Picky Eating Playmates

Archived Q&A and Reviews


My 8yo kids' friends are picky eaters


I'm seeking advice on something that's been really bugging my husband and me recently. Many of our child's friends' (8-9year olds) are picky eaters. They'll take a couple of bites of something and then refuse to eat the rest. When they stay for lunch or dinner, I try to make things they have expressed an interest in eating, but often it's not quite to their liking (egs.my mom uses wider pasta--linguini, I think vs. my spaghetti; I like smaller, redder tomatoes). On a recent group outing, we knew the kids liked hot dogs and turkey sandwiches, so we thought we were safe when we ordered these items at a small restaurant; well, apparently the turkey wasn't like any turkey they've ever seen before (it was fresh, not the rolled stuff), the hot dog was more of a polish than the standard oscar meyer beef dogs). I have witnessed these kids doing the same thing in their own homes and their parents seem to be fine with them throwing out an entire plate of food (it's possible something is said after we leave).

I suppose we would be more understanding if our child were a picky eater. She isn't at all. She will try anything, and eat anything if she's hungry. Plus, she knows what our family values are around wasting food, so she will eat something even if it's not her favorite. Of course, being a loving and sensitive mom, I rarely make something that I know she doesn't really enjoy...But, there is literally dozens of things she will happily eat.

A couple of things we've tried with her friends: we give them a taste of the item to see if they like it before giving them a full portion; whenever possible, we have them make their own sandwiches if it's lunch time.

My question is should we have some general (not super strict) guidelines around food when friends are over? What might they be? Thanks in advance for any suggestions, thoughts, insights into this issue.

My comments aren't really advice, I guess, more like sympathy. I've noticed the same syndrome you mention with my stepkids and their friends who are older than your 8-9 year olds kids' friends. To me it appears that they don't seem to understand the difference between eating at a restaurant where you can order your meal to your liking, and eating as a guest in someone's home, where you take what you get! I also feel that this is a result of the fact that kids eat out a lot more these days than they did when I was growing up, when it was a special treat, not a way to relieve busy, overworked parents from the meal preparation chore. As a busy overworked parent who definitely finds meal preparation a chore, I sympathize with that, but I feel like parents need to do a better job of teaching their children the etiquette involved in being a guest. Eight and nine years old is not too young to handle this, in my opinion. (For example, your daughter sounds like she manages it just fine!) My advice would be to not overdo it in terms of catering to the pickiness, unless you want to expand your kitchen and start printing menus. Offer what you have, and if they don't want it, so be it. I'll be interested to hear what others have to say, though.

I have had exactly the same experience - I am constantly amazed that parents will let their children dictate the whole meal, throw away most of their food, and grow into picky eaters. I ate dinner at the home of one of my daughter's friends, and was amazed to see her mother cook a special meal for each child -- which they still refused to eat! The kids ended up eating only their dessert - and then an hour after dinner demanded that mom find them more snacks. This is an extreme case, but it is not unusual for us to have a terrible time finding something everyone will eat at a sleep-over or party. Rather than take on the task of raising our daughter's friends, we just fix something we figure everyone will eat, like macaroni and cheese or pizza (we let them put their own toppings on, since they can never agree).

The thing that really irks me though, is that our daughter gets teased and humiliated by her friends because she likes so many unusual foods. She used to take our unusual leftovers - pot-stickers, burritos, oxtail soup for example - but now insists she has to have a turkey sandwich on white bread, because otherwise the other kids give her a hard time.

I have studied food preferences and child-rearing as part of my professional research. There are always cases where food avoidance has a biological basis - kids are very sensetive to certain strong flavors, and some people have serious allergies, or genetic differences that make some foods (like cabbage or fava beans) taste terrible. But we live in a culture where food has all kinds of meanings and powers - and where we are bombarded with messages (many contradictory) about food and health, beauty, and culture. It takes very strong and determined parents to navigate all of this to raise a kid who has a positive attitude towards a wide range of foods.

In my own opinion, the biggest problem is keeping food from becoming an issue of power and control in the family. That means not using food as a way to control your kids (eat every bite! no more meat till you eat all your spinach!) - and not letting them use food to control you (like always dictating your choice of where to eat out, or making you fix special meals). I hate to say it, but Spock has some good advice on this, and he notes that food often becomes the focus of power struggles between parents and kids at age 5 or so. I suspect that nowadays, when families may only actually all get together at meals, food fights have become even more common.

I have 2 daughters who have always eaten pretty much anything and I've often wondered why we've been so lucky. I think that too many parents make the mistake of trying to accomodate their children's desires when fixing food, which reinforces picky eating. I've always cooked the dinner and that's what there was to eat. I was never willing to accomodate their special requests. I don't have the time, and let's face it, it's nonsense and I never put up with it. I think that's what has enabled my girls to be good eaters. I saw a news show about it on 20/20 (I think) and that's pretty much what they said too. Don't let your children force you to go out of your way to make them what they want. It isn't healthy because mostly what they want is sugar and fat. If they're hungry, they'll eat whatever you put in front of them. If they don't, perhaps they're not hungry and you need to assess how much you've allowed them to eat during the day. I always stuck to breakfast, a light mid-morning snack (fruit, vegetables or such), lunch, a mid-afternoon snack (but not too much), and dinner. Here's a trick. If they don't like vegetables, serve them first before the rest of the meal. I'm sure that this message will ruffle some feathers, but I feel pretty strongly about this issue.

