Survey: Parents of Selective Eating Children

Are you a parent struggling with mealtimes?

Do you have a child who eats a very limited variety of foods?

Are you concerned about your child’s eating?

Please complete this survey.

Your participation is confidential and appreciated. The results will be shared here once all the responses are in. Please share this survey with your fellow parents in the feeding trenches.

Every. Voice. Matters.

Spam is just nasty statement
The information you provide will be used solely for the purpose of gathering information related to the questions contained within the survey. Demographic information will be used to classify responses by geographical region. If you choose to supply your name and/or e-mail address, your information will be securely stored and used exclusively to participate in further questionnaires, and for communication with Mealtime Hostage. Any information you provide will be kept strictly confidential and will not be shared or sold to any third party.


Beware The Bribe

dangle carrot

It’s no secret that vegetables are healthy and everywhere we look, someone has a vested interest in getting kids to eat healthy. There’s just one problem. “Getting” someone to do something they don’t want to is pressure, and using pressure to get kids to eat anything rarely ever works.

I know I need to avoid pressuring TJ to eat. I cannot, in any way, express even the slightest displeasure with his eating ability or food selection. His range of acceptable foods has quadrupled over the past two years, and he’s now quite comfortable in social eating situations. He has developed a good relationship with food, which is why I was surprised to hear him say, “Mom, I’ll try a carrot if you give me $10.”

It may not have been a carrot, but it was definitely some food I would be really happy to see TJ eating. Is this pressure? It was, after all, entirely his idea…

There are three big clues in this proposal:

  1. “I’ll do something to please you,” and in exchange, “you’ll do something that makes me happy.” Putting him in that predicament forces him to either win or lose my approval, and quite possibly all the progress we’ve made so far with eating. My love for my son is unconditional and certainly not dependent on what he does or does not eat;
  2. It’s not his job to choose what to eat;
  3. It’s not my job to make him eat.

Even though it was his idea, and it was a very tempting offer, it is, indeed, pressure. And it is sure to backfire spectacularly.

But there it was, hanging in the air. Did he understand the terms of the agreement or had he bitten off more than he could chew?

“How about if next time we have carrots, you can try one because you want to.”

“How about for…” dramatic negotiatory pause, “$10?”

“How about $5?” I countered, because if he was serious, this was easy money.

“Nope. $10 or no deal.”

I had a feeling there wasn’t a hope in Hades that a carrot would have be bitten, chewed and swallowed with joy for ten dollars, or any amount of money for that matter. Our little bidding war only provided TJ with an out for something he really wasn’t ready to do.

You might be saying “$10 to get him to try a carrot is a bargain,” and I can’t disagree. A year ago, he wouldn’t even consider a new food for less than a gazillion-gabillion dollars! Ten bucks is a serious sale!! But this wasn’t really about carrots. This was TJ’s way of letting me know he felt he was disappointing me with his eating. Somehow, I had let pressure creep into feeding and I had to figure out where that bugger was hiding.

Children communicate their perceptions of pressure in unique ways. I took TJ’s proposal as constructive criticism and decided to step up my responsibility with feeding.

I made sure he always had enough to eat.

I made sure there were no comments about his eating.

I tried to serve more meals that included more safe foods so the food he put on his plate looked more like everyone else’s.

There have been no more proposals to buy my approval with new food trials, and we’ve since had a few self-initiated samplings (at no-charge). Progress is slow in the feeding trenches, but it is progress nonetheless.

It is very tempting to focus on the future goal of a balanced and varied diet, which often leads to pressuring kids to eat healthy foods now. It’s actually more productive to focus on creating a supportive feeding environment now, one that gives kids permission to try new foods when they are ready.

Sometimes that means accepting a little criticism instead of a bribe.



Beef and a Pancake

“When you’re down, it’s a long way up. When you’re up, it’s a long way down. It’s all the same thing…”
-No New Tale To Tell, Love and Rockets

We’ve had a burst of courage here at the Hostage Household. After the homemade bread trials, TJ felt he was ready to burst out of carbs and dairy and boldly venture into meat.

Tacos are a favourite meal around here. It’s one of the few meals that doesn’t require considerate sides to make it palatable for TJ. I’ve noticed him carefully sizing up the ground beef filling, and watching us enjoy stuffing it into taco shells and tortillas. I’ve also noticed a new fascination with label reading.

“Mom! This has 2% iron in it. How much do I need to eat to not need the Jedi Juice anymore?”

Jedi Juice is our family lingo for the iron supplement he takes every morning.

Motivated by the desire to eat foods that contain enough iron for his needs, I put it out there that beef is a good source of iron.

He’s been eyeing the taco filling with a little more interest since.

