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irrational kitchen-table theater part 4: picky eating, “portions” and more

Posted by on Feb 16, 2011 in Blog Posts | 18 comments

random observations feeding a 5 year-old this week (albeit a fairly adventurous one) and how it pertains to feeding dynamics…

This photo? Yesterday’s snack. 2 bananas, 2 slices of salami and cucumber slices. All were offered separately (carb, fat, protein–check…) yet she chose to eat them… together. There’s the banana, on top was a “cucumber coin” and on top of that was the salami. Her verdict after some slow and attentive chewing, “wow, there was a lot going on in that bite.” Hi-larious. (She’s used to me whipping out my iphone to take photos of meals so I didn’t think I was making a big scene by snapping this one…)

Dinner two nights ago I made a new white chili and chicken stew (I am vetting a “15 Minute Gourmet” book for y’all, first recipe tasted fine, but took far longer than 15 minutes…) This was totally different than what I usually make. I put  the stew in a big bowl on the table, with a bowl of corn, an avocado and tortilla chips. She took one look and said, “Ew, That doesn’t look good. I’m not eating that.” About two minutes later she asked to try a bite of mine, then served herself two small servings and enjoyed it and asked for the left-overs for her lunch.

This morning Dad had PB and J on whole wheat with our grapefruit (such a treat!) and some banana slices. M was eating grape-fruit, banana, milk and her “sweet cereal.” Dad got full with half his sandwich left and asked M if she wanted it. “Yuck, no! It has peanut butter!” Dad couldn’t help asking, “When did you last try it?” M: “I tried it once, I didn’t like it.” (About 3 years ago… Peanut butter and nuts seem to be a no go so far. )


• some snacks are big, some are small. This was a bigger one (2 bananas) but she was hungry at 4:30 after playing outside and not having lunch since noon. Most afternoon snacks are smaller. I let her chose how much to eat from what I offer...
try not to talk about the food much. As she piled the food together, I remained neutral, talking about other things. It’s the pleasant poker-face. Practice it in front of the mirror if you have to 🙂  She ate a few bites of salami-banana-cucumber, then went to straight banana. I had to hold back my own comment of how weird that was, and why the heck won’t she try peanut butter again if she eats that!
• the default reaction to new food is likely to be negative. Ignore it. I menu-planned with her in mind knowing she liked corn and could fill up on that, and chips and avocado (we pour a little balsamic in a half with the seed removed and she eats it with a spoon.) Give kids time. Don’t engage in any kind of rationalizing or explaining. (i.e “You don’t know if you don’t like it until you try it/ just try one bite to see if you like it/it has chicken and beans in it-you like those things, you’ll like this/you liked it last week!…) resist, resist, resist. Don’t engage in the negotiating or power struggle. if you’ve menu-planned so that there is at least something on the table, you can calmly say, “OK, you don’t have to eat it, you can just say ‘no thank you.’ Would you like some corn?” If they have to lose face or give in to admit they like something, some kids with the right temperament would rather fight than surrender. Don’t make them chose.
serve food family style. I know, it’s a pain in the butt with all the extra dishes, but giving them that control cuts off half the food battles before they begin. (Many clients start with, “I put his plate in front of him and we start fighting over the X on his plate, that it’s too much…”) If you fight before you even start eating, you’re dead in the water. Once the power-struggle has begun, that’s where the child is focused. No longer can she pay attention to cues of hunger or even appetite. She can’t be open to new tastes if she’s already upset or only focused on how she can still get dessert out of you… Serve family style, sit back, poker-face. It’s amazing how many times I hear that kids will serve themselves when they have that control.
• I don’t know why peanut butter is eliciting such a strong response. My guess is she’s been asked about it and pressured. It comes up often in the school setting in terms of which room is the no peanut-room, who only eats PB and J every day etc. “What kid doesn’t like peanut butter!” I imagine she’s heard. Dad and I eat it allot. I will keep it around, continue to occasionally offer it and see what happens. After many months of limited dairy intake, she is back to enjoying milk and yogurt. It takes patience. she may never like peanut butter, and that’s OK too.

There are so many more, but just a few to get started. What’s the weirdest food combo your kids have come up with?

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  1. Lisa

    “wow, there was a lot going on in that bite”….LMAO!! She is adorable! My daughter is not a particularly adventurous eater, but your post has made me think I need to amp up our snacks – make sure they are more balanced (protein/carbs/fats). Our meals are always balanced, but not our snacks.

