Raising a Picky Eater without Resorting to Bribery or Murder

Dawn Davenport


Food Issues and Pickiness in Adopted Children

How to help your child deal with issues about food.

I love food. I love to cook. I love to eat. Given my druthers I would seldom repeat a recipe—so few meals in a lifetime and so many different foods to try. A large pot of healthy soup simmering on the stove while my little cherubs played quietly nearby with educational wooden toys featured heavily in my pre-kid dreams.

This dream remained more or less intact with my first child. Her preschool teacher called me one day expressing concern that DD didn’t understand what the word “breakfast” meant because when asked what she had for breakfast that day she replied—cauliflower soufflé. Yep, you guessed it…there was nothing wrong with my little darling’s comprehension. (In my defense, I’d point out that it was leftover from the night before, not freshly made at 6:00 am that morning. I like food, but I like sleep better.)

The little cherubs playing quietly at my feet part bit the dust with child #2, but the gently simmering healthy food part was alive and well until the arrival of child #3. As soon as this child could control his tongue he was rejecting foods. Or more to the point, he was rejecting any new foods. Of course, when you’re two, most foods are new.

The books assured me that he’d outgrow his pickiness if I ignored it and gently encouraged him to experiment. My boy defied the books. Truth be told, I was pretty hit or miss on the ignoring it advice. I’d really try for a while, and then as if controlled images from my distant pre-kid dream, I’d try to encourage him to eat more variety of foods. At times my encouragement looked a lot like pushing. I truly feel sorry for picky adults, and I so didn’t want my son to become one.

By the time he was 10, I was tired of my behavior. Oh, I was plenty tired of his behavior too, but the only behavior I could change was my own, and I didn’t want our relationship to be defined by food. I also became convinced that his pickiness around food was a part of his innate temperament. He is a cautious person and resists all new things. We have had to actively work with him over the years to say “let me think about it” rather than an automatic “no” when presented with any new experience. I had a serious talk with myself and tried to just accept his limited palate. Slowly, I began to succeed more than I failed.

He is older now and although still picky, he eats enough variety to get along in most restaurants. I try to always incorporate something he likes in my dinner menus. I’d like to say that he reciprocates by trying a bite of the other foods being served, but he seldom never does. I keep chicken fillets frozen to grill for him when I serve a main dish that he won’t like, which pretty much includes any dish that involves more than 2 ingredients. I’m more or less OK with that.

Food Issues with Children Adopted from Foster Care or Internationally

Adopted kids who were deprived of food or had stress surrounding food often, not surprisingly, have issues related to food. They might hoard or hide food or inhale their food so quickly that you fear they will choke. They may eat very little or overeat to the extreme. In this week’s Creating a Family show, Dr. Katja Rowell gave concrete suggestions on how to handle these problems. She also talked about some of the more run of the mill issues surrounding parents and kids concerning food—such as pickiness and overeating. She gave me some new ideas on dealing with a picky eater:

  • Drop all pressure to eat or try new things
  • Eat as a family often.
  • Serve food “family style” with each person adding their own food to their plate.
  • Ignore what she does or doesn’t eat.
  • The child does not have to eat it just because he put it on his plate.
  • Give the child a paper napkin. If she takes a bite of something and doesn’t like it, she can discretely spit it into the napkin.
  • Talk about anything other than what he is eating or not eating.

On our own we stumbled upon this basic solution as a family, although I never thought of the paper napkin advice. (Not sure I’d be able to refrain from sighing deeply and rolling my eyes, so probably a good idea that we never tried it.) I wished I had heard Dr. Rowell or read her book, Love Me, Feed Me, years ago. Oh, and by the way, I struck foodie parent gold with child #4. She scarfed down a bowl of butternut squash shrimp bisque for breakfast this morning and practically licked the bowl clean. Unfortunately, she gave up educational wooden toys for an iTouch years ago.

Do you have a picky eater or a child with more serious food issues? What has worked for you? Please share, since we parents are all in this together.

Check out this really informational and practical show with Dr. Katja Rowell, the Feeding Doctor and author of Love Me, Feed Me.


