I Refuse To Lose The Battle With My Picky Eater Kid

All parents have lofty goals before the baby actually arrives. These future kids will only listen to cool music, they will never watch Elmo, they will be open to a variety of different foods. Then the baby arrives and Kidz Bop, "Elmo's World," and an all-beige diet featuring chicken nuggets all manage to surface eventually.

After my twins were born, as I've mentioned, I was working part-time so was home with them quite a bit. I also belonged to a CSA that first summer, when they were entering that first solid-food phase. That CSA box gets progressively heavier as the weeks progress, starting out with light lettuces and ending up with so many gourds that it's difficult to lift the box at all. I became an expert gourd roaster. Really, I roasted everything, and then mashed it up with the appropriate coordinating fruit: acorn squash and apples. Butternut squash and bananas. I remember using one recipe that had added sugar in it, for an apple-blackberry puree, and panicked. My kids never had sugar. Their only snacks were fruit slices and Cheerios (although I was convinced that I would have the first kids to choke on a Cheerio, so even those snacks were carefully monitored). Terrified of food allergies, I kept them away from peanut butter for years, until an allergy specialist friend of my husband's gently chided, "Um, yeah, you can go ahead with that now."

I carefully curated their diet, adding various casseroles eventually from my bible at the time, Annabel Karmel's Feeding Your Baby And Toddler. It was a huge relief (and lighter kitchen workload for me) when the four of us were finally all eating the same thing for dinner. The twins were growing up at a healthy (and somewhat alarming) rate, so along with naptime, and story time, I felt like their diet was one thing I could add to my short (but significant!) list of parental accomplishments.

I really missed the boat by having twins and not immediately using them as a case study or something for an eventual Ph.D. dissertation. Having two babies gave me a interesting perspective on what worked for one, that might not work for the other. As it turns out—get this—babies are different, so even though these two ate the exact same thing for several years, now that they're in middle school, their eating styles couldn't be more different. My son, bless him, will eat just about everything you throw at him. Give him some okra, he'll shrug and try it out.

My daughter—let's just say she's the opposite. And I can't believe how much it pains me every day. Her diet is extremely limited: Kix or waffles in the morning, chicken nuggets for lunch, often canned soup for dinner because she doesn't like what we're having. She's in middle-school, and I'm still trying to bargain with her to eat just a few strawberries with her breakfast, or some apples with peanut butter for snack. Sometimes we cave and buy Nutella for her to dunk pears in, and a jar only lasts in our house a few days. Anything chocolate, of course, she's absolutely fine with.

A constant refrain in our house is one familiar to the home of the picky eater: "You like everything in there!" in a casserole or a stir-fry. When we find a new meal that she's willing to try—recently it was a homemade broccoli-cheese soup—the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief and add it to heavy rotation on the meal calendar. When we go out to eat, she'll often only eat just the blandest thing on the menu: cheese naan at the Indian restaurant, for example. Spaghetti and marinara (not meat) sauce at an Italian place.

I can already predict the comments below: "You know what I ate when I was a kid? What was on my plate." "She'll eat when she gets hungry enough," etc. etc. Again, having twins puts me in an interesting position, because I did everything with them the exact same way: Offering healthy food options, not forcing, keeping sugar out of the house. This did not prepare me for a hangry, crying girl unprepared for school in the morning because we ran out of Kix and she straight-up refuses the many other breakfast options available (smoothie, oatmeal, bagel) while her brother happily munches along on a fruit and yogurt parfait. (She also has a stubborn streak made out of solid steel—huh, I wonder where that comes from.)

So it was with great interest that I read pediatrician Perri Klass' article in The New York Times last week: "When New Means No: Picky Eating As A Normal Toddler Phase." Turns out, that "picky eater" phase may not necessarily be one that your child grows out of. There could be other factors in play, like sensory issues or food allergies. Or, like me, you may have given birth to someone who is just not that adventurous about food.

The article states that the period between six and 12 months is the most crucial, because it's when babies are likely to be more open to trying new foods (which is when I was making all of my purees). It also has some interesting tips about timing, and grazing, but obviously that ship has sailed for me. I was more interested in a study the article mentions that was released last month in Toronto that "looked more closely at whether picky eaters coming out of those toddler years stay picky, and at how they grow."

