Sacred Appetite Goes Undercover to Expose the PediaSure Picky Eater Hotline Scandal
Or: “PediaSure: Why Not? Part II”
Late on the evening of August 15, I picked up a brochure in a pediatrician’s waiting room.
“Live 1-on-1 nutritional support for picky eating problems. Dietitians available 24/7,” it declared.
“Has picky eating taken over? We’ll help you take back the table and build lifelong healthy eating habits,” the headlines continued.
Then I saw it: “PediaSure Feeding Expert.” The hackles rose on the back of my neck.
“‘Feeding Expert,’ indeed,” thought I. “Like Jack Daniels offering a free helpline for alcoholics. Their answer to the problem is probably along the lines of ‘the hair of the dog that bit you.’ PediaSure is a short-term ‘solution’ that makes the problem worse.”
I have an adversarial relationship to PediaSure, you see.
Admittedly it’s a one-sided relationship. It’s like David and Goliath, but Goliath isn’t aware of David. Few, in fact, know that this David exists. Seeing as how I was sitting in an empty pediatrician’s waiting room in the evening, not to see the doctor, but because the three whole people who had signed up for my workshop for parents of picky eaters were all late. So late I had started to give up hope of them coming at all.
Yet, the brochure declared that “58% of moms survey say their biggest daily challenge is ensuring their child eats healthy and nutritious meals every day.” Their biggest challenge? That’s a lot of moms whose biggest challenge is getting healthy food into their kids’ stomaches. We’re talking about millions of moms. That’s probably at least 10,000 women just in my town. Where were all these moms that need my help? Why weren’t they at my workshop? At least the three who told me they were coming that night? I would have been content with those three.
“80% sometimes feel like they have no control over their child’s picky eating habits,” the brochure continued. That is a LOT of moms I could help.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “This I gotta hear.”
A Covert Call to the PediaSure Picky Eater Hotline
I picked up my phone and called the 800 number, reaching a male “PediaSure feeding expert.”
I disguised my voice, in case the person on the other end of the line should recognize the voice of the world’s top adviser in picky eating problems. I also tried to sound young enough to have a toddler of my own.
My first question was: “Is this a free service?” It was.
Indeed. No way my $20-per-couple workshop can compete with such an offer. No wonder my workshop attendees stood me up, I thought. They had probably found out they could call a “feeding expert” from a big, famous national brand, and get personalized, one-on-one advice, for free. If they’d come to my workshop, they’d have had to share me with two other moms that night.
Furthermore, if anyone is to call me an “expert,” looks like its probably going to be me for the moment.
Then, hesitating, feeling nervous about being blatantly dishonest and worried that it would be obvious I was lying, I phrased my question as if it were a hypothetical situation.
“Let’s say, if I had a two-year-old who only eats a few foods, what should I do?” I began. Which was subtly ironic, because he probably thought I was a real mom who didn’t want to admit it was my kid who actually was picky, but in fact, I fooled him. I really wasn’t a mom of a picky eater. (cue bitter laughter).
I explained that my little darling would eat only about five foods: white bread, mac and cheese, pizza, applesauce, hotdogs. As the conversation continued, I let him think I was “letting down my guard” with him, talking openly about “my child.” More irony.
PediaSure’s Advice for Picky Eating
“Disguise stuff, use a dipping sauce, like ranch dressing,” was his first recommendation. “Is it the healthiest option? No, but at least they are eating something.”
Typical, I thought. Why aim at helping kids enjoy real food when you can be content with just smuggling food down? Why not use stuff that’s bad for you to get them to eat stuff that’s good for you? Why believe that kids can learn to enjoy healthy foods when you can just fool them and let them continue to be closed minded?
I have several better answers than his to that question. I wanted to argue with him, set him straight, but figured he’d hang up on me if I did.
“Make meals fun,” the “food expert” continued. “Take them to the store, let them look at the food and pick out what they think looks good.” That part sounds harmless enough. Though I do wonder what he means by “fun.”
