Are you raising a picky eater?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Posted by Dharm

When my brothers and I were young, my parents were very particular about our eating habits. This is not to say that they were particularly worried about what we ate but rather worried about what we Didn’t eat! Yes, That's right. We were allowed to eat anything we wanted - in moderation of course. What was a cause for worry was not finishing our food.

We were never allowed to leave the table without finishing what was on our plates. A grimace or grumble about the taste of certain foods would earn us a reprimand or a quick rap on our knuckles. There was no such thing as “I don’t want that” or “I don’t like this.” That was simply not allowed. So much so that we grew up eating anything and everything.

That was good because that meant that food was never an issue with us. We could eat anywhere and my parents would never have to worry about what food the kids were going to eat. I can still remember my father smiling proudly whenever other parents used to pass comments about how “good we were” because we ate everything without complaining. Hey, you’d eat anything too if you knew how strict my father was!

I remember him regaling us with stories of how children in other parts of the world were starving and that we should all be grateful that we had food on our table and how by not eating our food we were depriving starving children of a meal and yes, you get the idea. I also remember thinking that my father’s argument didn’t really make sense as even if I didn’t finish my food, there was no way that a child in another part of the world could get my food anyway. Yes, very logical but completely selfish.

That childhood ‘training’ has stayed with me till today and there is nothing that I will not eat nowadays. Sure, I have my preferences but I still eat everything. I find it very difficult to actually pinpoint a food that I will not eat. I can tell you a lot of food that I don’t particularly like, but there is nothing that I will not eat.

I’m trying to pass that on to my children and that is why I was rather upset the other day to find that my son was picking onions out of his food. When I chided him, he gave the excuse that “onions make me feel like vomiting.” I found that rather hard to believe because he has enjoyed breaded onion rings before and has also never complained when eating food with chopped onions in it. This was apparently an aversion to ‘visible onions’ and had nothing to do with making him feel like vomiting. I insisted that he ate every piece of onion on his plate and when he looked at me with his doe like eyes, I immediately started on that age old story about starving children in other parts of the world.

I have a whole host of nieces and nephews who are also picky about their food. Some wont eat any meat other than lamb. Talk about rich tastes! Most of them refuse to eat spicy food or at least whine a lot when it comes to eating food with chilli in it. Fortunately my own two kids relish the spiciness and piquancy of curries and other Malaysian goodies. My own kids also will usually eat anything that is put in front of them.

This just reinforces my belief that children will eat what they are exposed to. I firmly believe that it all lies in their upbringing. If from an early age you allow your children to be picky eaters, they will always be picky eaters. However, if you insist, bearing any allergies, that they eat everything and anything, then they will always be happy to try new foods and will never have any trouble eating anything.

It may seem harsh to ‘force’ young children to eat what they don’t like but I think this just builds character and also imparts a valuable lesson that we should be grateful for whatever food we have to eat – regardless of whether we like it or not. There are too many people, both children and adults alike, that don’t even have enough food for their daily meals to allow us to let our children be picky about what they eat.

I also believe that if you try something often enough, a soon as you get used to it, you will find that its really not so bad and you may actually wonder why you disliked it so much in the fist place. Who knows, you may even start to like it.

So the next time someone tells you that their child is a picky eater, ask them how their child got that way. Same thing too if you, yourself think that your child is a picky eater. How did they get that way? Picky eaters are raised and not born. Expose your kids to all sorts of foods and insist that they eat everything on their plate. That way you can be assured of NOT raising a picky eater.

That’s what I think anyway…

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This Post was written by Dharm from Dad ~ Baker & Chef


Dharm, my belief is if you "train" your child right from the start to eat everything one never experiences the problem. As soon as Soeren was able to eat solids, I would make little one box portions of mashed vegetables (later with chicken and fish). He would relish everything from spinach to kohlrabi.
Till today - we have a deal he has to at least try everything once for him to say "i don't like it!" Being an Indian I too cook spicy food and although I will take some out for him before I make it really hot for us - I do add a touch of spicyness for him.
My biggest fear, when Soeren came along, was having a picky eater. I could not stand watching other mothers go through the fuss of making something separate for the kids because they were fussy about one or the other thing!

