How to end food fights and pique the picky palate

Mealtime: Patience and close monitoring, not ultimatums, will win over kids who eat only peanut butter.

Family Matters

September 09, 2001|By Amanda Rogers | Amanda Rogers,Knight Ridder / Tribune

My son Pete ate a peanut butter sandwich for Thanksgiving dinner, and for Christmas dinner, and for dinner on Easter, Mother's Day, Mardi Gras, Elvis' birthday and pretty much every other day for the past five years.

When he was 5, his doctors said that it was a food jag that he would outgrow, that I shouldn't worry about it because he ate other foods, too. When he was 9, they said that as long as he was gaining weight and growing, I shouldn't worry about it.

Now, he's 11 and down to a handful of foods: peanut butter, bread, applesauce, cereal and chicken nuggets from Burger King.

I was worried.

I went on a mission. I decided to hunt down and grill the experts on the matter of picky eaters. I told them I wasn't worried so much about the 95 percent of picky eaters who are preschoolers demanding candy for dinner. I was way beyond that. I was talking about the 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds who have to take a case of peanut butter to camp or starve.

Talking to professional dietitians and psychologists, I began to see that Pete may be strange, but he's not alone. One child I heard about will only eat macaroni and cheese if it's shaped liked Scooby Doo or Pokemon. Another orders cheeseburgers at fast-food restaurants, eats the cheese off the burger, eats the bread and leaves the meat. One doesn't eat meat or vegetables at all, calling himself a "carbovore," meaning he only eats carbohydrates.

Those in the know had somewhat differing opinions about what kids should eat, how much they should eat and whether parents should cater to their children's preferences. However, every teacher, psychologist and dietitian I spoke to agreed that it's not worth the fight to get your preteen to eat the foods you think are right.

"Do not go to war over this," warns Sal Severe, a school psychologist and author of How To Behave So Your Children Will Too (Viking Press, $23.95). "The list of things to fight over is so long at this age, don't add anything."

So what do you do?

Stay calm. Don't give ultimatums.

Appeal to your kid's common sense. Use the nutrition angle, Severe says, but don't freak out if that doesn't work.

"You can't make a kid sleep and you can't make a kid eat," Severe says. "Never sit the kid at the table and say, 'You're not getting up till you eat!' Four hours later, he's still there. That just builds a wall between the parent and child."

Associate food with responsibility.

Severe recommends that parents take picky eaters shopping and let them pick out something they might like or that they've seen their friends eat and want to try. Parents might even start a garden. If the kid grows the lettuce, he'll probably eat the lettuce, Severe says.

Watch what kids eat between meals.

Dr. Tim Jordan says preteens and teen-agers are "notorious snackers." A behavioral pediatrician and author of Food Fights & Bedtime Battles, Jordan advises parents to watch the soft drinks, especially.

Set guidelines for dinnertime.

This is where professionals vary in their opinions about the best course of action. Some say it's OK to make a different meal for your picky eater, and others say hold your ground.

"They should eat what's in front of them," says Dr. Ray Austin, director of psychology at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth. "If a child says, 'I'm only eating French fries,' say, 'Sorry, that's not a choice'. But later if he's chewing on his socks, offer him something nutritious, not ice cream. Don't reward him. Optimally, we want them to eat at the table.

"If they don't want to eat what's there, try to maintain as calm a demeanor as possible," Austin says. "Sooner or later, they're going to get hungry. Offer the choices, and don't give in."

Severe says parents have to be reasonable. Spaghetti looks good to grown-ups but maybe not to kids. It's OK to fix them a different meal, he says, as long as it's nutritious.

"You put a couple of pieces of pasta on their plate and the peanut butter sandwich," Severe says.

Make sure there is no medical problem.

"If it really gets to be a serious problem, make sure anything medical is ruled out," Austin says.

Pediatricians are good gatekeepers, the professionals agree. Ask your child's doctor if you should be concerned about his growth or weight. Both should be recorded at each checkup so the doctor can keep track.

Find out if it's really about the food.

If you've tried everything, and your child still refuses to eat or is losing weight, it's time to get some help. Chances are it's not about the food, it's something deeper.

Being a picky eater doesn't usually lead to eating disorders, like anorexia or bulimia, Severe says, but if your child does cross that line, or your doctor is concerned, it's time to get help.

"If it really gets extreme, seek professional help," Austin says. "Stop and take a look at the bigger picture. Is this food or is it something severe the child is going through?"


Need more help? Try one of these books:

Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, (Merleyd Lawrence, $16)

Food Fights & Bedtime Battles by Dr. Tim Jordan (Berkley Publishing Group, $13)

The Family Nutrition Book: Everything You Need To Know About Feeding Your Children From Birth Through Adolescence by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears (Little Brown & Co., $18.95).

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