I survived my picky eater

Purées only, zero vegetables and menus for one. Three families talk about how they cope with their kids' food quirks and Karla Heintz, nutrition educator and author of Picky? Not Me, Mom!, weighs in on what else they might try

The mash-up kid
Rhonda Pullan
Edmonton, Mother of Damon, 2

The problem started when we tried to bump Damon up to chunkier food when he was about 11 months old. He’d gag and vomit anything that wasn’t pureéd. He wouldn’t even suck on an Arrowroot biscuit.

Once he finally moved past purées, he would only eat certain things — toast, crackers, fruit, yogurt. Absolutely no meat, pasta, rice or vegetables. He wouldn’t even eat these foods if I puréed them. Now he eats the same things every single day — pancakes, muffins, sliced cheese, fruit and mashed potatoes or French fries. Oh, and dill pickles. That’s his vegetable! He won’t even drink juice.

Obviously, Damon is not getting enough veggies or protein, so I’ve started grating plain tofu and putting it in his pancakes; steaming and puréeing cauliflower and adding it to his muffins; and mixing finely grated chicken into his mashed potatoes. He doesn’t suspect anything, even when he’s eating chocolate chip chickpea cookies!

As Damon gets older he’s trying more things, but just when we think he’s accepted another food, he’ll drop it. Sometimes he’ll just touch the food to his tongue or lip, then refuse it. I think many of his food issues are about texture, but I’m not sure.

Other moms have given us great tips, such as making Damon sit at the table even if he doesn’t want to eat. He’ll sometimes accept spoonfuls from our plates and before we know it, he’s had 20.

Damon’s picky eating used to make me feel stressed, but I’m more on top of it now. The professionals I’ve consulted say Damon is healthy and at a perfect height and weight, so I keep telling myself we must be doing something right. Still, the day he eats a carrot — I think I might remember that more than the day he took his first step!

If I knew then what I know now I would never have given in to Damon’s picky eating. Just because he’ll only eat a few foods doesn’t mean I always have to serve them. I’ve noticed that if he’s really hungry, he will try a food that he otherwise wouldn’t.

Karla Heintz: I like that Rhonda wants to increase the nutritional value of Damon’s diet, but hiding food doesn’t work in the long run. A child needs to see that this is a carrot, not some disguised mashed-up thing hiding among the potatoes; otherwise he may never accept a carrot. Instead, Rhonda could add an unflavoured, unsweetened protein powder to Damon’s yogurt until he chooses to eat other protein sources.

It’s possible that Damon’s sensory development was a bit delayed and he wasn’t ready for solid foods at the usual rate. Sometimes that can make children hesitant to try new things. Just stay calm and take the emotion out of it. If you offer your child something he usually eats and he refuses, let him be. Between ages one and two, kids’ appetites slow down, and first-time parents often overestimate how much food their child actually needs.
Mr. Particular
Tara Gwinn
Irma, Alberta, Mother of Holden, 5

Holden is my fussiest eater (compared to brother Easton, seven, and sister Kinsley, three), but not in a bad way, just an inconvenient way. I often end up making something different for him at mealtimes. Sometimes I say, “OK, the restaurant is open! What do you want?” But I work as a substitute teacher and some days I’m too drained. That’s when Holden and I will have a standoff. He’ll push and I’ll say, “That’s enough!” Still, I usually give in.

Holden turns up his nose at all types of beef — which is a problem when you live on a cattle farm. We have a freezer full of beef! I’ve tried serving it all different ways, but Holden just doesn’t take to it. He’s not a big dairy fan, either. His milk has to be chocolate, and he won’t drink more than a few sips. He’ll have yogurt in a smoothie, but only if it’s vanilla. He refuses to eat eggs, even in French toast flavoured with cinnamon and syrup.

Our family eats a lot of vegetables, some from our garden. Holden prefers fruit, but the closest grocery store is a 25-minute drive away and doesn’t always have the best produce. My other two kids love potatoes. When I first tried Holden on mashed potatoes as a toddler, he made a face. I was like “You’ve got to be kidding!” He still won’t eat more than a mouthful. But he’ll eat rice till, well, till the cows come home. He’ll eat salmon and chicken and pork chops, especially if he can dip them in barbecue sauce.

