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Michael Pollan on feeding children

I've long subscribed to a variant of the theories out of Take the Fight Out of Food, an excellent book I recommend to those who are suffering from food issues. While I don't always execute my theories quite as they're devised in the ideal parenting lab that is my brain (ahh, if only I could be the perfect mama I have designed there!), they've been working pretty well for me. Essentially, the concept is to present a variety of healthful food options, and occasional treats, constantly expose your children to new foods, but never make a big deal out of what they actually eat. Don't set up "good" and "bad" foods; use words more along the lines of "foods that make your taste buds happy" and describe the physical benefits of other foods; protein gives you strength and makes your brain work better, etc. (And along the lines of our sweets conversation, Donna Fish, the author, has a great post on how to handle dessert battles here.)

So I was thrilled to read this interview with Michael Pollan, one of my writerly food heroes, about his now-16-year-old son and his past food issues. He was a "white food eater" when he was young; he'd eat chicken, potatoes, bread, rice, and nothing else. Upon reflection, Pollan believed this was due to his need to reduce sensory input (he doesn't say it, but I wonder if the boy was diagnosed with a sensory integration disorder). In fact, it was his son's "tortured" relationship with food that got him interested in writing about it.

About two years ago, Pollan's son began to suddenly expand his food repertoire, and after working in a kitchen for a summer began cooking seriously, and is now a "food snob" who makes a port wine reduction to go with the grass-fed steak his dad cooks for dinner. (I can only dream.)

It's a relief to a mama like me.

My two older boys couldn't be more different in their food habits. Everett, who's about to turn 7, was a white foodie (and still, to some extent, is now); chicken nuggets and white bread and tortillas and ice cream and only a few varieties of potatoes were his main calories for many years. He now eats all kinds of berries, many kinds of other fresh and canned fruit, whole grain breads (though he prefers lily white flour and will choose white bread over whole grain whenever it's available), some non-white, non-fried meats (especially sausage and pepperoni), and the occasional bean burrito, but many foods are a struggle. I was thrilled this winter when we discovered he loved broccoli raab, and I now make any green vegetable sauteed with garlic and lots of butter and he will often eat it. He amazed me by asking for salad a few months ago. Maybe kids can change!

Truman, on the other hand, is a four-year-old who will only eat strong-flavored foods, and refuses to eat fresh fruit (he'll happily eat dried fruits of all kinds, though). Sample meals: a can of sardines and six whole-wheat crackers. A rice tortilla with honey. Feta cheese cut up into TINY little pieces! Lamb shoulder roast with ketchup. A half-cup of hazelnut butter. Two bowls of chocolate ice cream.

I try, constantly urging them to take just one little bite of whatever it is they won't eat -- a raspberry, an exceptional piece of cheese, a spoonful of potato-leek soup -- and typically I'm left frustrated. They'll always pick candy over any other option, it seems (and I keep candy in short supply as a result; also, I no longer eat sugar and it starts driving me crazy after a while). I do what Pollan suggested; grow a ton of our own food so that I can inspire them, connecting them to the fresh real delicious stuff that food can be.

Still. It's a slow process and Pollan is a perfect example of that (I know he's been gardening for decades). Yesterday, I was thrilled by this: Truman discovered he liked fresh shelling peas. The LITTLE TINY peas! he said, scrunching up his shoulders the way he does when he asks me to cut up his feta cheese. And he did it without any urging from me (though I've begged and pleaded with him to try one, just one! as his little brother and I shovel them in our mouths these past several weeks).

Victory in peas. Hurray!


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Thanks for posting this heartening article! It's encouraging for this mama of a verrry picky 4 year old.

I decided to finally stop worrying about variety in my daughter's diet after my pediatrician made a very good point: in most parts of the world, the diet consists of one or two staples plus a small sampling of seasonal produce. Most people don't have the vast variety available to them that we do. As long as her diet is balanced, it doesn't matter if she eats the same 4 or 5 things every day.

That, and the determination that I was not going to make mealtimes a battle led to my acceptance of her beige-food preferences.

Now, lo and behold, she is slowly branching out, trying (and requesting!) new things. Growing our own veggies had a lot to do with that, and who knows, maybe taking a zen approach to her eating has helped, too.

If Michael Pollan can live with a picky eater, so can I.

My 5 year old eats yogurt for breakfast and PB&Honey on whole wheat for lunch. Everyday. No matter what. Occasionally he'll add a little cereal, no milk. Fruit is good; a handful of veggies, uncooked, rounds out his eating. Dinner's pretty much a bust, no matter what so I've stopped cooking with him in mind. The rest of use eat happily. I always make sure there's some fruit and/or raw veggies on the table, but typically he'll eat only that. I do my best to keep it a non-battle, and very slowly we may be coming around. He has recently been willing to taste something here and there, and often times he ends up liking it, much to his disbelief! Today at the farmer's market he did the choosing and we've come home with a couple yellow zucchini which I'm wondering if he'll eat once I cook it. If only it were as simple as "grow it in the backyard and he's sure to eat it." He loves to plant, loves to harvest, loves to fondle. Eating, not so much! Maybe, just maybe, if I hang in there long enough he'll get through?

My 4 year old eats white, white, white stuff! It's so frustrating. He's a carb addict! Won't eat veggies, but loves berries and apples. No milk but will eat yogurt (although the horrible kids kind) and cheese. Loves peanut butter. But that's it. I struggle constantly with the conflict between feeding him healthy foods knowing he won't eat them and giving in and giving him the other stuff. As a parent who eats very consciously, it is killing me to watch him prefer chips to peaches! I am hopeful that he'll be one of those that comes around. Any tips on getting him to eat more veggies? Or healthy proteins?