I always ask if he wants some when I serve it. He always replies with a very polite, “No thanks.” Two nights ago, we had Sloppy Joes and for the first time ever, TJ allowed me to place (at his request) a small bowl of beef beside his plate. That alone is a huge accomplishment for him. It sat there, untouched, but it sat there and the meal was very pleasant.

At bedtime, I extended the invitation to try a very, very small taste of beef. The choice being entirely his. He said, “Yes.”


I told him I used to drown my potatoes in ketchup to make them taste … edible, and asked what he thought would make his first trial of beef taste good to him.


Well… why not?

Yesterday, we had beef again. With pancakes. I found myself on equal footing with my food phobic son. I’ve never had a beef pancake before. I made three batches – plain, chocolate chip and apple cinnamon. You know what? Ground beef on a plain pancake is quite the delicious combination. I didn’t realize TJ had chosen to put a pinch of beef on an apple cinnamon pancake. He took a bite…

And gagged.

I found a napkin and he spat it out, disgusted. “Ugh. I think I need a break from trying new things.”

Curiously, there was a very, very tiny amount of beef thinly spread on a small part of his pancake. He gagged on the chunky bits of apple, a texture he usually enjoys, likely because the expectation of the unfamiliar caused him to panic. It seems when he’s comfortable with the food, he knows how to manage it in his mouth. Add a new dimension to the mix, and suddenly the food becomes its own uncontrollable entity.

Now, there’s two ways to look at this experience. Some might call it failure – he didn’t like the beef; we didn’t gain a new iron-rich food. “When you’re up, it’s a long way down”, says the song. TJ now has about 40-50 foods in his repertoire. We are definitely “up!” It would take something cataclysmic to consider this experience a “failure.”

There was a time when this experience would have destroyed any hope of beef and probably taken pancakes off the list of edible foods. Instead, he’s quite chuffed that he took a bite, and accepts that the taste caught him off guard. He’s even willing to try beef again.

I see this experience as a huge success. TJ stared his fear in the eye and won. We didn’t gain a new safe food. Not yet.

What we’ve gained is so much more valuable than beef. The monster we dine with doesn’t eat here anymore.


Breadmaker Dinner Rolls With a Side of Courage

In August, 2012, I wrote this post. This is where we come from. Between then and now has been a lot of patience, a lot of learning, a lot of reading. A LOT of learning. To move from that place of fear to this moment in time, I had to trust TJ with eating.

It wasn’t easy. It sounds easy. It’s not.

I had to learn that my job is to provide the food. It is not my job to get TJ to eat. Trust was hard to come by when my son said he wasn’t hungry and his weight was sliding south on the growth charts. Trust was hard to come by when he was congested or sick and had no appetite. I had already figured out that trying to make him eat more, made him eat less. Trust was all I could do, and I hung on with both hands.


Today, I dragged my neglected bread maker out of the storage cupboard to see if I could successfully create something that resembled a dinner roll. Two and a half hours later, my house smelled of freshly baked bread and dinner was on the table. Fish, chips and a dozen muffin-shaped buns. TJ wanted nothing to do with them. “I’m not ready yet,” he says.

Any food can be scary, even something as benign as bread. TJ ate half a dozen French fries, drank a glass of milk, and called it a meal. These are the meals when trusting TJ with eating is hard. I know he ate reasonably well (for him) at lunch (6 hours ago). Familiar worries creep into conscious thought. Fortunately, these worries are now answered with sensible reason.

Surely, he must be hungry? Only he knows how hungry he is.

He has to eat! You put food on the table he can eat. 

He should try one of the bread roll muffins. It is his job to decide how much to eat.

My husband, daughter, and dinner guest remarked at how delicious the buns turned out – (they were tasty!) “I’m not ready,” TJ says again.

“That’s fine,” I say, to reassure both him and myself, “I think you will like the buns, when you are ready. They feel a bit like a fresh bagel, but taste like a ‘butter butty'” (aka Wonder® hamburger bun slathered with butter), “in the shape of a muffin.”

An eyebrow raises. A brief moment of consideration, followed by, “I’m not ready.”

The conversation is very casual. Factual. I’m imparting information while respecting his decision. The rolls are available, he can have one (or not) if he wants to.

At bedtime, TJ tells me he can’t sleep because he’s hungry. He wants to know what happens if his stomach stays empty for a long time (like overnight). I tell him hunger makes it hard to think, makes it hard to make decisions. Hunger makes it easy to become frustrated and makes us fatigued. Hunger has that effect on everybody. A full tummy makes our body work properly. A hungry tummy makes us cranky.

I ask if he wants a ‘butter butty muffin’. He can say no, there are other options.


That dinner roll disappeared in record time. “You were right, Mom, this is delicious!”

“Y’know,” I say, “when everyone is saying ‘it’s delicious,’ it usually is.”

TJ has a new fascination with temporal mechanics. “If I could build a time machine, I would go back in time and try all the things you said were delicious.”

