I'm at the end of my rope with my picky eater.
October 6, 2015 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Tonight was a rough night in our house. My picky, small three year-old once again ate two bites of dinner and turned his nose up at what I'd made for him. I got upset and berated him. I feel bad about this and want to figure out what to do.

A little background. My son is small. He's been 3rd percentile his whole life. His father and I are not big people and neither is our extended family, so this is not surprising. However, it has gotten a little worrisome since his pediatrician found his weight to be low at his last pediatrician visit. He's three and weighs 26 lbs, if that tells you anything. The pediatrician says she's not really worried about him but that we do need to find new protein sources that he'll eat so that he can at least continue on his 3rd percentile growth curve.

My son loves:

Cheese pizza
One kind of meat pie from a pie shop around the corner
Whitefish salad - tons and tons of this with toast or pretzels
Baby food packets
Graham crackers
Ice cream

He will eat in moderation:

Peanut butter
Muffins without ANY CHUNKS OF ANYTHING IN THEM unless the chunks are chocolate
Hot cereal
A yellow lentil soup I make
Israeli couscous with butter - he will tolerate some carrot and even a tiny bit of spinach in this
Spaghetti with tomato sauce, but ONLY TOMATOES, no vegetables
Annie's Farm Mac and Cheese
Dr. Praeger's Fishies once every other week or so, with ketchup
Hilary's Veggie Burgers once every other week or so, with ketchup
Cheddar cheese, but only on grilled cheese sandwiches
String cheese occasionally

He would sooner die than eat:

Vegetables - he will NOT put a piece of vegetable on his tongue knowingly without gagging
Meat except the aforementioned meat pie
Sandwiches other than grilled cheese, including cheese sandwiches
Any kind of ethnic food
Any kind of salad dressing
Any kid of dip or spread, including hummus of any kind
Rice, beans, legumes or pasta of any kind except spaghetti or Annie's Farm Mac and Cheese
Potatoes, quinoa, couscous
Anything his dad and I make for our own dinner
Homemade versions of the things he likes, i.e. meat pie or pizza
Butter on anything but spaghetti or israeli couscous
Olive oil, if he can taste it

I'm tired of making two dinners and I'm tired of drama surrounding mealtime. I'm tired of him eating a quarter of his dinner and then asking for a bottle of milk. I'm tired of watching him force himself to gag and barf up new foods we give him. My husband and I want him to enjoy mealtimes like we do and for everybody to feel relaxed around the subject of food without us constantly capitulating to him.

I'm also appalled at my tendency to try to reason and make deals with my three year-old; I know better but feel compelled to get into lengthy "discussions" with him about this. And tonight? Well, I raised my voice and went on and on at him about his "frustrating, unacceptable" eating habits. I'm ashamed of myself for this. Then, as usual, I caved and gave him bread and jam before bed so he wouldn't go to bed hungry. I'm upset at myself for this, too, because I know he's exploiting my wishy-washiness while still craving firm limits and boundaries with regard to meals.

My husband feels that we should send him to bed without dinner if he refuses to eat what we provide. As he is already small and his weight already low, this is an unacceptable solution to me, though I know rationally that we would stand a better chance of getting him to eat if he was allowed to feel real hunger and we stuck to our guns about what we expect of him at mealtimes.

I need help with three things - 1.) figuring out a strategy to introduce new foods gradually with minimal dramatics from my son; 2.) guidance as to what are fair and healthy rules around mealtime; and 3.) anecdotal advice and support about what's kept you from losing your shit on your kid if you've dealt with picky eating in your own household. I struggle with knowing what's appropriate sometimes because of my own upbringing and I'd like not to traumatize my son.

posted by TryTheTilapia to Human Relations (82 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure why you need new kinds of protein sources? There are a lot of protein sources in the things he does eat. Did the ped elaborate on why these weren't enough on their own?
posted by Miko at 7:46 PM on October 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

I have a picky eater (which shocks me still: her dad, her older sister and I are all greedy omnivores. You get what you get, eh?)

My kid has more healthy foods on her will-eat list than yours does, to be honest, but it's still really limited. I just don't have it in me to argue with her - I can't stand to be around parents negotiating with their kids on food - and I don't believe it does any good. I just make whatever meal I feel like making, and if she doesn't want to eat it, she can get fruit and nuts from the pantry. Sometimes what we eat overlaps - like she'll eat some of what I'm serving, but supplement with fruit and cashews. Sometimes she just eats a banana. Whatever. The rule is that what she grabs for herself needs to be healthy (fruit or cherry tomatoes, basically, and nuts and string cheese) and it needs to not involve any work on my part. We do sometimes ask her to taste a new food, but usually only things I think she will tolerate. And she's coming around - she asks to taste things sometimes now - and she's growing and happy, so I guess it's ok. (I showed the pediatrician the yes-list early on, and she was like, this is enough options, so that's good enough for me.)

Anyway, just... know you're not alone, and also know that your kid's weird palate isn't a reflection on you and isn't necessarily something you can control. I used to be so proud my older girl's un-fussiness, but now thanks to my little one I know that it's an inborn trait, and all I can do is decide how to handle it, not try to re-program her.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:56 PM on October 6, 2015 [17 favorites]

Just feed him what he likes. He's supposed to be picky at his age. Make two dinners or give him your dinner plus a milk-based protein shake.

Kids this age have zero vocabulary for "this makes me feel sick" or "this makes my mouth uncomfortable". Many things I avoided as a kid are actually things I was allergic to.

Even if he's just picky, so what? Lack of pickiness is a relatively low-value trait, despite its fetishization in our current cultural zeitgeist. He's not torturing small animals or being cruel. He's a kid who is picky, just like a lot of kids.

I'd be thrilled if my kid ate that variety, by the way. He was also too skinny at one point and we gave up. We give him "vanilla milk" to make sure he gets enough fat/protein/calories and our stress level about food is quite low.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:59 PM on October 6, 2015 [35 favorites]

oh and vitamins. Gummy multivites, calcium and fish nasties (omega 3s,) so I don't have to worry.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:00 PM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Honestly, the important thing is to get him fed. At three years old, it's more important that he eats something than it is to broaden his culinary horizons. Let him eat what he will eat for now. He'll incorporate new things as he grows up.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 PM on October 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Also, sorry, but you're making this a power struggle for seemingly no benefit to him. It's not okay, and it needs to stop. There is no way to win the "eat what I want you to" fight with a low-weight 3 year old without getting abusive. The fact that you're still worried about "capitulating" and giving him the food he likes when he is seriously underweight is really worrying. You were right to come here to get perspective.

Is your husband usually more sensitive than this? Because sending a 3yo who is underweight to bed without dinner because he's not eating vegetables or new foods is really, really crazy inappropriate.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:07 PM on October 6, 2015 [63 favorites]

I really like Ellyn Satter for kid feeding issues. The book I read was "Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense."

I also don't think your kid seems that picky, honestly. They're at an age where being cautious about what they eat is way safer than putting anything and everything in their mouths!

I know it's frustrating. I've had my share of annoyance about this myself. But I always go back to Satter's division of responsibility. I provide food, including at least one thing I know my kid will eat, plus milk, and he decides which foods and how much.
posted by purpleclover at 8:10 PM on October 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

To be honest his diet (the things he loves and the moderation list) is way more varied than mine. I wouldn't worry. I can live quite happily on toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast and dinner (I mix it up for lunch - takeaway mexican or thai - since I can't make toasted sandwiches for work).

I sympathise as getting kids to eat is really hard and you probably have friends saying stuff like "oh Anastasia just loves grilled asparagus, we can't get enough of it!" but since his weight is fairly low, I'd just give him what he wants. Makes your life so much easier.

EVENTUALLY he'll get bored and try something new.
posted by kitten magic at 8:11 PM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, word. Honestly, limited though the options may be it sounds like the kid's eating better than a lot of people. Veggie burgers have some veggies in them, you know?

If I were you I'd just decide that you're not going to fight about this. Don't buy the stuff he likes that you think is crap; if it's not in the house you're not going to fight about him wanting ice cream for dinner. Keep on buying the stuff he likes that is decently nutritious, and if sometimes that means the kid has two bites of a bagel and a cup of yogurt for dinner, so it goes.

If you don't want to cook two dinners, don't. It seems like a lot of the stuff the kid likes involves pretty minimal prep as it is. Make what you want for dinner, model healthy eating behaviour for him, and maybe put the yogurt and fruit on a low shelf and allow him some agency in picking what he eats. The more you push him the more mulish and tense the whole thing will become. It's only when he knows and accepts that he has control, that he's never going to be forced to eat stuff that literally makes him gag, that both of you can relax enough that he might actually get bored with that tiny list. That's what'll have to happen for it to work -- his curiosity and novelty seeking will have to be stronger than his anxiety and desire for comfort. Every fight is just laying another brick on the dam. You've got to give the river time to wear it away.
posted by Diablevert at 8:12 PM on October 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm not kidding about living on toasted cheese sandwiches either. I eat them probably 60% of meals and have done for the past three years. Not dead yet (though plenty overweight which doesn't sound like a problem for your little one)
posted by kitten magic at 8:13 PM on October 6, 2015

Geeze, he's three. He can so rarely make his own decisions and this is something he's telling you loud and clear. Let him eat what he wants! Do not make this a power struggle.

And he will get plenty of nutrition from his list of "acceptable" foods. Right now he needs calories anyway.. forest through the trees and all.
posted by pintapicasso at 8:16 PM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I come from a family of picky eaters. And there were four of us. And we were all picky about different things. And my dad was trying to lose weight. And my mom worked and raised four kids and did doctor's wife related social/emotional work on behalf of my dad.

Here are the rules as I remember them:

1. Only one dinner is cooked per night, and if you don't like it, that's life. They did stick to a pretty simple rotation of things we were likely to actually eat, though (spaghetti, roast chicken & veg, etc). They weren't too worried about introducing a lot of new foods, and when they did, they definitely pitched us softballs.

2. It is absolutely OK to eat your fill of only the component of dinner that satisfies your weird food issues, for example noodles with butter.

