Care and Feeding

I’m an Extremely Picky Eater. How Do I Save My Kids From the Same Fate?

Please say dinner in the closet isn’t my only option.

Father's hand with a spoon feeding a toddler who is facing away.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a sensory disorder that makes me pretty sensitive to food texture, taste, and smell. My wife is an adventurous eater who loves all sorts of foods that are challenging for me. We’ve reached a loving compromise—she’ll make a base (pasta, rice, etc.) and a side sauce, then give me the base and put on the side sauce for her portion. We are both happy with this arrangement.

If I’m being honest, I want my kids to grow up like my wife. My food issues have restricted my life in a way that’s made it hard for me to eat at restaurants, travel, and generally be adventurous. I want my kids to be open-minded and excited to try new foods. Our youngest is 1 and has already noticed that Mommy and Mama eat different foods. Short of eating in the closet or out of her eyesight, how do I ensure my daughter doesn’t inherit my food pickiness? How can I encourage her to try new foods while I’m unable to do so myself?

I have already sought therapy for my food avoidance and have made a lot of progress—I’m just realizing that I don’t want to model picky behavior for my daughter. Any advice?

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—Picky in Pennsylvania

Dear Picky,

It probably felt very uncomfortable when your 1-year-old pointed out that Mommy and Mama eat different food, but try to see the moment from her perspective. She is learning about patterns and routines, how things are done, and she’s sharing her findings with no implied value judgments. If only more dining companions were like her!

It’s totally understandable that you’re worried about your kids modeling your picky eating, but since your wife is modeling the opposite and also providing lots of delicious options, you don’t need to worry about what is or isn’t on your own plate. When the kids are old enough to understand your sensory disorder, you can tell them about how you deal with it. For now, though, you can put aside these concerns, even if your daughter experimentally emulates your pickiness for a while. Stay calm and focus on the basics: Parents control what food is available and when, and kids control whether they eat, and how much (the famous “division of responsibility in feeding.”) There may be some bumps in the road, but you can raise healthy, happy eaters regardless of your own struggles—and maybe even thanks in part to what you’ve learned from them.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single dad living paycheck to paycheck. My child is an 8-year-old budding “chef” that cannot cook and will not take instruction. I don’t want to squash her dreams, but I cannot afford them. I make just enough between two jobs to feed, house, and clothe my child with thrift store finds. I do not have enough to buy abundant food and ingredients that become inedible with her creations. Sometimes I go hungry or withhold things for myself so my kid does not know how bad off we are. I’ve tried to have her help me cook real dinner and her only interest is being in the kitchen alone. How can I gently redirect her or let her know we can’t afford certain things like wasting food without giving her a complex where she constantly worries about money?

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—Cash-Strapped Dad

Dear Cash-Strapped,

It’s so painful not to be able to give kids everything they want. But the important thing to remember is that you are doing the far more important work: giving your daughter everything she needs. With that in mind, you are going to be upfront with her about how important it is not to waste food, especially right now, and she is going to be OK.

I’m not delusional, so I don’t think she’ll immediately cotton to the idea of using your pantry’s constraints as a challenge. I do think she is old enough to start to understand that your food resources aren’t infinite. For that matter, the earth’s food resources aren’t infinite. You might reframe some of the conversations you’re having around her budding interest in the culinary arts to focus on the importance of doing more with less. And if all of that seems like too much, and likelier to produce tantrums than revelations, you could do an intermediate step like making some cheaper staples available for experimentation while other ingredients are firmly off-limits.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is overwhelmed by the free-spirited and loud nature of our middle child. Our middle son in an 8-year-old boy, “Isaiah,” who is intense, in lots of ways. Isaiah is very bright, but also a strong-willed child who isn’t motivated by traditional rewards, punishments, or societal views of how he “should” be behaving. Isaiah is extremely loud, constantly making noise—be it nonstop talking, humming, singing, whistling, tongue clicking, drumming … if he’s awake, he’s making noise. Isaiah is social and loves to engage with people, but it’s always at volume level 1 million, and right on top of you.

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My husband, on the other hand, is a naturally quiet introvert who values personal space, and is a traditional rules follower. By the end of the day, my husband is almost always angry with and frustrated by Isaiah. So much so, that he struggles to see any of the positives in Isaiah because he just can’t cope with how intense Isaiah is. I constantly feel stuck in the middle, trying to help my husband relate to and see the positives in Isaiah, and trying to help Isaiah see that he needs to tone down for his dad. How do I help my husband cope (and even enjoy spending time) with Isaiah, when they have such different natures?

