Extreme Picky Eating: The Beginning

Max thanksgiving 2.jpg

Max’s Thanksgiving Dinner

For most parents what picky eating means is that their kids don’t like broccoli or spinach or papaya.  For the privilege of being able to complain that my child won’t eat a few vegetables or exotic fruits I would happily amputate my foot.  You think I am being melodramatic but I assure you that missing my foot would be worth the pain in exchange for my kid eating most things besides a few vegetables or fruits that most children don’t like.  To me that is not picky eating.

For some parents picky eating means their kids won’t eat most vegetables or fruits and prefer a steady diet of pasta with butter, potatoes in any form, chicken, beef, cheese, milk, cereals, breads, rice, eggs, and sandwiches.  I definitely feel for parents with kids who won’t eat any produce but will eat grains and meat and dairy.  I still envy them enough that if I had a ransom to give in exchange for my kid eating such a wide variety of foods, I would happily be poor but able to feed my child.  Sadly, I’m already poor and my child won’t eat most of those foods.

Then there’s the few of us with kids who eat 10 or less food items at any given period of time.  Think about what that would mean to you.  What if your child didn’t like meat, hated nearly all dairy, choked on almost all fresh produce, disliked most cereals, bars, nuts, and grains?  What would you feed your kid?  How would your kid grow up to be healthy?  How would you deal with the fact that your child would prefer it if all food but dessert and a select few other items could simply be swallowed in gel-cap form?  How would you feel?  How capable of a parent would you consider yourself?  Would you blame your child?  Would you fight your child over food every single day?  Would you give up trying?

When my kid first started eating food as a baby he ate almost everything.  He ate pureed greens, carrots, squash, fruit, and cereals.  There were few things I put in front of him that he wasn’t willing to eat.  I mashed bananas until he could eat them himself, he ate almost a banana a day until he was two years old.  He liked peanut butter and jam sandwiches, baked beans with grilled cheese sandwiches, lentil and chard soup pureed and scooped up on crackers, feta cheese, avocado, melon, pears, peaches, and he would even eat potatoes.

The change happened so gradually I can’t possibly say exactly when we realized Max’s palate was changing.  It wasn’t overnight.  Slowly he started rejecting foods he previously liked and no power on earth could make him swallow a banana by the time he was two.  Other things were happening at the same time but the most dramatic was his powerful refusal to wear denim.  Later, when he could talk, he told me it was because it didn’t feel good.  It was rough.  Anyway, slowly his diet whittled down to mostly carbohydrates and we consulted our pediatrician.

The pediatrician said it was a fairly normal stage many children go through.  Her advice was to continue to offer healthy foods at every meal and he would probably grow out of it.  He did not grow out of it.  Another year and another pediatrician visit and more advice to always offer healthy food but not to freak out if Max only wanted to eat crackers.  We already noticed other troubling trends in our child and considering these the doctor told us that we had a choice to make food a daily battle (I was making it a daily battle and crying all the time over the fact that he wouldn’t eat much of what I offered) but warned that I could potentially create an eating disorder by fighting at every meal with my child. 

A child like Max.

She suggested we be careful about choosing our battles with him.  She told me that my job was to never give up offering him wholesome food.  If he chose only to eat crackers he probably wouldn’t die, would most likely grow out of it, and we could give him multivitamins. 

I have never given up trying to get him to eat wholesome food.  I am an excellent cook and the biggest crime I commit in my diet is too much fat.  We eat a lot of fresh produce, whole grains, not much packaged crap, not too much salt or sugar, and we eat a truly varied diet.  To have an extreme picky eater for a child has been an enormous emotional strain on us and on our budget.  Packaged crackers aren’t cheap.  Instead of growing out of the picky eating it has simply grown worse. 

I started writing about this issue on Dustpan Alley and have realized that it’s time I write about it here.  Not for people with kids who will eat some things they don’t like with some applied parental pressure or threats or promise of dessert, I want to write about it for those parents like us, who have struggled so hard over the basic job of feeding our child, who have shed a lot of tears, torn out a lot of hair, and thrown out a shameful quantity of rejected food. 

I get so angry listening to parents telling me how to get my kid over his picky eating.  There is a general assumption out there that if you just keep forcing your kid to try something (they say it takes twelve times) they will eventually like it.  Or that if you just refuse to feed them outside the meals you cook for yourself they will eventually just choose to eat what you put in front of them (“no child will ever choose to starve themselves”).  Or that if a child doesn’t like much food it’s because the parents don’t eat good wholesome food themselves.  Or that they aren’t good cooks. 

There are a lot of assumptions out there about picky eating and most of them are made by people who don’t have picky eaters for children.

I would like to address a lot of these assumptions and offer encouragement to other parents with extreme picky eaters because I need it myself and there’s precious little of it out there.  I can’t do it all in one post.  I will tackle it in several.  In the next post I will write out every single eating issue my kid has so that anyone who doesn’t know the full scope may learn what my kid goes through and consequently what I go through trying to feed him.