3. It is absolutely OK to leave food on your plate as long as you're full/aren't going to just come right back and ask for a snack 20 minutes after dinner. There was no "clean plate club" in our family.

4. This is probably not relevant to you yet, but if you didn't want to eat what was on offer, you could make yourself a sandwich or something as long as you didn't need parental help. As a compromise, maybe you could offer a banana or string cheese or something?

5. My parents pretty much gave up on any mindlessly judgy angle on our eating habits, a la your issue with him not wanting his dinner but then asking for milk. It's... milk. Just let the kid have a glass of milk if that's what he wants. (They didn't cave to demands for soda or candy or chips, but, yeah, if I asked for a second glass of milk in lieu of finishing my peas, sure, whatever.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:16 PM on October 6, 2015 [35 favorites]

Your 3 year old eats more variety than my 7 year old. But my kid has always been 99th percentile so I can't imagine the stress of a child being underweight.

Anyway, gummy vitamins. And when my kid was that age I did smoothies every morning and stuffed fish oil, protein powder, greens, etc. Into it. He caught on before he turned 4 though.
I would also try baby steps. He eats macaroni and cheese? Try macaroni noodles with marinara sauce.
I also do the deceptively delicious stuff to sneak veggies into my kid's food - a jar of baby food into the grilled cheese or Mac and cheese. I put protein powered on a lot of stuff. My kid likes hot dogs. We eat them frequently. The two meal thing seems to be reality for most people I know.

When my kid was that age we did a lot of soy nuggets too.

Anyway, if the issue is the battles, I'm sure someone will recommend the frequently cited book Feed Your Child or something. It seemed preachy to me. Deceptively delicious might be more appropriate for your desire to make one meal.
posted by k8t at 8:17 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding the work of Ellyn Satter. The gist of her teachings, for dealing with toddlers through adolescents:
-- The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
-- The child is responsible for how much and whether.
Read one of her books, or check out her site: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:20 PM on October 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

My parents forced me to eat foods that made me gag and throw up at the table. I developed extreme anxiety, aversion to food and eating in public. I wanted nothing more to be "normal" but I wasn't. I just wasn't and it wasn't a childish tantrum. So please don't want to make meal times a source of shame and inner disgust for your child.

I asked this question years ago: http://ask.metafilter.com/200350/How-can-I-learn-to-stop-being-a-picky-eater

Only by telling myself it was okay to not like certain foods and trying them in a safe space have I made any progress. If you force your kid to eat his vegetables until he physically throws up in front of you... yeah, well, he will develop issues.

My parents had great intentions I'm sure, but they completely fucked me up. Completely.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:22 PM on October 6, 2015 [32 favorites]

That list of things he will eat sounds basically like what i ate in my college apartment for over a year. The only thing it's missing is greasy microwave quesadillas and costco tortellini. I'm not dead, or overweight, or anything... and my teeth aren't falling out... and i'm actually vaguely fit. I was at the time too.

I normally agree with the "one dinner gets made and you eat it" thing, but being underweight and small? at 3? Just let him eat what he'll eat. This seems more like an issue with you not wanting to be like, a bad american mom who lets her kids just eat junk food or something. That's an honorable want until the person involved is actually underweight.

Whitefish salad is actually pretty healthy too. So are eggs, and... i dunno. They have plenty of protein.

This just doesn't sound that bad. A friend of mine had a little brother who would ONLY eat cheese pizza and like two other things. Just feed him as much of the stuff he'll eat as he wants.
posted by emptythought at 8:22 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

How does he feel about smoothies and milkshakes?
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:25 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

When my daughter was three, her diet consisted of tofu "chicken" nuggets and spaghetti-o's. When she was five, she asked to try the sushi I was eating. At 13, she enjoys steamed artichoke as a snack. Feed him what he will eat, and know that this probably won't last forever.
posted by Ruki at 8:25 PM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I feel you. My three year old used to be enthusiastic for all manner of vegetables and spices, and now the only thing I can rely on her to eat is motherflippin' yogurt. Three year olds are so hard, so I try to remind myself that her prefrontal cortex is not nearly fully formed and her little brain is firing off signals that it can't fully process. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this hourly.

Practical suggestion: are mealtimes at a time when he's hungry? My kid hardly eats dinner when she's had a big afternoon snack, but we can't handle skipping snack, so we recently switched up our evening routine to have dinner later.

And ... how about smoothies? You could start feeding him like a body builder, protein powder smoothies and whitefish for every meal. Only half-kidding...
posted by stowaway at 8:30 PM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is incredibly frustrating and difficult, and you have my sympathies.

I'm going to flash some bona fides at you, because in my experience, you are going to get a lot (A LOT) of opinions and bluster, on the internet and in real life, and they are going to be backed up with very little of substance. I'm not saying, "hey don't listen to those jagoffs, listen to ME", but at least you might be able to reflect and thing, hmmm, maybe this one isn't talking entirely out of her ass.

I am a nurse, as well as a certified health education specialist. I have accumulated more credit hours in nutrition than an MD, though not enough to become a registered dietitian. I have three children, with a man who is a chef and master gardener. The two boys, particularly the elder, have really struggled with pickiness, so I have been through the wringer on this personally.

Do NOT believe the idea that a kid won't starve himself. Kids emphatically will starve themselves. I have seen children end up with IV rehydration (and in one nightmarish case, a PEG tube) because their parents listened to old school advice. Don't do this. This idea that you are somehow giving in by offering bread and jam and milk is bollocks. You are being a parent. Of course you don't want him to go hungry. You are doing the right thing.

Some problems that I see with your son's diet are a lack of vegetables, as well as a lack of fiber. You say that he will eat baby food packets. Does this include vegetable varieties of baby food? What kind of bread does he eat with the grilled cheese?

I am in agreement with the pediatrician that your number one concern, however, is protein intake. Protein for toddlers, particularly such a small toddler, is the thing of concern. He eats eggs, which is brilliant- eggs are simply the gold standard of protein. He also eats yogurt, cheese, and whitefish salad, which are all very good protein sources.

Will your son eat fruit at all? Most children are fond of it to some degree, and it is very easy to add sweetness to it in order to make it seem dessert-like.

The best strategy that I can suggest is smoothies. Your son likes yogurt and ice cream, he will tolerate a tiny bit of spinach and carrot. The thing that makes smoothies so wonderful is that you can hide damn near anything in them. Will he eat bananas at all? I have a fantastic recipe for banana based ice cream that can be very easily modified into a smoothie recipe if you are at all interested. I would center the smoothies around chocolate flavored protein powder. You will be able to squeeze adequate protein into him this way. Chocolate powders can be a tad bitter, but you can round this out easily by adding peanut butter to the mix. A very easy way to do this is by adding PB2 to the protein powder container. I also would not be shy about adding sweetness, which you can do with a small amount of sugar + stevia, vanilla extract (not sweet in and of itself, but makes sweetness seem richer), and best of all, if you can source it, raw local honey, which will benefit his immune system.

You can add powdered multivitamins and fiber, as well. Benefiber and anything psyllium based are good fiber choices, and Nutristart is a good powdered vitamin. Amazon is your friend in this endeavor.

You want to put weight on him, so add some fat to the smoothies in the form of a few tablespoons of neutral oil. Safflower is good, canola is okay, soy or corn will work if you are really broke. This sounds weird, but it works. Add a couple grains of soy lecithin or a three second spray of pan release/cooking spray (like Pam) and everything will emulsify beautifully and you'll be left with something rich and smooth.

So, my strategy would be thus: Make him a smoothie with whatever the hell he wants in it (trust me, if he likes yogurt and ice cream, you can make them so that they are totally delicious to him), but include fat, fiber, vitamins and, of course, protein, and veggies if you can sneak them in. After that, don't worry about his diet. Make what you want for dinner. If he wants it, awesome. If not, that's totally fine, but there is no way you are making him something else. He can have extra smoothie or bread with jam and milk, but not a full separate meal. You need to see to his nutritional needs (in smoothie form) and after that, see to your own needs. Make this the most chill thing EVAR. It's too bad if he won't eat dinner with you, but hey, mom and dad are having a lovely time!

I get the emotional aspect. You want a kid who is healthy and well rounded and culinarily adventurous. You want a kid you can be proud of in a restaurant. I understand.

My eldest son would eat almost nothing. He would gag. I would have to go outside and pace before I could calm down enough to talk to him. Then, like magic, he turned 12. Suddenly, he wanted EXTRA ONIONS. I literally did a double take the first time I heard that. And grilled salmon? Whose kid is this??

Fast forward five years, and that eldest son is everything you could want in a kid. Holds down a part time job, gets perfect grades and a 31 on his ACT, watches his younger siblings, is funny, sweet, and a fucking fabulous cook who makes his own tortilla chips and specializes in omelettes. He's also six two or three and two twenty, so the scrawiness of yesteryear is well behind us. His dad's a chef, his mom is a little high strung on the health thing, and it all turned out okay because we learned to chill out, see to his nutritional needs, and then just let him be him.

If your child is exposed to a variety of foods, sooner or later he'll try a few of them. And even if he doesn't, he'll make a mean smoothie when he's older and be well nourished for it.

Memail me if you want any recipes, and good luck.
posted by Athene at 8:35 PM on October 6, 2015 [184 favorites]

It is apparently possible to build an entire human body out of nothing but large quantities of macaroni and cheese. Your kid will be fine as long as he eats. Relax and let that be enough for you.
posted by alms at 8:39 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oops, sorry, fruit was at the top of the list. Truly, your smoothie options are myriad. :)
posted by Athene at 8:41 PM on October 6, 2015

Best answer: I'm tired of making two dinners and I'm tired of drama surrounding mealtime.

Literally no 1st world, middle class kid from a loving family ever starved. Your 3 year old will not put himself in danger from not eating. Seriously, ask a pediatrician. There is no evidence that a kid this age from a non-abusive family, with adequate access to food, will harm himself from under-eating.