“Sometimes you have to introduce a food 10 to 15 times before a child will try it,” he said. That’s a classic. OK, whatever. Not under ideal conditions. Not if you never pressure a kid to eat. Not if you schedule your meals properly and prevent snacking in between times. Not if you have the right atmosphere at the table.
Offering the Good with the Bad?
“Be consistent in continually offering healthy options,” the “feeding expert” droned on. “It’s OK to eat pizza, but keep offering a variety of healthy food. Whole grains are best.”
Let’s define “healthy food.” I don’t think grains, even whole grains, are optimal foods for anybody, let alone a small child. But that is a whole nother argument that we won’t get into here.
Sometimes I think some of these so-called “nutritionists” and “dietitians” are about as informed of what’s really healthy as back in my 70‘s elementary school days when the best they could do was to preach the “The Four Basic Food Groups”: meat, starches, dairy, and vegetables/fruit. We were supposed to eat some of each group at each “square” meal. Ridiculous, of course. Still I suppose such conventional, basic advice is a real revelation, and progress, for people who think everything edible, including donuts and fried twinkies, is “good for you,” or that a meal made up exclusively of french fries is a meal, or that pizza and nothing else every day is OK, or don’t even know that whole grain is less terrible for you than white carbs.
I don’t think it’s OK to give kids pizza, either, wouldn’t you know it. But I’m rather an extremist about optimal nutrition for children. Especially if your kid is a picky eater, stuff like pizza is a distraction, an interference with his eating. It’s not helping, is it? It’s not providing any real nourishment. If your kids has a tiny appetite, shouldn’t everything that goes in the mouth offer optimal nutrition? Pizza hogs the limited available stomach space. There’s just no wiggle room for junk food in a child’s life. Sure, eating pizza may be better than starving, but what motivation does a kid have to eat better food if there’s pizza around? If we offer healthy options but at the same time keep offering the addictive junk foods that are interfering with their appetites for better food, they are probably going to keep eating the addictive junk foods that are interfering with their appetites for better food.
But that “offering healthy options continually” part is right on, if only he had stopped while he was ahead.
The “Amazing” PediaSure “Solution”
“PediaSure Sidekicks are a good option if your child doesn’t get the nutrition needed that day,” The “feeding expert” intoned, breaking through my thoughts and furious notetaking again. I knew it. This statement was to become the steady refrain to whatever the “feeding expert” advised me to do.
Too bad this “expert” has no idea that bailing a child out, training him to hold out for what he wants and giving him no reason to consider being more open minded probably aren’t very effective.
Kids learn quick. Kids are every bit as intelligent as their parents generally. Their relative lack of experience is balanced out by their freedom from the pity and fear that can cloud a parent’s mind. It doesn’t take a 7th-grade education to figure out that if I don’t eat what’s for dinner, I’ll get that sweet PediaSure milkshake after dinner. Or maybe some pizza.
How to Decide How Much Your Child Should Eat
“We pile their plate full of food and they only eat a small amount,” the “expert” continued. “The amounts of food a child needs is small.”
Ah ha. I was on that one. “Oh, is that OK? Should we pile their plate full of food so they will eat more maybe?”
“Be aware that they only need a small amount,” he hedged.
He directed me to the government food pyramid, “Choose My Plate”’ to get an idea of the quantities my child should be eating for her age, which might or might not be a big pile of food. Another meaningless, stereotypically misguided statement. Government food pyramids are total rubbish. About as useful as “The Four Basic Food Groups” again.
Also, that statement reminds me of when I was supposed to weigh my newborn after each breast feeding session to make sure he was getting enough. It’s like counting calories. It’s a way of not trusting the body one iota, being out of touch with the body. God forbid we listen to anything our bodies, especially a child’s body, might tell us. Our bodies might lead us astray.
How about letting the child tell you whether he’s getting enough or not? Let him eat what he needs to eat and not eat when he’s not hungry anymore. Children can be trusted to know how much they need. A baby will cry if he’s hungry. We generally destroy that ability, but a child starts life with it. Of what use are such government guidelines? What are we going to do, force them to eat if they don’t eat as much as the guidelines say? Or not let them eat if they want more?
