Dear Hobie & Monk,
My 6-year-old son is a really picky eater. His repertoire of acceptable foods has dwindled, and he insists on eating the same things prepared the same way. Eating out and with friends or family is stressful and embarrassing. I’ve recently resorted to preparing and bringing something that I know my son will eat when we eat elsewhere to avoid drama, but this offends some hosts (my mother, for example) and doesn’t seem right when other kids his age manage to eat what’s served. Do you have any suggestions?
– Fed up with a picky eater
Monk: We recently vacationed with a 6-year-old who shrieked, “This isn’t my kinda food!” when we all sat down for a dinner that I had prepared for our families. His parents were embarrassed, but this little guy was right.
The few dishes that he had learned to think of as “his food” were not on the table. The idea of eating, or even trying, a new or similar food terrified this kid, and his frustrated parents were faced with the daunting — but not impossible — task of helping him become more confident and competent at the dinner table.
I approach mealtimes with my picky eaters with exactly those goals in mind: confidence and competence. Kids learn how and what to eat from their parents. Those who become competent eaters benefit from parents who teach them in a consistent and intentional way that all foods are their “kinda” foods (excepting allergens but including dessert).
For me, this means serving a variety of foods, emphasizing good nutrition and refusing to customize meals for picky eaters. We have a list of family favorites, but I try to work in a new recipe once a week. My kids eat some meals and pick at others, but they usually give new foods a try. Some nights they go to bed a little hungry, but sometimes they discover a new favorite.
Dining in other homes was tricky when my kids were young but also provided an opportunity to branch out. I found that preparing my risk-averse eaters prior to the meal helped. I might say, for example, “Grandma is making spaghetti and carrots and bread.” Sometimes dinner was bread.
Miraculously, though, my kids’ repertoires expanded when they began eating in friends’ homes on play dates and sleepovers (thank you, chef moms!). Now they’re older and bolder and able to hold their own when eating at other tables.
For more on the topic, check out Ellyn Satter’s “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook.”
Hobie: Ah, yes — a 6-year-old. That’s the year I swear our daughter survived largely on air and water, precisely because she also became increasingly picky and we refused to only serve the two or three (bland, tan) foods that she willingly consumed. We served them but also put a variety of other foods in front of her — just as Monk suggests. And we refused to run our home as a restaurant staffed by chefs happy to fulfill her every whim at every meal.
I’m thrilled to attest to the fact that she eats everything from sushi to salad to steak as a teenager. Having said that, eating special meals out with young, picky eaters (especially at others’ homes where the meal has been prepared) certainly presents different challenges than meals at home, which include old favorites and new options. The goal of a meal shared with others, whether in a restaurant or in their home, is first and foremost to enjoy each other’s company. Often, the specific food consumed is secondary.
Yes, you can use the opportunity to teach mealtime manners (let’s face it — even adults don’t always want to eat everything served to us). But you also shouldn’t be embarrassed to whip out something you’ve prepared for your son and say, “Oh, he’s going through a phase, and we don’t want his pickiness ruining the evening for all of us.”
You deserve a drama-free meal, and anyone you really want to dine with, including grandmothers, should be gracious and leave it at that.
Hobie and Monk are two Alexandria women with husbands, children, dogs, jobs, mortgages, unmet New Year’s resolutions, obsessions with impractical shoes, English novels … and Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. Their advice, while fabulous, should not be construed as therapeutic within a doctor-patient context or substituted for the advice of readers’ personal advisors. Got a question? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org