Nine-Year-Old Picky Eater

By November 20, 2012

I am a Registered Dietitian by trade, but a mother who loses all rationality when it comes to my 9 year old son’s eating habits. My question is simple: When I provide a healthy meal and my son refuses to eat it, should I allow him to prepare something for himself (cereal, grits, pb sandwich)? At times he will take a bite but that’s about it .. if he has it in his head that he won’t like it, then he shuts down. This is a true delimit for me. – A. R.

Dear A.R.,

I can certainly share your frustration—my third child, also a boy, was a very picky eater. It’s taken a lot of years and patience, but by age 12, he was so much better than he was just a few years earlier. So hang in there!

As parents, we are responsible for what foods our children are offered, but only the child can determine how much—or even whether they will eat. As you are well aware, we want to avoid making meal times tense and getting into power struggles over food. Children definitely are suspicious of new foods, and it often takes multiple exposures before they will accept something. It sounds like you are doing the right thing in offering your son healthy options. If, however, he knows that whenever he refuses a meal he can automatically have something else, I think he loses motivation for trying. Here are a few thoughts/suggestions that might help:

  • Involve your son in some of the food preparation—he may even be excited to sample the result.
  • Offer kid-friendly (not kid-centered) menus. Are you so creative in your cooking, that the tastes are just too sophisticated for your son at this age? Some children especially don’t like combination dishes, in which different foods are all “mixed together.”
  • Are you trying too many new dishes? Again, you may be overwhelming your son with too many new offerings. Try repeated exposure of a limited number of dishes, to give him more of a chance of accepting them.
  • Often, it’s really only one part of the meal that the child isn’t interested in—typically a fruit or vegetable offering. I think your son is old enough to understand that you are trying to help him make his body healthy and strong, so if he doesn’t like the fruit or vegetable served, encourage him to substitute a different one (versus making a whole separate meal).

As you know, feeding dynamics can get very complicated, and experts have different approaches to handling picky eaters. I recommend Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. It is packed with insight and suggestions that I think you will find very helpful.

Some children are definitely more of a challenge than others when it comes to eating. I appreciate your sensitivity in wanting to handle things well with your son not only from the perspective of his physical health, but to avoid eating issues in the future.