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“That looks kinda good…” how to respond to the picky eater

Posted by on Jan 20, 2011 in Blog Posts | 16 comments

So I’ve been eating sesame seeds on my stir-fry for years. I have a shaker, and M always enjoys sprinkling it on my food. At least a year ago I (finally) stopped reminding her she could have it too if she wanted… So, without comment I would say, “M, do you want to sprinkle my sesame seeds for me?” and she would.  Last night she sprinkled and looked and said, “That looks kinda good.” I said, “Yup. I like it” and went on. On her second helping she said again, “That looks good,”  and she saved some rice and sauce and then sprinkled some on.  She looked again and repeated,”That looks kinda good.” In my head I was thrilled, getting ready for her to love a new food, and was already composing today’s post. Something like “After years of patiently waiting, she finally tried the sesame seeds and loved them! Oh, and sesame seeds are a great source of calcium!” Except it looked more like this: She put the bite in her mouth, chewed a little, made a face and gagging noises. Looked around for the paper napkin (that I happened to forget to put out since it was just the two of us last night) leaned forward to spit the half-chewed mess out and said, “That was gross.” I did remind her that she can say she didn’t like it, but that I liked it and that “gross” wasn’t a great word.  She went on to have a little more rice and sauce  without incident.  A couple things came to mind.

1) I follow the DOR, but for some reason I continued to offer and remind her she could have them until recently. I see lots of parents do this, and for sensitive kids they experience this as pressure and it slows them down. (Avoid the, “It’s so yummy, are you SURE you don’t want to try a little bit?” or any variation…) M saw it enough to know that if she wanted it she could have it.

2) Don’t take the bait. When she said, “It looks kinda good,” yes, I got excited, but I refrained from over-selling.  A simple, “I like it”, or “Oh”, will suffice. Again resist, “It IS yummy, Mommy loves it and it will make your bones grow big and strong!”

3) Even adventurous kids are entitled to be cautious, to try a food, to spit it out, to not like it. Resist praising, “At least you tried it,” or “I am so proud of you, what a big girl for trying a new food.” As one mom put it, slap on your pleasant “poker face.” So when she says, “I don’t like it” you can say, “OK” and move on. Save your praise for good behavior at the table. “I love how you helped me lay the table,” instead of what or how much your kids eat.

The meal ended well, she enjoyed the napa cabbage, the left-over pork pieces, the mushrooms, bean sprouts and sugar snap peas that were all mixed in. In time, she may or may not like sesame seeds, but she is more likely to try them again because I didn’t make a big fuss. Meanwhile she gets exposed to the flavors in sesame oil I add to stir-fry occasionally or our ginger salad dressing, hummus etc. It’s a process that can take months to years.

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  1. Beth

    Boy, this is an entirely different way of looking at picky eating than I’ve ever considered. It sounds like a lot less stress for us both at mealtime. Do you think it will work for a more serious case? My daughter has cut off so many foods she’s barely gaining any weight. Does it matter why she’s picky?

    I recently came across this website and thought it really had a lot of good information about why kids don’t eat. It’s a very interesting site.

    • katja

      Hi Beth,
      yes, this is a VERY different approach than most. I don’t know the specifics of your case, but the Trust Model of feeding ( can help in almost every case- including children with feeding challenges like a history of tube-feeds, reflux, allergies, sensory issues, autism etc. (Please sign up for Ellyn Satter’s family meal focus newsletter or check in every now and then, I know she has one coming up about feeding children with special needs.) I have worked, and my colleagues have worked and raised children with feeding challenges in this method. It may take a lot of time and patience, but when we pressure, force, coerce or bribe children to like new foods or to eat more in an effort to gain weight, it almost always makes things worse or slows down the process… I have worked with clients who have been in feeding therapy settings for months to years with little progress and/or “failing” feeding therapy. Please check out Child of Mine for more info… Does that sort of answer your question? I do know that feeding therapy or speech therapy is critical for some children, but I worry that the therapeutic model is not seen as first line by many pediatricians. I don’t think every picky eater needs feeding therapy, but many are not even aware of a different approach…