I would like to offer some general advice right now:

1.  Never stop offering healthy food for your child to eat no matter how exhausting it is and how frustrated you are.

2.  Give your kid a multivitamin that includes iron.*

3.  If your kid only likes packaged food (crackers and things like that) be careful to read labels and don’t allow any high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, food coloring, or other harmful ingredients into your cupboards. 

4.  Don’t let other parents make you feel like a failure.  I once had a neighbor suggest that the reason my kid didn’t eat healthily was because I wasn’t cooking good enough food.  I have rarely had such a terrible urge to slap another woman as I did at that moment.  Her kids would eat kale raw and she assumed it was her awesomeness as a mother that made her kids like everything.  Most people will view picking eating as a failing of the parents or of the child or both.  Don’t let them get under your skin.

5.  Be compassionate with your picky eater and with yourself. 

*Even finding  multi-vitamin my kid will take has been a miserable ever changing drag.  The flavors of
most multi-vitamins are repugnant to him.  He finally begged for a pill to swallow but the one I found was enormous and the serving size was three a day and he could taste them going down.  I have finally found a multi-vitamin in a gel-cap which goes down more easily and he can’t taste.

7 thoughts on “Extreme Picky Eating: The Beginning

  1. angelina

    I just took a brief look at that- that’s not too far off, actually. Max has OCD which is almost exactly what that article is calling “superstimulatabilities”. It says it’s not only psychological but a nervous system issue.
    Yes. So is OCD. In my next post about our experience with extreme picky eating I plan to discuss how Max’s OCD has a lot to do with his picky eating. It isn’t a mystery to us why he’s a picky eater, the problem is coping with it and trying to educate people who make hurtful assumptions about us as parents and about our kid who can’t control his eating issues and doesn’t make them up to be difficult.
    I’ll look more closely at the link when I have a little more time- it’s interesting. Thank you.

  2. Emily

    I have never been to your blog before, but this post made me shed tears as this is what I have been dealing with since my now almost 6 year old was 18 months old! My son has eaten nothing but blueberry bagels and yogurt since 18 months old and that is NOT an exaggeration! I agree, other parents are so judgemental and have all of the quick fix answers, but they don’t work. I have given up and let him go, the pediatrician has never been concerned as he is in the 97%+ for height and 75% for weight, so it isn’t like he isn’t growing. And I agree, don’t even get me started on the multi-vitamin struggle, he won’t. So for now, he eats his bagel for lunch and dinner every single day and I am ok with it! Keep up the great posts, I’ll defintiely be back to read more and THANK YOU AGAIN!

  3. angelina

    Emily- I’m so happy you found this post because it’s for people like you and me that I am writing about this. I had a neighbor in CA who told me when he was growing up he only ate bread. Nothing on it or in it. Just bread. When he became an adult he started trying other things and ended up eating most things. He grew up fine. He’s intelligent and healthy, though perennially super thin. I think of him every time I feel completely depressed about my kid’s eating habits.
    I will be writing more on this but I want to say right now to not give up. Try (if you can) to maintain a balance between being at peace with your son’s eating while continuing to try to find other things that work for him. The vitamin thing has been so hard for us- but we finally got him taking some and it’s a relief.
    Definitely important to know and remind yourself that it isn’t a failing on your part or your kid’s part. So weird that your kid’s picky eating started about the same age as mine. I wonder if that’s really common?

  4. Adaire

    I empathize with you tremendously.I had four children, 2 boys and 2 girls. Three ate most anything with occasional short picky spells. One of the boys, however, ate NOTHING but fig newtons,hotdogs and canned creamed corn for approximately 2 years. During one of those years, my husband was in VietNam which added to the stress. It finally passed but he continued to be somewhat picky until he went to college. He is now 44, happily married with 3 beautiful children and eats almost everything except peas and mashed potatoes. He is 6 ft. tall and very handsome and in good health. I have no idea why he did that from 18 months until age 3 but to this day, I cannot stand the smell of canned cream corn! Hope this encourages you a bit.

  5. Suzanne

    You might get a lot of help from the books/website of Ellyn Satter. She is a dietitian who is so reasonable and smart, puts things in perspective, and generally absolves parents of the guilt/anger that can come from having a picky child.
    Her books really helped me, and I tell everyone I know going through this to get them!

  6. angelina

    Adaire- I’m so glad to hear from a parent who has both normal eaters and a picky eater. It underlines that it isn’t necessarily a parenting tactic at fault, that kids can just be different. It sounds like you dealth with your son’s extreme picky phase really well!
    Suzanne – that site looks like it has some good common sense strategies with regard to eating. I think I have employed some of them myself but I definitely disagree with Satter on some key things. I’ll bookmark it as a resource and others might find it helpful as well- thanks for sharing!

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