    The whole peanut-allergy phenomenon has me very sad. My daughter will not even try peanut butter (which I adored as a child and still am quite fond of) because she’s been in daycare from when she first came home to us and pb is not allowed due to allergies. She’s got it in her head that it’s dangerous, although we’ve gone over the fact that she has no allergies. I totally understand why it’s not allowed a the center and of course children’s safety is paramount but I was definitely 10+ yrs old before I learned that some foods can be dangerous for some people. I hate that she knows this already 🙁

    • katja

      amped up snacks can really help get them to meals half-sane 🙂 Give her time. She may grow more adventurous with time. (I hear often of adults who grew more adventurous in their teens.)It’s that waiting game that can make us crazy!
      I think the issue of kids picking up food fears is important. I think that M has picked this up to as her first daycare was peanut-free and they freaked out when I accidentally packed a mini-Snickers. (It was sent home, and I felt really badly) but I wonder how it was handled? Was it treated like a dangerous object (and yes, I know it IS a dangerous object for some children) but I think kids can pick up on that anxiety. It is the one food she really seems to have a particular dislike and disinterest in trying… (On another note, kids who have allergies, even if they grow out of them can have severe anxiety issues around food, all foods, particularly if they have had a frightening and severe reaction. it’s a sad and tricky issue many families deal with.)

      • Sarah

        I’d agree with your comment about food anxiety — I’m in my late 20s and as far as I know still have a severe peanut allergy. Generally this isn’t a big deal, I’m enthusiastic about pretty much all foods and love to cook so avoiding peanuts isn’t a major problem. (And although I was particularly anxious about food ingredients in my early teens I think this has fostered my interest in cooking.) However, if peanuts are around I’m fixated on them and will get panicy if I feel I can’t control people eating them around me. I won’t eat anything from a buffett if peanuts are present. I know that sounds fairly rational as I have a diagnosed allergy but the panic is more unsettling to me than the allergic reations I’ve had in the past. I’ll keep looking at the peanuts as if they’re going to chase me!

        It makes me sad to think kids might not enjoy foods because they pick up on a culture of fear around certain foods (even if peanut avoidance has made my life rather nicer!).

        hmm, not sure that was all that relevent to the discussion…

        • katja

          totally relevant. Anxiety is a huge barrier to competent eating, whether it’s picky eating, allergies, binge eating, etc. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Reboloke

      Maybe you could try talking to the daycare staff about how they talk about peanut allergies. It maybe too late to reverse the fear your daughter developed, but how staff address the issue in front of children could make a world of difference in how they perceive it.

      If staff use comments like “it’s too dangerous to have peanuts here” the kids won’t understand what it means as well as if the staff actually explain “some of our friends here are allergic to peanuts and could get very sick from them, so to protect those friends we can’t have peanuts here.” Having worked at a daycare with children who had allergies I can tell you it’s not easy to explain to kids, but they seemed to understand best when we were as specific as possible. One of the kids we had with an allergy would tell the other kids “I’m allergic to peanut butter” so they all knew they couldn’t have peanut butter around him and we sometimes told the kids “it’s ok for you to have peanut butter at home, but we can’t have peanut butter here because it could make (kid who talked about allergy) sick.” If the kids/families with allergies at you’re daughter’s center aren’t as open about it simply saying something like “# of kids that come here are allergic to peanuts, so even though the rest of you can have peanuts at home, we can’t have them here because we need to keep everyone safe” could help assure the other children it the allergy that’s dangerous, not the peanuts themselves.

  2. Kirsten

    I grew up with peanut butter in the house at all times as my mum likes it. Then when I married, my husband liked it. I was even a vegan for a year at one point and just couldn’t bring myself to try it. Finally tried it about a year ago. (I’m 37.) Guess what, I love it. But until then, I could not have brought myself to eat it for any amount of money. People are weird 🙂

    • katja

      people are weird, and kids are even weirder! Thanks for sharing! Same for me on red cabbage which I now love, and I’ve never tried Sauer Kraut! (There is a jar in the kitchen cabinet.) My husband could not BELIEVE I had never tried sauer kraut… I might never. Just tried cocktail onions for the first time. (M loved these when she was under 2.) Not my fave, but no too bad.

  3. Taz

    I don’t have kids, but I have a food combo story of my own. When I was around 8 years old, I thought bananas and Ritz crackers sounded like a great combination, so I tried it. They were NOT a great combination. A very, very not great combination. It took about 10 years before I was able to eat bananas again, and I still don’t like Ritz crackers (I’m in my 30s). Ah, good memories :-). Luckily, most food experiments didn’t turn out so badly.

