Dear Parents Of Picky Eaters: Relax

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

When other parents tell me they have a picky eater, I have to hold back from laughing. You haven’t met picky till you’ve met my son.

I remember when he was two years old and we took him to a wedding. I had forgotten to bring food for him. I was still a bit naïve about the extent of his pickiness, and I thought he’d just find something to eat there. Wrong. The breadsticks had too many sesame seeds. The pizza had too much sauce and was cut into the wrong shape. The strawberries weren’t like the ones at home (what does that even mean?).

The bride (who really shouldn’t have been thinking about this) got the caterers to come out and try to find something for our son. “I have something just for him,” the chef said, with a gleam in his eye. “Macaroni and cheese! All kids like that.”

Yeah, but not my kid. My kid is the only kid on the planet who doesn’t like mac and cheese.

Except no, he isn’t. And if I think he’s picky, I don’t know how lucky I am. There are some kids who will literally only eat three things. My kid will eat about 14, including broccoli (if prepared just right, which means at home, by me).

It’s a spectrum like so many things, but the fact is that almost every single kid in the world is picky about food in some way. I really haven’t met one kid who doesn’t make feeding difficult sometimes, who doesn’t have certain standards or hang-ups about what to eat, how it should be prepared, or when to eat it.

So you know what all of that means to me? It means that what we think of as picky is really just normal.

I know it fucking sucks to have to make a million different meals for your kids, or to make sure everything is cooked, cut, and presented to their liking. I’m not saying that you should bend over backwards to make sure everything that enters your kids’ mouths suits their finicky little selves. I’m all for setting appropriate boundaries, and providing structure for kids, even when it comes to eating.

I’m just saying that maybe we need to chillax a little about it all, accept that our kids are just being kids, and feeding them is going to be a pain in the ass for another few years.

I’m not going to give you advice. I hate advice about things like this, because you know your kid best. You are going to find the right balance of respecting their needs and your own, making changes and letting go. And I certainly don’t have any answers. But besides its being very normal, there are some other things I’ve learned about kids and eating that have helped me take it all in stride a bit more.

1. Kids have tiny little bellies (about the size of their tiny little fists) so eating just a bit at a time is normal. Believe me, I have more than once wanted to wring my kids’ necks when they ask to eat again after I just fed them an hour ago. But once I gave up on perfect mealtimes, and let my kids be the natural grazers they are, my life got a whole lot easier (or at least I’m less likely to lock myself in the bathroom and cry as the dinner hour approaches).

2. Picky eating can last 10 years or more. Yep, you read that right. My 8-year-old (the 2-year-old in the wedding story) is still pickier than most kids his age, but lately he’s been loosening up. For example, sometimes he’ll tolerate imperfect pizza; he’ll even pick off the “green things” (i.e., oregano and basil) himself. And then – get this – he’ll actually consume the tainted slice. There’s hope, people.

3. Kids can have 10,000 or more taste buds. Adults have about half that number (yes, yet another thing we lose as we get older). Think about a strong flavor that you enjoy, then double its strength. It’s no wonder many kids don’t like bitter vegetables, spicy foods – or really anything with an ounce of flavor. Some kids have mild (or not-so-mild) sensory issues, especially when it comes to eating. Between tastes and textures, it can be major sensory overload. So cut your little crazies some slack, OK?

4. Most picky eaters are perfectly healthy and manage to get the nutrition they need, by hook or by crook, even if they only eat vegetables once in a blue moon, or in the form of a Flintstone vitamin.

I see so many articles about how to fix picky eaters: Stop offering snacks! Set strict mealtimes! Make them try new foods! Hey, if it all works for you and your kid, go for it. As for me, when I stopped trying to fix it and started accepting it for what it was (yet another highly annoying but temporary part of parenting), my kids and I both got happier around mealtimes.

Happy kids? Happy mom? I’ll take it.

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