    • katja

      I found this on the site you mentioned
      A good therapist / feeding clinic (intensive feeding program) will achieve feeding goals in a matter of weeks or a few months. If it takes longer consider switching to another feeding clinic or therapist who can do the job in a timely manner. A competent feeding therapist / specialist will never suggest tube placement (unless the child is not safe to eat by mouth). A competent feeding therapist / specialist will always take care of the problem.
      I have a major problem with these statements, and makes me question the site in general. I think it is false to promise results in “weeks or a few months,” that is just not how it works for many, many children. In some cases, a tube may be necessary, and even helpful as the child learns to eat. There may be a history of trauma around food/feeding etc, and making NEVER statements frightens me. And claiming a competent therapist will always “take care of the problem” is BS… Sorry, it just is. Every child, every family is unique, some families need way more help than others or may not be able to make the necessary changes, or the child may not be ready. Just be cautious with this site… Just my two cents worth on a quick read… What does your gut tell you about those statements, do they give you hope, or make you wary?

  2. Michellers

    Are there any actual non-picky 4 to 5-year-olds?! My daughter has been a pretty good eater but lately the list of acceptable items has been getting smaller and smaller… Last night I made chili which she has always liked and ate a lot of the last time I made it several months ago. But this time she stirred a bunch of cheese and sour cream in it then wouldn’t touch it. I asked her to please take one bite because she said she couldn’t remember if she liked it or not. She tried a bite but spit it out–which is fine with me–then proceeded to lick all of the honey off of her corn bread. That was it for dinner: honey-imbued corn bread crumbs.

    She’s tall for her age and not overly skinny so I don’t worry about her not eating for a meal or two in terms of her growth. I just felt…frustrated by her attitude and annoyed at the outcome. It’s so hard to keep a poker face about it. It’s just so hard after I’ve spent an hour or rwo cooking and everything is rejected.

    This didn’t come up last night, but I have a hypothetical question: when my child refuses everything I’ve served for dinner, including the bread option, and then whines about being hungry, do I offer her a piece of fruit or a yogurt or something as a dessert? Or do I just tell her what’s for dinner is what’s for dinner and that she can eat again in the morning?

    • katja

      It IS tough!!! There is a physiological suspicion that most toddlers go through around 18 months, and often around school time-4-8 there is another phase, more learned from peers or testing limits. Sounds like you handled it really well. Maybe she’s coming down with something, had a big snack or just not hungry. When you remain neutral, you don’t bring the power struggle into it. What would have happened if you had not asked her to please take a bite? Could you not say anything next time? Wait and see what happens? Maybe even just that was enough for her to see what would happen, how far would you push it. Just wondering. Maybe next time if she says “I can’t remember if I like this” you can just say, “Oh? Could you pass the cheese please?” and turn to some other topic? Then there is no attention or focus on her “one bite.” Just a thought! She might like it one day, not the next. Rationalizing will make you crazy! Remember to get your warm and fuzzy good feelings from getting the food on the table, not whether or not they eat it… In general, if they chose not to eat dinner and it’s not been two hours I don’t recommend allowing snacks (if the child is sick, I tend to bend the rules…) Many kids will skip dinner if they know they can beg, whine and scare their parents enough (they can look so pathetic!) to get a more accepted or favored food. Dinner was chili? If I hold out, I can have a granola bar and milk before bed!!! It can be a hard habit to break, and kids who are on the lower end of the weight continuum will work this angle more adeptly as many parents “just want to get some calories in.”
      Keep us posted!

      • Michellers

        Thank you for the pep talk and I agree with everything you said. My husband and I are having the hardest time letting go of our “eat one bite” behavior, because sometimes she tries it and likes it and then eats it. But, of course, just a often she spits it out. Since I can’t change her behavior, I guess it’s time to change mine 🙂

        • katja

          it will be interesting to see what happens. I tend to jump in with talking quickly in general (no surprise there I suppose…) but I’ve learned to just sit and wait at the table. Often, a few minutes after she declares “no thanks” or “i’m not eating that” after nonchalance, no comments and chit chat she digs right in…

  3. Michelle

    Okay, I actually laughed out loud at this.