Wait, what did he just say??

“You don’t have to go back in time. You can start whenever you’re ready.”

“I think I am,” he says, “I don’t want to miss eating something delicious ever again.”


Homemade Courage Rolls

You’ll need a bread machine and a 12-cup muffin tin.

1 1/3 cup milk
1 1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp butter
3 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp bread machine yeast

Add all ingredients to the bread machine chamber in the order listed. Select Dough cycle.

When cycle is completed, remove dough to a lightly floured surface. Cover with a large bowl and let rest for 10-15 minutes

Divide dough into 24 balls. Grease muffin tin. Place 2 dough balls into each muffin cup. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about 30 minutes). Bake in pre-heated oven at 375F for 15-20 minutes.

Serve with butter, jam, chocolate milk syrup (Miss Adventure discovery), or your own delicious creation. Oh… and trust.

Don’t forget the trust.

Coping With Social Eating Anxiety

Eating in the presence of others, whether with friends or family, can create significant stress for someone with specific and limited food preferences.  Rhiannon, an adult picky eater, was kind enough to speak with me about her coping strategies with social eating.


What is it about eating socially that makes it more stressful than eating alone?

Well, first off, there’s the physical reason:  if I’m out of the house for hours, I’m probably going to be hungry at some point.  I’m always worried that I won’t get enough to eat when I’m out because there won’t be enough foods there that I can eat.

Biology aside, however, I’m usually a little anxious when going out because not eating (or not eating as much as everyone else) at a gathering invites a lot of social problems.  Food is a method of social bonding, and not eating the food that’s in front of you is seen as a rejection of the people around you.

It can also be difficult for people to separate “wanting to spend time together” from “eating together,” especially if the social outing is long enough to include a meal. Plus, there’s a social rule that says that it’s rude to eat in front of someone who isn’t eating, and so many people feel intimidated if I’m finished with my eating long before they’re finished with theirs.

Has eating with others always been difficult?

Social eating has always had a lot of issues for me.  When I was in school, even my friends would ask, with a disgusted look, “You like that?  That’s so boring!”  Telling people that I had food issues didn’t work; it just pointed me out as someone “different” (which, to the other kids in school, is almost always a bad thing.)

Back then, I didn’t have a good description of why things tasted different to me; no one knew the words “super taster.”  My parents and I had constant fights and struggles over food.  They just didn’t understand why I wouldn’t eat something that was “perfectly good.” I got punished for not eating, and was forced to eat the food I didn’t want for dinner, for breakfast.

That being said, my parents are wonderful, loving people who would never do anything to hurt me on purpose.  Their behaviour came from ignorance only, and if they’d known then what we know now about food and eating, I can guarantee that my experiences would have been much more positive.

What strategies to do you use to cope when you are invited out to eat?

When I’m invited out to a restaurant, it’s an easy social situation.  I love the internet; if I’m going out to eat in an unfamiliar restaurant, I can often look up the menu online and decide which thing I’d be most comfortable eating beforehand.  I try to leave myself a few choices if I can, even if it means saying to the waiter “I want this meal without the sauce” or “I’d like this meal but without the coleslaw.”  A restaurant is one of the few social times wherein it’s okay to have your meal prepared specially for you.  Everyone is (usually) ordering something different anyway, so it’s no big deal to ask for your food the way you want it.

When it comes to social eating, different rules apply to different situations.  Being a guest in someone’s home is very different than a restaurant. What challenges do you face as an invited guest?

It’s much harder for me to go to someone’s house to eat, for a whole list of reasons.  Usually, the host has prepared a dish (or many dishes) to suit what they think everyone will like.  Often, though, I’ll look at a buffet table with three finger-food appetizers, five salads, two main dishes, two side dishes and a basket of buns, only to discover that I can’t eat anything there except one finger-food appetizer, one garden salad (which may or may not be ruined by someone coming over and pouring dressing all over it before I get a chance to take some) and the buns.

Now, what do I do?  I can’t just go up to the host and tell them I can’t eat their food; it’s insulting.  At best, I’ll be asked about allergies, and since I can’t claim to be allergic to everything on the table, then my reason for not eating isn’t “good enough.”

Socially, I’ve often been seen to be “causing trouble” or “just wanting attention.” It’s a hard place to be in, because even if I don’t say anything, someone is bound to look at my plate and remark, “Aren’t you eating?” Then the host will come over, concerned, and ask me why I’m not eating, thus drawing the attention of anyone who happens to be standing near.

Not answering that question isn’t an option, either.  The more silent I stay, the more people get concerned about me being sick.  Even if I just lie and say “I’m not hungry,” I often have to provide a good explanation as to why.  And if I tell the truth (that I can’t eat most of what’s on the table), I’ve now both offended the host and convinced anyone standing nearby that I’m a very weird person or (more likely) that I’m creating drama for no good reason.