Dr. Megan Pesch, a clinical lecturer in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, who was the senior author on the abstract, said that in her training as a pediatrician, she was taught mostly to reassure parents of picky eaters that their children would grow out of it. "Instead, we found three stable trajectories," she said, the children who scored as high, medium and low on the picky eating scale. And the children stayed in their groups. "By 4 years, the parent perception of picky eating was established, and did not change over the next four and a half years."

Aha! So my daughter's current eating habits may not be ones that she's likely to grow out of. Wait... that's not exactly good news. After all, some people grow up and keep their picky eater status even as adults, and somehow keep all their teeth and don't develop scurvy. But they also never appreciate the splendor of a food-truck empanada, or a flambéed dragon roll.

I felt a little better upon learning that even chefs have this problem with their kids (and unlike in my home, you know the menu is faultless). Danny McGowan, Vice President at Cornerstone Restaurant Group and dad of one, suggests, "In order to avoid the picky eating phases, you should start introducing solid foods and have them be part of your meal, whether your kids eat off your plate or have a small sample plate. It's great when they can eat the same foods you are eating so they can experience different flavors and textures. Around our house, I'm more of the bad 'snack' eater, but my daughters' snacks always included fruit, smoothies, generally always whole, real foods, never processed."

Joe Campagna, owner at Chicago's Bar Biscay and dad of twins, commiserated, "My twin 18-month-olds aren't what I would define as picky. I think they're discovering food and having their taste buds change often. What they love to eat one day, they won't touch the next. Having two kids is unique and you quickly learn how they differ in what they like. Serena loves breakfast and eats a lot of protein. Lucy is a slower eater and loves veggies and fruit. Yet they both love a good cookie. We try to offer things that are different every couple weeks, but you also want them to eat and cooking for two minions can be a fun challenge. The one thing that makes us laugh–neither will eat chicken fingers or mac 'n' cheese—box or gourmet. Yet, they love risotto and doughnuts!"

Children who are picky eaters was the subject of a recent video series from The Takeout called Picky Eaters Challenge. One tip from chef Kendra Peterson particularly stood out. She said: "It's been scientifically proven that if you take a food they love and pair it with one they don't, they will embrace it and learn to love that food."

And then there's the late Anthony Bourdain (it's still unbelievably to type those words "the late"). When Bourdain spoke with Takeout editor Kevin Pang a few years ago, he described how he introduced his daughter to food: "I never coaxed her or even suggested that she try something out of her comfort zone. When she was a very little girl if she wanted to eat pasta with butter everyday that was fine with me, but what else was being eaten at the table was often very interesting and to my surprise and delight she would often reach for a sardine or an anchovy... It's wrong I think, morally and annoying in general, to try to get a kid to be a foodie, so I never even suggested, 'Hey baby it's good, maybe you should try it.' That never worked for me." Me neither.

Even NPR had a story this week titled, "Want Your Child To Eat (Almost) Everything? There Is A Way." In the story, University Of Georgia research psychologist Leann Birch, said that kids will reject new foods at first. "That's really just an inbuilt response to something that's new," but "they typically will learn to eat a lot of new things." That story mentions that some parents recommend sprinkling sugar, salt, or butter on top of new food to make it more palatable for kids, but that can definitely have its eventual drawbacks. In fact, a story came out today that toddlers eat more sugar than is recommended for adults—when they really shouldn't be eating any at all. Of course, as I said, I kept the kids steadfastly away from sugar for years, until they got lured by the appeal of Halloween candy (probably their first real sugar rush) and my daughter became a straight-up chocoholic, the kind of kid who asks for dessert before the dinner plates even touch the table. (Answer: "No.")

As a typical dogged, determined parent, I refuse to give up. My daughter loves baking with me, obviously, but what if we translate that activity into cooking dinner? So we've started checking more palatable kids' cookbooks out of the library. We're making our own chicken and meatballs and other things that she's previously enjoyed when they come out of a package (unsurprisingly, she holds fast to the Kraft blue box as the only acceptable mac 'n' cheese option). Last night, she helped her dad make a bordelaise sauce to go with some some steak (thankfully, her second favorite food group behind chocolate appears to be protein).

Hopefully, we can still keep expanding her limited palate. I have a horrific flash forward nightmare of meeting her as an adult at a Manhattan Indian restaurant for lunch (on break from her job as a U.N. translator or Natural History Museum curator or similar), only to have her still only order the cheese naan and chocolate milk.