Like my daughter is now, I was a picky eater as a kid.

Some of my friends would laugh at the word “was” in regards to my eating. I’ve come a long way since my fussy youth, but I still have a lot of food rules that most other adults find absurd. I don’t eat ANY cooked vegetables, for one thing. Why? Because they’re gross. I don’t like tomatoes, but I love tomato sauce. I don’t like fruit pie, or olives, or ricotta cheese. The list goes on.

When I became a parent, I knew I didn’t want history to repeat, so I’m guessing I did exactly what my own parents did, which was to give my kids a wide variety of healthy food when they were babies and toddlers, hoping to instill an appreciation for nutritional variety. Pretty standard stuff. My siblings have perfectly normal eating habits, so it clearly wasn’t some child raising tactic gone wrong. 

And now I have a 17-year-old son who will try any and every food (more than once!), has an extremely varied palate, and enjoys cooking. I also have a 13-year-old daughter who’s a whole lot fusser than I was, even at my worst. And I have no idea what to do about it. Here are the challenges.

She Only Likes a Handful of Things

My girl loves ramen, popcorn, white rice, the spaghetti with meat sauce my husband makes (and no OTHER spaghetti with meat sauce), and pancakes. Maybe the occasional waffle. She will eat chicken nuggets, but if we try a higher quality brand or make them ourselves, it’s a no go but at least she tries them. No fish. No beef, unless it’s a specific ground beef with rice dish my son makes. No vegetables, and very little fruit, if any. Smoothies are sometimes a yes… sometimes. I look at my girl and I worry constantly about the nutrition she’s missing. Vitamins are all well and good, but they can’t do the job alone.

Food Battles are Never a Good Idea

Forcing kids to eat things they don’t want, depriving them of meals completely if they don’t like what’s served, harassing them about it… none of this ever helps. There are countless studies about the negative effects of those power struggles, and I can tell you firsthand (from being on the kid side of things) that nothing good comes out of it. In fact the memories and associations of those battles can stick with you forever.

If finding food she likes is difficult, having to fight with us about it can only make it worse.

She Honestly Wishes She Liked More Food

Of course she does! I have had to explain this to my husband, who used to say that she “likes not liking” things. She does not. She would so much rather be excited about what’s on the dinner table, be happy when a friend invites her over for a meal (when those things are possible), and feel like a restaurant menu (again, when it’s possible) presents an array of wonderful options vs. being a list she combs through to find the one thing she hopes she’ll enjoy.

Her Tastes Change Sometimes Too

I’m guessing that’s because there are so few foods she likes that she gets sick of them. She liked shrimp for a while, so we’d have shrimp and rice for dinner once a week, and now she’s kind of done with shrimp. We’ll bring it back at some point, but losing one item from her food rotation is a major loss.

She’s a Salt Addict

She loves ramen, and because she prefers processed food to real food, she’s getting more used to salt all the time and it’s all we can do to keep her from adding more. I worry that it’s affecting her expectations of what food is supposed to taste like.

She’s Not a Toddler Anymore

We can’t use tricks or games, we can’t monitor everything she eats. She’s 13! We can talk to her about nutrition—which we do, and so does her doctor—and we can try our hardest to find new food for her, but it all has to be honest and above board.

And so we forge onwards. We keep trying, and we keep fretting, and I keep hoping that one day things will change and she’ll discover a whole new world of delicious food. In the meantime, we are open to suggestions that don’t involve bullying or bargaining. Got anything?

About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

View all posts by Laurie Ulster

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