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Let's Panic: The Book!

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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain,
and Finally Turn You
into a Worthwhile
Human Being.

Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it. → 

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I just want to live to see him eat salad. Is that asking so much?

Just about one year ago, I wrote about Henry’s maddeningly limited food preferences. Henry was a strict adherent to the all-dairy, all-white-with-a-little-light-yellow-in-it diet, claiming that it “tasted good” and also “I’m not trying anything else ever nyah nyah nyah.” Any attempts to introduce new foods were met with shrieks of protest. It was a fun time.

Since that post, Scott and I have employed different strategies to get him to eat new foods. We created an enormous New Food Chart, with shiny gold stickers for each food and the promise of a new toy when 10 stickers were achieved. On the recommendation of some expert or other, we tried making the tasting of new foods his “job,” with no rewards given except the satisfaction of a job well done. We tried reverse psychology (“don’t you dare eat that broccoli stalk. I mean it.”). We tried explaining the food pyramid and what foods would make him big and strong like a Rescue Hero. We tried begging.

Guess what worked?

Nothing. Nothing worked. In fact, I do believe we made it worse. Congratulations, feckless parents!

In this entire year, Henry has pretty much stuck to his original diet. He added two new foods to his repertoire: baked beans and grilled cheese. The latter makes it much easier to go out to eat. The former means at least he’s getting some fiber, albeit with more sugar than I like to think about. True, these foods would not have entered his repertoire without our cajoling, but looking back, I think we won a couple of battles but in doing so lost the damn war.

Here’s what we accomplished: Henry now knows how deeply we care about what he eats. He knows it’s pretty much the one thing we can’t make him do. And most of all, he knows that he’s got us. He now delights in telling me all about what he’s not going to eat. He tried tomato sauce and loved it, but now, he says, he’s never going to eat it again. Same thing for peanut butter. And carrots. And pierogi. And about 36 other items.

(Parents of younger children, take note: do not give your child even the merest hint that you give a flying fig about what they eat. Don’t even look at their plate. Serve them whatever you made (or ordered) (or microwaved) and consider your job done. Because I am telling you, once your kid senses that they have the upper hand, you’re done. Heed my words! Heeeed! )

So now that every one of our tactics has backfired, I have officially given up. I have ripped up the food chart. I am done begging and punishing and even suggesting. I told him that what he eats is entirely up to him, but that I would no longer make him a different dinner from ours.

We’ve been doing this for about a month, and it’s made absolutely not one smidgen of difference in his diet. I more or less wimp out every night and make some kind of a pasta with dinner—the difference being that it’s part of everyone’s dinner and not just his special foodstuff—so he eats that. So in other words he’s not eating differently, but I am, and sweet Moses I’m sick of macaroni and cheese. (At some point I will gather up the courage to make a dinner that doesn’t include one of his greatest hits, and deal with his keen disappointment at the absence of beige foods laid out before him. I’m sure he’ll go without dinner that night, but at the very least he has to learn that it’s not the end of the world. Right? Someone’s anecdote of their kid who never ate anything and now eats snails cooked in tripe would be appreciated just about now.)

The only thing left for me to do is just be okay with what he eats or doesn’t eat. I am trying, lord how I’m trying, to think positively. What he likes, he really, really likes. And that’s good. He could eat 56 containers of yogurt a day. He derives more satisfaction from blueberries than I previously believed possible. He gets positively dewy-eyed over the thought of pasta mixed with ricotta cheese. If I keep pushing, I’m going to dampen his enthusiasm for what little he does eat, and pretty soon he will eat nothing but sand. Just to spite me. Kids are nuts, did I mention?

So these days when he refuses any and all foods I do my best to laugh gaily, tra la, as if he just told me he’s not going to do my taxes. And I say, “Someday you’ll eat that,” and he agrees. “Someday,” he says, watching me for signs of discomfort, “but not now. And not soon.”

Reader Comments (105)

All this food talk has made me hungry.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterhello insomnia
I am biting my tongue (fingers?) rather than risking being the bearer of assvice. All I will say is that while I still consider Monkey a picky eater, and his PREFERENCE is certainly for beige carbohydrates, he eats more now than I ever imagined possible. (And no, I'm not magic. I gave up, cooked whatever I wanted to cook, and after a couple of years, here we are. He hasn't starved to death yet.)
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMir
I was a picky eater. Wouldn't eat anything green or that had a texture that I found upsetting. My parents explained that I didn't have to eat anything I didn't like, but if I said anything derogatory about what was put before me I'd have to try it. My mother was pretty clear that she wasn't a short order cook. If I didn't like anything at dinner I just wouldn't eat. I'm still a slightly picky eater, although I enjoy sushi, and sashimi, and petty much anything in Chinatown. I never starved, mostly I just picked the most non offensive item and ate that. Kids are different. Some eat everything, some are completely picky. I've heard none of them will actually starve themselves. In fact they won't even give themselves rickets or anything. Start adding pasta with red sauces. Bet you win. :)
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJustin
I only have a toddler, so I can't really give you advice. However, our pediatrician insisted we have this book - Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Sattler - at home.

