explorations of mindful fatherhood

Mac ‘n Cheese ‘n Picky Eaters


macaroni-and-cheeseMy son had a play-date last week, and just before the kid got to our house, my wife said to me, “Oh my god, I need you to go out and get Mac and Cheese!”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s the only thing his friend will eat.”

“Really, it’s the only thing he’ll eat?”

“He’s very picky,” she explained.  I picked up my keys.  Just before leaving she called out, “And not the good organic stuff.  Get the Kraft stuff.  That’s the only kind he’ll eat.”

My wife and I are blessed with a son who’s a good eater.  He’s adventurous and will try almost any food.  I’m sure part of it’s his temperament, but it’s also his upbringing.  He never had foods that were any different from what my wife and I ate.  Even when venturing into solid foods as a baby, he’d eat peas, or steamed zucchini, or cucumbers, or cut-up grapes.  All foods that he saw us eating too.  So, when he started eating full meals, there was never anything special offered to him.  He needed to eat what we were all eating.  No special kid foods, no alternatives, no choices.  Here is your food, now eat it.

He’s so amicable that we haven’t had many problems.  He very rarely puts up a fight.  I’d even say that he holds a sense of pride in the fact that he eats just like the grown ups.  His recent challenge is spicy foods, and so he’s been adding Sriracha or Frank’s Red Hot Sauce to his meals. There are a few times when he’ll pick around his mushrooms or onions, but he sits and eats regardless.  The only other kids we know who eat well are his cousins, and I’d guess that he has the most fun eating with them.

But unlike family, all his friends are picky eaters.  Nearly every time we go out to eat with families, they order buttered pasta for their kids, while the adults eat more exciting foods.  Or, if kids come over, we always have to consider whether they’ll eat what we’re eating.  Typically, we won’t hold our son’s friends to our expectations.  Instead, we usually circumvent the problem by making something “kid-friendly” if a friend is coming over.

I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man for writing this, but I think that (in most instances) the problem is with choice.  Each time I see a parent of a picky eater feed his or her child, the kid is presented with options.  The kids can choose to opt out of eating what everyone else is eating. He’s given the option of mac ‘n cheese, or pb&j, or some other carby, cheesy,  sugary option.   The kid goes for that option every time.  When the meal consists of something healthy or somewhat unappealing to the child, there’s rarely an expectation to eat it or, at the very least, try it before rejecting it. So, when we go out to eat with these families, and the only things the kids consume are buttered pasta or bread, I’m not surprised.  When they reject things like vegetables and their parents laments that they won’t eat anything but pizza, burgers, or grilled cheese, I’m not surprised.

One particular exception I’d note is kids with sensory issues.  I work with many students with sensory issues, and smells, textures, and tastes are very triggering for them.  It makes sense that these kids (and their parents) are faced with significant hurdles when it comes to diversifying their pallets.  However, sensory issues are very rare, and I would guess don’t affect many of the kids in my son’s social circle.

I think our relationship with food starts from day one.  There is a culture around eating that gets ingrained at a very early age.  For instance, growing up, my family was  very territorial about food.  We each had our own plate and no one touched your food and you didn’t touch anyone else’s.  My wife grew up in a family where everyone shared food from+9*the middle of the table.  To this day, she and I are very much influenced by our own food cultures.  I think the message we send to kids when they’re given choices around food is that they get to eat what they want, and that food is theirs.  Food is not a family decision, but an individual one.  The option to choose offers the child a lot of autonomy around what they’ll elect to eat.  Probably too much autonomy.

The problem is that kids can’t recognize what’s healthy.  They go for taste.  So, in many ways, just like discipline or boundaries or rules, parents need to set parameters around food just like anything else.  As parents, we need to be the models for how and what to eat, and not abdicate responsibility just to make our children happy (in the moment).

Rereading this, I sound like some goddamn saint.  There are certainly times when my son has said he “isn’t hungry” and pushes the food around his plate, and he has to get multiple reminders of his expectation to eat.  There have also been times when we’ve left him at the dinner table to finish food that he was ignoring.  I realize it’s a struggle at times, but parents wield a lot of power, and they need to exert it early to set a good example for future habits.  Plus, it’ll save me runs to Stop ‘n Shop for Kraft products.


Author: CJ Nigh

I am an East Coast writer with a Midwestern soul. Undead Dad is a blog about mindful fatherhood in the deadening age of hyper-technology and over-work. I also write science fiction for young adults.