Again, I have a far better answer than the “feeding expert”: Let children serve themselves. Let them take initiative for their own eating. They will eat better when they feel free instead of over-controlled. Parents don’t just need to understand that little kids need little amounts, which knowledge we then use to put the “right” amount of food on their plates, the amount we think they need. Parents need to know that it isn’t up to them how much a child eats. It’s not their responsibility to decide that. Instead, we can actually empower a child to decide for himself how much he needs to eat. That amount can fluctuate from day to day. Encourage them to remain tuned into their own hunger and enjoyment in eating. Show our confidence in their ability to self-regulate. Show them respect. Even a toddler can reach out and take what he wants or point to ask, and learn to say “please” like a real human. The more they are allowed to take initiative for their eating, the more likely they are to eat as much as they really need, the real “right amount,” no more and no less.
What’s “Normal” in Picky Eating
“What about using dessert to get them to eat something?” I ventured.
“Dessert as a bribe is not ideal or the healthiest. The ideal is for children to eat whole foods,” he responded. “But it’s not a bad idea. It’s normal to do.”
Oh, right. I thought the ideal was for children to drink PediaSure, I retort silently.
And seriously? Using desserts to bribe a child to eat is only “normal” if you think that the fact that most people are doing it means it’s “normal.” It’s like deciding being overweight is “normal” because most people are. There’s nothing normal or OK about offering desserts to get kids to eat something.
“I use desserts a lot to try to get my niece to eat,” he recounted. “ A lot of times I lose and she doesn’t get dessert either. But it’s part of being consistent.”
Consistently wrong, but as least consistent, I said to myself.
“Be on even keel at meals,” was the next statement that caught my ear.
When I asked him to elaborate on that, he explained: “Neither cheer when they eat something nor send them to their rooms for not eating.”
Now that’s a bit of sound advice, at last. That is great advice. That may be the most meaningful thing he’s said in 15 minutes.
“What causes this pickiness?” I probed next. “Why would a kid be like this?”
“It’s normal to be picky,” he told me. Naturally. Normal like desserts as a bribe is normal. What else would PediaSure say? They don’t want to cure picky eating. They’re making a living out of it.
Symptoms of Something More?
“If you have other concerns that it’s something medical, talk to your doctor,” the “expert” went on to say.
I told him that our doctor wasn’t concerned about it at all, because she’s fine on the growth chart. This comment I had gotten basically verbatim from a few different moms.
“She’s like 60 percent on it,” I added, another detail I invented to make my story sound authentic.
“But she gags a lot,” I continued, testing him to see if he knew anything at all about the signs that indicate real issues that can be the cause of picky eating, such as swallowing problems, developmental delays, sensory processing issues.
“I don’t know,” he said, seeming to find it a bit humorous. “Maybe she’s just saying she doesn’t like it.”
Who’s the expert here?
Then again came the by-now familiar refrain.
“PediaSure Sidekicks could be offered. They have 150 calories, so it’s not a predominant part of the diet. And 25 vitamins and minerals.”
Why don’t I just go get a McDonald’s milkshake and crush up a vitamin pill in it? I wondered to myself disgustedly.
“Does she like any fruits and vegetables at all?” he queried. No, I told him. Just applesauce.
“Just keep giving her what she’ll eat,” was his solution. “Applesauce is good. If she tries something and doesn’t like it, offer it again in a couple of weeks.”
“What if she won’t try it at all?” I pressed. “What can I do to get her to put it in her mouth?”
“Nothing, no forcing. Some kids may lick it. Let her see it and play with it, be curious, be a child. It’s OK.”
There again, a nugget of truth among the contradictory nonsense.
“At that age, it’s so difficult to convince them. Just be consistent and loving with them,” he ended lamely, touching again on the value of “consistency.”
“Is she active?” he asked. No, she’s not really very active, I told him.
“She doesn’t run around and work up an appetite?” he wanted to know. I said, “No, not really, she really doesn’t.” I was hoping he would show some alarm, think maybe she was undernourished and clearly not normal, but fading away, and needed to be evaluated or something, but no.