  4. Heather

    I don’t have any weird food combinations to share, because my 5-year-old really prefers his foods separate. If we separate the ingredients of something like a stir fry, he would eat most of the components individually, but if we offer him the finished product (all mixed together and with sauce, oh the horrors) he is likely to ignore it and not even pick out his favorite parts like tofu and broccoli. I feel like this is an area where I’m walking the line between considering and catering, and I usually err on the side of catering, setting aside his serving before adding the sauce to the skillet. Same with pizza: he’ll eat the crust, sauce, cheese and other toppings if they’re separate on his plate, but an actual slice of pizza? He won’t even pick it up.

    • katja

      This is a situation where I would need more info to have any kind of thoughts. Every family, child and feeding history is different. It’s a dance with many, many steps. I often feel like a detective, working with families to put the pieces together and find areas that may be slowing rather than helping the process. But I hear you… This is something typical of younger children, maybe 18-24 months. Have you read Child of Mine? Sometimes parents (myself too at the time) can get a lot of insights by going back in the book to earlier feeding chapters. (i.e. A parent has issues with a 3 year old, but might need to read back about starting solids and on to get an understanding of the process.) Some kids just don’t like foods mixed together, it may be a sensory issue, texture etc, but I wonder if he is old enough to serve himself and eat what he likes and leave the rest. Again, I’d just need more of the picture to be of any use.

  5. Johannah

    I want to tell you about dinner last night. We served (family style) roasted asparagus (cooked with a tiny bit of lemon juice and salt), salmon, and roasted potato slices. Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables, but a rare one because it tends to be expensive out of season and its season is short. BUT- it was on sale for $2 a pound last week, so I got two bunches. Anyway, the salmon was the safe food- I know both kids will eat it happily. In fact, my daughter ate her serving- and then mine! BUT- both kids have always turned their noses up at asparagus (even after I told them about what it does to pee). We’ve been doing division of responsibility (trying anyway) for a few months now, so we didn’t say anything about the veggies (they don’t like potatoes either). And my daughter ASKED to have piece of asparagus. Sure she dumped half a bottle of straight lemon juice on top of it, but we didn’t say anything and she ate it. And took more. And ate that too. In fact, she ate half the dish on the table. Then she ate potatoes! You have no idea the number of times (in the past) we tried to explain that potatoes were what her beloved French fries were made of. But we haven’t mentioned it in months and today she ate them. She ate a lot of them. And, seeing her eat, my son ate some too. I wanted to do a happy dance and praise the hell out of them. Instead I bit my cheek and kept eating my own dinner- although less of it than I’d expected!

    • katja

      YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY!!! I’m also jumping up and down in my head… Good for you for not praising!!! It’s amazing how it just takes….time…. nothing, nothing, nothing, then eating it with no fanfare. It’s the assumption of competency, TRUSTING that they will grow up to eat (most) of the foods you enjoy as a family 🙂 Have you seen my “pink sauce” for asparagus recipe? (search it on the blog) it sounds gross, but its how I grew up eating asparagus with my fingers and dipping into that sauce! Thank you for showing us another example of how you can talk till you’re blue in the face, but what we really need to do is just SHUT UP 🙂 (not easy for me sometimes…)

  6. Kate

    At what point can you incorporate the self-serving of a meal presented family style? My toddler (20 months) isn’t physically cabable of managing the task yet. I put small portions of everything on her plate and let her decide what to do (giving her more of anything she requests–well, within some limits. We learned that too much of certain fruits messes up her digestion). At some point, I would like to move toward her serving herself, but not sure how to go about that.

    • katja

      Follow your child’s lead. She may be able to serve herself bread from a basket or plate, or pieces of potato that are big enough with a serving spoon, or peas from a bowl with a small ladle. it’s messy, but sometimes we don’t know what kids can do until we let them try it. Maybe start with a few easy things to get in the habit of taking and passing food, and see how it goes! Expect it to be messy for a few years yet. I still have to remind M to bring the serving bowl right up to her plate. She often spills, but then she gets to practice cleaning up too 🙂 Sounds like you’re doing fine and asking permission and doing what works for you. Some kids really freak out if the plate is served for them, and family style can be a huge help.

      • Kate

        Cool. I was basing my assessment on her abilities with eating utensils. Those are still pretty tricky for her yet. 🙂