—Intermediary Between Intense and Introvert

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Dear Intermediary,

There are two separate issues here, and one of them is going to be a lot harder to tackle than the other. I want to gently put forth the suggestion that your husband’s reaction to Isaiah’s behavior is his issue to deal with, not yours. It’s understandable that he’s easily frustrated with Isaiah, but that’s not a good excuse for getting angry at him and making you have to mediate between them constantly. Instead of using your emotional energy to keep trying to fix their relationship, let your husband know that he’s putting you in an unfair position, and that you need him to rise to the necessity of parenting all your children, regardless of the challenges they present.

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The second—easier!—issue is whether Isaiah might benefit from being evaluated for possible sensory processing issues. It may be that some of his high-octave, high-octane behavior could potentially be soothed with therapeutic intervention. While some kids are just a lot, and I am not qualified to diagnose anyone with anything, your mention of constant noise-making made me wonder. I think he might at least enjoy the process of being evaluated—it’s a lot of playing and being social, which he will like!

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My boyfriend and I are definitely getting ahead of ourselves on this one, but here goes.

We are getting serious. We are talking about the future. Part of this discussion has been how resistant his parents are to the concept of us (they wish he was marrying someone from their own culture; I am white and he is not). His mom brought up in a recent conversation “what will you name the children?” This was not a good-faith question, which is its own problem, but has indeed raised the question: What will we name the children? There is no impending baby, and we are not currently trying for one. However, the question caused my boyfriend to take a hard stance: Any future children have to have names from his culture.

Here is the problem: I have some names I hold dear. I’m not ready to die on the hill of “my children will be named Jehosephat or whatever or I’m out,” but the idea of having them dismissed out of hand—largely by his mom’s suggestion—is sort of grating. I’m also annoyed that I am so annoyed by this. I suggested we could agree to do perhaps one-and-one, but he has said that is very hard on the sibling with the name from his culture vs. the kid who I would name Robert, or something equally painfully white. This unfortunately leaves me in win-it-all or lose-it-all situation.

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I have been trying to take his opinion as a real one, even if his mom basically caused trouble here for the sake of causing trouble. His culture is genuinely important to him, and he fears becoming even more alienated from it; of course, he worries about carrying that on with his kids. Part of the problem here is that my point doesn’t rest on my culture but on specific names: the uncle who died when I was 16 who basically raised my dad; my college best friends who saved my life; my sister. I hear his concern about losing his culture, and I do not really even have much “culture” to push back on it with; my extended family is pretty in shambles, with most of our traditions being rooted around professional sports teams, not the (recent, anyway) burden of immigrating to raise children for a better future elsewhere. But I think the idea that having less of a history pressing on me negates my choice on what to name the children is also bonkers.

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I do not want to commit some kind of cultural erasure here. I am very aware that I am the white girl stomping around here. There are some lovely names in his culture. But he literally has not even asked what names I want in the mix, and just dismissed them out of hand because they are not from his culture. HELP.

—Not Even Pregnant Yet

Dear Not Even,

I know you think that you guys are being a little bit ridiculous by fighting over the hypothetical names of your hypothetical children, but it’s not ridiculous at all to notice the impressive number of red flags this conversation has raised. You now know that his mother has the ability to cause you two to fight—a common dynamic, and not a fun one. You also know that his family and his culture are important to him, but that this is blinding him, at the moment, to your having an equal part in this sort of decision.

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If you two do decide to forge a long-term partnership and have children together, it’s a gift to know upfront that these are always going to be hot-button issues. A gift, that is, as long as your boyfriend is open and willing to discuss your differences and work through them together. Right now, it seems like, on this topic at least, he’s more invested in issuing edicts. See if he is open to talking this through and hearing your own ideas in a real way—you may find that his arguments around race, culture, and belonging are ultimately convincing, or you may not. But as a potential partner and co-parent, he’s got to be willing to have the conversation. If he isn’t, that’s valuable information, and you ignore it at your peril.

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—Emily

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When does the phantom poop smell end? Both of my kids (3 years and 18 months) are not yet potty trained. And, because I’m a glutton for punishment, we have a 4-month-old puppy also going to the bathroom literally everywhere. At work, commuting in the car, after kiddos are asleep … I smell poop. I understand that smell is the sense most tied to memory, so I know why I’m smelling poop that isn’t there, but when does it end? I’m hoping they can both be potty trained in about a year, so how long after that do I get the smell of poop (and puke!) out of my nose and hippocampus?

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