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We talked about the following on this show:

  • What are the most common feeding or food issues parents face with adopted children?
  • What is the best way to handle a child that is hoarding and hiding food?
  • If a child has failed feeding therapy, what should a parent do?
  • What are the signs of food insecurity?
  • What events in the adopted child’s background might lead to food insecurity and anxiety surrounding food.
  • What is the proper role of snacks?
  • What are the best snacks to provide for children?
  • Can catch up growth lead to a child becoming overweight?
  • How can parents handle eating issues when a newly adopted child first comes home?
  • How best for a parent to deal with a child that hides food?
  • What is the division of food responsibilities between a parent and a child?
  • Does the “Three Bite Rule” or “One Bite Before No Thank you Rule” usually work?
  • What are the signs of an oral/motor skill problems that may result in feeding issues?
  • What are normal eating patterns for children?
  • How to find a feeding therapist for  your adopted child?
  • How should parents deal with a picky eater? With an extremely picky eater than is severely limited in what he will eat?
Image credit: asimeone1972

08/03/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 20 Comments

20 Responses to Raising a Picky Eater without Resorting to Bribery or Murder

  1. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Sara, absolutely listen to this week’s Creating a Family show on Food Issues with Adopted Kids with Dr. Katja Rowell. She was full of great advice for a newly adopted/foster child who is extremely picky. Fortunately, I never faced that degree of pickiness.

  2. Avatar Florida Bazil says:

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  3. Avatar Tara says:

    I’m looking forward to hearing this. I am hesitant to not insist that my almost 2 year old at least try new foods, otherwise he will only eat graham crackers, grapes, chicken and potatoes the rest of his life!

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I hear you Tara. That was my fear with my kiddo. At times I wondered if there was a golden window that I could have exposed him to all sorts of foods so that at least his repertoire would have been greater before he got so picky. Not sure that would have worked, but I sure did dream about it. 🙂

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    “Give the child a paper napkin. If she takes a bite of something and doesn’t like it, she can discretely spit it into the napkin.”

    Yes! I was a hugely picky eater growing up, though not nearly so now. Like Anon, my tastes started to change around college, when I started cooking a lot. When I was young and faced with a mouthful of food that makes me gag, not having a napkin was a real problem.

  5. Avatar I_am says:

    As a picky eater, I’m so glad this got some attention. Further I’m glad the subject was given the treatment it was. There are lots of facets to “picky eating”. A negative temperament is certainly a big player. To clarify, a negative temperament isn’t a bad thing. The difference between a negative temperament and a positive one is whether the first response that occurs when presented with information is “yes” or “no”. A “no” based process tends to be an expression of a need for time, control, and often physical space to mull over ideas and new concepts. “No” temperaments tend to be intellectually focused. “Yes” temperaments tend to be experientially focused.

    Another big factor, often entirely ignored, is the physical structure of the child’s tongue. As a “super taster” I can attest that certain flavors are flat out painful. If you’ve never eaten something so salty it burned your entire mouth or so sweet you had to concentrate to keep from vomiting, they’re special experiences. It’s important to pay attention to whether the child is avoiding certain flavor or flavor combinations. For most super tasters bitter is the big problem. More rarely sweet or salt can be problems. Does the child love orange juice but hate oranges? The bitter of the rind oils may be enough to drive them off.

    It’s also worth remembering that texture can be every bit as difficult as flavor for some people. To this day I can’t stand ground meats. Macaroni and cheese still triggers my gag reflex. There are some foods I’m literally incapable of eating. My autonomic functions (namely gag reflex and glottis) will not allow me to eat some foods. Those limits on my diet are entirely based on textures and have nothing to do with taste.

    If someone’s eating habits seem unreasonable, chances are very good they are. The number of taste-buds on a tongue, fundamentals of thought architecture, and gag sensitivity are things a kid can’t control. They cannot be reasoned with. The best work around I’ve encountered for dealing with these problems is, when age appropriate, teach the kid to cook. It gives the kid a chance to take direct control over something that, often, is a disempowering experience and turn it around.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I_am, textures are a huge issue for my son. Much more so than taste. I love the idea of teaching to cook. I would imagine being a picky eater often makes him feel out of control, and cooking would restore his control.

  6. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Jennifer, I hear you about not wanting meal times to become a battle. I feel the same way. I also heard my own mother’s voice in my head, that I was spoiling him by not insisting that he eat and not catering to his pickiness. I had to actively work to tone down that voice.