I was impressed by the lengths to which you have gone to accommodate the picky eaters among your child's friends. I have not yet had to deal with this problem all that much, but my reaction is that one should, as you appear to have done, make an effort to provide food that is generally appealing to children, and to heck with kids who will cavil at your choice of noodle. I plan to say, pleasantly, something like Well, it's too bad that you don't care for _____, but that's what we're having tonight. I suppose you could offer a peanut butter sandwich instead, if you felt so inclined, but I'd leave it at that. You are a parent, not a caterer. And I would not supply endless post-dinner snacks to kids who did not eat a reasonable dinner.

In addition, it seems to me that parents should be telling their children to be more gracious at other people's houses. They don't have to like things, but they are not entitled to gripe about them. I don't think this is too much to expect. Good luck.

It seems to me that refusing food is just about always a socially difficult thing (even for *grown-ups*). The person offering the food is almost always some version of insulted. But the person refusing is faced with a difficult decision: eating something that (for whatever reasons) they find not good to eat, or risking offending the hostess.

I remember when I was 5 years old my best friend's mom trying to make me eat all of my lunch while having lunch at their house. Thirty-five years later, I still remember the meal: grilled American-cheese sandwiches and Fritos. But I was not at all used to the flavor or consistency of processed cheese and really didn't want to eat it. I felt extremely uncomfortable being pressured to do so, and alienated from my friend's mom afterwards -- it felt out of place for her to be exerting that level of discipline on me. On the strength of this experience, really I would advise against trying to pressure your child's friends to eat food they don't want to eat, and even more so since you wrote that they are not accustomed to that sort of rule in their own homes.

Moreover, nowadays, being made to eat all of what is on one's plate is considered by many to be instilling a (bad) habit of overeating. Another reason not to pressure your guests to eat. In fact, they are doing what every diet program tells you to do: avoid caving in to pressure to eat things that you have decided not to eat. I myself try to congratulate myself for all of the food my toddler daughter leaves on her plate: at least I'm not teaching her to over-eat. Of course having a dog helps me not feel like it's going to waste.

Maybe some guidance about what to do could be taken from looking at what you would expect from an adult in the situation--being served food they don't want to eat, for whatever reason. I see no reason to treat your guests with less respect because of their youth. Perhaps you could tell your guests what you would like them to do if they don't want to eat what you've offered them. For me, and this comes up regularly as I'm living in Russia just now, where fare is frequently far greasier, more gristly, and less well-cooked than I am accustomed to, not to mention being served animal parts that I ordinarily eschew, this means that I try to eat a nibble and look busy with it, but if I just can't stomach it, I leave it quietly on the plate and ask for more of what I do like--bread, if nothing else.

I have a few other ideas you might try. One idea is to offer the food in very small portions--instead of offering each child a whole sandwich, cut the sandwiches into quarters or even bite-sized portions and let folks help themselves to as much (or as little) as they want. If they eat one bite of a quarter of a sandwich, at least just that quarter is wasted, not the whole thing. And you avoid the expectation that they will eat the whole thing.

Or you could casually say at some time other than meal-time something about how much you admire someone who is willing to try eating foods that are very different from what they're used to, or tell them about the polite way to refuse food if you just can't eat it. You could try instructing them in the age-old adage of polite society: If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all. Of course you should try to find a nice way to say it :o) Or you could consult with the friends' parents--find out what their attitudes/rules are and try to negotiate something--maybe the friends should bring their own foods to make sure they have food they can enjoy--a potluck!

Good luck with this issue.

Ouch! I felt the tone of some of your letters was judgmental. I have a picky eater. I don't think it is anything we have done---we have one picky eater and one child that will eat anything. ...And I think that it's dangerous to take credit for all your child will eat (just count your blessings) because that leads you down the path to thinking you are in control of your child (and guess what...!). I think children come to us as they are and it is our job to nurture, encourage, and love them for who they are. If your children have guests that are picky eaters, teach your own children to be good hosts by quietly accepting their friends and not making a big fuss over it. Let the picky eaters' parents worry about them. Believe me, they probably do! (Perhaps if the child were to be with you for a long period of time you might need to worry about nutrition, but in this case, let them worry about their tummies and you move on to bigger issues.)

Regarding the picky eater among young visitors to our home. I learned the hard way not to press children to eat unfamiliar foods. My daughter likes sushi - California rolls. While at the grocery store with my daughter and her friend, they both agreed to eat California rolls if I would purchase them and so I did. I noticed towards the end of their lunch, the piece of California roll remained uneaten on the friend's plate and I gently reminded her that she had said she would eat some and then the phone rang and I went to answer it. Upon my return (about 5 minutes later), I noticed that my daughter had left the table but her friend was still there and had a very strange look on her face. Bless her heart, she had tried the California roll and then threw up her lunch in her hands and on her clothes. I felt terrible that this had occurred and vowed not to push unusual foods on young visitors again.