42 thoughts on “Mac ‘n Cheese ‘n Picky Eaters

  1. We have a chronic Mac & Cheese eater (although it’s usually organic and whole wheat pasta). She’s a self-declared vegetarian (we’re not), so sometimes it’s a challenge. Developmental stages make a difference as well. Kids get stuck on the same menu items and unless you’re a great cook (I’m not), it might stay that way for a few years. This last year has been a delight, though – she’s mad about spinach and green beans and has tried so many more foods. It motivates me to try more recipes and our garden this year will be chock full of all the new foods she now likes.
    I tend to get on my high horse about food, despite the Mac & Cheese. It drives me nuts when parents complain that little Johnny is hyperactive and doesn’t pay attention and then I see the snacks and meals loaded with processed sugar, dye and salt laden foods. Come on, give the kid a fighting chance!

    • Totally agree, Green Study. I think you’re right, that there’s also a lot to be said about developmental stages and eating. Definitely a very valid point.

  2. You nailed it dead on! Give a kid a plethora of choices and they’ll spend their life running YOU ragged and likely think they can opt out of anything. Our daughter also was given no choice but to eat what the adults were eating and, today is an amazing eater. Many a waitstaff rolled their eyes at a four-year-old who ordered quiche, calamari or her own sushi, but walked away amazed when she finished it…without complaint. She’s not perfect, and we still battle over too much candy, making balanced choices and pushing proteins over carbs, but teaching good nutrition, being firm on boundaries and not letting them make their own rules must extend to meal time. Otherwise, it’s just the type of inconsistency that is confusing kids to chaos!

  3. My oldest, still an extreme picky eater at 14, will just not eat until the next meal that offers something she likes (sometimes 24-36 hours). So I usually incorporate something she likes (like steamed rice as a side). My youngest will eat pretty much anything. It’s just a difference in personality. I fed them the same stuff. Go fig.
    Oddly, the oldest loooves sushi (but part of her issues revolve around looks).

  4. I tell my kids I’m not a short order cook. They either eat what I make, or they eat nothing. They almost always opt for the former.

    Sadly we’re a minority amongst parents. Options only make picky and indecisive children. Good for you and your wife for raising a kid with an open mind.

  5. Oops, I meant to add that Japanese food *looks* really nice.

  6. I have two kids and both are good eaters, it begins with the parents. The kids eat what the parents eat. unfortunately, my son is gluten intolerant and can’t eat the range he would really like. It’s probably good for him and would be for us, but we haven’t yet made the transition as a family. He’s a freshman in high school and would get teased for taking a leftover Chipotle burrito bowl with carnitas of beef fajitas for lunch by the kids who were eating PBJ or mac and cheese…. the other is a sort of picky eater, but will eat what is on the table. But, I know what you mean there is a kid in our scout troop who ONLY eats plain pasta and PBJ and won’t eat anything else, he almost starved at summer camp!

    Good for you, and that is not an undead thought – it’s the right thing to do!

  7. I made all my kids’ food including their baby food and that included everything the adults were eating only theirs occasionally softer and with less salt. The only exceptions were foods that they were too young to digest or didn’t have teeth for chewing. All three grew up to be healthy and knowledgeable about a balanced diet and they also all happen to be excellent cooks!

  8. We are a no choice family with a picky eater. There are times he just doesn’t eat because he doesn’t like or can’t swallow what we’re having.

    Pretty sure there aren’t enough numbers to count the times he’s thrown up what had just gone in.

    Heck, he doesn’t even it buttered noodles.

    So, it isn’t always the parent that forms the crazy, picky eater. Sometimes it’s nature or a really bad gag reflex.

  9. I’m really enjoying your blog and perspectives. I’m a newbie to the Cape. I shared your page with my younger who will be a new father come May. I’m not a parent yet, but a proud aunt (of four, soon to be six, wee ones) and have worked in behavioral healthcare with children. Too much choice is definitely a problem I’ve seen parents of clients make. Children need limited choices: have them choose one of two or three veggies, for example. This helps then feel more autonomous, too, especially if they like control.

  10. I love reading your blog, and it is so the truth. Parents will feed their kids just about anything simply to get them to eat and shut up. I have heard that too many times to count. I take pride in the fact that my kids are pretty good eaters. I have four kids so people can’t say it can’t be done! . My oldest just turned 18 in December and people over the years have been astonished that the only time she would throw a fit was when I wouldn’t buy Brussels sprouts! Yes, you read right Brussels sprout! I dont care if we had a freezer or fridge full of them give her a bag and she would smile and be happy like a kid with a happy meal! I am a firm believer that when you introduce sweets to a child, you will end up with a sugar filed kid. So it has always been veggies first, fruits last as desert that way they grow appreciative what is good for them. Children live what they learn…….l

  11. Pingback: The 100th Post on Simply Enjoy! | simplyenjoy

  12. I nominated you for a “Sunshine Award.”

  13. You remind me of my dad (in charge of all food or we’d have lived off marmite sandwiches) who was very much of the ‘eat this or don’t eat’ mindset. He only relented on mushrooms with me when it turned out I was allergic!