It could help, unless you've already read it.

Good luck!
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterreluctant housewife
When my older brother was little, his repertoire was apparently jam sandwiches and sausages. And that was about it. He's now 29 and the other day I watched him prepare himself some dinner - an amazing concoction of salad leaves, prosciutto, mozarella and olive oil. So yes, there is hope for Henry!

In fact, now I think about it, a lot of my brother's further exploration of food came when he had to shop for himself and he started buying exotic things at the deli counter. Might giving Henry some input into shopping or meal preparation give him something to think about? Bearing in mind of course, that I'm comparing an adult with a little boy and that I'm not a parent, so I may just be talking rubbish.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
I remember that post well.

I also had a 3 year-old who ate next to nothing.

Now he's four & eats even less (if that's possible).

I shouldn't say he eats "less." But some of the things that were once on his list have now dropped off the charts. Spaghetti comes to mind. But why? What causes a four year-old to suddenly drop a beloved food for no apparent reason?

The knowledge that he's bugging the crap out of his mother, that's what.

I, too, have pretty much given up. When my kid enters school, I'm going to pack him a lunch of fruit snacks (damn those things!), crackers, dry cereal and ? No clue.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTerry
There was a chunk of time (weeks? months?) when I was a toddler that I would eat nothing but hotdogs and orange juice. Nothing.

My mom took me to the doctor who told her to feed me something else, and that even if I didn't eat it immediately, I would eventually get hungry and eat it. Within a week (and after a tough couple of days for her), I was eating all sorts of non-hotdog and non-orange juice foods.

These days, I can't think of a cuisine I don't like.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjlp
my son wasn't so much a picky eater as he simply wouldn't eat. He'd go 1 or 2 days with hardly anything passing his lips. Then he'd eat voratiously. He is 21 now and will try anything - and never skips a meal.

I'm with Mir - just fix what you want for supper and he will either eat it or not. A missed meal or two won't hurt him and he'll figure out that he hasn't got that button to push anymore.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterbob
I feel for you. I still have what I'd describe as a picky eater, but thankfully the "things he will eat" list is now longer than the one that could be titled "Oh God, get it awaaaay from me!".

I guess what I'm saying is, hang in there. He'll grow out of it eventually.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa
I am 25 and I still don't eat bread crusts. I will tear the crusts off of my bread, even the fancy bread in nice restaurants, such is my loathing for crust.

Lately, I will not eat chicken. Something about it just grosses me out. I don't eat pork or mayonnaise and I will not drink a glass of plain water unless there is nothing else available to soothe my parched throat.

I am hell, HELL, to take to dinner because I'm so picky I'll generally only order the steak (unless it's char-broiled, eww) or whatever comes with mashed potatoes.

In other words, good luck with your picky eater.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKate the Great
When my daughter was two, she ate nothing, and I mean nothing, but saltine crackers for months! While at the doctors for a check up I mentioned my concern for her nutrition...her exact words were, "No child starves to death quietly. When she's ready or needs to, she'll eat something else." Now an 8-yr old, the kid eats everything and is as healthy as can be. Don't worry, he'll outgrow it someday.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNicole B.
I am living Mir's advice, love Justin's tho.We tried the alternative route (aka 'You can either eat dinner- or you can have a peanut butter sandwich) and put the kibosh on that when he decided peanut butter was the only food needed to keep him alive.

Nowadays, he eats (or doesn't - he's perfectly healthy) whatever I make.

(And when we started this, I was a mess for about a week, imagining him starving with rickets or scurvy or something dreadful. It took two days of him figuring out I was serious (no backing down - no desserts, no extra yogurt or big glass of milk so he wouldn't collapse from hunger) for him to eat. Slowly, begrudgingly, but the kid ate.)

Now - healthy! Asking for seconds! Trying things!
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdaysgoby
Ellyn Satter is da bomb. (Da bom? Anyway.)

I'm pretty sure I told you this a year ago, but we read "How to get your kids to eat, but not too much," and it changed my life. In fact, I think it's time to read it again.

Haven't read the other one, which reluctant housewife mentions above, but I'm sure it's on a par. My daughter has made many meals of only bread w/ butter.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenternate

I am totally with you. I fix a lot of pasta dishes at our house so my kids will have one dish they will eat on the table. My husband ate nothing but hot dogs and cranberry juice for a year and is healthy as a horse now. My older child, now a teenager, has huge variety of things she tries and eats and I have every confidence that my 11-year-old will do that as well. My idea is that I don't want a power stuggle over food and I am willing to operate a short order kitchen so I am ok with it. The question is are you ok with it? If not then do something about it, like go with what Mir said. Good luck.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy
I could totally go for some Mac & cheese right now. Yum. My brother used to refuse to eat anything, and now he's literall the size of a linebacker. So there's hope.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHeather B.
What Mir said.No short order cook. No special offerings.