If he doesn't want to eat dinner, that's fine, but that doesn't mean you have to make him another one. Imagine if your child had been born into a village family in rural Latin America, Africa, or Asia. He would eat what he was served, and he would be served the same thing most days.

You make dinner. If he doesn't eat it, he can have, like, a carrot or something that is a) healthy and b) you do not have to heat up for him. (not cheese pizza). If he decides to go to bed without supper, don't frame that as a punishment, but as a neutral choice. Worst case, he wakes up extra hungry for breakfast.

Make sure you have plenty of nutritious, high calorie foods he has access to for snacks. Make sure he has plenty of opportunity to work up a good apatite with exercise. Otherwise, don't worry about it.
posted by latkes at 8:45 PM on October 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I am just chiming in from the perspective of a parent with a low on the curve kid (every measurement under 10%) who is a picky eater (the list is different but about the same length as yours). My picky eater also will puke on you if you force the food. But the second time round, out came a very low on the curve kid (under 1%) who eats everything but only 2 bites of it. (We are a small people. I have two kids.)

It is very stressful when you love someone and want them to grow up big and strong and beautiful but they will not eat and they are already small. It is also exhausting to make lots of dinners and feel like you are being forced to eat the same boring foods over and over. Internet hug - these things suck.

I found it helpful to go out to dinner or lunch a bit more to get more flavors and variety and interest for the adult. (For me, once a week makes a huge difference) I also found it helpful to put out family dinner, make sure it contains at least one picky "approved" food and let the picky eater eat as much of the stuff he did like on the plate and whatever else happened to get there but then eat rice cereal (his go to) at the end. The everything eater eats both parts of the meal. There are still conflicts ("you know I don't like x, why did you make it?") but there are less.

And I remind myself of our goals: Everyone fed without being puked on and without waking up in the middle of the night hungry and working toward growing to 5 feet (150 cm) tall.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 8:49 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

My son is three years old, and weighs slightly more than yours - I think he hovers around 5th percentile on charts. He used to eat a wider variety of things (but has never been very interested in eating, specifically sitting still to eat a decent meal), but has recently become a lot pickier. My approach has been:

- allowing him to eat the things he likes, even if that means he's eating differently to us and it requires more work with meal prep. I think the value of a mealtime without stress and argument outweighs the pain-in-the-arseness of having to prepare different food for him, and I don't want him to start associating mealtimes with tension and arguments. I am also not willing for him to go to bed hungry. (Letting him eat things he likes for dinner hasn't transformed him into a demanding, horrible child).

- if he says he's had enough to eat, I don't argue with him. I figure he knows how his body feels even though he clearly hasn't had enough to eat arggghh. I only managed to be a bit more reasonable about this after he threw up when I was pushing him to eat more, which made me feel dreadful. I really try and pull back and respect his wishes, while not giving in to ridiculous requests (ie. cake instead of dinner).

- trying to look at his food intake over the course of a week rather than day-by-day. Most days are going to be less than optimal, but if I can look at a week and go ok, he ate vegetables a couple of times, he has eaten at least two solid meals a day, he's had a couple of sausages, I think this is ok.

I think the fact your son eats eggs is great on the protein side of things, and peanut butter and cheese are pretty good too. I had always thought I would have easy going children who would eat whatever I ate, and that I wouldn't put up with pickiness, but not-putting-up-with is an approach that just doesn't work, at least for my child. I tell myself that he'll grow out of it and become more adventurous with his eating, and in the meantime I'll work around his preferences.
posted by fever-trees at 8:49 PM on October 6, 2015

latkes is absolutely incorrect. Kids can, will, and do starve themselves. It is not at all uncommon.

I do not know how many second/third world kids just quietly die because they are picky, but I am certain it's a non zero number.
posted by Athene at 8:50 PM on October 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the answers so far.

His pediatrician suggested broadening his protein options when I told her he has two kids with tree nut allergies in his preschool class which meets all day, three days a week, which means no pb&j in his lunch or even for breakfast on toast or an english muffin. He won't eat boiled eggs or cold scrambled eggs or cold grilled cheese, so his lunch options at preschool are limited at the moment. A friend who does Early Intervention work with kids says he sounds like he has some sensory issues (texture, temperature of foods) and has given me some games to play with him to get him to eat different and new foods. These have helped temporarily; one game involved pretending to sprinkle ice cream on all new foods. He did it twice, then asked, "Why can't we just eat real ice cream instead of this?" and that was the end of that game.

He won't drink smoothies right now but I'm willing to give it another go, armed with these new ideas. He gags up vitamin supplements with iron in them. He will eat gummy vitamins. He'd be all over milkshakes, I'm sure, but I've had the experience with him that if we offer ice cream all the time he will refuse to eat other foods until he's given ice cream first. He gets ice cream when we go out for our family meal once a week, Ovaltine in his milk two or three times a week, and plenty of treats like popsicles and cookies.

Also, to clarify, my kid is not "seriously underweight" and characterizing him that way is not accurate. He is at the low end of an appropriate weight for his height. He's not emaciated or sick. I'm a parent who cares that my kid gets a broad range of nutrients. That's reasonable.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:57 PM on October 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I was a picky kid. I'm very lucky that as a cosseted only child, my mom and grandmom were more than willing to make foods I did like, and not force me to eat anything I didn't.

What helped? Quite frankly, growing up and the changes in palate that accompanied it. My grandmum was honestly shocked when I came back from grad school liking spinach, because I hadn't been willing to touch it for love nor money before. Even with that, though, there are still foods I physically can't eat, like eggplant, or meat that isn't ground. I will starve rather than choke them down, no matter how hard I try.

At three years old, your child does not have the ability to express to you why certain foods just won't work, and I implore you not to force him to eat things he doesn't like- that way leads to lifelong food issues. Other people in the thread have some pretty excellent suggestions - mine is to simply do what you can to get food into your child and trust that Nature will take care of the rest.
posted by Tamanna at 9:03 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Give him a small portion of what you're eating, a yogurt, and some gummi vitamins. In general I'm a big fan of "eat at least one bite" but I think you should give it a break for a couple months. Take him more often for weigh-ins if you're concerned he's undereating. (We had an underweight child and had what we called "the summer of full fat cream sauce" and it worked like a charm. He didn't eat that much, but it was enough. The rest of us lost weight from being so full from the full fat.) Fighting with toddlers never results in a win. So don't fight. Either avoid the fight or cheat by hiding nutrients. I totally understand the concern, but fighting with him can't fix it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:05 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why can't you send him with a sunflower seed or almond butter PBJ? Maybe your son's preschoolmates have more severe allergies than the kids that my kid has gone to school with, but almond and sunflower seed seems to be what everyone does.
posted by k8t at 9:06 PM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Please do not send your kid to bed hungry. I honestly believe that will just give him negative associations with food. I was very very picky as a child, yogurt and chicken (cooked a certain way with only one kind of sauce) were basically my only sources of protein. My mom sometimes made me eat a spoonful of peanut butter which wasn't horrible but I didn't exactly like it. It's a limited menu he likes, and I get that it's annoying to cook extra, but honestly a lot of it is easy. Yogurt. Eggs. Pasta. EASY DINNERS. He will most likely eventually grow out of it (may be a while, while I wasn't THAT limited when I got older, I ate a yogurt for lunch probably 90% of school days through HIGH SCHOOL). And if he is a picky adult, who cares?

I do think it's ok to ask him to try at least one thing that you cook for dinner. As in try a small bite or two. Seriously any more and yes he will gag and hate it. I think we had a rule that if you had tried for example green beans in the last month and didn't like them, you could skip, but if you hadn't tried them in so long you had to have a bite or two. That was it, no more. Not a whole serving. I honestly probably would have puked.

Forcing him to gag down food he hates will not help. Neither will punishing him by sending him to bed hungry for something he really can't control, at least at this age. All those will do is give him an unhealthy relationship to foods and bad habits. And as you said, sending him to bed hungry is not good for his health.

FWIW, I am a very adventurous eater now, I like a TON of different foods, and will try almost anything. Didn't really start until college though.
posted by sillysally at 9:07 PM on October 6, 2015

And yeah, my kids love peanut butter but are in no-nut schools ... Get sunbutter, they barely know the difference.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:11 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd maybe start with a compromise system: breakfast and lunch, he eats protein-heavy stuff on his "green light" list (yogurt, cheese, whitefish salad, etc). Dinner, you make what you make and he can eat it or not, but there's no other food offered. However, consider adding a cheese course and a fruit course (this is as simple as keeping a cheese plate in the fridge with 1-3 types of cheese and a bowl of fresh fruit available). If he's eating two protein-heavy, complete meals, skipping dinner is not a horrible thing and you are not a horrible parent for letting him go "hungry" for a few hours overnight.

If that goes well over a period of time (I'd give it longer than you think), maybe introduce a "new" snack or breakfast option. Slowly transitioning out the green light foods for yellow light foods. The goal is to make food something not worth getting stressed over (for mom or kid); food is just something we eat so we have energy for the day and don't feel hungry. If it tastes good and is served with love in a fun environment then that's a wonderful added bonus.

It's not a great book for dealing with more complex food issues (sensory, intolerance, etc), but French Kids Eat Everything has a good system for reducing mealtime drama. It's a personal memoir more than a manual and it touches on the feelings of guilt.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:14 PM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I feel you on this. I'm somewhat surprised that my nephew hasn't turned into a jar of peanut butter yet. At one point, his only yes foods were peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter crackers, and peanut butter and apples. He has slightly branched out due to food therapy, and a couple of things that I saw while watching his classes may help.

First, they do lots of "fun food" events that you could maybe set up at home. Like, one session was near Halloween, so they had peeled grapes, witches' brooms (asparagus), etc.

Second, they had a multi-step system to trying new foods. First, you looked at the food and observed it from afar. Then, you brought it close to you, and maybe touched it. Next, you would pick it up. Then, lick it. Next, you would put it in your mouth. The next step would be chewing, and then finally making a "belly basket." Now, none of the kids in the group would make it the whole way with every food that was offered, but it did make introducing new foods a more approachable experience that definitely was productive for my nephew. The therapists would do a lot of engaging the kids, asking for them to rank their experience along the way, asking the kids to describe the food as they interacted with it. And it was never a pressure situation.

