Friday, September 28, 2012

So...Just How Picky Are Your Kids?

Part 2 of my thoughts on French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.

People. My kids are p.i.c.k.y. My girls are actually what I would call normal picky--they don't love trying new foods, they prefer sweets and meats to vegetables and soups, they have a strong radar for scoping out anybody else's negative reaction to food and if anybody doesn't like it, they follow suit. 

My oldest, however, is P.I.C.K.Y. He is like no other child I have ever met. He does not eat meat or cheese. He does not eat most vegetables. He does not eat foods with unusual textures. Even if he generally likes a food, he is picky about the form in which it is served (for example, tomato soup from a can he loves, but homemade tomato soup, he won't even try). He is uninfluenced by peer eating. Sometimes when he is at a friend's house over the lunch hour and he doesn't like the lunch, he will skip it, even if it means that he comes home and crashes into sleep for 2 hours because he is hungry and exhausted. When most people speak of picky kids, they speak of kids who like hamburgers and sweets and potato chips, but won't try other foods. Mark is just as picky with his junk food as he is with his other food (this is a type of pickiness silver lining, but it only brings me a little comfort). He won't eat many kinds of chips or cakes or ice cream. He will often drop foods off of his very small list of things he likes for reasons I do not understand. He just doesn't want them anymore. He is picky to the point that I spend time worrying about his health because of it. 

Yeah, I know that you're already judging me for this. You have some room to do so. I was not perfect in training my oldest to eat. He actually ate just about everything (and I fed him a very wide variety of foods) until about 18 months and then started getting picky. Instead of holding firm, I worried that he would starve to death and made him other foods if he wouldn't eat what we did. To complicate things, he got fairly sick for about 2 weeks when we had just moved and our insurance hadn't kicked in. Even though he only vomited for about a day, he didn't want to eat much of anything for several weeks and it was a little scary, especially for a first time parent. I was willing to let him eat ice cream if that's what I could get him to eat. After that, it was hard to go back to being even a little strict. In addition to Mark's food resistance I was trying very hard to make meals and food pleasant for my kids. I didn't want a bunch of power struggles over dinner. I wanted it to be a time we were all together and enjoying things. Due to this, I figured it was just better to let him have cereal or a PBJ if that's what he'd eat. I was permissive like this until he was about 4 and I started to realize that I was creating bigger problems than I was solving--our meal times were a constant flow of demand and complaint (not the pleasant, conversation laden times I'd been trying to create). Nothing was ever good enough for the kids. Mark's little sister was following his lead, only her picky list was almost opposite his (she liked meat and cheese; he liked bread and fruit). I couldn't keep up and I knew that if I wished to feel happy, appreciated, and just basically satisfied at meal times, something would have to change.

However, when I tried to change, it was really really frustrating. I still didn't want my (very skinny) kids starving, and following American parenting advice was not working for me. In addition to this I was married to a fairly picky husband. He's made some huge changes for us in the last couple of years, and it has been very helpful, but he is definitely a naturally picky person. Because of this and other reasons, I believe there's actually a strong genetic component to how my son eats. I just think some kids are naturally pickier than others. And as a final nail in the pickiness coffin, Mark has the strongest will of any kid I've ever met. I know that I should be grateful for this and one day I expect I will be. But in matters of food, it's not so great. He decides he doesn't want to try something or like something and he does not deviate from that decision. I have tried not to pressure him too much about food because pressure only seems to make him dig his heels in deeper, but that has left me a little lost about what exactly I should be doing. If arguing, cajoling, bribing, and reasoning don't work, what does. 

I don't claim to know, but I will say this, when I read Le Billon's book French Kids Eat Everything, I actually got some ideas. I said yesterday the book sometimes went directly the opposite of standard American advice. This was really helpful for me. I realized--often for the first time--some of the ways I'd been going wrong. It is the very best book about getting picky kids to eat that I have EVER read. EVER. And I have read a lot. Not only have I read books, I have tried out their advice. I have made my food look "fun." I have let my kids help prepare the menu. I have let them choose a meal a week (so boring because they always picked the same thing, and the other kids still complained). I have let them pick food at the store. I have bribed with both money and dessert. I have threatened. I have plead. I have made them go hungry. I have provided options (not cooked a whole different meal, but provided a picky option--like a PB burrito instead of the beef one the grown ups were eating.) I have tried reverse psychology and told them they couldn't have grown-up food that Kip and I were eating. I have asked questions and tried reasoning. I have tried other parents' tried and true suggestions. I have never made anyone sit at the table all night until they ate something or made them eat it for breakfast if they didn't eat it for dinner because I had to do it a couple times as a kid and it didn't make me love food (or anything else for that matter). I have considered taking my oldest and pickiest child in for some food therapy (and am still considering it, but hoping to not have to). At the beginning of the summer, I followed a friend's (very good) advice. She'd had her kids make a list of foods they liked. She'd been surprised at how many were normal. She'd gone out and bought those foods. And then she'd served them. I thought, "Okay, maybe I'm overcomplicating things. Maybe I'm being too adventurous with my foods and if I give them a chance, they'll come up with several normal things we can eat several times a week." This was kind of true for my girls, but not with Mark. 

