Picky Eaters

Getting young kids to eat well



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"Just one more bite," I shout as I race after my 2-year-old son, Zephyr, who is sprinting away from the dinner table.

I’m holding a small rocket ship fork that’s spearing two pieces of cubed avocado, praying that they don’t fall off and stain something. It looks like it’s going to be one of those nights. Sometimes my son will sit still for most of a meal and eat almost everything on his plate. Other times, this happens.

In an attempt to hide my agitation, I’m wearing an exaggerated smile that’s intended to be reassuring but probably isn’t. Zephyr doesn’t see my look, though, because he makes a beeline to the couch and burrows his head between the pillows, where he erupts into a jumble of giggles and joyful shrieks.

Peering back at the table, I take small consolation in the fact that he ate all of his tater tots—dipped in plenty of ketchup, of course—but there’s still a green mound of avocado waiting for him.


Zephyr, now 3, used to eat everything his parents made for him, including homemade curried carrot and beet purées and chicken empanadas. Then he stopped wanting to try new foods. Now he prefers pasta and fries. Photo by Liz Lynch.

“Come on out, just for a second,” I say. “If you finish your dinner, we can watch some of Star Wars together.” His head stays buried as he continues to laugh. I stand over him, powerless and totally defeated.

Welcome to dinner at my house.

Most kids will happily eat french fries, buttered noodles, chicken nuggets or mac ’n’ cheese, but turn up their noses at a carrot stick, a steamed broccoli floret or a spoonful of chili. I call it “the battle of the beige.” Their refusal to consistently eat—or at least sample—a variety of foods can be frustrating and worrisome for parents.

Mothers and fathers can become consumed with guilt over their inability to coax their little ones into noshing on anything more than pizza and a cheese stick at mealtime.

Some feel as if they’ve failed as parents.

It might be even harder for me, since I’m a professional food writer. I’m so proud of my adventuresome palate and willingness to try almost any new food (so far I’ve drawn the line at anything that’s still alive) that I’ve made a career out of it. My wife, Indira, and I both cook, and we also eat out regularly, in part to expose Zephyr, now 3, to interesting new foods. He’s scarfed down squid ink pasta, pickled ramps and chicken empanadas, but pasta with Parmesan and fries are still his two favorites.    

We had such high hopes. Zephyr’s first foods were all flavor-rich, homemade purées—curried carrots, mint-accented pineapple mango, beets and strawberries with a touch of basil—followed by a rainbow of solids a few months later. He generally ate everything until he was around 2, and then he stopped. Friends and family members had warned me that this probably would happen, but I had misguidedly believed our situation would be different.  

Feeling depressed about our current state of affairs, I turned to fellow food writer April Fulton. The senior blogger for National Geographic’s “The Plate” lives in the Woodside neighborhood of Silver Spring with her husband and two children, 12-year-old Caleb and 4-year-old Sawyer.

“You’re so excited because they eat everything you give them. You think, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the best parent ever,’ ” she says. “But then you find out that you’re just fooling yourself, because they are going to start saying ‘no’ at 2.”


Caleb, 12, likes beige-colored foods such as chicken nuggets and pasta, which has been difficult for his mom, food writer April Fulton, to reconcile. Photo by Liz Lynch.

Her kids love mostly beige food, too, which has been difficult for her to reconcile. “As a person who thinks about food all the time, cooks a lot and wants to try new and exciting cuisines, it’s been disappointing over the years that their enthusiasm has not matched mine,” she says. I feel your pain, sister.

Aja Pittman, a pediatric nurse turned stay-at-home mom, despairs that her 4-year-old, Carson (his name has been changed to protect his privacy), won’t eat any vegetables. She has resorted to all-out bribery, offering her son a Lego Minifigure or extra iPad time if he tries one new piece of produce. At first, that tactic worked. “But after a while, he didn’t care,” says Pittman, who lives in Bethesda with her husband and two children. “He just wouldn’t eat them. He might eat green beans and butter, but only if there’s the promise of candy afterward—and that kinda negates the vegetables.”

As some parents sadly come to realize, stubbornness at the dinner table is a trait that many kids learn to perfect, especially in the late-toddler to preschool years.

Whether they’re being enticed with treats or threatened with a timeout—the proverbial carrot-and-stick approach—some won’t open their mouths to do anything but say, “No!” It’s a common issue. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics followed mothers of 2-year-olds to 4-year-olds and found that approximately 1 in 3 described their child as a picky eater.

Dan Kelly of Silver Spring, director of restaurant and hospitality recruiting for VSAG, which helps staff restaurants such as Founding Farmers in Potomac and Bethesda’s Cafe Deluxe, has a 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old triplets. His son, Liam, regularly eats little more than Pop-Tarts, pizza, hot dogs and corn dogs, though he ate everything that was put in front of him until he was about 4. Kelly and his wife, Pamela, will try insisting that he eat just a few green beans before he can leave the table, but he’ll sit there for hours without taking a bite. “He has an iron will,” Kelly says. “If we take away dessert or threaten to send him to bed, he still doesn’t care.”

Some parents try to find a pragmatic middle ground. “Our philosophy is that if it’s on your plate, you have to try it,” says Alison Jovanovic, a mother of two—Mckinley, 10, and Dejan, 7—who lives in Silver Spring and works as a social studies education program coordinator at the University of Maryland. “We don’t require them to finish it, though—they have to eat half of the plate to be excused.”  

Unpredictability is a constant hurdle at the dinner table. One week, a child may love something; the next week, you give him the same thing and he looks at you like you’re an alien with six heads who just handed him a plate of mud. “The worst part is you never know when it’s going to happen,” says Melinda, a Bethesda mom whose 8-year-old son, Stephen (not their real names), used to be “obsessed” with broccoli and eat “plates and plates of it.” One day, he simply stopped eating the cruciferous vegetable, leaving her with a fridge full of it.

For many parents, the biggest food-related concern is whether or not their little ones are getting the nutrients they need. At annual checkups, pediatricians often talk about percentiles—how a child’s height and weight compare with those of other boys or girls of the same age. Those numbers can send parents into a frenzy. Why isn’t my son taller? Is he too skinny? Is that because he only eats Cheerios and Go-Gurt? Am I messing up this parenting thing?

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