Care and Feeding

Kid’s Choice

My 5-year-old’s picky eating is getting worse. What can I do?

A young boy with a bowl of cereal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Image Source/Stockbyte.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My just-turned 5-year-old son will not eat! He has always been a picky eater, but it is getting worse. He is in the 40th percentile for height and weight. He sleeps well, has no behavior problems, is smart, is doing well in pre-K, and is a great kid. My husband and I eat a variety of foods and have continually tried introducing new foods to him. We provide healthy snacks and meals to no avail. Of course, he loves most things carb- and sugar-laden. His chosen foods are carrots, grapes, homemade sloppy Joes, cereal, orange chicken, French toast, milk, ice cream, and crackers. One day he literally had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, crackers for a snack, and nothing else all day. He used to eat eggs, spaghetti, pork, and chicken, but won’t touch them now.

Is this pathologic? Do we just give up and make sloppy Joes and orange chicken on alternate days so he at least gets protein? I feel like we have tried it all—hiding veggies in meals he will eat, bribing, yelling, sending him to bed without dinner.

—Peter Peter Picky Eater

Dear PPPE,

I have great news! Unless my math teachers have failed me, I believe that 40th percentile is near the middle. His behavior and functioning are great, and he has a whole menu of things that he happily eats. I’m not sure I see where the problem lies here. Kids do not eat what we want them to eat, and that’s just a permanent parenting reality that will never change as long as humans are on earth. Kids also don’t eat a balanced diet, which is largely fine because they’re not training for a marathon. There are certainly kids who have medical issues that impact their ability to eat and, as such, need parents willing to make the impossible happen. But what you’re describing in your letter is a 5-year-old who is really enjoying the fact that he gets to flex a little agency over what he puts into his body. And he’s doing great, if you ask me!

Make what he loves, and also put a few new things on the plate that he may not like or may not like yet. Serve healthy, balanced meals and make sure he is trying new things in order to expand his palate. One trick that worked with my kids for dishes they didn’t want to eat was the “one bite for every year of age you are” rule. They seemed to think that was fair enough, and I think it helped that they knew it would be over soon—and that they didn’t have to eat the whole thing.

That may or may not work for him, but overall, I think you can worry a little less about this. It is never advisable to punish a kid for not eating. Don’t yell at them for not liking something that tastes weird to their hyper-sensitive palates, and definitely don’t “send them to bed without dinner” out of frustration or as a punishment. All of this is damaging, and none of it is necessary. Let your kid try new things, let your kid not like things, and try not to make food a source of pain for anyone.

—Carvell