Truce in the Picky Eater War

Two weeks ago I posted a desperate plea for help in dealing with Harry’s eating habits, and you answered with compassion and genuinely helpful suggestions. Thank you. Several folks recommended the same book—a book, I’m embarrassed to say, I own and have read several times. It’s called Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter, and it’s by far the most sensible approach to children and food I’ve encountered. Here’s what she says in Chapter 1:

“When it comes to feeding, common sense isn’t common any more. Feeding practice and advice is so negative and controlling that it causes struggles between parents and children, and much of it is misguided and even detrimental to your child.”

And a little later in the chapter:

“Children learn to eat a variety of food and take responsibility for their own eating when they are regularly offered a variety of nutritious food in a no-pressure environment. No pressure means getting a meal on the table and eating with a child rather than feeding her.”

I can’t tell you how that resonated with me. Feeding Harry has been fraught from his first moments on earth, when he was born at 37 weeks, jaundiced and with an underdeveloped suck. He stayed in the hospital an extra day, and I panicked at the thought that the nurses might feed him formula. They sent me home with a manual pump that left me sore in wrist and breast, with very little precious colostrum to show for it. I spent the night in a morass of hormones, tears, and fear, convinced that Harry would be irreparably harmed by the experience.

And once Harry was safely home, making sure he was getting enough to eat became an obsession. We had horrible luck with breastfeeding, and with lactation consultants, until I finally met the expert who solved our problems. Seven weeks after Harry was born we nailed the proper latch, but by then I had supply issues and I gratefully embraced supplementation with formula—formula is food, and Harry needed it. (Experiments cooking with galactagogues, foods that increase supply, were successful, but it took a while. There’s an entire chapter devoted to them in that cookbook of mine).

Solids added a whole new level of confusion. We’d decided to try Baby-Led Weaning, a technique I learned about on a moms’ message board, whose entire goal is to allow your baby to learn to eat and enjoy food on his own terms. In the beginning, it’s not about actually eating; it’s about exploring food and all its textures and flavors. The process sounds so sensible—and I know quite a few families who had great success with it. Unfortunately, right when we started introducing Harry to solids he slipped off his growth curve—not because of the BLW, since we hadn’t really begun yet—and his pediatrician urged us to abandon that approach and start getting relatively substantial amounts of solids into him, stat. So we spent the next few months more concerned with how much Harry ate than whether or not he seemed to like it.

We got off on the wrong foot, from Day One. Five years later, I’m trying to find my way out of this mess. And you, dear readers, have helped tremendously. A few hours after I wrote that post, once the Satter reminders began to flow in, Stephen and I sat down to figure out how to proceed. Clearly, what we’ve—I’ve—been doing isn’t working. Here’s what we decided:

  • Dessert is out of the equation. We’ll now have it every Friday and Saturday night, regardless of how much (or whether) Harry eats his dinner. The rest of the week, if he wants something sweet after dinner it’s all fruit—which he loves. That put an immediate end to his nightly query: “Did I eat enough to get dessert?” Dinnertime is already a thousand times more pleasant, simply because I don’t hear that one question every day.
  • Harry is in charge of what he eats. I make dinner every night, and I try to ensure there’s always something on the table he likes (even if it’s just fruit), but I’m no longer putting food on his plate, nor counting mouthfuls. He takes what he wants from what’s on offer, and that’s that. This is paying off already—remember how he devoured the Parchment Paper Chicken? That was all him. He wasn’t interested in trying the sweet potatoes and he wanted nothing to do with the sage, and that was just fine.
  • Because Harry’s in charge, many nights he eats very little: just plain pasta, maybe, or nothing but mangoes. Which means I’m paying closer attention to his snacks—not monitoring them overtly, but trying harder to only offer options with substantial nutritional value. Last weekend, for example, he basically skipped lunch one day, so when snack time rolled around he had peanut butter on graham crackers. I can live with that.
  • I’m trying really hard not to ask him what he ate at school each day, since I’m pretty sure he’d learned to dread my inquiries. I resumed sending him with homemade lunch two days this past week, but when the second day’s lunch came home untouched we went back to my sending only snacks. He eats the school lunch (most days: PB&J).

So far this is working largely in terms of the atmosphere at our dinner table: We haven’t had a fight about food in two weeks. The little dude still isn’t asking to try kale—or even eating the things he used to love but has lately scorned—but at least I don’t leave the table wanting to smack him.