My nephew is now 7 (almost 8). He is still a picky eater, but there are definitely way more foods on his yes list, and dinner isn't a meltdown every time he's asked to try something new. He'll mirror his steps from therapy and usually makes it all the way to a swallow.
posted by jaksemas at 9:38 PM on October 6, 2015

If he's willing to have milkshakes he'll have smoothies disguised as milkshakes. What about milkshakes does he like specifically? Taste, texture, temperature? That's important to understand because it will help you make value added 'milkshakes' he'll eat. Have you got a good enough blender to get stuff really smooth? Your 'milkshakes' will not include any ice cream. They'll contain suitable fruit, dairy products, nut butter, a bit of protein powder in a flavour he likes, ice cubes to make them cold (if that's one of the things he likes about them), make them sweet. With a good blender the right proportions of these things make 'milkshakes'.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:46 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

This book by an actual paediatrician helped put my mind at ease with our skinny, fussy eater. She's still not great but getting better every month.

Please don't take some of the harsh judgements here to heart, op. I'm sure you're a great mum and remember every kid is different,no one knows your kid or family better than you.
posted by smoke at 10:07 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't make food a big deal by not making a big deal out of it. 3 is old enough to prepare some basic foods for himself: PB&J, a bowl of cereal with milk, or maybe some reheated pasta and sauce in the microwave. Practice making those things together so you don't have to cook two meals. Or, heck, just let him grab a yogurt and a string cheese or something.

I wouldn't let him theatrically gag at the table, or make rude comments about food, because that's just not nice to the person who's cooking. But if he doesn't want to eat what's been prepared, I'd let him go fix himself something simple. It will give him some autonomy over his diet and ensure he's not going to bed hungry.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:09 PM on October 6, 2015

Strawberries* + plain yogurt + maybe some ice = "strawberry milkshake", no?

*For example, YMMV on what fruit your kid likes
posted by Sara C. at 10:12 PM on October 6, 2015

I too have a three year old who is starting to assert himself regarding food, so you have my sympathies. In my case, he's starting to reject meat in a lot of forms so I'm trying to make sure that the meat he will eat features more prominently, to make sure protein features in other forms and to try not to turn dinner into a battle, where all he will eat is vegetables.

I also have a two year old that will only generally eat meat, no vegetables. (Not hard and fast, but she definitely favours meat) These two have been known to swap their leftovers at the end of the meal so one eats the other's meat and he eats her vegetables and neither eats the food they hate!

But the point I was about to get to, was regarding preschool. I've found my odds of getting kids to eat food they normally wouldn't is to include it in preschool lunch. The sheer force of peer pressure and all the other kids eating really works in your favour here. It might not work the first time or the second but be persistent and keep offering it (do this at home too). Your son may only taste it or lick it to start with (my two year old) but as long as you've included it with food he will eat, he won't go hungry. And eventually once he's familiar with it, he may try it and eventually like it.

Finally the last thing we do when there's a half eaten plate of food and no progress is to announce that if you've finished dinner, it's bedtime! Even if it's an hour before normal bedtime, you clearly MUST be ready for bed, because you're not eating, right!? My kids hate bedtime and they'll eat dinner just to stall going to bed.

I'm trying to avoid fighting over it. I've told my son though, that if he wants to grow big and strong like Daddy he has to eat his meat, otherwise he won't grow. He's been known to choke down a bite of meat and then ask if I can see him growing! I reinforce it when we buy him new clothes, by telling him that we need to buy a bigger size because he's big and strong because he's been eating his meat. So really, whatever Jedi mind tricks work. Good luck!
posted by Jubey at 10:17 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Regarding nut butters: sunflower seed butter is good, and the Sunbutter brand is really close to tasting like real peanut butter. They even try to emulate the peanut butter experience by having both creamy and crunchy varieties available. However it does cost more than peanut butter.

The Trader Joe's sunflower seed butter is just Sunbutter in their own TJ packaging, if there's a Trader Joe's by you.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:30 PM on October 6, 2015

Kids this age have zero vocabulary for "this makes me feel sick" or "this makes my mouth uncomfortable". Many things I avoided as a kid are actually things I was allergic to.

Yup. It was a great day when an allergy test showed that teenaged me was allergic to my two least favorite foods.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:53 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Literally no 1st world, middle class kid from a loving family ever starved.

Plenty have developed eating disorders. There is no reason to make this into a power struggle at the possible expense of your son's mental health.
posted by fireandthud at 11:29 PM on October 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

Can you get the school to clarify the allergy thing? Because if its tree nut, then penut butter would be fine but almond butter no go, and vice versa. If its both, then yeah, seed butter.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 11:36 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was much, much more picky than your kid for my entire childhood. Like your kid, I was small of stature, and always trailing the low end of acceptable weight for my height, hovering right around that dreaded "underweight" mark. Oh, my poor parents. They were very anxious about all of it. All strategies were tried. Many meetings with the pediatrician. So much worry. More on that later.

Here's the frustrating part of my advice: The more freaked out my parents got, the more picky I got, in a terrible little vicious circle. They're anxious people. They were helicopter parents before it was a thing. And they fussed over my health and worried and I felt scrutinized -- and in response I ate even less. In hindsight, it is utterly obvious to me that my poor appetite and pickiness was a control issue, but it was subconscious. I wasn't trying to torture them on purpose. I remember how it felt in my kid-mind -- I felt like I wasn't hungry, and/or I felt an aversion to food that I couldn't really articulate. (Though any "tricks" and made-up motivational talks did not work at all and actually pissed me off. Kids have great bullshit detectors.)

Here's the good news: There was a chink in my armor at around 13 or 14 and I introduced a few new foods. Then, when I went away to college, I started crawling out of my little picky-eater chrysalis and steadily developed into a surprisingly colorful foodie butterfly by the time I was in my mid-20s. That couldn't start happening until I was in a place where no-one was WATCHING ME to see what I was eating, or how much, or how, or whatever. I'm 41 now, and for many years have been a very adventurous eater, a pretty damn good cook, and proud to have gently helped a lot of friends reconsider some of the food aversions they carried into adulthood. Also, I know I'm not your kid and this is purely anecdotal, but I grew to be slightly above average height. My growth was not stunted. I have absolutely no health issues related to my scrawniness as a kid. I'm fairly slender but a solidly healthy weight.

I know it's your job to worry about your kid, but here's my final word of advice: it's not about food, it's about control. Try giving your kid a little more explanation-free autonomy in other parts of his life. I don't mean that your kid should be allowed to play with razor blades or stay overnight without a babysitter, but if he wants to dress weird or skip a bath or play under his bed or scratch a mosquito bite in a way that might leave a little scar or leave his room messy or some other thing that makes you parentally uncomfortable but is functionally relatively harmless...let him make some decisions on his own without insisting on a justification or a tit-for-tat. Also, protip: friends' parents and aunt/uncles are magic for introducing adoption of new foods.
posted by desuetude at 11:40 PM on October 6, 2015 [13 favorites]

separate out control from nutrition from you being a good mum. They're all different issues. find something he'll tolerate that makes a roughly ok diet (it's actually a pretty low bar, optimal is not ok). then try really hard to chill, because food issues come more from parents stressing than what the kid actually eats.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:03 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

My kid is somewhat picky but will eat a lot more as long as we're outdoors and it's presented as a "snack".
So we snack a lot and she eats two bites for dinner. Maybe that would work?
Also, you may also want to look for a strategy for handling your husband. His input and his frustration is stressing you out and it's making eating even more of a THING for your kiddo.
In our household, my husband is okay with me saying, "I've got this and I want to handle it on my own for now. I'm working on a strategy, ok?" And then he backs of and decides it's one less thing on his plate.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:39 AM on October 7, 2015

Kids that age get t control three things:

1. Whether to eat or not
2. Whether to toilet or not
3. Whether to sleep or not.

And that's it. This is potentially as much about feeling like he has control over his little life as it is about the food itself.

Don't make food a battle.

Make a variety of foods for your meals. Include at least two items in decent portions that you know he likes at every meal. Let him decide what to eat.

Three is also only at the beginning of greater cognitive functioning, so bargaining won't really work. And demands won't really work. Exposure might work.

One thing we did with moderate success was renaming foods for awhile. We once went to a breakfast place that didn't have pancakes (yeah, I don't know, either). But they had waffles. My son had maybe just turned 4, and we knew the shape of the waffles would be a mega problem. Nuclear meltdown problem. So my husband very swiftly said, "Oh, [4 year old], they only have WAFFLE PANCAKES HERE! Have you ever had WAFFLE PANCAKES?" And you know what? It freaking worked!

Raviolis became "inside out shells." Cauliflower became "white broccoli." English muffins were "circle toast" for awhile.

He's now 7 and still pretty picky in general, but he's at least willing to try new things now.
posted by zizzle at 4:24 AM on October 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

So stressful. I've been there. Your child's list is longer than my 10 year old.

Only wanted to add that in that situation in preschool with no nuts, my preschooler ate dry cereal for lunch. It was bite-sized maple shredded wheat in our case. Other options were pancakes, muffins, waffles.

(Also, 3 year olds in my house did not make their own peanut butter sandwiches or pour their own milk without adult assistance and clean-up! Seriously, these are little people.)
posted by RoadScholar at 4:55 AM on October 7, 2015

My son is 4, pickier than yours, and also can't have nuts/peanut butter at school. I fill him up with a bottle of whole milk before school (I'd love him to eat hot cereal), he eats fruit and carbs at school for snacks and lunch (I pack a yogurt drink too, he doesn't eat cheese yet), I give him another bottle of milk when he gets home from school, and one before bed, and he usually has bread/carbs/fruit for dinner, I offer what I eat but he doesn't want it.