This was Mark's list. 

Spaghetti with plain, smooth marinara sauce
Tomato soup (from a can only)
pancakes/waffles (yeah, not really a dinner, but sometimes around here)
mac and cheese (from a box, no other)
pizza (without the toppings; that's right; Mark peels them off and gives them to his sisters)

Side dishes:
Mashed potatoes
Rice (this has since been removed from the list as he's decided he doesn't like it anymore)
Home fries with ketchup

Cucumbers with Ranch dip
Tomato sauce
black olives from a can

Almost all, except bananas, which he will only eat slathered in PB. 
Also, since the making of the list, he's taken a few things off his list: apple sauce, oranges. 
Some that he hasn't taken off the list he's still kind of come and go with--like apples or fresh peaches
He loves mangoes and pineapple. 

The list was helpful to me in only one way. I was able to point out to Mark that even if I made all his favorite dinners every week (mostly variations on the same foods in case you didn't notice), we still wouldn't have enough meals to fill the week. (Mark would sometimes complain that I always put the same foods in his lunch box, but when I asked him what else he would like, he couldn't come up with anything. This helped him see why.)

You're probably wondering how I've kept my child alive. Two words. Peanut Butter. And two more. Whole wheat. He also eats fruit. And cereal. Also he is picky about sweets, so he doesn't usually eat too many. And, frankly, I give him vitamins. 

But even though the list had brought Mark to some self awareness, it I hadn't solved my problem of what to feed us. 

You're judging me again, aren't you? It's okay. I'd judge me too. 

I'm not sure that French Kids will solve my problem either. Sometimes I wonder if it's bigger than myself, and if Mark has some kind of physical or psychological eating issue that needs some kind of professional help. (After all, there are plenty of parents who have messed up as much or more than me and still turned out normal-eating children.) But I decided that for six months I would very firmly (but kindly) try out several of the ideas from this book and see if they got us anywhere. I would take control of our food. 

Tune in next time to see what we're trying and how it's working.   


  1. Jean, I just want to tell you that I think you are an amazing mom. I think it is awesome that you saw something that wasn't right and you are trying to fix it. None of us are perfect. All of us do things as parents that we later realize that we shouldn't have, but the key is to see that and then change. Fix our mistakes and move forward.

    I am so interested in how things are going for you. Jay is a picky eater, although I will say not really as picky as Mark but lots of things you described about Mark describes Jay. I think I may end up going out and getting that book.

    I never did buy into the idea of making your food "fun" or hiding ingredients in food. I have however had the kids help and that only sometimes works.

    I myself have overcome many of my own picky habits when it comes to food. Picky habits that I learned from my mom and that she still has. Sometimes the biggest fights I have with my mom are over food, even still. Although she would be in the child position and me the adult. I wonder if I could make some changes in my own self from reading that book.

    Thanks for taking the time to give such a detailed thoughtful review of this book!

    1. I think you would really like the book Brandy, although I know your kids are way better eaters than mine. Also, it's true that we all make mistakes and look back and see the mistake. It's hard as a parent, but I think it's necessary too, so that changes can be made. Hope you're loving Vegas even with those lovely scorpions.

  2. I am not going to judge you. You have a similar problem to mine. My girl is 20 and Praise the Lord she eats everything. My first boy is 17 and he eats almost everything. My second boy is 12 and will eatANYTHING that involves sugar. After that it's grilled fish, fried potatoes, pasta with meat sauce, tuna salad, eggs, bread with chocolate spread, cold cereals with milk, cookies with milk, steamed broccoli with olive oil and lemon, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza occasionaly and not much else. I worry about him almost constantly. I have tried bribes, promises, threats (you won't grow up to be a man and similar things). Nothing works that I have tried. I just pray for the Lord to keep extra guard over him. :(

    1. You know, it's endlessly fascinating to me the foods that even the pickiest kids choose to eat. It's just never really the same things. My son won't touch meat or broccoli, but could practically drink tomato products from a straw. Interesting.



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