    I used to dislike sesame seeds and flavour as a kid, but I have really grown to enjoy them. I love crackers that contain sesame seeds now. But when I was a kid, I think the flavour seemed a bit too “musty” to me or something. My palate has definitely changed.

    I can tell you that I certainly was one of those sensitive kids who interpreted ANY kind of parental coaching as pressure. Even though my parents eased up a lot as I got older and didn’t push me to eat as much as they had when I was very little, I remained a pretty picky/limited eater until late teenagehood. Just because I am stubborn 🙂

    • katja

      I love this comment! I think we all think “My two year old eats octopus” is the way to go. Kids don’t have to love every flavor right off the bat. They should be exposed without pressure and learn a positive attitude first and foremost. I had a mom of a child who home-schools. She wrote about his learning style that he is turned of by any suggestion or encouragement. It was an “a-ha” moment to connect that he was picky and was that way about food too…

  4. Mandy C

    Reading this post, I can’t help thinking of my niece,Sarah, who as a child was constantly pleaded with to eat something other than the ice cream, soda pop,potato chips & pasta that was her only source of nourishment (and the pasta had to be the right shape – only spaghetti or ravioli would do -no pasta shells or macaroni, for example). While she was on a school trip abroad, a panicky teacher even phoned my brother because Sarah would not touch her food.
    Now, as an adult, she is still a very picky eater. Although not as limited as before,there are still only a few foods she will touch, and this does to a great extent affect her social life. I can’t help wishing that we had known about the Ellyn Satter system when Sarah was growing up. The trouble is that we all thought that basically getting down on our knees and begging her to eat was the thing to do at the time. What a terrible mistake! In contrast, when her younger sister, Fiona was born, everyone had kind of given up on all that nagging and let her do what she wanted. As a result, Fiona happily ate a wide variety of foods, including many vegetables, and grew up free from food hang- ups in general.

    • katja

      It’s sad, isn’t it? it’s why I do this now for my work. I feel that so many of our food issues could be prevented with best feeding practice. the sad thing is, this book has been around for 30 years, and it has had TONS of readers, but why the “experts” (pediatricians, teachers) are not all on board is beyond me. Alas, I fear we are still barreling in the wrong direction with food (please take a moment to click on the link on my blog to sign the petition abour teaching eating competence in the schools…) If your niece wants to, I do work with adults with selective eating issus 🙂 and if she has kids, please give her a copy of Child of Mine!

  5. Erinn L

    Thank you for this. My husband and I have been trying the DOR since August and still no new foods have even been touched. In fact, our middle child is actually eating fewer foods, but we do a lot of “talking” about food and perhaps that is part of the problem.

    • katja

      those transition months are really hard. As Ellyn says, they will “confirm your worst fears” and almost all will get “worse” before they get better. This is the hang on by your fingernails time, bite your tongue, re-read Child of Mine, Secrets to Feeding a Healthy family, whatever you need to reinforce what the whole picture looks like. Most of my clients “do the DOR” but still have trouble letting go of something that once “worked” like bribing with dessert, or praising… Often the excessive talk feels like pressure to the sensitive child and can be a turn-off. Good luck!

  6. Anne

    Oh yeah, it is so hard not to get excited when your picky kid shows interest in a new food. Last week while we were at the grocery store, my son saw the Near East mixes and asked if he could get one. He picked one out (couscous w/ roasted garlic and olive oil), and we made it together with chicken for dinner a few nights later. He ate about three bites and said “It’s ok, but I don’t want anymore.” I about had to bite my tongue not to do the whole “At least you tried” routine and just said “Ok” in what I hope was a neutral way – but you know inside I was like “OMG he ate three bites of couscous – wooooo!!” 🙂

    • katja

      YAY! Woohoo for you! It’s HARD isn’t it! You can do cartwheels in your head, or high-five in another room, but avoid the praise. When you can stay pleasant and neutral, he’s more likely to push himself along. He won’t feel bad if he doesn’t want to try it next time, he did it because HE wanted to, not for praise. That inner drive to branch out is far more enduring in terms of long-term variety. keep us posted!

  7. Brigid Ryan-Ling

    Love this story! Thanks for the very practical reminders, Katja.