I offer nuts before/after school and on weekends, when he's with his grandparents he'll eat hotdogs and macaroni and cheese but not with me. I don't think I'm doing amazing at this whole picky eater thing but we don't have battles around food. I've watched friends who are much stricter around mealtimes have the same issues but they spend a lot more energy coaxing their kids to take a bite of something and then monitor what their kids are eating through the meal, it's exhausting and crazy-making imo for all parties.

Children tend to eat less for dinner, so I'd put less pressure on dinner, offer him an afterschool snack that is what you really want him to eat as that's when he's likely to be hungriest. Or he can eat a bagel and have milk for dinner, there's more than enough protein in that. Also remember that it's not what he eats in a day, but over the course of a few days or a week that determines what his body is receiving to build him up. He can go on a stint of bagels or milk and it won't ruin his nutritional profile. I highly recommend the Ellyn Satter book that's been mentioned a few times, you provide, he decides, make sure at least one thing you provide is something he loves, I think that's only fair given that as adults we tend to eat what we feel like for every meal.

I admit I do worry about our picky eater but me and his dad were picky eaters as kids and are superbly healthy (ha!) adults who eat tons of ethnic and other foods now, his dad apparently ate nothing but french fries and spaghetti-o's and bacon for years and is now a vegetarian foodie, still picky in his own way but he definitely eats veggies now!
posted by lafemma at 5:07 AM on October 7, 2015

I do feel your pain. My son is also 3, is wee (from a family of wee people, especially the men), and feels that food is purely optional. I hesitate to characterize him as picky because he's got a lengthy (for a 3-year-old) list of foods that he has eaten and enjoyed, but on any given day, it's like he picks 3 things from that list that are acceptable, and he won't tell you what those three things are. You have to guess. When he was around 18 months, he was actually put through a number of tests because he went off food so much that he lost weight. Tests didn't indicate anything amiss and eventually he started gaining (slowly slowly) again.

So, I get the visceral impulse to panic. When your pediatrician is side-eyeing you and suggesting there may either be something wrong with your baby or something wrong with you as a parent, it's hard not to freak out.

I exert actual physical energy beating that impulse down because it's not good for my son and it's not good for me. I can't force-feed him, and no one wins a power struggle with a preschooler. In order for our meal-times to be pleasant, I've had to change my tactics. So:

1. He gets some version of what we're having for dinner on his tray. It is often not be the exact thing we are eating, but it's basically the same ingredients. (Example: last night we had tofu stir fry with rice, but he got raw tofu, raw carrots and raw broccoli on is tray, with dipping sauces, and rice on the side, see below). No milk with dinner, it fills him up too fast. He has ice water with dinner and then after dinner he can have his milk.

2. Whatever part of the meal it is that is his doubleplus favorite (usually the carb), we keep that aside and use it to reward either trying something that he's unsure of, or for-real eating something we know he is fine with. One bite of tofu earns him one butterfly pasta, or one spoon of rice, or whatever it is. This often works to get his protein in him and sometimes also some veg. If it's not completely successful, however, we move to:

3. Ask him what he wants to eat. He often doesn't know, which is frustrating. He'll sit in front of a full tray of food that are all items he's happily eaten in the past and declare, "I want something to eat!" And we say, "Okay, what do you want?" And he says he doesn't know. It's frustrating. I'll usually suggest some things that are higher on the nutrition side: peanut butter things, yogurt, cheese, a KIND bar or Lara bar, a squeezie packet (I get the ones that have fruit, veg, a grain and yogurt all together). He can have any of those things and it's not like I'm making a second meal. It's just a walk to the fridge or pantry.

4. Do not freak out, do not punish, do not hyper-focus on the food, offer only positive reinforcement and at a certain point once he's made a good effort, respect his announcement that he's all done. (He'll sometimes say he's all done like 2 minutes after sitting down and we enforce the "you're not all done until the adults are all done because that's polite" rule).

And I keep pediatric protein drinks in the cupboard at all times. If it's just one of those days where he's just determined to uneat, he gets his Daniel Milk (named after Daniel Tiger, his idol). He won't starve if he's had a protein drink and tomorrow is another day.

(His daycare is also nut free--all nuts--so he gets the same lunch every day and I do. not. care. if anyone there is judging me. We make a box of Annie's shells and cheese every weekend and mix it with a can of tuna and that's his entree. He also gets a squeezie packet and usually some other something like a cheese stick or crackers or something. Ain't no one got time to make gourmet lunches for a 3 year old.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:06 AM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

My kids have similar like/dislike lists. I don't see nuts and beans on your lists -- can you offer those, in a variety of ways? For example, roasted chickpeas (which are crunchy), or beans straight out of the can (one of my kids loves these, the other won't touch them)? Salted nuts as a snack, or in trail mix with M&Ms, or walnuts mixed into a pancake (which I realize may be unacceptable)? My kids will also eat corn dogs, even the one who normally doesn't like hot dogs. And bread/muffins with a small amount of things mixed in as long as they don't significantly change the texture or color (carrots, cheese, etc.) What about pickles and olives? I was always surprised that my otherwise picky kids would chow down on those. Mine also like bacon and cured meats like pepperoni, despite not being big meat fans in general.

My niece who was extremely picky and small ended up eating ice cream every day, on the advice of their pediatrician. I don't think it's the worst thing if you can control it so it's at the same time every day and they're not always asking for it.

You've gotten excellent advice up above, especially from Athene. I think the one thing I haven't seen is to not worry if they're not eating actual "meal foods" at "meal times" and think about the overall content of what they're eating. Like, there's no reason a grilled cheese sandwich counts as a meal, but cheese and crackers doesn't. And if he eats a banana for snack and then a piece of toast for dinner and some yogurt after, that's actually a decently balanced meal when you put it all together.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:12 AM on October 7, 2015

has two kids with tree nut allergies in his preschool class which meets all day, three days a week, which means no pb&j in his lunch or even for breakfast

My family just discovered Chickpeatos. They are a great high-protein snack that is nut-free and so can be sent to school. (They're gluten-free too, for people who care about that.) They are also super easy to pack up into snack-size portions.
posted by alms at 6:18 AM on October 7, 2015

Another reformed picky-eater child; I'm still not completely un-picky but MUCH better than I once was.

Honestly I think your list sounds OK. It's hard to feel like a "good parent" without some Norman Rockwell fantasy of everyone sitting down to roast chicken or whatever. But while annoying, it's not super hard to make your kid fruit plus pasta, or a bagel, or eggs, or veggie burger for dinner. If he loves whitefish, hell, stock up! A banana and whitefish salad a few times a week, if he's willing to eat it, is an OK dinner.

Absolutely nth that the more anxious you act about him trying new foods, the more he will rebel.
I did not discover I was OK with salad or some veggies until I was a teenager, because my mom always made me eat horrendous canned vegetables that spiraled into an aversion to ANY veg. She wasn't even super strict or making me eat a lot... but just the psychological "terror" of knowing I'd have to choke down something fundamentally GROSS to me is so hard to shake.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:28 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really needed to hear "it's ok" from other parents to let go of feeling like I was responsible for the weight of my kid's entire future eating habits getting messed up from his current pickiness. It's ok. Let the kid eat the food he eats. For dinner, my 5 year old eats mac & cheese, grilled cheese, spaghetti, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, hot dogs, veggie burgers (literally one specific type from one specific brand), mini meatloaf muffins (tricked him into thinking they were just giant meatballs), and peanut butter sandwiches in a rotation every week. Sometimes oatmeal and slice of bacon. Give him fruit with every meal and he'll get most of the fiber and vitamins that he'd get from veggies. Multivitamins to pick up the slack. It's ok to just let go and get through dinner without it being stressful. I hear ya on not wanting to make two dinners, but since kid food tends to be easy to slap together, I cave on that because I don't want to fight at dinner and I want to eat different food with actual flavors.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:45 AM on October 7, 2015

It sounds like your son eats a TON more variety than most children his age. I'm not sure what the issue is other than possibly talking to your doctor about his growth.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:47 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

This hits a big huge giant nerve with me, so I'm about to write a novel. I'll try to keep it neatly organized. Memail me if you ever want to vent, because I feel your internal pressure cooker.

We've been around the block with feeding issues. My son Micropanda is 5, underweight, and has had trouble with eating since he started solid food.

His weight is ok enough (~10%ile), but his weight-for-height was well less than 1%ile. This worried me. Even more worrisome to me was that in conjunction with this, he had very low stamina, weak muscles, and poor coordination. His eating issues have generally consisted of just not eating. He had a list of foods that were more acceptable than others, but would not reliably eat any of them. It's become clear to me as things have improved that he actually didn't understand hunger. He didn't have a native drive to eat. I had Satter recommended to me approximately one million times, and when we tried it, he... just didn't eat. Until his blood sugar tanked and he felt too sick to eat and was having meltdowns left and right. Those episodes were a joy to recover from. I can see how Satter's ideas can be great for most kids - it absolutely works with my daughter - but if it's not for your kid, don't feel guilted into doing it. We were stuck forever in this awful, horrible loop where he was always too tired to eat, and since he didn't eat, he was always tired.

I took him for a multidisciplinary feeding evaluation (occupational therapist, speech therapist, dietician, gastroenterologist) and while I left frustrated that they didn't have great answers for us, there were some helpful bits.
First is the very important question of, do you want your child to eat more, or do you want them to eat more things? Because these are different. Second, they said that at this age, a limited roster of foods is normal, and their biggest concerns are getting enough protein and fat. They said vegetables could wait til later. Obviously you want your kid to eat vegetables if possible, but if you have to prioritize, prioritize protein and fat.

The things that turned it around for us were (1) changing Micropanda's schedule and (2) Pediasure. I hired an after-school nanny to pick him up from preschool at 3, take him home, and feed him dinner at 5. This made him less tired, so he could eat more, and also meant that I no longer had to spend every waking minute together with him fighting over food. I feel some guilt that I had to outsource the feeding of my child, but I'm not sorry. I can't tell you how much our relationship has improved because of it.

