Adventures in Picky Eating

I have long had a love/hate relationship with dinner time at my house. I love that it is one of the few times that we all get together as a family and talk, but I hate the cries of my picky eaters each night.  In fact, once my children turned three or so and realized that they have some control over what foods they put into their bodies, all hell broke loose at dinner time.

The good news is that they both like raw fruit and vegetables. Those are easy, healthy side dishes.  The bad news is that they cannot agree—not even a little bit—about the main dishes.  My oldest only likes chicken.  My youngest prefers red meat.  My oldest does not love starchy foods.   My youngest would love to eat just rice, potatoes, and pasta every night.  My oldest hates sauces of any kind. My youngest will not touch his food unless it is covered in a dipping sauce.  My oldest consistently loves what he loves and hates variation.  My youngest son’s tastes change often (cue “I don’t like that anymore!).  So, inevitably, there is always one unhappy child at the dinner table.

Over time, we developed a system for making dinner time bearable with our picky eaters. For starters, although I am not a natural chef by any means, I have worked hard to find 15 or so recipes that my family generally enjoys and I cycle through them, occasionally throwing in a new dish here and there.  And, since I do not prepare separate meals for each diner, I try to be mindful of serving some meals that my oldest prefers and some meals that my youngest prefers each week.

Also, in our house, we break food into three categories: “Always” foods like fruit, vegetables, and lean protein are served with every meal and snack and I never restrict; “Usually” foods like red meats, milk, and cheese are also provided with most meals and snacks, but I sometimes have to set limits on them (e.g. one son gets an upset stomach by too much dairy); finally, “Sometimes” foods are starches and treat foods. Both of my kids are motivated by dessert (even just a popsicle), and to avoid lengthy power struggles, when they start to whine about how they do not like a food that I served, I remind them that they do not have to eat anything that they do not want to, it is always their choice, but that they cannot have dessert unless they eat all of the “Always” and “Usually” foods on their plates.  “Sometimes” foods are always optional.

Still, though, struggles remain at times. It never fails that I will serve a food that my youngest son previously loved only to find that he no longer likes it, and a tantrum will ensue.  Or, my oldest will make himself sick trying to eat a food that he does not like because he wants dessert.  I listen to them cry, or whine, or pout over our nightly dinner, and mostly, I ignore it.  Sometimes, I become frustrated (after all, I did not really want to cook after working all day only to hear them complain about it).  I keep telling myself that with consistency, increasing maturity, and growing palettes, this will all get better over time.  But, in the meantime, is it really supposed to be torture for everyone?!? I have often wondered if I am handling my picky eaters well…

… and then I went to have lunch with my son at school last week. Everything changed when I saw the macaroni raisin burritos.

Yup. You heard that right.

For the past year and a half, my son has asked me to pack plain shell macaroni in a thermos container in his lunch every day, and I just assumed it was because he did not like many other packable foods that would keep well. But, on this day, I watched as my son took each individual shell, stuffed it with a raisin, and then tossed it into his mouth.

“What are you doing?!?” I asked, in shock.

“They’re macaroni raisin burritos,” he chuckled.

My mind was blown. I could not have possibly imagined that he was turning such a simple, plain food into a daily experiment that today involved raisins, but other days, I have learned, involve strawberries, blueberries, and fruit snacks.

“Do you want to try it, Mommy? It’s good,” he said. Of course I did not want to try it, but I could not possibly tell him that.  After all, I am often placing the expectation on him that he try a food before he decides that he does not like it.  So, I bravely reached out as he placed a shell macaroni and raisin burrito into my palm, and I tossed it quickly into my mouth.  It was every bit as disgusting as I had imagined.  It turns out that the container does not keep the macaroni warm as long as I had hoped.  It was a cold macaroni raisin burrito.

As he continued to stick one raisin into each shell, I looked around the table. Next to him was a boy using his cheddar crackers to scoop out his chocolate pudding.  Across the table was a girl dipping her peanut butter and jelly sandwich into her milk before each bite.  I was horrified as I realized that this weird food experimentation was happening across the whole table.  Children who scoff at the nutritious meals that we provide them each night were creating some of the most disgusting concoctions and eating them without flinching.  There was no whining.  There was no fighting.  There was no crying.  There were only kids enjoying their food … their disgusting food.

Part of me was so traumatized from this experience that I vowed never to send him shell macaroni again. But, the more rational side of me recognizes that what I see as picky eating may just be that his little palette appreciates different foods than mine.  So, for now, I will keep trucking along, day by day, with him eating his own creations at lunchtime and my creations at dinnertime.

But, the next time that he is crying at the dinner table about how he cannot possibly eat the hamburger or the meatloaf I have prepared, I will not feel bad, or like I am torturing him, or wonder if I am doing something wrong. Instead, I will wonder if it is because he filled up on 52 cold, shell macaroni and raisin burritos at lunch that day.

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