“It’s just a battle then, I guess. Keep doing what you’re doing,” he trailed off. I think I had him stumped. “You’re doing quite a bit,” he added, even though I hadn’t actually told him anything at all that I was doing or not doing. I guess I got credit for at least being worried enough to pick up the phone and call PediaSure. As if doing things in general is bound to help. Most things parents try to do to get kids to eat is counterproductive. Do less, I always say.
“Just Keep Up the Pressure, Mom”
“If you don’t buy the healthy foods, she won’t have them as an option. So just have them around and consistently offer them,” the string of recommendations continued. “Don’t make meal times a time to be dreaded.”
More perfectly legitimate advice there. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
“But it’s necessary to encourage children to eat. The hard work now will pay off later,” he went on. I could tell he was winding down.
So we do have to “encourage” kids to eat, and “work hard” at it, yet without cheering or punishing? How about just backing off, after offering only good choices and purposefully orchestrating some hunger in their tummies by keeping them away from between-meals snacking?
“But PediaSure Sidekicks are an option for making sure your child gets the nutrients she needs,” came the final mandatory refrain, along with a referral to the PediaSure website for more tips and recipes. I assured him I would check it out and thanked him for his help.
By then, it was very late. Not a one of my three registered workshop attendees had showed up yet. So I sadly locked up the office, set the alarm, and dragged my handouts, PowerPoint projector, laptop, chocolates and water bottles back to the car. I pulled up the collar of my trench coat, lest a passing drone working for PediaSure be watching to see who had made that call. Then I drove off down the highway into the sunset.
Note to moms: did you notice I said I bring chocolate to my workshops?
I wondered how much PediaSure pays their “feeding experts.” Maybe I should call them and try to get them to hire me. I do believe I qualify. Then I could sabotage PediaSure, telling callers to, above all, never buy PediaSure as a solution to picky eating. At least someone would be listening to what I have to say. And I’d be making money at it, doing what I love, till they figured out my treachery.
Otherwise, I might call this hotline again. It seems to be an endless source of material. At least I’d have plenty to write about on my blog. And if the “expert” is talking to me, at least for a few minutes I’m keeping him from talking to someone who deserves better advice.
OK, Admittedly Not-Wrong Advice from PediaSure’s “ Feeding Expert”
I begrudgingly admit that not everything PediaSure’s “feeding expert” said was completely wrong. Being the magnanimous person I am, I can admit where my adversary is actually not a complete wrong-headed villain or a total ignoramus. Just mostly. The following points are valid.
- “Consistently offer a variety of healthy foods.”
- “Be on even keel at meals. Neither cheer when they eat something nor send them to their rooms for not eating.”
- “Don’t make meal time a time to be dreaded.”
- “No forcing.”
- “Be consistent.” A good idea in general, unless you’re being consistently wrong.
To Avoid: PediaSure’s Recipes for Picky Eaters
I went on the Pediasure website. They offer recipes along with more generally unhelpful tips about solving picky eating. I am not including the link here because, as may be apparent, I do not advocate using PediaSure or these recipes or these tips as any kind of solution to the problem of picky eating.
The first 16 recipes listed were sweet dishes. The first 8 recipes were made WITH Pediasure, which I imagine to taste about like melted ice cream. Obviously you can’t make a savory lamb stew out of something that tastes like a milkshake. The 17th recipe was a potato dish. Then we’re back to waffles, then we start in on pasta, then back to pancakes and yet more sweet dishes. I was hard pressed to find anything beyond carbs and sweets. What this list seems to illustrate is the common assumption that children can only appreciate sweet foods or white carbs. If kids are only eating sweets and white carbs like potatoes and pasta, their intestinal flora is probably a complete mess. They want these foods the way a heroine addict wants heroine, to feed the toxic yeast in their system. They crave it, but it’s hurting them. Giving kids sweet dishes may get them eating more sweet dishes, but it will do nothing to get them eating nonsweet dishes.