And then, there's the Pediasure. On the one hand, I hate the stuff. It's not food, it's from a chemical lab. But on the other hand, it fixed something that was seriously broken in my kid's metabolism. The gastroenterologist had us start him with two bottles a day, one right after breakfast and one at bedtime (timings carefully chosen to not replace food). He gained 3 pounds in a few months - 10% of his body weight! - and the change in him has been staggering. He dropped his nap instantly, has so much more stamina, and is just more active and healthy-looking. And then, when I dropped him down to one bottle a day, the biggest miracle of all: FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS LIFE, HE STARTED ASKING FOR FOOD. That's when it really started sinking in just how bad things had been. He *never* asked for food before. He's even tasting new things. He often doesn't like them, but he's tasting them.

So, that's our saga. I'll post the take-aways in a second post because this is way too long. (Sorry.)
posted by telepanda at 7:00 AM on October 7, 2015 [14 favorites]

Best answer: The suggestions I have that might be take-aways for you are:

1) Feed him what he'll eat, mostly just worrying about protein and fat, and expose him to new things as nonchalantly as possible (eat it in front of him, enthuse about how delicious it is, talk about how you cooked it.) Put one morsel on his plate if he'll let you - he doesn't have to touch it. Try some of the food ladder stuff mentioned above (put it on your plate, touch it, kiss it, lick it, put it in your mouth and spit it out, finally swallow; assume getting to the end will take many tries)
2) Find ways you approve of to get as much fat and protein as you can into his diet. Will he eat Fage full-fat greek yogurt? What if you mix it half and half with his regular yogurt? That stuff has a TON of protein, way more than regular yogurt. High-protein bread and pasta if you can. Ice cream is a great dessert. Also, whipped cream. Maybe with fruit. Whip it yourself with just a tiny sprinkle of sugar, and there's nothing unhealthy (for a little one) about it. Here, have another bowlful. Double cheese on the grilled cheese. Maybe also butter if you can sneak it in.
3) My secret weapon food is quiche (i'm so lucky the kids will eat it). Refrigerator pie crust, three eggs, 12 oz of cream, 2 cups of shredded cheese (half cup on the bottom of the crust, cup mixed in, half cup sprinkled on top), 1 1/2 cups of meat/veggie (whatever he'll eat). Bake at 350 for 45 min. I make this approximately every other week. The grownups in the house are not allowed to touch it because you will gain weight just looking at it. Maybe you can find a similar go-to.
4) Try introducing new foods at snack time, not dinner time, as snack time is less fraught.
5) Tell him what the different micronutrients do for his body. These eggs have protein for your muscles and fat for your brain! (squeeze his arm) Oh man, this muscle here really needs some protein! This cheese has calcium to make your bones strong. My kid thought this was cool. It was a good way to "motivate" him to eat without actually badgering.
6) If you're really worried, Pediasure. I wouldn't suggest it for recreational use but I've grudgingly accepted that it has a place in the world.
7) Don't show your anxiety. God DAMN, this is so hard. I'm pretty sure I used every scrap of mental energy for about three years concealing my stress at mealtime. Don't beat yourself up too much if you snap at him every now and then (just apologize briefly afterwards - "Mommy got frustrated and used a mean voice. That wasn't nice, was it? I love you!").
8) 3 is a really hard age, for a lot of reasons. I'd focus for now on just getting enough food into him, and consider the introducing of new stuff as a very slow long-term process. It's getting better for us, bit by bit, but it's been a long hard road.
9) If he decides to combine his food in weird gross ways, be supportive! (The first time Micropanda put Nutella on his cheese toast and ate it, I was all, yay! new combination! mixed flavors! MORE CALORIES!. This morning he ate a ham, cheese, and jam sandwich. I told him I was proud of him for trying new things.) This is all the more true if you suspect sensory issues (we do).
posted by telepanda at 7:09 AM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, and the last thing, up til 4 1/2, I was still often spoon-feeding Micropanda at least the last half of his dinner. He was able to use utensils (and I still don't complain at him for using his fingers unless it's really egregious) but I could sometimes get several extra bites into him if I started feeding him after he quit. It was embarrassing to me as a parent, and I worried that I was stilting his independence, but it's what we had to do. Still do, on occasion, but very rarely now. Doesn't seem to have stunted him.
posted by telepanda at 7:28 AM on October 7, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the invaluable insights.

I'm also particularly appreciative to the people who took the time to offer practical advice and reading suggestions. I'll definitely implement those and get some new reading material.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:37 AM on October 7, 2015

Best answer: The texture issue with the muffins caught my attention. It seems most of the foods he likes are smooth. My nephew was an incredibly picky eater until he had his tonsils removed, anything with lumps he hated. He is still very fussy about food textures way more than taste.

If your son will eat soups my SIL hid a lot of goodies in various types of soup.

Also you may want to look into smoothies, you can hide a lot of fruit & veggies in juices & smoothies. If not smoothies then something like Ensure or protein shakes which taste like a chocolate milkshake.

My nephew still has interesting behaviors with his food & hates to be rushed, he will only eat in calm settings & takes ages as he wants to chew everything thoroughly. His mum has instigated one rule which has helped with the picky eating a little. He has to try one mouthful of everything on his plate before he can say he doesn't like it. She doesn't make him eat it, she just insists he try it. Then he has to wait until she's finished eating her dinner to have a sandwich made for him instead, he doesn't get a special dinner all his own but she will throw in a smoothy with hidden veg in. Usually while just sitting & waiting for everyone else to finish with no pressure he gets bored & starts to eat.
posted by wwax at 7:40 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's something that I do with our daughter who went through an intense picky phase at the same time as your son is now. And maybe you're already doing this and if so, maybe this tip will help other folks in the future - deconstructed dinners. Her biggest aversion was to things mixed together. So when I cook, I keep her plate next to me and make little piles of the ingredients. Example: we are big into burritos - beans, rice, salsa, plain yogurt (sour cream), black olives, tomatoes, avocado, cheese, lettuce in a wrap. She gets all that in small piles. And I fight to pay no attention to what she does or doesn't eat. Over time she tried all the things and now she likes to make her own burrito from the items - some she puts in the wrap and others she eats straight up.

Same for pasta - pile of butter noodles, dish of red sauce, slices of parm. She often eats it all. Why do I care if the red sauce is eaten with a spoon or on the noodles. It only takes me a tiny bit of mental planning to do this and it's not a separate meal. I even give her hotdog, bun on the side. For awhile she wanted ketchup in the bun, hotdog on the side. It's still the same meal.

Simple veg worked well: peas, corn, carrots.

I always give her a small bit of what we are having that I think she won't like. Your kid's tolerance for foods they don't like being on their plate may vary - if so set out a second small plate and say, here's something we are having - it's kind of a "grown up" flavor but I thought you might like to try it. If they say no, you can ask for it back. :)

Lastly, my daughter was very intrigued by the idea that every year you grow new taste buds and your tastes change. I regale her with tales about a food that she likes but that I really didn't when I was a kid. But then...one day...I tried it again and loved it! Appeal to your child's inner scientist.

Good luck - I know how hard it is. Feeding and eating are fundamental to us as a species. It's in our nature to worry and fret over food. You are doing a great job. Hang in there!
posted by amanda at 7:43 AM on October 7, 2015 [10 favorites]

My best friend's daughter is a very picky eater who had a short list of acceptable foods when she was 3, and was in the very low percentiles for growth as well. Their doctor was less concerned with what she ate, in that it wasn't necessary to try to enforce food rules like "you have to eat whatever mom and dad are having for dinner" or "three bites of a new food are required", the concern was really only that she get as many calories as possible. What my friend and her husband did was just continue making their own dinner and feeding the kiddo whatever she'd actually eat -- they'd offer her a taste of their food, but didn't put pressure on her to eat it. Having her help with meal prep in age-appropriate ways seemed to spark a breakthrough -- seeing how dinner gets made demystifies the food a little bit and makes it seem a little less scary, and she'd be more likely to try a bite of something if she'd had a hand in making it. It took a while for her to get to that point, though -- at first she'd help with dinner and when offered a bite she'd turn her nose up at it, then she progressed to complimenting the dish but gently turning it down when offered. (Sister got really into being polite thanks to Fancy Nancy or My Little Pony or some media she was ingesting, god bless it.) Eventually she started trying little bites. Not being pressured to eat the thing was the key, though. Oh, and gummy vitamins helped cover the nutritional gaps that come from eating minimal veggies. She's five now, she's grown taller and put on a little weight, but she'll always be a peanut (it's in her genes), and she's still a picky eater. It's just not as intense, and she's growing out of it, but she's just not a kid who's super interested in food. I think she might turn out to be one of those people who eats to live, but doesn't live to eat, you know? Anyway. Hang in there, this is so very very common.
posted by palomar at 8:17 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hello. I was your son. I was so small at ages 2-3 that I wasn't even on the chart. Also from a family of small people, also incredibly picky (I ate cheerios, grapes, and pieces of hot dogs). I was so small that they gave me an x-ray to see if perhaps I was a dwarf. I wasn't.

The doctors advised my parents to feed me whatever I'd eat. I truly refused to eat any foods aside from cheerios, grapes, and pieces of hot dogs. I even remember this. They did. Eventually I accepted other foods. I was very small through elementary school but by middle school, was just regular-small. I am now five two. I now eat everything.

It will be ok!
posted by millipede at 8:21 AM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

My mom used to put raw eggs into milkshakes for my brother. Maybe you could throw one of those pasteurized eggs into a smoothie when you try those again? Or you might see if he'd drink an old-school eggnog.
posted by mmmbacon at 8:48 AM on October 7, 2015

He won't drink smoothies right now but I'm willing to give it another go, armed with these new ideas.

My son wouldn't drink milk at all after the age of one (he was still nursing but I wanted him to have less breast milk and more cow's milk by that point). So I started giving him "milk smoothies" with blended banana and soy milk and frozen berries or mangoes. I thought naming it "milk smoothie" he'd eventually see he likes straight up milk. That part didn't really work but two years later he's still into his smoothies. I usually do a mix of regular milk and vanilla almond milk or soy milk. We mostly do mango these days as the frozen fruit, but I also add banana, shredded coconut, and sometimes full fat plain yogurt. So maybe start with renaming the smoothie (milkshake or whatever appeals to him), and also let him help make it. My son loves dragging a chair over and helping add the ingredients. As others have noted, you can squeeze a lot of nutrition into a smoothie.

