Accepting My Son's Picky Eating, and Fear of Carrots

Accepting My Son's Picky Eating, and Fear of Carrots

I'm learning to live with my picky eater.

We’ve all met this kid before. He only eats pasta with butter and plain oatmeal. Or Cheerios and French fries. Before I had children, it was impossible for me to imagine that I—a home cook, a frequent restaurant-goer, a lifetime subscriber to Gourmet—would call this kind of kid my own.

But as fate would have it, I have a picky eater. His name is Nate, and he is adorable, smart, funny, warm, creative, talented, and a terrible, no good, very bad eater. His staples are hot dogs, cheese sticks, and pasta without sauce. He refuses all vegetables and fruits and anything slightly outside his comfort zone. Which is everything. It started when he was a baby (he was revolted by his first piece of avocado) and at age 4, he would rather forgo TV than eat a snap pea.

I have gone through the stages of grief: 1. No way not me! 2. I can change him with my clever cooking. 3. I will punish him until he changes. 4. I don’t care. Let him starve. 5. I cracked the code! 6. I don’t care. Let him starve. 7. Help!

For years, family dinners went something like this:

6:15pm: Nate refuses to even try the cauliflower with cheese sauce or hummus and carrots. He asks for ketchup.

6:18pm: Nate eats four strands of pasta and asks to be excused. We say no and he slides off his chair onto the floor, then tries to stick forks into water bottles. We tell Nate to join us; he cries. Nate goes to his room. We eat his dinner.

6:25pm: I clean up a million dishes.

In 2014, Nate ate a carrot, and I got so excited that I served carrots with every meal and as a prerequisite for every treat. That is until Nate, under the adoring gaze of his grandparents, refused his one baby carrot. I pushed and threatened and 30 minutes later when he finally finished the tiny carrot, he made a weird gagging noise, came over to me, and threw it up in my lap.

It wasn’t a lot of vomit—but it was the whole baby carrot, the one I made him eat, in regurgitated flecks on my lap. (My husband Michael and I later noted that this was a pretty brilliant move that we now refer to as “throwing up the carrot”—when a kid makes it almost impossible to continue to make him do something.)

By then I was fully in stage eight, denial, so I soldiered on. I tried all the tricks, including instituting schedules for meals and snacks, as Dina Rose recommends in her brilliant book It’s Not About the Broccoli. We tried mandatory tasting to no avail, and I had little success with the hide-the-veggies approach to recipes a la Jessica Seinfeld. My banana-peanut butter-spinach muffins were bland and dense. Nobody liked them…all 48 of them.

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There was one that was successful—Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese.

Then in 2015, a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics claimed picky eaters had a higher tendency toward mental health problems: “Their sensory experience is more intense in the areas of taste, texture, and visual cues. And their internal experience may be more intense, so they have stronger feelings. They’re sensitive kids who may be anxious or a little depressed; so cutting up fruits into funny shapes is not going to do the trick for these kids.”

While I hope Nate never suffers from anxiety or depression, the study hit home. I’d long noticed Nate’s aversion to foods was not remedied with games or tricks. It goes deep. Something about a texture or smell will completely disgust him. While I’ve fantasized that he will turn into a “super taster” or foodie with highly developed senses who actually excels at all things culinary, it’s probably more likely this extreme sensitivity will apply to other aspects of his life. Also, maybe this whole picky eating thing was beyond his control.

Around then I heard a PBS investigation into the science of picky eating that seemed to support that theory. “Biologists have discovered that, out of the thousands of genes in our DNA, there’s one that determines if we like the taste of some healthy greens or if we can’t stand them,” explained NOVA host Neil DeGrasse Tyson. In other words: “It is biologically predetermined. They are innocent in this accusatory world.”

Both of these studies urged parents to create positive experiences around eating. Family dinner should be more about family than dinner. And this is ultimately what became our solution. Lay off him. Make sure he gets a minimum of nutrients, gently urge him to try new foods and talk about something else.

Five years later, he’s still a picky eater but at least we now eat dinner without tears.

Main Image: Nate, the picky eater who prefers hot dogs, cheese sticks, and plain pasta.