Baby steps.

So, what do you think? How’m I doing?

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Kate

    You are doing great! So glad to hear you’ve been able to find some ideas that work for you and that you’re feeling better about it. Worrying about kids’ eating is just so easy to do, and you are so not alone in it. But it really sounds like you’re on the right track now. Brava!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks, Kate! Now I just have to stick to this plan… Seems to be the hardest part for me.

  2. catmom

    Way to go!!! Well done! I want to add that Satter has several books as well as articles on her website. You might find some good things there that address older kids; I love Child of Mine, but I think she has more to say about older kids and the family in her other work.

  3. Louise

    Oh my goodness, this post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m struggling with the same thing with my 4 1/2 year old. Definitely going to try some of the things you mentioned, and hopefully it will make the same difference for us! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Good luck, Louise! Let me know how it goes–we can cheer each other on.

  4. Faith Nelson

    oh marvelous!!! I so understand the whole thing with a preemie and the pressure to make sure they’re eating ENOUGH – my 37 week old had intestinal surgery at a day old and we didn’t get her home for almost a month, and it seemed like we LIVED in the doctor’s office the first several months. That pressure throws everything about food right out the window at first, since it does nothing to help a sleep deprived, frazzled, worried mum.

    Even if you do nothing else, eliminating the pressure around food will help him as much as it does you. Peace at meal times is invaluable! Letting him enjoy the food of his choosing in an environment he’s comfortable in will leave him free to explore for himself. GOOD for you!


    1. Debbie Koenig

      Faith, my niece was a micropreemie & was in the NICU for almost 3 months–I have such vivid memories of my SIL pumping at the hospital. Talk about liquid gold…

  5. Ellen

    Do you live in my house and I haven’t noticed yet? 🙂 I read this yesterday morning and felt so relieved that I’m not the only one tearing my hair out in frustration and then hating myself for it. My 3 year old will only eat apples, cereal, and leftover Halloween candy without some sort of power struggle.
    Last night I made an Italian seasoned chicken and veggie stir fry and a 10-grain rice blend pilaf. He had seconds of the stir fry and *gasp* THIRDS of the pilaf. The only thing he didn’t like was the asparagus. I like to think that your post made me more relaxed about the meal in general, which contributed to his agreeable appetite!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Wow, Ellen, that’s AMAZING! I only wish I’d started behaving this way when Harry was 3. Who knows what he’d be eating by now…

  6. Terry

    You’re doing great! Well done! We had lots of problems breastfeeding my picky picky eater too – but he’s been doing great since he went into high school. Things will keep getting better now that the pressure is off at dinner time.

  7. jennifer

    You are doing better than I am! I have been following your blog for a couple years to see if you have had any great break throughs with Harry. We are following a similar route. At this point, I let J choose what he wants for dinner; rice, hamburger, rice, bread with honey, rice. He also loves cucumbers and asks for them almost every day. We also follow every meal with fruit. Dinner time is much more relaxed and enjoyable at our house now. My one worry is that I send him to school everyday with a Special K protien bar, some fruit and a snack. Everything else we eat is organic or at least healthy and homemade. But I worry that he will be hungry at school so in goes the protien bar. I am torn between making sure he eats and making sure he is eating well. Oh and BTW child #2 eats EVERYTHING!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks for reading along all these years, and finally commenting! This, yes, exactly: “I am torn between making sure he eats and making sure he is eating well.” How old is J? It’s too soon to tell if what I’m doing will *really* work, but it might be worth trying it in your home, too. Make dinner, include several different elements, and let J choose what he’ll eat. At least you won’t be making a separate meal for him!

  8. dana

    so glad you’re making progress! we went through the same thing with my daughter. then i read ‘first the broccoli, then the icecream’, by tim riley. it’s a parenting book, doesn’t deal exclusively with feeding issues, but it helped me see what i was doing wrong. i was enabling her, by having at least two dishes as backup when she invariably rejected dinner. so i just stopped. this is dinner, it’s all there is, if you don’t like it you’re excused. all calm and matter-of-fact. i also banned snacks before a meal. it took all of 5 days for her to eat whatever i offered. we don’t have a whiff of problem now. there are a few things she genuinely can’t stand, and i don’t push it – polenta or grits, or eggs; but for a kid who hated potatoes of any kind, we’ve come a long way!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Wow, kudos, Dana! I’m not familiar with that book–I’ll have to find it.

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