    As a result we were all good eaters. He’d also pre-plan our evening meals for the week and write them on a board so the older two knew to get something different for school lunches. (So carbonara for tea meant they knew not to get pasta at lunch)

    My brother is a chef now and has a very demanding 2-year-old to contend with who knows her mind to say the least. She will occasionally have a fit about food but he’s started cooking with her (baking bread etc) and now she’ll eat things on the basis that she made them ‘with Daddy.’

    When she sits down to a meal he explains where all the different foods come from and how to cook them and she says it all back to him the next time they eat a similar meal.

    She’s the only child I know who can tell you how to cook a pork belly!

  14. Think I will unfollow you now!!!! Have four of my own. Two eat everything, Two are picky. Amazingly all have the same parents! It cant be that simple although in your case luckily it was.

  15. It’s a lot easier to say this when your child actually will try new things. I simply got tired of every meal being a battle and having my daughter in a horrible mood every night because she wouldn’t eat what we served and then was hungry and cranky.

    She will generally eat some fruits and vegetables, so I figure as long as she’s getting some balance she’s ok and I shouldn’t fight too much when she wants Kraft Mac and cheese yet again

  16. Our approach is ‘eat what is offered or don’t eat’ but we have modified our dinners to accommodate more child like interests over the years; hamburgers and spaghetti bolognaise are a favourite and less spicy, cosmopolitan food.

    Also, probably about twice a week we feed the kids then eat later and this keeps everyone happy; we get to eat fancier food and they have a plate containing more or less some variation of the 5 food groups. In the past we’ve also stuck a food pyramid up on the fridge and talked about how many daily servings of fruit, vegetables etc our bodies ‘need’.

    I like this post because it reminds me of having principles about food and setting boundaries for the kids – something they are always testing us with and something every human needs to keep in moderation as a life skill.

    • Teacher2mum, sounds so nice to have the chance to set aside some time for a grown up meal. I can certainly see the value in that! Thanks for the post. I think you’re right that moderation is the key.

  17. As a kid I was absolutely addicted to bread and butter. I was a ‘picky’ eater too but my Mom always made sure I ate things that were decent for me as well as catering to my fascination with bread. I’ve seen a ton pf parents who cook separate meals for their kids, which I don’t think is bad in itself, but that needs to be balanced with nutritious food too and not just mac & cheese. Great post and something that more parents need to take a good look at – they set the kids up for lifetime choices – not just tonight’s dinner menu!

    • Sophist6, you’re definitely right about taking the long-view on things, and re-setting one’s approach around the goal of healthy eating in the long-run.

  18. Thank you, CJ. You’ve just reminded me to avoid being either smug or bigoted in my posts.

    Despite lacto-ovo and peanut allergies, my first child eats anything (else) we gave her and was the only kid in her kindergarten class to consider steamed broccoli a ‘treat’. Does that make me a ‘good parent’, or did I win the obedient kid lottery?

    My guess is that people like(d) your blog because you seemed to sympathise with the difficulties of mindful parenting, not because you preach or patronise them on their ‘shortcomings’. Wondering how many people now are tempted to write about smug, self-satisfied individuals masquerading as caring parents?

    Gonna make like 1tric and un-follow, methinks.

    • I think eating is so imbedded in one’s cultural worldview, that comments about difference of opinion are bound to cause hurt. Sorry it affected you so deeply. Best of luck to you.

  19. I find your approach to parenting very refreshing in a world where the roles of parents and children seem to have been inverted. I see too many parents these days abdicating (or never accepting to begin with) the responsibility of actually establishing rules and governing behavior and the unfortunate result too often are bratty children who think the world literally revolves around their every whim and need. I think you are striking a great balance and are raising a well-rounded and respectful child as a result. Keep up the great work, and keep blogging about it – I love your posts!

  20. I love this. I agree 100%. I was never prouder as my daughter and I were walking down the vegetable aisle and she said, “Brussel Sprouts, yummmmmm!’ She does eat Mac’n’cheese when we go out, but she eats everything else (except carrots, but she didn’t like carrots as a baby). You are not alone in your beliefs. ~ Kristi

    • Kristi, thanks for the comments! I must admit that Brussel Sprouts are my kryptonite, and I need to keep my trap shut and just eat them when we have them for dinner, because my son LOVES them too!

