Moving Down Mom’s Hierarchy of Foods: How “Finding Something Your Kid Will Eat” Entrenches Picky Eating

Oct 21, 2013 by

“We wonder how we get started doing these things, but we do them.”  — Mom of a budding picky eater


When I was little, sometimes at dinner my mom might ask me if I wanted more of something, let’s say a dish called “Spanish Rice” (that’s something I remember not liking much as a child),  and I might answer, “I’m full for that.” I might often have been “full for” the main meal, yet if dessert was forthcoming, I was usually not “full for” that.

We all have a hierarchy of our preferred foods. If we are extremely hungry, we may feel “hungry enough to eat a horse” or horse meat, or even a hunk of hard, dry, unseasoned liver. Hunger makes food more appealing. If that horse, or horse meat, or even well-prepared liver appears on the table, though most people will pass on it unless they are truly about to starve. They aren’t that hungry. How low we are willing to go on our our list of favorites into full dislike is directly proportionate to how hungry we are, and what other options we have.

If we aren’t hungry at all, but then our favorite dish appears, we generally find we have room for some. If we just stuffed ourselves on dinner, we are too full for dessert, until we find out it’s coffee brandy crème brûlée. We are never too full for that.

Mom’s Hierarchy: From the Best Foods to the Worst

Moms also have their hierarchies of the foods they want a child to eat. Many of the parents who come to my workshops mention that their children won’t eat meat, and that they wish they would eat meat. It may be the food they see as most vital to their child’s health. They don’t think it’s OK never to eat meat. Other moms say, “I’m less concerned about meat than that he eat vegetables. I’d be happy if he’d eat any vegetable other than potatoes.”

Plenty of moms tell me they believe strongly in eating only whole foods, not processed, or organic foods, or raw vegetables (a biggie with me), or whatever it is. They may especially abhor sugar and white carbs (top two on my personal “worst foods” list), for good reason. But then typically these same moms tell me that their child “will only eat” mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, fries, pancakes, and waffles. They find themselves backed into a corner by their child’s pickiness. They have lost all control over what their children are eating.

I always used to wonder why they ever gave a child such worthless stuff in the first place, since they clearly objected to these foods. I long wondered what the steps are to figuring out the few foods a child will eat, and how moms of picky eaters “get started doing these things.”  But I recently had a revelation about it as I observed a mom digging around for something her child would eat.

There may be other ways it happens, but it most certainly happens the way I’m about to describe. What a child “will eat” is like water going down to the lowest level with the force of gravity. It won’t stay up high if there are routes to lower places.

grace chardin paintingThe Root Cause: Feeding on Demand Taken Too Far

The problem of picky eating and compromise on Mom’s Hierarchy can start with a lack of scheduled mealtimes or more usually, a fuzzy schedule. Regular meals might be happening, but children are also allowed or even encouraged to eat at any moment of the day. Any hunger at any time is discouraged.

In France, unlike in the U.S., you are taught from birth to aspire to and follow a sacred schedule for eating. The French don’t eat anytime they feel the urge. Scheduled mealtimes are the only time French people eat. They traditionally eat three meals and perhaps one scheduled snack a day. They get used to that and they pay no mind to urges between times. It’s a habit they develop. They expect to feel good and hungry when time comes to eat. They want to be able to have a good appetite for their meals; that’s why they say, “Bon appetit” to each other before they eat. They don’t want to spoil their appetite for meals by random snacking.

The French sit down at the table for meals, together, wait for everybody to be there, and always make it a social time. They have a lot of rules governing a pleasant atmosphere at the table. Eating well is a given once all that is in place.

My American mom also put this idea in our heads, that it’s better to eat heartily when it’s meal time, and that you won’t do so if you eat between times. If we were caught nibbling before a meal, which she called “piecing,” she would say, “You’ll spoil your dinner.” We at least understood the concept. Part of the idea was very French: that it’s enjoyable to satisfy our hunger with a good meal, and that we would regret nibbling on lesser foods when the great meal appeared on the table.

Of course, when babies come home from the hospital, they have to eat far more frequently than the rest of us. They cry, and we get up in the night more than once a night for a while to feed them. It’s because they are growing at such an prodigious rate. As their growth slows down, so does the frequency of their eating. Thank goodness.

When my first baby was born in France, the doctor told me how many times a day to feed him. I was supposed to try to make him wait it he wanted to eat more often than that. I understood that to be a goal, the ideal. You want him to eat fewer, good-size meals rather than infant-style grazing. For mom’s sake as well as baby’s. Even a newborn doesn’t need to eat more often than every couple of hours, if he gets a good bellyful.

