Picky Eaters

“We could never eat like that – my child is such a picky eater!”

I hear this from frustrated parents all the time – in fact, I used the very same excuse for years. Our daughter, Kid1, was a picky eater.

Kid1 imitates her past picky eating

Kid1 imitates her past picky eating.

By the time she was 11, she was down to a diet of sugar and milk. The foods she would eat were plain pasta, mac & cheese, cheddar cheese, cookies, candy, ice cream, most fruits, raw carrots, the barely cooked stems of broccoli, buttered toast, white rice with cinnamon sugar, plain mashed potatoes, and milk. She would go on kicks where she would eat a protein food for a while and then would totally go off it. The three protein foods she would occasionally eat were plain bean burritos, lentils, or peanutbutter and honey sandwiches. She had decided to be a vegetarian at age 4 and could detect (and reject) even the slightest hint of hidden broth.

I know this is more than some kids eat, but we found it a challenge. She never even made it onto the growth chart. She would eat extremely small portions of foods. Even with foods she normally would eat, she’d have one tiny bite and keep it in her mouth for 5 minutes or longer, making faces, sometimes spitting it out. She also could go without eating for days at a time if she didn’t feel for what was offered.

We tried all the standard advice for getting picky eaters to eat, without stressing too much about it. Being unschoolers, we had the philosophy that kids will self-regulate, and naturally choose a healthy diet over a period of time. That worked for our son, but not our daughter.

After her dad and I split up when she was 7, and over the years she slowly stopped eating almost anything at our house. She actually told me that she didn’t have to eat because she could have whatever she wanted at his house (3-4 day alternating schedule). When we kept a food log for her because my mom was afraid she was anorexic we found out that she was eating only a couple hundred calories a day at my house and several thousands each day at his house. One of the first days recorded included at her dad’s included: cheesecake, Popsicles, candy, cherry pie, milkshake, a few french fries, a bite of a garden burger, and flavored yogurt. He didn’t start off feeding her this way… he was frustrated with the daily battle of trying to get her to eat anything else.

Last year, a couple months before our family went gluten-free, my partner and I decided this couldn’t go on. We talked with her about our concerns about her nutrition and her vegetarian choice. With a vegetarian diet (and any diet) comes a responsibility to make sure you get balanced nutrition. She wanted to see if her tics could improve, if her moods could improve, and if her growth curve would pick up. (She is the size of a bottom-of-the-growth-chart 9 year old at age 12.5). We told her that if she had strong feelings about being vegetarian, she had to make the case, and she also had to take charge of her nutrition. Otherwise we would expect her to eat what the rest of us were eating. She decided to try what we were eating.

It was a very slow process. We’d put one tiny piece of each thing we were having on her plate, and she had to try it. She would only take the tiniest nibble. But she did desensitize herself to the idea of eating meat. She was still extremely picky. One day TinyHands got takeout at Burgerville and the burgers got switched. She ate her brother’s meat burger in its entirety. When they picked him up he noticed the mistake. That was the first time she’d eaten more than half of a burger, ever. She started trying more foods a little more willingly.

Then last November we realized we needed to try a gluten-free diet for our son, Kid2. The kids’ dad went along with it, which helped the selection of food at his house. When the packaged gluten-free food continued to be a problem for our son, we decided to try the GAPS diet. Their dad participated in that as well.

Kid1 had a miserable first week or so, but was game to try it. After a full week of nothing but the soups, both the kids were eating what was served with enthusiasm. Each new food addition became exciting, and they both started eating a lot more, too. When we reintroduced fruit and when we reintroduced cheese the kids started getting more picky again. We have learned that when this happens, we have to cut back on that stuff and eat more soup and basic vegetables and meats.

Kid1's Thanksgiving Dinner

Kid1 ate all this plus a green salad, then went back for seconds on turkey! The only thing she would have touched last year is the cranberry sauce.

My picky girl, who last year only ate a few bites of mac & cheese and pie at Thanksgiving dinner had a full plate this year. She ate roasted turkey, chestnut-pork stuffing, cranberry sauce, roasted brussels sprouts, roasted cauliflower, green salad with walnuts & apple, then went back for seconds on turkey. After that she had two slices of squash pie with almond crust (1/2 cup of honey in the whole thing), and some homemade ice cream.

When people say their kids will only eat starch and dairy, that is a big warning flag to me that those foods are a problem. It takes a lot of doing to get over the withdrawal from those foods (gluteomorphin and casomorphin actually have addictive properties) and move on to new foods, but it can be very well-worth the hassle! I could relate to the difficulty, because when I changed my diet I might as well have been kicking street drugs. When it’s that hard to change, I think it’s a sign that a change is overdue.

We were lucky that Kid1 was willing to try making a change. However, that willingness didn’t come easy, and she still struggled through it. There were days when she didn’t eat because she didn’t like what was offered, but now she feels better, and actually likes to eat in a way she never did before.

This post is part of Butter Believer’s Sunday School, Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday and Simple Lives Thursday on Sustainable Eats and GNOWFGLINS!

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12 comments to Picky Eaters

  • Angela Bolton

    I was so relieved to read your blog post here. I have the 11 year old, extremely picky year old girl. Her diet wasn’t unlike Kid1’s. I’ve been discussing the GAPS diet with my sister who has an autistic son and a son with some heart and blood pressure issues. She has the rotating 4 day custody challenge. Her husband left the dietician office with their son and took him to White Castle right after telling the lady they only eat low fat foods! My sister was livid! He loves his kids so much, we know that, but wants to make their visit with him fun and non confrontational. My family is scheduled to start GAPS intro after the holidays. I am more than freaked out at how this will work in our family but it sounds like if your family can do this with all you went through….surely we could give it a try! I can’t tell you how relieved I was to read about how restricted Kid1’s diet was and how she is eating full healthy meals now. Thank you for writing! I found your link on Facebook if you were wondering. πŸ™‚

    • Mama

      Hi Angela,
      Thanks for your comments. Reading your post brought back so many memories. Our family considered doing GAPS for about a year before we started. We were so concerned about the back and forth, and the pickiness issues (even mine, I’m ashamed to say), not to mention all the cooking. But we did it! Will you be doing most of the kitchen work for your family? Are they on board with the idea?