  7. Avatar Jennifer Michalik Olson says:

    We have a bio son and two daughters we adopted domestically. I exclusively breastfed all of them so they did get the same general tastes in the breastmilk. My son is a very easy eater. My oldest daughter was a picky eater with a small appetite from birth. Even while bf, she didn’t eat as much as most kids. I worried all the time I didn’t have enough milk, but in retrospect, I think it is just how she is. When we started solids at 6 months, she refused to try anything. I didn’t know what to do. The nurses at the peds office kept telling me to keep trying and increasing the amount of times I tried each day because she “should” be eating 2-3 meals a day. It just led to frustration. I finally asked to speak to the ped and he said to just take a break for a week and then try again. I took breaks several times. She finally started to accept some solids at 7.5 months. She didn’t do well with them until closer to 9-10 months. At a year we were having a hard time getting her to eat anything other than fruits and cereals. We asked for a referral to a feeding therapist. We went occasionally for a few months. It did help us with knew ideas to get her to accept new foods.

    She is now 5 and is still picky, but she will eat a variety of things. A garden helped us a ton with eating vegetables.

    Our second daughter was very picky too. She didn’t reject solids like our first did, but she was very picky with what she would accept. This time I wasn’t as worried about it and I knew better how to deal with it. One day she will inhale brocolli like it is ice cream. The next she won’t touch it. The same happens with meats. She also won’t touch pizza (which even our picky middle daughter loved).

    Meal times have been a battle and we are working hard to not make it one any more. We definitely encourage the try one bite.

  8. Avatar Anon AP says:

    If it’s any consolation to picky eater parents, I was a terribly picky eater as a kid. (I still remember feeling nauseous when made to taste or eat certain things.) Sometime during college, my tastes changed – tomatoes started tasting good instead of rancid, for example – and I now eat a much greater variety of things and am willing to give just about anything a shot. So, hang in there and don’t feel like you’re somehow not doing things right! Setting the example of eating a lot of different foods helps set the stage in case things change later. If you have trouble identifying with your kid, imagine someone setting a glass of spoiled milk in front of you and demanding you drink it. You might be willing to try a taste of it if they assure you it’s good even if it smells a bit odd, but a “well, you better drink that because it’s the only thing you’re getting tonight” attitude just becomes incredibly mean when you know pantry is full in the next room. And, of course, it seems entirely reasonable to try to negotiate with enthusiasm for cereal when faced with the foul option in front of you…

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Anon AP, actually, that does give me some assurance, but truthfully, I’m OK either way. If he remains really picky, it will be his issue to deal with in life. We all have our own, and he could certainly get stuck with worse “issues”. 🙂

  9. Avatar Guinevere says:

    Ack, wish for an edit function! Obviously you can control the first solids with a kid you did not give birth to but that you became the parent of in the first 4-6 months of life… but the breastfeeding and in utero part of it seems to be at least a little piece of the puzzle as I think there’s some evidence that children are more tolerant of flavors they received prenatally.


    The more I think about it, too, I think Dawn is onto something with the more cautious versus more adventure-craving personalities being related to the picky thing. However, I think there’s hope for the future – I’m married to a former picky eater who no longer is!

  10. Avatar Guinevere says:

    But, I think a huge part of it is that my kids may just be inclined by genetics to be non-picky eaters as a part of being generally “novelty-seeking” in other ways. I suspect we may end up with a different situation entirely with our next child, even with keeping the same environment!

  11. Avatar Guinevere says:

    We’ve had good luck with the “trying bite” rule in our house. On paper we allow the exception that everyone is entitled to one food they dislike so strongly that they must not keep trying it, but we actually haven’t had to use that yet. We usually invoke Green Eggs and Ham when our 3-year-old says he doesn’t like a new food that he hasn’t even tried yet. It also seems to resonate that it hurts the feelings of the cook when the food they worked hard to make isn’t even tried before being rejected. We try to involve kids in the shopping, menu planning and cooking process, and that also helps a lot. We also model enthusiasm about the idea of trying new dishes when shopping or dining out (“Oooh, look, they have ___! I’ve never had ____!”) – it’s not a put on, the reason we have the trying rule in the first place is that we think it’s important to explore new things with an open mind.

    Tonight there were two foods that were initially rejected on principle by our two kids that after we reminded them of the “trying bite” rule they went on to enjoy and eat vast quantities of. (Child 1 ate borscht, Child 2 ate pesto gnocchi… both ended up polishing off half of an adult portion, which is a lot for a toddler.) They both gamely had trying bites of the other food and confirmed that Child 2 did not want borscht and that Child 1 did not want gnocchi, which is fine and which does not elicit further comment.

    So, trying bite rule is a success. Our kid gamely enjoys calling out his grandmother on it. “You have to TRY the seaweed snacks!”