In the first few of weeks of your baby’s life, of course you do what you have to keep her happy and sleeping, or at least not crying. You get into a pattern and get to know your baby. But if she is crying shortly after she ate, your first course of action isn’t going to be to feed her again. You will try everything else before you feed her, because you’ve been told to try to stretch out the feedings to at least a couple of hours apart. She needs to get good and hungry again for the next meal.

Sometimes American babies keep waking up in the night because the mom keeps feeding them. It’s simply a bad habit. Mom thinks her child is hungry anytime he cries in the night, and thinks that she can’t deny him. He may be six months old and still be feeding once or twice or thrice in the night, unnecessarily. Even brand-new newborns probably don’t need to be fed three times in the night. Mom needs to understand that her child needs some structure in his life, for his sake and hers. Just because she’s sleep-deprived and miserable doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. It’s time to guide him beyond the habits of a newborn. Maybe when he cries he just needs a more casual reaction: reassure him and encourage him to go back to sleep.

Children’s feeding therapist Christie Olguin of San Antonio told me that if a newborn is not eating well and growing well, that stretching the length of time between feedings can improve eating and growth. So this rule applies even to a newborn who’s not thriving. Eating too often and randomly isn’t good for anybody.

In America, the idea of strictly structuring meals seems weak or absent, particularly in families of picky eaters. We might ask which comes first, the lack of eating schedule or the pickiness?

In the typical family of a picky eater (which is mostly found in America, not France), eating is random. Mom might put bites in little Jason’s mouth when passes by close enough while running around the playground. Jason might eat in the car seat on the way to wherever, or on the floor while he plays, or while he’s distracted by TV or a video game. If he’s hungry half an hour before or after dinner, he can have something to eat then. People eat by themselves, whenever they feel like it. So Jason has no natural incentive to eat at any given time or place over another time and place. If he doesn’t want something, he knows he’ll have another option shortly.

Let’s add to the equation the pressure that the typical parent of a picky eater puts on the child to eat certain foods at certain times. If Mom is always bugging little Andrea about eating her meat, won’t she naturally get more and more stubborn about it? It quickly becomes a power struggle and a point of honor for her not to eat meat. Pushiness from the parents adds to the likelihood that the picky one will eat more of the food way down on Mom’s hierarchy and less of those highest on that list. Whatever is pushed loses its appeal, as it becomes the icky means to a yummy reward.

Andrea knows that when she balks at dinner, she can always get something she likes better, now or later. Suffering hunger is never a risk. Why should she eat what she’s “supposed” to eat, when she gets exactly what she wants if she refuses? Even if she wouldn’t mind eating some broccoli, resistance to it generally means the offer of a dessert of some kind. Her resistance is usually rewarded.

When access to food is too unrestricted, the appetite suffers. Structure is needed for a child to have a normal, functioning appetite. We can gently but firmly leverage their natural hunger for better eating.

How Low Can you Go? How We Compromise on our Hierarchy of Foods

Jason is never very hungry when he comes to the table. He is never terribly concerned at meals that he might get hungry later if he doesn’t eat what’s served at the table then. Maybe he won’t even come to the table or refuses to stay there, because he prefers to keep playing. And why not? More food is always going to be available whenever his desire to eat does outweigh his desire to do something else.  Parents have zero leverage with Jason to improve his eating.

Unstructured eating times and places create this habitual pattern: the child never gets hungry enough to feel like eating anything except his favorites, which he can always get. The child is never internally driven to eat anything particular except his favorites. Instead of it being little Jason’s job to make sure his mind and mouth are open sufficiently to get enough to eat to last him till the next meal, it becomes the parent’s job to see that he eats, to find something he will eat. The parents take on the responsibility of the child’s eating, doing whatever it takes to get him to eat. They begin to work hard and harder, while Jason remains quite naturally and understandably unconcerned and unmotivated.

Mom’s desire for Jason to eat better foods eventually is outweighed by her desire that he eat something, anything.  Even if he doesn’t feel hungry, he still needs to eat, Mom believes. If he won’t eat the foods she considers healthiest, she’ll have to move down the line from her top choices toward the child’s top choices, best to worst, meeting in the middle where the child will eat.

Allowing little Jason to eat foods Mom considers objectionable is the price she has to pay to get him to eat, since “he’s a picky eater.”  Knowing that “every man has his price,” Mom goes down her hierarchy of foods and up his, to find that magic point where the stars converge, where a compromise is reached, where Jason’s desire for the food offered becomes greater than his lack of hunger.