As far as cooking a separate meal for your son, maybe try some of the other ideas here (deconstructed meals sounds about right, my 3 year old won't eat stuff (like stir fry) all mixed together). But also I find I don't do much cooking for my son, it was too annoying to spend a lot of time cooking something only to have the plate immediately pushed away uneaten. So I more often do whole foods, or very simply prepared things. The other day he had cheese slices, kalamata olives, and watermelon for dinner. The next day he wouldn't touch any of those items but had a bowl of cereal and milk along with a smoothie. Or I do a bean/cheese/avocado burrito or cheese quesadilla with guacamole; both of those things take just a few minutes to put together (yes I cheat and buy pre-grated cheese). I always use whole grain bread and tortillas, basically I try to give him nutritionally dense meals but have to balance that against what he will eat.

I would really resist the urge to take a hard line and send him to bed early. Just have some of the stuff he likes on hand that requires minimal prep-work. My son has some of the pouches almost every day (yogurt mostly and I'm picky about which ones I buy because I don't like too many ingredients or extra added sugar).

It's really frustrating dealing with young children and eating; our child won't eat pretty much all day at preschool (with occasional exceptions), so I have to work hard to offer him filling nutritious breakfasts and have something to feed him as soon as I pick him up. There's no forcing a kid to eat who doesn't want to, I'm just happy he wants to eat something at all when he's with me. All of this will eventually pass as they grow and change, as many parents of older children can attest to (and I'm sure many of us walking around today had picky/eating issues as toddlers). Best of luck to you.
posted by JenMarie at 9:42 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is not a moral failing to make separate foods for your kid, no matter what anyone says. Your job is to feed your child. You don't have to knock yourself out doing gourmet separate meals, but simpler items that they will eat/are good for them are ok. Because you are feeding your child.

Three-year-olds are not adults who are trying to trick you. They are small beings with a very limited grasp on the world, and almost no power, and lots of fears and feelings they can't begin to express. Food is one of those places that tend to bring those things to the surface. And if you respond with kindness or with allowing your child to express what he wants (within reason) then it will be ok. Your child will be ok.

A poster above noted it was much easier to try new things when their parents weren't hovering and fussing, and also when they were away from them entirely. My kid has tried new things mostly when he was at other people's houses; something about being out from under my supervision made that easier for him, even though I try not to be fussy. My theory right now is that he really doesn't want to deal with my disappointment when he doesn't like something I offer, but at a friend's house, the stakes are lower. No one is going to freak out if he hates something, so he feels less pressure and is more open to trying it. Also, if his friend is eating it, he wants to be like them. Your kid's too young to do much eating without you, but it will probably happen eventually.

Your kid's diet right now is more diverse than a lot of kids his age. Just focus on getting more protein/vitamins into him if that's what he needs, any way that works for you both, and let the rest shake itself out.
posted by emjaybee at 10:00 AM on October 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Hi - you've gotten a lot of good advice here. I too have a picky eater who will starve himself if "acceptable" food isn't provided. He dropped from the 7th percentile recently to something lower that I must have blocked out.

I agree with the people recommending to give the kid what he wants. I would rather have my son eat chicken nuggets and pasta every day for weeks, than sit at a table not eating and going to bed hungry. And, he had the same smooth foods issue when he was smaller, so perhaps yours will grow out of it.

How is your child's growth curve? When I was concerned about weight, our pediatrician would recommend all the techniques and Pediasure mentioned above. Then they'd add, "look, he's small. He's growing appropriately" and show me his growth curve v. typical growth curve. Lower, but similar. The worry was me, not the doctor.

It's a lot of comfort, actually when your child looks like the wispy alien who landed in a band of solid human children who actually eat.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 10:14 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

"I'm a parent who cares that my kid gets a broad range of nutrients. That's reasonable."

It is, but this desire has to be balanced with other things you desire, such as not psychologically damaging your kid. I grew up in a 'just try one bite' house and always thought that was a kid philosophy. Then I married someone for whom this was the hill to die on. His mother made food a huge issue, and still comments on what he eats. He bitterly resented it and still does. His experience was that when he was ready to try something, he did and all his mother's haranguing had left him with was a store of childhood memories of his mother which were negative and coloured by this issue.

He has his own picky child now, and while I will occasionally offer a carrot in a casual 'hey, you want some?' kind of way, I have learned not to battle over this. I do expect husband to have a conversation with him when he's old enough to understand it, about the food groups and how that all works. But I don't want kid to look back on his life later and remember me as the shrew who was always bothering him about what he ate. Your list does include items for each food group. He won't die from malnutrition. Just some anecdata to think about :-)
posted by JoannaC at 11:57 AM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just went through a year of feeding therapy with my now 3 year old. If you want to chat, feel free to memail me. After a lot of work and trying different things, our newest thing that works well for us is that he gets served whatever we eat for dinner and then on top of that he may choose (before we sit down to eat) ONE other thing. Some days we give him a list of choices, some days it's just ... pick one thing you want to eat. Then, at dinner time, keep handy more of the thing he chose, and serve him approximately equal amounts by volume of "food everyone else is having" and "preferred food". Most days he won't eat any of whatever we're having, but some days he licks it or whatever, which we consider a total win. If he runs out of preferred food, he can politely ask for more and receive it.

I am happy to go over other things we tried, too. This happens to be the thing that works best for our family, but may not be what works best for yours!

Mine also would not eat smoothies, but loved pureed prepackaged foods. So, we slowly worked our way from pureed prepackaged foods to homemade smoothies, which he now loves. Started by taking prepackaged food, putting it in blender, pouring back into container. Next step, same thing, but *actually turning blender on*. Then, adding a second flavor of prepackaged puree and mixing them together. Then, adding one slice of banana and pureeing it with prepackaged food. Somewhere in there, he got really into the idea of getting to pick what went in and now LOVES LOVES LOVES smoothies, and will put quinoa (good protein!) and yogurt, etc in there.

Good luck. It's hard. Please do feel free to memail me for anything.
posted by freezer cake at 12:14 PM on October 7, 2015

My brother ate less foods than you can count on both hands (jam sandwiches, french fries, spaghetti with butter, french toast, plain hotdogs, and grilled cheese), was an 80s "miracle" preemie baby, had food allergies that made him mistrustful of new foods/adults not disclosing ingredients because they wanted to "test" if he was "really" allergic. He was small for his age/underweight for most of our childhood, I (a lady) am two years younger and was almost always taller and heavier.

My dad resented my brother's picky eating and would try to coerce, threaten, trick him into eating, or otherwise would fuss about it, taking it personally. He dragged us to a lot of doctors for our health issues and tried out a million disgusting "health" supplements we hated taking. My mom just made him whatever he wanted - we didn't live with her and this obviously endeared us both to her parenting style because if we wanted mashed potatoes and ice cream for dinner, we got it. My stepmom would encourage him to try new stuff but didn't force him, and would sometimes use reverse psychology ("this isn't for kids", "it's expensive so you have to eat the whole thing"). No one of these tactics worked every time, but the combo somehow did?

Like it was mentioned above, people outside of the immediate family usually managed to get him to try stuff. My aunts and uncles, cousins, stepsiblings and family friends were usually the ones to introduce him to new foods - I'll never forget him "discovering" that pizza, cheeseburgers and bagels with cream cheese were delicious.

He is now a perfectly healthy adult with a fairly varied diet, leaning towards your meat, veg, potatoes type meals. He's very active and strong, doesn't really have any diet-related health issues to speak of.
posted by SassHat at 12:57 PM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also: my sister who is much younger was the queen of wanting a separate dinner, not because she was picky but more because she liked the attention, being the youngest. This is where Easy Mac is your friend - it takes 2 minutes to cook and you can doctor it up with real cheese, a half a beaten egg, unflavored (or cheese flavored) protein powder, a handful of frozen peas, etc. if you're worried it's not nutritious enough on its own.
posted by SassHat at 12:59 PM on October 7, 2015

Just adding to the chorus of voices asking you to not force foods that make your kid gag on him. My parents did this to me and it was traumatic. I eat many of those foods now just fine. My taste buds just had to grow up. Try to imagine someone making you eat something that makes you gag, over and over. I know you're frustrated, but when it gets to this point, you've lost some empathy for your child and probably some of their trust. (Why should he try anything you present to him if sometime you force him to eat stuff that makes him throw up?)
posted by purple_bird at 1:16 PM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

What about keeping a big bag of bagels and fruit in the refrigerator -- Lunch can be catered to his particular tastes (since lunch tends to be a "custom made" meal anyway). Dinner is what the family is having. He can eat what he wants of it and if he gets hungry later he can have a piece of fruit or bagel in the fridge.

When I was a kid I was repulsed by tomatoes and did not eat them (or what I considered "tomato products" which included marinara sauce but not pizza sauce) until I was a teen. But in general my family was pretty hands off about what I was required to eat or not eat and I'm very grateful for that because as an adult I have a laid back relationship with food and I like that my family didn't plant the seeds for whatever food related drama or issues.