    However, I think it helped us a lot that we gave birth to both of these kids, because it meant that from the moment they started solids, we could expose them to varied, strong flavors (outside of what you find on the kids menu or baby food shelves). Honestly, that probably starts in utero and with breastfeeding, since a lot of pungent flavors transmit to the amniotic fluid. But once they started table foods they started eating what everyone else was eating at mealtimes, garlic and onions and lemon and curry and all. Toddlerhood definitely includes a narrowing of the palate (makes evolutionary sense, as kids start to feed themselves that they’d stick with safe and tried and blander things), but I think if you approach the blank slate right you can start out from a much more adventurous place and then the narrowing isn’t as drastic.

    The food rule that hasn’t worked is the notion that if a child has served themselves or specifically requested a food that they like that they then don’t eat, they get to have that leftover as their next snack… and that is because there’s now a hungry little brother who usually scavenges leftovers first.

  12. Avatar anon says:

    I do think this is something that affects all kids – my biological child is a much pickier eater than my adopted child. I agree about allowing children some choices, but…if my kids had their way, they’d be snacking all day long on not particularly healthy choices. I don’t want to create a power struggle over food, but I do think some basic structure/expectations serve children better in the long run.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      anon, I agree and so would Dr. Rowell. She actually has very specific ideas about what type of snacks we should be giving. We can also make sure the choices offered are relatively healthy.

  13. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Whole Child, yeah, we allowed them to make a meat ‘n cheese rollup on their own if they didn’t like what I served when they were younger. Now, I just usually grill him a chicken breast on the indoor electric grill in anticipation. I’ve been beaten into submission. 🙂

  14. Avatar Whole Child says:

    Food issues can be huge in all kids…and especially with adopted kids. I tend to let kids be in control of their food as much as possible. I want them to learn their own cues for full/hungry and to be able to listen to their own bodies. Of course, they are kids and can’t do that as well as adults…they need direction and suggestions…but I try to let them be in control, if possible. Choices, and lots of them. My 8 yr. old will often choose a peanut butter sandwhich over what I made for dinner (and he makes it himself if he chooses not to eat what I serve), and forcing him to eat my food isn’t a battle I want to engage in. I do encourage him to try everything at least once, but he is so stubborn he decides he doesn’t like it even before he tries it! lol! Laughter is the key in so many of these situations.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    So far we’ve been doing very well with our family rule that there needs to be “a trying bite” of every food for children old enough to understand the logic that it hurts the feelings of the cook if food is not tried. If, after the trying bite, the child does not like the food, they do not need to eat more of it, and that is the end of it, no further discussion… but the trying it before rejecting it part is really important to us. You can’t KNOW if you dislike it if you haven’t tried it! We’ve tried hard to make trying new foods an important part of family culture and we try to model enthusiasm about new dishes/foods to our kids (like, if we go to a restaurant, we grown ups express excitement if there is something new we’ve never had before).

    I think it helped that we had our kids by birth so we were able to start with this program by introducing strongly flavorful foods from the very first solids (or even before then via breastmilk and amniotic fluid, really). Our kids were eating very grown-up foods with garlic and lemon and onion from the very beginning, which makes it less likely that they’ll reject those later on.

    On paper our family rule is that every person is allowed one food that they dislike so much that they do not even have to have a trying bite of it, but this actually hasn’t ever come up with our kids, who pretty gamely try new things (and seem to like the positive attention that comes with trying new foods). We have thus far avoided conflicts wherein a child does not like ANY of the food choices for dinner, but if they are, we’d just assume they mustn’t be very hungry, because they are pretty unpicky eaters. We do try to avoid one-pot or all-in-the-casserole sort of meals because then it’s harder for a kid to avoid any particular components, and we try to dish things up in accord to kid request (or let the kid serve themselves if they are capable). We also solicit kid input in shopping choices, menu construction, and actually making dinner (to the extent that toddlers can), which helps a lot, because then they’re more invested in the food.

    So, yeah, our expectation is that eating happens at the table in meals with family members for the three meals of the day, and that snacks are served the same way when we’re at home… but snacks can also be in-the-stroller or in-the-carseat or in-the-shopping-cart when we’re not at home.

    We had a rule that if a child served himself lots of a food that we know he likes, that he gets to eat any leftovers as the next snack or meal. This rule has been shattered by the addition of an enormously hungry younger sibling who usually scavenges anything his big brother leaves behind. 🙂

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