Great article!

Meeta K. Wolff said...
August 14, 2008 at 11:40:00 AM GMT+2  

''Picky eaters are raised and not born.''

I whole heatrtedly agree with this, as I too have been brought up with the same ideology.My oldest, Rengoni has always been very good with fruits and most other vegetables. My, youngest, Agastya , however, did give me hard time, at first. I was worried at the prospect of him missing out on the goodness of various kinds of fruits and veggies. But now, after great perseverence, and , at times, insistence, he will eat most fruits and is simply great with veggies.

''I could not stand watching other mothers go through the fuss of making something separate for the kids because they were fussy about one or the other thing!''...I echo that.

sunita said...
August 14, 2008 at 1:48:00 PM GMT+2  

I agree with one small note- I'd start with less food on the plate than they need. Another great habit to learn is to stop eating when you're no longer hungry, rather than eating food just because it's there.

Anonymous said...
August 14, 2008 at 2:57:00 PM GMT+2  

Hear Hear and Echo! This made me think we came all from the same school of parents (our age maybe?) I was raised the same way and while using different methods than my parents I too insist that my kids eat what's being served. Yes I allow for less spicy food or provide ways to soften it but it's pretty much WYSIWYG. The only problem here is salads... but they are coming around that one as well.

August 14, 2008 at 3:22:00 PM GMT+2  

Oh I loved this--had to stop and comment--and I completely agree and give you a congratulations for being gutsy enough to publish this (I imagine there might be a few out there who strongly disagree). I just get so exasperated at moms who allow their children to decide what will be served. My husband's parents' rule was that if he didn't like it he didn't have to eat it so he grew up not eating tomatoes, mushrooms, cream cheese, sour cream, guacamole, cooked fruit, Chinese food, onions, etc. etc. etc.

We married and I threw up my hands in frustration and asked him when the last time he'd actually tried cream cheese (turns out he'd tried it once as a kid and never tried it since). I asked him to try it again and he was surprised that he liked it.

My sister's inlaws are the same way, only they're so extreme that they have one son who eats nothing (and I'm not exaggerating here) but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and corn on the cob. He's 19 and refuses to eat anything but that and has recently gone off to live in a foreign country for a couple years. Crazy.

Anyway, too long of a comment but parents who give in to kids' food whims are setting future spouses up for extreme frustration.

Scribbit said...
August 14, 2008 at 5:49:00 PM GMT+2  

I love every part of this article! Especially the part about children who don't get enough to eat. Since, I was perplexed by that statement as a child, I have changed it somewhat to make more sense for my daughter.

I have a niece who won't eat anything that is green in color. Furthermore, her tastes are discussed in front of her with a lot of sighing and "how she won't eat" - which only results in reinforcing that very behavior.

We have a rule that it's perfectly fine to dislike something but it's not fine to waste. Also, if it is part of the meal, you have to eat at least some of it. For example, when I first made asparagus, there were 3 on my daughter's plate. She didn't care for them at all but had to finish them. The next time I made them, she ate them willingly. Now she wants to know when I will be making them next as she loves them. It's all about exposure and training.

It also makes them easy to travel with. They will eat anything, wherever you stop. My daughter will also even go hours without a 'proper' meal when we travel, making it easy to drive for that additional couple of hours through nowhere till we can make a pit-stop. It's one of the reasons we like to travel alone. Most other parents will only go for as long as their child's next scheduled meal: 6:00pm on the dot, regardless of where you are. They also make a big deal out of it and how she will probably fall down and never get up again if that meal is not delivered to her lips at that time. Oh and nothing green in that, please!

Sometimes I feel that we are perhaps on the extreme side and there are enough people who feel sorry for my daughter but in reality, it makes her adaptable and ready for any situation. We also don't have endless whining in the car!

