A high school friend of mine, Alice Flaherty, was a picky eater. Alice could only stomach a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. She went on to become a famous Harvard Neurologist and had a picky eater for a daughter. So she wrote a terrific children’s book called “The Luck Of The Lock Ness Monster,” which is available at the Lafayette Public Library. The little girl in the book is of course a picky eater, and during an ocean voyage throws her oatmeal overboard every morning rather than eat it. A little worm swimming by the ship turns out to love oatmeal, eats it up every morning the girl dumps it, and grows to be the Loch Ness Monster. More fun stuff happens in the book, but the point is clear. It is okay to be a picky eater.
However, many parents fret over their kids who don’t scarf down their food. They worry that their kids won’t gain weight, won’t grow well, and will be sickly. Then when the child does get sick and eats even less, the parent’s worry magnifies and they rush to the doctor or worse, the Emergency Department.
Some kids are just picky eaters. One in five kids do this, and certainly a whole 20% of the child population is not wasting away. Picky eaters grow well, gain weight, and develop strong brains and bodies. When they get sick they often eat even less, but so do the “good” eaters. And when they get well the picky eaters will go back to eating the amount that is normal for them just like the “good” eaters, and catch up on their weight.
Picky eating only really becomes a problem when parents make it one. Some parents can’t leave well enough alone. They badger their kids to eat more, to clean their plates. They argue with each other and the child about eating. They make their child stay at the table longer than everyone else. Meals become an endless fight, a power struggle that both child and parent resent. Or some parents go to the other extreme, cooking special foods just for that picky child. Some let the child snack on junk food endlessly.
The solution to picky eating is to let the child be picky! Don’t push and push the kid to eat- that won’t work, and it makes eating more of a chore than it already is. Don’t make the child stay at the table until they clean their plate either- let them get up when everyone else does, whether they finish their portion or not.
Certainly give the child food that is easier to eat. Food that is too chewy like steak, or too hard like raw vegetables, will not be eaten. Strong flavors like spicy, acidy, or sour won’t be a hit. On the other hand, don’t go to extremes to accommodate the picky eater. Don’t cook different food just for them, let them eat what everyone else is having. If they don’t like something particular that everyone else does, that is okay. Encourage the child to try one bite, and then take it or leave it (it can take more than five tries before a child discovers that they like something!).
If the child just won’t eat anything that you prepared, have a back-up food that is easy for you and that they will eat, so they won’t be hungry later. Good back up foods are simple sandwiches, yogurt, breakfast cereal. Again, don’t fix anything special- no need for a special production when you have already cooked for everyone else.
Finally, don’t make a meal into a fight. Meal time is time for the family to get together and have pleasant conversation and good time together. No drama necessary! No arguing about food or dessert or clean plates, keep it upbeat.
When should you worry about eating? Only when the child has scale-proven weight loss over a period of weeks. If a child or teen steadily loses weight, then it is time to see your doctor. Weight loss could mean diabetes, depression, anorexia, or other serious conditions. However, picky eaters still gain weight and grow, so if that is the case, no worries! Picky eating is okay, clean plate or not.