He won't starve. Promise.

Mary, mom to 8, 7 of whom are great eaters and the other who picks onions out of everything, but otherwise also is a great eater.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterowlhaven
This article may make you feel better.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJane
It will get better, Alice, hang in there. My nephews used to be the two pickiest eaters in the history of the entire universe. Every meal was unpleasant and a fight, lots of whining - oh-my-ever-loving-word the WHINING! - and shouting. No matter what was made for them, even if it was something they had loved the previous day, they hated it.

So eventually my sister and her husband gave up. They stopped the shouting, they stopped giving in to the boys. They adopted the attitude that other commenters here have mentioned - "This is the meal I've made. If you're hungry, you'll eat it. I'd never feed you anything harmful or anything I myself would not eat. If you don't want to eat it, that's fine, but you're not getting anything special and you won't be allowed anything to eat until the next meal."

The first few meals this way, the boys started with the usual whining and were told to leave the table. Now my nephews are turning 14 and 9, are both active in sports, and eat anything put in front of them.

Remember Alice, you're the Mommy and are therefore the Boss. Make what you want, Henry's not going to suffer. :)

December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle
I think you're right on target. Make a meal, make sure there at least two or things they'll eat (bread, carrots, cottage cheese, pasta, couscous, fruit, peas, and corn top the list of items my girls will both consistently eat without complaining) and carry on. I don't ever let them KNOW that I'm making sure there's food on the table they'll eat, I just serve it as one big meal.

That said, neither of my girls is an adventurous eater, but we don't argue at the table either.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBethany
My mother says I spent my entire kindergarten year eating nothing but peanut butter on white bread. No jam, mind you, nothing to sully the unadulterated smooth peanut butter. She complied. In first grade, I came home atwitter that I found a new food I liked: white rice with butter. Again, she took the path of least resistance.I am now 33, eat a wide variety of cuisines and foods, love vegetables and salads and stinky cheeses, and turned out to be quite tall despite obvious vitamin deficiencies.I have two lovely children of my own whom I also happily offer favorites, but weirdly enough eat things like broccoli and blueberries quite happily. (Even the four-year-old who is going on fourteen...)Hang in there, ignore it, offer what you offer. You're on the right track.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKatharine
That "and not soon" he adds at the end is the real kick in the pants. It's so hard to successfully pretend you don't care about something your kid does when the fact is you really really care a lot. I have no advice, just empathy.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterS-Way
I've got two boys. The seven year old eat anything and always has - his current fav is broccoli rabe, for f$%$s sake! Being self centered, I thought that he was like this cause I had exposed him to all the great food in the universe. THEN along came his little brother. Now, you'd THINK that the little guy would be a good eater, first of all because I make great food, and second of all, because he is watching his big brother eat everything and anything with abandon (and he absolutely adores his big brother and wants to do everything else his big brother does). BUT NOOOOOO, #2 eats nothing for dinner. He is almost 4 and honestly, he pretty much never really eats dinner (I only serve what the rest of us are eating). And I just sit there and let it go (mostly). And he goes to bed and wakes up in the morning and eats cereal for breakfast and for lunch he gets leftovers (uuuhhh often the same thing he would not eat for dinner the night before) at daycare. I've concluded that he is just not all that hungry in the evenings and am trying to just go with it.

I feel for ya, really I do, I say quit the extra cooking and see what happens . . .good luck!
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermonica
Good for you for throwing away the charts and stickers and 'I care' attitude. I did the same with my very picky daughter. She is 6.5 now and I would say that she is still picky, but no longer extremely picky. Slowly, bit by bit, year by year, she has picked up a few new foods and when you add them all up, they nearly come to a balanced diet!

I do sometimes encourage her to try new foods, and I always say that she can spit it out if she hates it, and that she can have water ready to take the taste out of her mouth. And if she spits it out with great drama and then glugs back the entire glass of water, I just say 'oh well! now we know!' and move on.

Generally I try to project the attitude that I am glad when she tries new things, and that I am pleased when I can make a variety of different foods for supper, but that it is really not a big deal to me. It hasn't been a miracle cure, but there has been slow steady progress and I know that I feel quite relaxed and good about it.
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlb
Heh, a friend just sent me this:
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelle
Are you kidding me? If he doesn't want to eat what you prepared, then he can go to bed hungry. You shouldn't have to cater to his demands. And if you think those demands are bad now, just wait until he's older. That's what I have always done. And when I was little and I didn't like what my mother prepared, then I had to sit at the table until I at least tried it. And I survived. Good luck!
December 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMG

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