August 14, 2008 at 9:29:00 PM GMT+2  

I just read Melanie's comment and I can't agree more on both counts!

August 14, 2008 at 9:36:00 PM GMT+2  

Very interesting article...I agree with you to some degree but I also believe that pushing kids too much can have the opposite effect. Better to expose and gently guide than force them. For instance, my dad remains to this day a very picky eater because it elementary school he was forced to eat buttered bread to the point of actually vomiting (because he had to "finish everything on his plate). I was picky as a kid too, but as I have gotten older I am not picky anymore--by my own choice. However, there are some creamy dairy products that are still just hard for me to stomach--plain cream cheese or plain milk really do turn my stomach to the point of gagging. Maybe my family just has weak stomachs when it comes to dairy (although it is not lactose intolerance as I can eat things like cheese just fine). Anyway, my point, I guess, is that I think you can make kids worse off and more fearful of food by being TOO insistent about non-picky-ness...some of us really do have weak stomachs/a strong gag reflex and making me throw up isn't going to make me more likely to try a new food! Instead, I was able to make the choice myself and I really value it because now I eat pretty much everything--and not by being forced to do so!

Sara said...
August 14, 2008 at 10:29:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks for all the comments Everyone - this has made writing this article even more rewarding.

I agree that you shouldn't force a child to eat something that really 'turns the stomach'. What I am advocating though is to make them at least try it and to not waste food simly because it doesnt look good or because they 'think' the dont like it. My daughter is a case in point. She will eat (and even ask for) chillis and extra hot chilli sauce but when a curry is served and she just doesnt feel like eating it, she will 'claim' it is too spicy! We all know her tricks and we just use the "You're Malaysian Indian, it can't be too spicy." And then she happily eats it... go figure!

Dharm said...
August 15, 2008 at 2:46:00 AM GMT+2  

I work with a lot of immigrant and refugee families, and I make a point of asking them, at some point when we're close enough, whether there are picky eaters where they come from. The answer is invariably no, and not only that, that kids also don't ask for extra food or food that's not part of the meal or whatever. What's there is there. That seems to me to say that there are cultural/environmental biases we create that allow picky eaters.

That said, my husband was a picky eater despite his parents making him eat at least a bite of whatever was on the table. Fortunately, he got over that before he met me, because I had a rule of not dating picky eaters. (They just don't have as much joie de vivre, it seems to me.) Now my husband truly will eat anything, even things my palate would never handle (and I'm not a picky eater at all).

Anonymous said...
August 15, 2008 at 7:53:00 PM GMT+2  

While I agree on a lot of this stuff, picky eaters are mostly a matter of teaching your kids early to embrace new tastes and foods, I have good friends who have been 'natural' vegetarians even from childhood and yucked at grease and fatty meats - and they have stayed that way until today (in their 40ies and 50ies, respectively).

Another factor may be food sensitivities (I am a multiple allergic - I do eat almost everything but I shouldn't...) and some kids do have a natural reaction to foods not good for them. It is too complex for a comment so may I point to this excellent article on the subject:

Anonymous said...
August 17, 2008 at 8:18:00 PM GMT+2  

this is something I think about all the time. i think part of what we are trying to do is just not even make a big deal about it. so when she doesn't eat something, we just let it go, so my daughter doesn't make it a power thing. (Mind you mind is less than 2). I do think there is something innate/biological about taste. My daughter really likes spicy food. And, I had been holding off on it just because I didn't want to stress her little kidneys. She got some somewhere and now begs for it. That can't be learned, it has to be innate.

maybelles mom said...
August 22, 2008 at 12:29:00 AM GMT+2  

my daughter is two and a half years old. and she is a really picky eater. and also one who cant be forced into doing something. if u push the food into her mouth she will simple spit it. she does love vegetables and fruits though. but i can never predict when she will eat and when she will refuse. when is a good age to start being strict about this?

