As a toddler, my oldest child was an infuriatingly picky eater. Although I envied his carb-heavy diet of bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta, I worried that he wasn’t eating nutritiously. Each time I took him to the pediatrician, I braced for the diagnosis: scurvy or rickets or some other nearly obsolete condition last seen in sailors in the seventeenth century, all because of the dearth of vitamins and nutrients in his diet.
Of course, my pediatrician delivered no such news and instead suggested I relax and do my best. That was good advice—advice that sadly too few parents hear these days. Instead, parents are told that kids must eat their veggies, or else! This overwrought and entirely unnecessary stress about eating is making parenting harder and turning mealtime into an unpleasant ordeal.
Consider this story in the New York Times, which starts out with the not-so-surprising statistic that “nine out of ten American kids aren’t eating enough vegetables, and six out of ten don’t get enough fruit.” The article then highlights the thriving cottage industry that has sprung up from this “eat your veggies!” obsession.
A California company, Oh Yes Foods, is betting that parents will embrace pizza that’s loaded up with hidden fruits and vegetables. (Pizza is the second highest source of calories in our kids’ diets) The product is available in some Western states at Whole Foods and Target.
Amy Goldsmith, the chief executive of Oh Yes, said two of the company’s founders, both medical doctors, struggled for years with their picky daughter. “They tried everything to get her to eat healthy food but she just wouldn’t do it,” she says. “It was all about hot dogs and cheese pizza.” In desperation, they dried fruits and vegetables in an old food dehydrator they had, then used their coffee grinder to powder the produce and slip it into their daughter’s pizza crust and sauce.
Oh Yes Foods has created a savvy solution to help fool many kids into getting their recommended daily allowance of healthy stuff. But what I find confusing is why the founders of this company, who say they “struggled for years” with their picky eaters, didn’t ever take a moment to think back to their own eating habits when they were children. One suspects they were like most children—picky. Yet, over time, they likely expanded their food choices, eventually becoming adults who understood the importance of fruits and vegetables and began eating them.
That’s certainly what happened to me. As a child, I was a pill at mealtime. My poor mom had to strictly segregate everything on the plate. Nothing could touch and I liked foods prepared as blandly and tastelessly as possible. Plain noodles (no sauce, no butter), plain rice, buttered bread—these were my staples. Of course, my mom made me eat meat and vegetables. She’d place the spaghetti sauce in a small bowl and I ate it with a spoon, while pinching my nose. Meat was placed on the plate—very far away from the starch—and I ate it without chewing, chasing chunks of meat with big gulps of milk. Mostly, I did this forced eating while crying. My mom didn’t care.
And yet, today, I’m nothing like that picky eater. I seek out the strongest flavors, regularly eat a variety of ethnic cuisines, and love to cook lesser known cuts of meat. I love Asian markets where the produce sections offer unique and exotic items not found in the neighborhood Safeway or Giant. When my husband and I eat at fine restaurants, I always order things I don’t prepare at home: like lamb brains, sweetbreads, shad roe, and eel.
The point is, kids grow up and expand their palates. Very few adults maintain their toddler food demands and preferences. Of course, some do, but those few adults are now recognized as having a medical condition called “selective eating disorder.” These people feel incapable of eating anything but a few select items. This condition is extremely rare and affects only a very small subset of the population. Yet, it seems most parents react to their child’s pickiness as though they’re raising someone who will eventually have this disorder.
Instead, parents need to gain a little perspective. In Western culture, it’s actually quite difficult for kids to miss out on vital nutrients. Today, food sold in the grocery store is packed with vitamins and nutrients. Common foods that even picky eaters enjoy—like orange juice, milk, cereals, breads, certain snacks, and other beverages—are often fortified with certain essential micronutrients in order to improve the nutritional quality of the final product.
No one is suggesting you stop trying to get your kid to love green beans and broccoli. But stressing out about your child’s diet to the point that you’re buying pricey foods designed to fool them into healthy eating is an unnecessary and expensive parent trap. Don’t fall for it.