – are not happy with this situation, and would prefer it if their children displayed an enjoyment of almost all foods, a willingness to try new flavors and combinations of ingredients, and an appropriate social pleasantness at the table as the family sits down together to discuss their days activities, rather than to have mealtime become an exchange whines and threats over the meal that has been served.


Many children appear to be naturally suspicious of food that looks different and strange to them. One of the few areas in which they can exert their autonomy is in the area of eating – you can put it in front of them, but you can’t make them eat it! – and so they may be most insistent on their right to refuse what is being offered.

And with their smaller bodies, appetites, and stomachs, some children may just not be very hungry – especially when they’ve reached a plateau between growth spurts, and most especially when someone places before them a mountainous adult-sized portion of food and insists they eat it. All of it. Because it’s good for them.


Frustrated, even panicky, because there are few instincts more basic than the one to feed our young. We want to see our child nourished and healthy, and instead he sits there (look how skinny he is!) listlessly pushing the food around his plate or out-and-out refusing to eat it. We alternate between wanting to force feed him and offering to get him something else, anything else, on the off chance that he might actually consume a few calories.


The more we beg, cajole, or insist, the more determined the child becomes not to eat.

WHAT TO DO: Make a new family rule: absolutely no arguing about food. Food is not to be mentioned at mealtime, except to ask that something be passed or to compliment the cook or to say how delicious the asparagus is this time of year.

Mealtime is to be a pleasant time of sharing ideas and observations. Pretend not to notice what someone eats or doesn’t eat, but certainly evidence enjoyment in your own eating. Absolutely do not offer any alternative menu choices. Let the child serve his own plate, if he is able, so that the portion will be one of his choosing. Then at the end of the meal if he has eaten little to nothing, so be it.

It’s OK because you have made another family rule that is a corollary to the first: there are healthy snacks available in the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator and in the bottom shelf of the cupboard that anyone is welcome to help him/herself to at any time, should s/he still be hungry.

WHAT TO SAY: “What was your favorite part of today?” “Guess what I saw on my way to work this morning?” “Please pass the broccoli.”

WHAT NOT TO SAY: “Good job, Seymour! You ate your cauliflower! You’ve made me so proud!” “Don’t bother offering Seymour any cauliflower. He hates vegetables.” (The first sort of comment could give the child the impression that he should eat to please you, not himself; and the second could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

NEXT TIME: Your sister might try to engage her children’s interest and assistance in menu-planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. And we certainly hope that your house isn’t the only place where there IS a family mealtime, a time that everyone sits down to eat at once to enjoy the conversation and togetherness. With everyone’s busy schedule this may be difficult to arrange every day, but parents can make that their goal rather than somehow getting some food down the “picky” eater’s throat.

Clip out this article to show to your sister, and plan to discuss the “no arguing about food” rule with her before the next time she and her children come to dinner. If she doesn’t agree with that idea, then put yourself out of your misery: Order a pizza.


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