Maybe Andrea’s mom serves her a plate with a little of just about everything she can find in the house, hoping one of the items will appeal to her. Mom knows Andrea won’t be interested in eating at all. Based on experience, she can assume Andrea won’t eat much or won’t eat certain things. So Mom occupies herself with looking for that something the picky child “will eat.”

Next Mom may say, “Maybe she’ll eat a piece of cheese.” She adds a piece of cheese to the pile of foods on the plate. Since Andrea ate that cheese at lunch, mom takes that as a promising sign that she may be willing to eat it again.  If that doesn’t work, we look for other options that we can add to the pile. Again, our main concern is finding how low on our hierarchy of acceptability we must go in order to get her to eat this time.

Seeing the overflowing plate stuck in front of her, little Andrea feels full just looking at it. “That same cheese? Again?” she thinks. “Ugh, that suspect green stuff they tried to get me to eat yesterday? All that food? Blah. Where’s my doll? I’ll eat some crackers or something later when I get hungry. There’s bound to be a better option later. I want out of here.”

We may opt for making adjustments to the food offered, in hopes the child will eat it. If your child isn’t hungry for Spanish Rice, or broccoli,  or a piece of raw red pepper, or meat, or even fruit, maybe you can find a way to get her to eat it anyway. Add some cheese sauce or ketchup or ranch dressing to disguise the taste. Peel it, or cut it in fun shapes. No? Then we move on down the list.

Maybe she will be hungry for a fish stick (if we add ketchup?), or if not, a few french fries, or at least some mac & cheese, which you can fix in a few minutes while Dad eats his Spanish rice and broccoli. That works sometimes. If not mac & cheese, she will surely be hungry for a  waffle out of the freezer with syrup on it (a spoonful of sweetness will get almost any medicine to go down). It’s real maple syrup, not corn syrup.

It’s at this point Mom is probably going to try to get the child to eat a little of something higher on her list in exchange for that all-out goodie the child actually wants.  Mom seizes on the scrap of leverage. If the child doesn’t want the goodie that badly, we may have to settle for ice cream with chocolate sauce, if that’s what it takes. If that’s all she will eat. At least she will eat. Eating anything is better than eating nothing, right? We can’t let her starve.

While we keep trying harder to get the child to eat when he’s not hungry, he’s getting harder and harder to please. He gets to where he’ll only eat the few foods most enticing to him, those highest on his hierarchy and probably the lowest on Mom’s: the famous chicken nuggets, fries, mac & cheese, pancakes and waffles. He eats only those favorites because he can, all while getting the best of Mom. And why not?

How to Leverage Hunger, Your Primary Weapon Against Picky Eating

Walker, one super-picky kid I knew, had some sensory issues. His mom was getting him evaluated and suspected Asperger’s Syndrome. Even if he did have some sensory issues or other problems, none of those issues was the reason he was a picky eater. Walker liked stuff at school he didn’t like at home. When his mom quit pestering him to eat meals and stopped giving him 24/7 free access to chocolate granola bars, he ate better. He ate even better when he went away to camp and got away from his over-controlling yet overly indulgent mom. He realized it’s enjoyable to eat when it’s enjoyable at the table, with no pressure and no discussion of how many bites he was eating. He found out he liked all kinds of stuff once mom wasn’t around to bug him and there wasn’t anything to eat between meals. Mom also noticed that when he came home from camp in the afternoon after no afternoon snack, he was famished for dinner and ate whatever she offered. Sensory issues or whatever else was going on, or not, the right structure for meals combined with control over his own eating opened Walker’s mind to being hungry for a far greater variety of foods.

Sometimes kids aren’t hungry. If they are not hungry for wholesome foods, they are not hungry. If they’re not hungry, they shouldn’t eat. It’s OK not to be hungry sometimes. It’s OK not to eat sometimes, especially if you’re not hungry.

You have no control over what your child actually eats, and you shouldn’t try to control it. You do have all the control over what food is available, though.  Kids accept your rules of life if that’s all they ever know. If you try to make a change, expect resistance.  But you’re on the right path, so stick to it. Firm cheerfulness can be very effective.

5 Steps to Leveraging the Appetite Against Picky Eating

  1. Allow eating only at meal times (breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner).
  2. Allow eating only at the table.
  3. Offer only foods high on your hierarchy: those you believe to be optimally nutritious, but make them delicious, too.
  4. Get away from offering alternatives if your child doesn’t want to eat. Without starving your child, don’t enable and encourage picky eating.
  5. Don’t let the picky eater ruin the atmosphere at your table. Create and maintain pleasant mealtimes.