  21. You probably don’t qualify now after being Freshly Pressed, but I really enjoy your blog and think other people should find you too! I nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award. Check out my blog for details and if you want to participate!

  22. You are too kind! I’ll check it out!

  23. You bring up some good points.

  24. I enjoy reading your blogs a lot. Totally agree with you about making kids eat whatever parents are having. In fact I am such a enthusiastic advocate of this that I get ahead of myself at times! I had an incident a couple of days back when I fed my 7 month old the food we were having and of course the Indian spices were too much for her. Poor thing screamed her head off. Backing off for a bit now.

  25. I completely agree with you. And although this is no surprise, I still think there needs be more awareness. It’s a cycle. I don’t even think my parents ever fed me baby (jar) food and all of that. I pretty much ate whatever they ate. And I think because of that, I’ve never been a picky eater. Plus, I feel one would miss out on so many different wonders if they limit themselves to only certain foods. I love to try new dishes and whatnot.

  26. You sound like a good parent. My son would eat M & C for every meal if he could, but I don’t give him the choice (much like you). I put on his plate the same thing my wife and I are eating. If he doesn’t eat it, or only eats part of it, that’s all he gets. Sometimes, and only on rare occasions that he doesn’t eat anything, I’ll give him another option, but it’s usually something like a bowl of broccoli. He usually pines back for his original rejection.

  27. I served a friend cream of broccoli soup that my own kids all like. He said it looked like swamp water and didn’t touch it. Ha ha (It’s funny when it isn’t my child.) To be fair, it is sometimes hard for kids to eat in unfamiliar surroundings, where everything is different, even the water tastes different and the dishes and smells are all a little off. Sometimes something utterly familiar is all a kid wants to put in his mouth.

  28. My kids are 2 years old and 4 years old. Our 4 year old has always been an excellent eater. The only thing he doesn’t like, and has never liked is potatoes of any shape or form. I of course wanted to attribute this to our wonderful parenting skills 🙂 but now our 2 year old won’t eat ANY vegetables or most proteins. We have always served them the same as we serve us, so I have no idea what to attribute it to. It’s hard to even get upset with him because he was always take a bite of everything, but ends up chewing it up and spitting it out….anyone have any advice for this?

  29. Great topic, thanks for raising it CJ, wish we all were so lucky! For those kids that don’t try everything check out these kid-friendly but parent-approved meals: http://www.care.com/child-care-healthy-dinner-ideas-kids-will-actually-eat-p1017-q20517046.html

  30. Pingback: Making the Days Count » Blog Archive » Being thankful, the Liebster Award

  31. I stumbled on this post as I searched the web, yet again, for help with my picky eater. My son started out eating a much healthier and varied diet. As the years wore on, the foods he will eat have dwindled in number. It’s now grilled cheese, kd(I do fool him with the healthy kind), pepperoni pizza, fried eggs, buttered noodles, frenchfries, hamburgers and candy. That’s it. I am a vegetarian and would consider our family meals above average as far as health and nutrition and variety go. But he won’t eat what we eat. Absolutely will not. Period. Bribes, threats, punishment, nothing works. He has been hospitalized because of his low weight. He is miserable, we are miserable. The whole situation stinks. Add to it severe adhd, OCD, tourettes and an explosive level of anger and very low tolerance of frustration. It’s not fun days here. I spend so much time taking him to specialists, attending meetings with teachers, principals, support staff, school board officials, school psychologists and other people trying to help, that i cant hold a job. This is hell. And in no way my fault beyond my bringing him into this world. It’s frustrating to feel judged by the parents at taekwando whose kids are paying attention and behaving like good little automatons. It’s frustrating to hear people saying you should do this or that to fix any or all of his issues. Its frustrating to hear every single day about his outbursts at school. It’s frustrating to see how incredibly unhappy he is. It just sucks. I did it all “right”. I breast fed until he weaned himself around three, no tv, read to him always, organic toys Waldorf preschool, organic food, lots of variety as soon as it was ok. While he never really ate much at least he would eat lasagna and veggie pot pie, fresh fruit, steamed veggies, nuts, eggs, spaghetti, grapes, blueberries… But by the time he was two it was becoming hard to get him to eat at all. Now we are down to a few salty things. I’ve always limited candy but he would eat that until he was sick if I would let him. He’s chronically constipated. To the point he’s screaming he wants to die while he is writhing on the floor in front of the toilet. Add to the fun two bouts with kidney stones and he’s only eight. I have explained how his choices are making him sick. He is very bright. Everyone comments on it. I know he understands the words that I’m telling him but I don’t think he believes me or cares. I don’t know.

    But I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ve tried everything but maybe you have something I haven’t thought of….

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