I know I cater to Holden. When my mother looked after the kids for a few days, she couldn’t believe how many different meals she was making.

Sometimes he surprises me. The other night I started to steam some green beans and thought I’d have way too many. Well, I didn’t have enough. Holden was eating them raw. But he can’t stand peanut butter — he’ll leave the room if someone is eating it near him. He’s finicky about desserts too. He’ll only eat oatmeal raisin or ginger snap cookies, or ice cream — but only vanilla.

One thing that has helped immensely is a game we sometimes play called Name the Food. The children close their eyes, we feed them something from their plates, and they have to guess what it is. Holden loves it and will eat everything on his plate, even if it’s beef, potatoes and peas.

If I knew then what I know now I would have encouraged my husband to buy a few pigs and chickens. Even I get sick of beef sometimes!

Karla Heintz: It’s great that Tara is serving a variety of food, including stuff from her farm. Name the Food is a fantastic idea when you’ve got the time. When it comes to catering to Holden, Tara needs to stand a little stronger. Otherwise, he’ll simply learn that if he doesn’t want this food, Mom will make something else for him. Instead, try serving an item he likes alongside something he doesn’t.

If Holden is a sensitive child, he may be avoiding beef because he feels a connection with the farm animals. Paediatricians have told me that when Finding Nemo came out, many kids stopped eating fish. In any case, Holden doesn’t need beef — or eggs — if he’s getting other protein sources, like chicken and yogurt. I wouldn’t be concerned at all that he doesn’t like desserts!
The girl who wouldn’t eat veggies
Hayley Davey
Abbotsford, BC., Mother of Aislynn, 10

Aislynn doesn’t eat any vegetables. She calls them “vege-terribles.” She won’t even eat cut-up carrots or cucumbers unless I bribe her with dessert. She likes mushroom soup, but won’t touch mushrooms. She’ll eat grapes, but not if they’re too warm or too soft.

Aislynn knows if I’ve switched brands, and she has an incredible ability to taste my sneaky additions, like when I mash cauliflower in with the potatoes. We call her our supertaster. We looked at her tongue with a magnifying glass, and it does seem as though she has more taste buds than her brother. My mom has a different nickname for her: Payback. Apparently, I was a picky eater too.

Two years ago, Aislynn and I sat down with a nutritionist, who talked about the importance of eating healthy. Now that Aislynn is 10 and at a more body-conscious age, she’s become more interested in how food affects her. I bring her to the grocery store with me and ask her what she’d be willing to try, but I don’t push it.

Lunches are tough because she hates sandwiches, so I offer meat (salami or honey ham, wrapped separately), cheese and crackers. A lot of times she doesn’t eat what I pack because she gets bored with it, and yet she hates to try new things. It’s almost overwhelming for her if there’s too much on the plate at dinner — at friends’ houses, for example, she’ll just say she’s not hungry. But she’ll save up her allowance and buy candy and chocolate bars.

It’s funny how two kids can grow up in the same household and be so different. Gavin, our 12-year-old son, is five foot, 10 inches, wears size 11 shoes, loves vegetables and has been ordering chef’s salads in restaurants since he was a toddler. Aislynn is small but healthy, and active with lots of energy.

If I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t have introduced so much sweet stuff, and I’d be a better role model. I’d avoid the drive-throughs and I’d stop saying things like “I should lose some weight.” I realize now how much your routines shape your children’s attitudes.

Karla Heintz: True supertasters, who are born with extra taste buds, tend not to like sweets. So Aislynn may just be someone who developed a taste for sweet flavours. Use the one-bite rule (she has to try at least one bite), but not with rewards or bribes. Since Aislynn is old enough to make up her own mind about what she eats, the best thing Hayley can do is involve her more in the entire cooking process.

Here’s what worked with one fussy eight-year-old girl. She and I sat down together and created recipes for one smoothie, one pasta, one soup and one pizza that she would eat. Her task was to make one of these every week. She was instantly excited and became her own little chef in the kitchen.

It comes down to Aislynn needing to understand why vegetables are important: Green vegetables give her energy, which she may want for activities or competitions; orange vegetables are good for her eyes; a variety of different-coloured vegetables will give her better skin.

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