Is there a solution to this?  I wish I knew of one.  If I eat beforehand and come to the party genuinely not hungry, I still have to explain why I’m not hungry.  And don’t ever tell a host that you ate before their party, unless you want to offend them even further by insinuating that not only is the food they’ve prepared no good, but that you didn’t even have to see it to know that their food was no good, and thus you ate beforehand.

Saying “I’m a picky eater” doesn’t really work well either.  Then it becomes a challenge:  find something that is currently sitting on the table that Rhiannon will eat.  She must eat something, and it must be enough to fulfil the requirements of a full meal.  It ends with me having to explain specifically about each and every dish why I won’t eat it, and coming off to everyone standing nearby and listening as a person who’s just trying to get attention for themselves/being a drama queen by being overly picky.

In the worst-case scenario, the host will open their freezer and ask me to find something I can eat, and then if I find anything, insist on making it for me.  That makes the whole situation worse, because now people who weren’t a party to the first conversation will be asking questions like “I thought you were finished cooking?”  And the host will explain to everyone in the room that they are making something special just for me, to which everyone will silently add “because she made a scene.”  I’ve even had people say to me “Why did you make such a big deal out of it?  Just find something that’s there and eat it.  It’s rude to make people cook special food just for you.”  Which of course I know, and I didn’t ask anyone to do anything special, but no one will believe me at that point.

The good news is, the worst-case scenario rarely happens.  Usually, I come to a party expecting to eat a snack instead of a full meal, and make sure that I have food at home that I can eat afterward.

When it comes to navigating the buffet table, I’ll wait until everyone else has had a chance to eat first, then pick at whatever’s left, if anything is left, of the foods I can eat.  People have come to think of me as “not hungry” all the time, because that’s the safest excuse I can provide.  I make a point of finding something cooked that I can eat, though, even if it’s just one finger-food appetizer.  I then eat the cooked food in front of the host, so they won’t feel insulted by my not eating anything they’ve prepared.

It must get tiresome always having to defend yourself from the perceptions of others. What strategies do you use to pass for a ‘normal’ eater?

As for explanations, I stick with “I’m not hungry” and compliment the host on the one cooked food I could eat.  I tend to fill up on drinks, even going to the kitchen and getting water repeatedly, so that my stomach feels fuller for the duration of the party, before I can eat my meal at home.  My excuse is that I’m part camel, and can drink a ton of water every day.  (That excuse happens to be true, so I use it often.)

If the situation is a potluck, I always sign up for either the main course or a side dish.  That way, I know that I can at least eat the food I bring, and it’ll be more filling than the usual fare.  If I can, I also bring my own platter of fresh veggies, with dip being optional, so that I know I can have some vegetables with my meal.

If the situation is a sit-down meal, it can be harder, because people will be constantly passing me a plate of something I can’t eat, and watching me pass it on without taking anything.  “Aren’t you eating?” comes up again, only this time the entire table has heard it.  I usually head this off by picking something that I can eat, and saying “I’m waiting for the (insert name of food here.)”

Can you tell me about a time when you had a good experience with social eating?

When I was 17, I went away to a camp for people who were visually impaired.  It was the first place I’d ever been to that seemed to understand my preference for plainer foods.  As an example:  one night we had spaghetti for dinner, and the tomato sauce was not automatically mixed in with the noodles.  Instead we were given a choice as to how we wanted to eat our pasta – with sauce or without, with butter or without.  I chose butter (I’ve always liked buttered noodles, before that phrase became known), and was not made to feel at all like my food choices were strange.

It turns out that, for people who are born with a visual impairment, being a super taster isn’t all that uncommon.  In fact, there was a clear division of food preferences between those of us who were born with vision loss and those of us who acquired it later.  Even those who acquired their vision at two years old preferred more ‘normal’ foods than those of us who had never had full vision.

Is there a way the host might serve a meal that helps you feel more comfortable?

Sometimes, a sit-down meal will actually have more foods that I can eat, because the foods that are served are different.  Rather than lasagna and casserole being the only choices, a roast with potatoes is more likely to be on the menu.  And since people tend to add their own sauces (gravy, cranberry sauce, etc.) to the meat after they’ve taken it, I can take just the plain meat without drawing attention to myself.  I usually try to sit near the garden salad too, so that I can take some before anyone pours dressing on it.  I’m also lucky that there are a few “staple” sides (things that are likely to be served) that I like, so I can usually take at least one of them.  My plate may not be as full as everyone else’s, and I may still be hungry afterward, but at least I don’t get the same amount of questions about how much I’m eating, because I’m able to eat more than usual.


Do you have strategies to make social eating a more pleasant experience? Share your ideas in the comments.