The Drama of the Picky Child

Cathy Arnst

The spinach scare has likely not meant much to a lot of parents out there. After all, who can get their kids to eat spinach? For many parents, spinach is the least of their challenges. I know kids who will only eat white rice with soy sauce, or absolutely plain spaghetti, or chicken nuggets with fries. If you have one of these picky eaters, you know the drill: Every meal has the potential of becoming a battlefield.

The good news is that all kids tend to go through a picky stage, usually when they are around three and their taste buds are developing. Toddlers distrust anything new to begin with, and they quickly figure out that one of the few things they can control in their little lives is what they put in their mouths. The bad news is that we, the parents, are probably responsible for much of their picky behavior. Study after study has found that kids copy their parents when it comes to eating. If you drink a lot of soda, eat a lot of fattening snacks, avoid vegetables, or refuse to try anything new, then your child will almost certainly do the same.

Even if we do stick to a good diet ourselves, we parents too often allow picky eaters to manipulate their way out of a healthy meal. In too many homes, food is a power struggle. Kids refuse to eat something to prove their independence, and then attempt to wear their parents down until they guiltily make a separate meal of mac n' cheese just to keep the peace.

The struggle is complicated by our own issues around food, and the fact that no one wants to see their kid go hungry. But doctors will tell you that kids don't go hungry--they will not choose death by starvation over vegetables. The problem is, by the time dinner rolls around they probably aren't hungry, because they've been snacking on candy, or cookies, or chips, or soda (an insidious form of empty calories that fills you up without providing any nutritional value). Just look at the picky eaters you know, possibly in your own house, and notice how many sugar and/or fat-laden foods they eat during the day. No wonder they won't eat dinner.

If you want a glimpse of another way, read this article from the International Herald Tribune , by an American parent living in Europe.

Last summer, while on home leave in the United States, my family and I had dinner at a child- friendly Italian restaurant in upstate New York. Things were going fine until my Europe-born children, ages 13, 9 and 8, ordered their meals - spaghetti carbonara, seafood linguini and pasta primavera - and then turned down the waitress's offers to leave out the spices or serve the sauce on the side. The waitress was flummoxed. "This is the first time in five years of working here I have seen children order an adult dish completely unaltered," she said. "Where are you from?" All of us with expatriate children have seen the eyes of other parents widen with jealousy as they watch our offspring eat, and enjoy, whatever is put before them - from Moroccan lamb tagine to sautéed calamari to runny French cheese. "Kids have little choice but to try new foods when they live abroad," said Deirdre Quesada, who moved with her family from Maine to London last year for a 10-month sabbatical. "My kids were really picky eaters when we arrived. But at their English school, they had no choice but to eat the one meal served each day at lunchtime. They started eating curries and stews they would never have eaten back home."

In America, kids all too often are given a choice, and those choices are rarely healthy. If you are looking for some help out of this mess, there is a lot of expert advice on the web for dealing with picky eaters. One of my favorites is the University of California-San Francisco Children's Hospital. Among its suggestions: it is not necessary to always offer dessert. Too often a dessert becomes a bribe or reward, the worse attributes to impart to food. also has a great article, Feeding Toddlers: 17 Tips for Feeding the Picky Eater. My personal favorite tip is to set up a nibble tray: take something with lots of compartments, like an ice cube tray, feel each section with healthy nibbles, and let your toddler go wild. And all the picky eating sites make the point that you should offer a child a new food 10 to 15 times before giving up. They need time to adjust to a novel sight on their plate.

I'd also like to offer a guaranteed picky eater-busting recipe of my own. I made it this summer for a friend's 10-year old son who brings new meaning to the concept of picky--he basically refuses to eat anything healthy. But he absolutely loved this chicken, which is a snap to make. It's a popular Philippino dish, and there are many different versions, but this is one of the easiest. I always use skinless thighs, but you could make it with breasts if you prefer white meat. I've also tried finishing the chicken a couple of minutes under the broiler to crisp it, but that step is not necessary. Also, I tend to make this in a big pot rather than a frying pan to avoid spatters. And remember, one good way to avoid a picky eater is to get your child to cook with you. They always like it better if they make it themselves.

(time: about 40 minutes)

8 chicken drumsticks (or 4 drumsticks and 4 thighs; about 2 1/2 pounds total) (I use skinless)
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce (I use low sodium)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
Accompaniment: cooked rice

Pat chicken dry. Coarsely chop garlic. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and brown chicken in 2 batches, about 8 minutes for each batch. With tongs transfer chicken as browned to a plate.
Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from skillet and in remaining fat cook garlic over moderately low heat, stirring, until golden. Add vinegar, soy sauce, peppercorns, bay leaf, and chicken, with any juices that have accumulated on plate, and simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Remove lid and cook mixture over moderately low heat, turning chicken occasionally, until sauce is thickened and coats chicken, about 15 minutes.

Serve chicken with rice.

Serves 4.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.