Anonymous said...
August 22, 2008 at 6:56:00 PM GMT+2  


You do not need to spoon-feed your two-year-old. She can choose to eat her meal, or choose to be done with dinner. You can help her understand that she is making choices all the time, and that every choice has a consequence.

And you can teach her how to share a meal with a group, and to eat a variety of foods, even foods that are not her favorite. These are also important skills.

If she says she is hungry, remind her that a really good choice when you are hungry is to eat food. If she is full, she can choose to stop eating. No snacks, no peanut-butter-jelly sandwich. She will not starve to death.

You can help her get used to less-favored foods without making it seem like some kind of punishment by giving her 3-bite portions.

On those evenings when she chooses to go to bed hungry, you might save her plate for her. She might decide, half an hour after you've tucked her into bed, that she wants the meal she rejected only an hour or two ago.

After a couple days of noisy protest, she will probably adapt well to your new approach. The transition will be hardest on you.

You can be firm about good eating habits (social and nutritional), and do this in a gentle, loving, respectful way.

August 26, 2008 at 3:25:00 PM GMT+2  

I clicked this link on meeta's website because my kids are picky eaters....but sorry, I disagree that we should insist that they eat everything and anything. After all as a grown-up u turn away from food you dislike. And just because ur grown up allows you to do that. But a kid cannot opine that onions are distasteful ? I am all for exposure to different cultures and foods...but u probably grew up with only one kind and certain type of food. But in a multi-cultural environment I feel kids can express their likes and dislikes. Because they may find food that disgusts them . If it's all about appealing to senses then why ignore the fact the kids have senses too ?

Meena said...
August 26, 2008 at 5:50:00 PM GMT+2  

When I grew up, there were a lot of foods I didn't like. Liver, kidneys, onioins, lima beans, meat. I was required to eat what was on my plate, which would sometimes include a small portion of foods I did not like. I've come to enjoy lima beans and even some cuts of meat, though I have never developed a taste for liver or kidneys.

As a result, I have developed an adventurous palate. New flavors are one of the joys of life. And I am reasonably sure I can dine with nearly anyone without embarrasing myself or offending my host.

I want the same for my children. They will get used to tasting new things. They will get used to eating things that they don't like. They will have the idea that we are all sharing a common meal. After all, we are a family, not some random collection of people who happen to share a kitchen.

One of my children does opine that onions are distasteful. That is acceptable. I do not require her to eat large servings of onions. But I have not stopped cooking with onion, either.

But you do make a good point. I have neglected introducing my children to liver and kidneys. I suppose it is about time.

August 26, 2008 at 10:45:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks again everyone for your comments, as I said, getting comments just makes writing articles all the more worthwhile!

I just want to clarify that this article is my opinion and each parent makes his or her own choices on how to raise their children.

I was made to eat everything on my plate and actually, I was exposed to a wide variety of foods when I was young - macaroni, spaghetti, curries, chinese food, malay food, western food - you name it, my Mom was great with food exposure.

And yes, my kids are NOT allowed to opine that any food is distasteful. I STILL eat anything and everything that is served even though I may not like it very much - it is still food and food is meant to be eaten. It is okay to have preferences and favourite foods but what is not acceptable is to be a picky eater. That's my rule anyway. :)

Dharm said...
August 30, 2008 at 4:12:00 AM GMT+2  

I agree that picky eaters are raised. The worst part about raising a picky child is that they become a picky adult. And they make the worst friends for dining out with! I have friends who don't like certain things but will eat them if they're in a dish and other friends who will make comments about how gross something is or that they hate that item. It's just annoying.

We all have preferences and things we avoid, but being picky is outright refusing to eat something and I agree with the person who said that picky eaters tend to be less adventurous in other parts of life. Boring.

Do our kids a favor and give them the chance to find great new things in life or the chance to learn how to cope with things they don't necessarily like.

Anonymous said...
September 1, 2008 at 5:11:00 AM GMT+2  

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