I actually think he sounds like he eats a reasonable variety of foods. I thought you were going to say that he will only eat grapes (peeled) and cheddar cheese cut into 1 inch cubes or something. If you look at that list it more or less covers the necessary vitamins and minerals and food groups bases. Also it sounds like he's being given the luxury of choice, maybe too much so, with the specific muffins-but-no-chunks-things. Or at least it sounds like it's driving you crazy. What about framing it like, "Oh, I bought some muffins. Not sure if it has chunks or not. If you like you can try it. No? Okay. We don't have a lot of other options at the moment, but if you get hungry later you can have the apple in the fridge."
posted by mermily at 2:27 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also if it's any consolation now- they do grow out of this. It seems like they never will and then suddenly you have a kid with fancy tastes. One little sister age 3 only ever ate peanut butter sandwiches and milk then by 10 she was obsssed with sushi and smoked salmon. Another ate plain spaghetti for years. My best friend only ate chicken nuggets and drank orange juice as a kid (as a fellow kid, I thought she was silly) and yet as adults she eats a really wide range of foods and I'm the picky one.
posted by kitten magic at 3:21 PM on October 7, 2015

Just two thoughts that struck me reading your first update: when my son was 3 (he is now 7), he began to reject many foods. At the same time he started to take incredibly serious whatever other adults in his life said about food (not me or dad) or anything else for that matter.
From the description of nutfree daycare, I assume food is a topic spoken about there/priority (even unintentionally).

Anyway, "healthy" eating was covered a lot at his daycare at age 3 and also later in kindergarten, at 5, and left him with some strange ideas I find really difficult to cope with at home. It enforced his exsisting tendencies to picky eating very much to hear constant talk at day care and kindergarten about allergies and fat intake, food groups, protein and carbs. It was well intentioned, and the government here sponsors programs to prevent child obesity. But he was / is not obese or even plump, nor were any of the kids in his group at daycare or kindergarten.
But he began to refuse to eat carbs with his protein for example, because allegedly someone of the carers said this was best diet... he is honestly worried about his fat intake and if I put butter on his pasta he wont have it (he is quite skinny and always has been) and weight gain preoccupies him. I have to smuggle good oils into his food so he gets any. He was (is) worried whether he might also himself be allergic (he has no known allergies and never had) like some of his peers.

With 3 he did not have the words yet to say why he suddenly began rejecting certain foods, and boy it did drive me up the wall, but now he can and will tell me.
Just something to consider.
(And yes, I did talk to the staff but no change was felt necessary. He is now in a different school anyway so I hope it improves if he is not constantly surounded by well-meaning but in my opinion misguided food-lectures).
posted by 15L06 at 6:18 AM on October 8, 2015

Seconding the no-foods-touching thing.

Not only that, I actually went for multiple small courses - but it meant I prioritised say protein, then veges, then get whatever calories I can get into you, etc.
I'd cook them separately, so small children just had meat pie/protein whatever ready first.

I know it's a bit expensive, but the meat pies? Great! Get some more. See if you can expand on that, especially if there are any frozen meat pies he'll go for. The blandness and bland pastry is often a win. Chopped into 8 sections, easy for a 3 year old to self feed.

When you DO try with a vegetable, HEAP on the butter, salt and sugar, as required. They need calories, and they need to acclimatise their palate to new flavours.

No herbs, no spices. I find adults can't really identify how those flavours taste to a small child (a: awful!), whereas I not-so-fortunately have super-taster taste-buds, and it took into adulthood for that to fade off for me, but it means I can often make a better guess as to what flavours will and won't work (green leaves? Bitter. Herbs and olive oil? Moldy and poisonous tasting. Etc etc). Pasta sauces, frequently terrible. Light kikkoman soya sauce is often ok, against peoples expectations.

Try and work with a 1 taste rule (expanding to bigger mouthfuls when older). He doesn't have to eat the things he doesn't like, but he has to have a taste of it each time, to give his tongue 'practice at liking the taste' (this is, actually, pretty close to the real explanation of developing palate, and how I managed to get there with pretty much all foods).
I did mention how I didn't like different foods I didn't like as a kid, but how I kept tasting them, and now they are favourites.
Don't make him taste things you are already know he won't like for a few years, as he'll lose trust.
I had a relative who was pretty terrible with that - she'd falsely smile and try and encourage her kid into putting some strong tasting adult palate food in their mouth (with olives, bitter herbs, 'only a bit of pepper! Oh, and chili...' etc. I think she couldn't understand that it genuinely tasted bad to her small child, and she was then blown away when the same kid happily ate my tuna-mayo sushi?).
Focusing on achievable flavours, like carrot, chicken, tomato, etc. If it doesn't taste bitter to you but it does to them, consider that they really are tasting things that you probably can't (e.g. lettuce!). Only get them to taste foods that you genuinely believe are nearly there on the flavour horizon, and give it the best chance of working, by making sure it's got butter/cheese/salt/sugar as required, and the 'taste' is given at the beginning of the meal, while hunger is still acting as a good flavour enhancer.

When trying well-boiled baby peas, lots of butter and a bit of salt on them.
If you try cooked carrot, stir in a bit of brown sugar and butter.
You can lessen the amount of sugar etc LATER, once your picky eater is already sure he likes, say, carrot.

But yeah, add butter to any food he'll eat. Start off with a protein. If he'll eat a given protein/vege/high fat food, then just roll with it (peas are super easy to microwave, so are a great food to work towards due to decreasing the hassle of separate meals).
posted by Elysum at 6:45 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also as to PB&J substitutes: our son would eat PB&J (or PB & bananas, etc) every meal if we let him (and sometimes we do, if we can't get him to eat anything else). His preschool will allow sunflower butter but is totally peanut and nut free, so almond butter is not allowed.

I totally understand your anxiety and perspective - our son is only 18 months, but I'm seeing a little of it already - but I almost burst out laughing that you classified a child who eats whitefish salad, eggs, lentil soup and veggie burgers as picky :)
posted by Pax at 7:44 AM on October 8, 2015

Highly recommend the book "It's Not About the Broccoli" for real rules you can put into place tomorrow that won't be traumatic but will get you into a better pattern.
posted by valeries at 10:25 AM on October 13, 2015

n'thing those who say your son is not picky: your list of things he eats is splendid!

That said. I have two adult daughters who were picky as small children and are now adventurous eaters, and as I see it, the main way we achieved that was by avoiding food-related conflicts. We decided never to fight over food, but to be very firm when it came to choices by not even having undesirable choices in the pantry. We have never had any breakfast cereals, processed bread or industrial jam in the house. If junior wouldn't eat any meat, it was just fine: she could stick to the potatoes and veg.

This took some nerve: specially my second daughter was underweight, and the doctor kept suggesting supplements, which she wouldn't eat. After she began to eat, she moved rapidly into the top percentile and now has super-model dimensions (not at all skinny, all strong).

We would always eat together at least for breakfast and dinner, and there would always be choices. So one could eat yogurt, eggs, whole bread, cheese, PB, milk for breakfast in any combination. And starch, meat, cooked vegs, raw vegs for dinner, in any combination. I know, this is banal normal food. The point is that we never forced anyone to eat any component, but also never admitted any other components to the table. And we ate together. I think the last part was a huge force.

Both girls preferred a lunch-bag to the cafeteria, and they could chose whatever they liked for that, but no sweets.

For both: suddenly one day, they ate what they formerly had refused. We didn't comment in any way.
posted by mumimor at 2:15 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't believe I forgot that I always *try* and give them a choice of which foods they want, out of the foods they will eat.
You can have mince pie or chicken? Get answer.
Then we have potatoes, and carrots, and peas, which do you want?

The toddlers I dealt with, just to be contrary, would often select ALL the options I had said they could have (including peas and carrot), when they had refused to eat the same things at the meal the night before. Not saying it will work for you, but choice, and toddler buy-in counts for a lot, and avoids a lot of conflict for the food you already know they will eat.

And yeah, I just didn't have food that I didn't want them to eat.
posted by Elysum at 4:10 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a follow-up:

Well, my son has started eating more of fewer foods now. He's dropped spaghetti as something he'll eat altogether, and is off eggs, too. He will eat sun butter in place of peanut butter, though, and as one helpful poster offered up thread, I send him to school with the same lunch basically every day, the centerpiece of which is a sun butter and jelly sandwich on bread made with pumpkin seeds in the dough.

He still refuses smoothies unless they are literally ice-cream and milk. He will, however, accept veggies in exactly one dish I make him regularly, Israeli couscous. His preschool teacher has taught him how to touch his tongue to new foods and accept or refuse them, and, though he refuses them 99 percent of the time, it's a start. He actually ate French toast stuffed with cream cheese and blueberries at preschool last week! This is new and exciting, and I'm elated.

Now I don't pressure him or discuss his food choices. I offer him a choice of things I know he'll eat, and don't offer things like sweets very often. Mealtimes are calm now and much less structured; some nights he just gets pretzels and fruit or yogurt and bagel for dinner and that's fine. We're all so much more relaxed. Now he's actually wanting to talk more about adult foods, and enjoys playing a lot with play food. He also loves cooking with me though he isn't yet to the point of asking to try a bite of mom and dad' dinner. It's fun, relaxed, and ok with me now. We also read food-themed books often.

Lastly, I appreciate people sharing their bona fides, though some were difficult to hear. I've recognized my missteps and am working to support my son on his journey with food and all the other stuff. Much obliged to all for the info, ideas and encouragement. Just yesterday, one of his preschool teachers remarked on what a good eater he is comparatively speaking! I'm so proud and happy for him for that.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:58 AM on November 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Wanted to follow-up one last time because something really wonderful happened last week and I'd love any parents dealing with pickiness frustration to hear about it.

My son loves High Five magazine, the toddler/preschooler version of Highlights. Every issue has activities in the back, many of which are recipes for no-cook, preschooler friendly foods. This month's issue has a Take-Along Taco Cup recipe, which looked and sounded vile to me, but which, for reasons I still don't entirely grok, captured my son's imagination, because he asked to make them. In fact, he insisted we make them.

So, we went to the grocery store together and bought black beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tortilla chips and salsa. I rinsed the black beans, he pulverized the chips in a baggie, and we both grated some of the cheese. We then spooned the ingredients into cups according to the recipe. My son took a bite and promptly tongued the two black beans, six or so shards of cheese, and minuscule blop of guac he'd tolerated in his mouth for two seconds onto the counter. He then announced his abject hatred of "Tookawoo Coffee Cup" and asked for some milk.

I was completely and totally psyched. He'd been brave, we'd made another thing together, and he had asked to try something completely new, multi-dimensional and out of his culinary comfort zone. I am so proud of him. It was a great day.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

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