      For your sister… the two things that made the biggest difference in terms of the diet working between the two households was that the first changes we made were so obviously necessary, and the kids got on board with trying the diet. That could be more challenging with an autistic child. We have found mediation helpful with getting agreements worked out. Another option may be to send food for the child. This is a big hassle, but at least it takes the added work of making the diet happen off the other parent’s plate. If they can agree to try it for a few weeks then it may start to stick. It might also make sense to start over a vacation when parenting time has been switched up so that there is a longer period of time with the parent who wants to try GAPS. That way the child can adjust to the new way of eating and spare some of the conflict that may otherwise occur.

      As for your GAPS intro plans, good luck! If it doesn’t go smoothly at first don’t worry. It’s normal to take some time to figure it out and get into the swing of things. Have you read our posts about the nitty gritty of how to do the diet? We highly recommend actually reading the book before you start, and then using our Starting GAPS post to get your kitchen set up. We’ve also made a series of posts on how to do the GAPS Intro.

      If you decide you need some real-life support, we offer both hands-on help (in the Portland, OR area) and phone or skype consultations as well.

  • This is perfect timing to read. We are on Day 2 of GAPS intro and I have one kid who is eating a little tiny bit and another who has only had some chicken. No broth drinking, no soup drinking, just some water to drink. They both were sick in the middle of the night and are now just resting and not wanting to eat anything. It’s tough not to give in and make them some cooked apples or to go the other way and try to force them to eat with lots of battles I’m sure. I’m just going to keep offering what I’m making. I’m surprised that I like the food so much. I’m a “recovering” vegetarian so dealing with so much meat and the bones is a lot ot overcome.

    Thank you for sharing your journey and giving us encouragement.

    • Mama

      Hi Luna,
      It’s possible they are hypoglycemic and really should have something to eat. Have you tried pureeing a soup for them? Carrot soup with ginger and chicken purrees really nicely!

  • Wow did I love reading this! I’ve heard before that if they will only eat dairy and starch it can be a sign that they have sensitivities to those things which makes no sense logically to me. I have a 5 year old who eats hardly anything, hates meat, won’t eat veg or fruit but drinks raw goat milk, backyard eggs and virtually any grain. It’s really frustrating but I know eventually our perseverance will pay off. I just have to make sure he doesn’t get anything outside the house because here at least it’s all healthy. If he was only here part of the week the whole thing would backfire just like ti did with your daughter. I’m so glad you shared this story! Sounds like I have just 7 short years to go…

    • Mama

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Tastes really can change. Good luck and hang in there! As he gets older he’ll be able to understand more about nutrition and the way different foods affect him, and hopefully that will help. I think it’s important not to get too crazy about kids not getting things other places unless there is a real allergy or other serious medical reason to consider, especially if it just a once-in-a-while thing.
      It can be a difficult balancing act between our emotional health and our physical health when it comes to food. Real food does help our emotional health after all, so getting over a hump with a little tough love can be key. But it’s also important not to get obsessive about food or create that for our kids long term. This site isn’t so real-food focused, but in general I like the approach given at http://familyfeedingdynamics.com/ You may also enjoy reading more of my personal struggle on this front at http://kitchenlib.com/challenges/confession/

  • Jen

    I LOVE this post! Thanks for sending me the link. A lot of what you mention here makes so much sense to me. I was much like your daughter for many years. I just couldn’t touch certain foods. Now it is completely amazing what I will eat! Quality of the food matters! Growing up in a home of packaged seasonings, cheap meats, canned soups, and more probably caused this aversion for me. Now I realize the benefit of food as a necessity and will not sacrifice its quality so we can buy other things. In the long run it’s just not worth it. This body is all we have for our lives and we need to take care of it or else our quality of life will suffer! Thank God my hubby is coming around now too. It just takes time. I encourage others not to give up too soon and keep honing those kitchen skills. It will pay off!

    • Mama

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I agree that real food is something to make room in the budget for. In the long time it more than pays for itself in quality of life… and doctor & medicine bills!

  • […] WILL eat. I'm like a broken record. Check out the GAPS diet website and GAPS yahoo message board. Picky Eaters | The Liberated Kitchen, LLC Roo's Clues: Welcome to Our World Reply With Quote   + Reply to […]

  • katie

    When I read this it brought tears to my eyes. I used to be so picky and also proclaimed to be a vegetarian. I still feel gross thinking about eating some meat, but since getting pregnant over 4 years ago I like meat. Now I have a son w autism and I wonder how different things could have been if I had been introduced to gaps way back when. Can’t dwell though. My almost 4 year old is very picky, but very slowly I have introduced soup and boiled meat and veggies w an insane amount of enthusiasm and hype. I’m shocked at the joy I feel over getting my kid to eat soup! We are starting intro on Nov 1st and I am nervous, but articles like this one and your direction and guidance make all the difference for me. Thank you for sharing all of this. Gaps has been a looming mountain and you have me to being to climb.

  • […] of that is due to the fact that our picky eater started eating, and both the kids are teens now. Some of that is we have less time to shop and plan, so […]

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