I think I have a pretty normal almost two year old. He actually hates meat so far. Loves most veggies and fruits as well as the usual carbs. Maybe it is a texture thing. I am just fitting in protein in other ways. Guess I could have it way worse!! I just make sure that we offer the same meals for the whole family and if he doesn't eat . . .at least he normally has a great breakfast and lunch. I think the family dinner table is still the most important aspect and allows him to try new things.

Wow, didn't know all these young children cook for themselves, they sound like adults with their independent lives and desicions! Common people!! YOU made, and BOught this food!!! 5 year olds don't go grosery shopping with their cars and credit cards! They eat that "white food" cause uvgave it to them. Common wake up, take charge of your household. Who is the parent here, the child??? Don't buy the white stuff and ifbthey don't want to eat real Nutrient dense foods then, don't give them food, until they are so hungry they will Have to eat what you give them. Also if you buy organic produce, it will taste soo much better! You moms are the ones that tought them how to eat like this. It's time to re-teach them. Sorry, that's the truth.

Yikes. Sounds like Silvie had too much glucose this morning. Cup of tea, dear?

I've finally decided to stop fretting so obsessively over the limited repertoire of foods that my daughter is currently accepting. I think a lot of it is simply normal, evolutionary behavior. I make healthy choices available, she can eat them or not. The more I fret over it and try to push things on her, the more it becomes a battle. I'm sure you've all heard that standard pediatrician advice: you can control what's available to eat, and when it's offered. They control what they eat from those offerings, and how much.

Actually, Silvie, us moms are not necessarily the ones who taught them to eat like this. Exposure to "white food" happens in their little worlds at birthday parties, friends' homes, etc. While certainly not perfectly, I do feel that the parents in our household are in charge. However, my hope is to TEACH my child to make good food choices. My concern is that by forbidding these not so healthy foods, I am setting my children up to develop some kind of eating disorder. I've seen some children hoarding m&ms at parties because they've never been allowed to have them. While I can appreciate your take on the comments posted, I was really looking for ideas/empathy/understanding more than the scolding. If I've misperceived your tone, I apologize.

Silvie, I'm not sure whether you have kids or not - I had a very similar attitude to yours before I became a mom.

We've all experienced that our parenting ideals slam up pretty hard against parenting reality once there are actual children in the picture.

The truth is that white/beige food is not necessarily unhealthy or non-organic. For example my kid eats a lot of pasta. It happens to be organic, whole wheat pasta.

The truth is that kids will still refuse to eat things they don't want to eat, regardless of what you put in front of them. It doesn't mean that the kids are calling all the shots.

You seem to see things in very black and white terms, and we all know that raising children is one big grey area.

Do you think that Michael Pollan didn't do everything you're espousing, and yet his son still chose to eat only the bland parts of what was offered to him?

If you actually read the interview, you'll see that he makes very good points about issues of sensory integration and bodily autonomy.

Careful Silvie, you don't want to fall off your high horse now.

As a mom of a two-year-old I've spent a lot of time worrying about food intake and pickiness. Unfortunately, I'm kind of a picky eater myself and so can relate! Our son is also not a huge meat eater, doesn't really love chicken and his meals are pretty simple, tortillas with cheese, a bowl of black beans with cheese, etc. I agree with the idea of not making food a battle in your house and working with what you've got. If all your kid wants is PB&J, then whole wheat bread, non-sugary peanut butter and jam works great. Eventually they will grow up, they will try new foods. The only thing I"m really militant about is limiting sugar. We just don't have a lot of it around. We use dried fruit as dessert and I certainly don't restrict him at parties, but we don't eat a lot of it as a family and I've never offered juice. One of the things that has really stuck out to me after a conversation with our pediatrician was that no child has ever starved himself/herself to death. They will eat, it might be limited, but they will eat.

Silvie, I totally understand your perspective, but the way to reach parents is not to browbeat them. As one of the other mamas mentioned, what we're all looking for here are ideas, community and collaboration. Oftentimes by just hearing what other parents are doing in their households, we're able to shine a light into our own and see corrections we could make or ways that we could make things better in our own households, i.e. the idea of growing your own food in order to teach kids to like fresh veggies. Love that!

From someone who had NO white sugar/bread/etc growing up (in the early 70s), then went through sugar/fast food craze after leaving home...and now coming back to more "whole foods" on my own...I have to give a vote to moderation...in all things...which is what we're doing with our 3.5 and 7 year old daughters...seems to be working well...from our perspectives, and our pediatricians...

The forbidden becomes enticing...if not in your own house, then later on...

Love your comments, fembot...

I must chime into this conversation, as after having moved to Europe, I see a BIG difference in the food culture here. I think the problem in America is the food industry catering to children....here in Sweden, they simply don't have all that stuff in the grocery stores that they have everywhere in the US...I mean food shops, Target, etc. No kiddie cereals, no canned pastas, very few potato chips, and very little "white bread". Now they do have their own version of kid like foods here: meatballs and pancakes! They also like candy and chocolate here (which in the grocery stores is much WORSE than in the US). The trend is to allow that stuff on the weekend "Saturday candy bag" it is actually translated. I actually think this is fine, as the rest of the week my children are eating what the adults eat, as that is literally all there is....

I have been working with children with and without special needs for a long time now and I am a mom myself, and I can tell you that parents don't create their children's food issues. Unless of course the only thing their children eat is McD's. Just kidding even then I don't judge some kid's have extremely limited food preferences due to sensory issues and extremely limited preferences. When you become a parent you realize that after your children stop eating puree it is their choice to eat or not and although we choose what to offer sometimes they go on strike and we as parents begin to go into panic mode. Now imagine that your child hasn't eaten anything you have offered in days and isn't sick and you don't have health insurance...you either feed them their preference or you take them to the hospital and you can't get the follow up help with a feeding specialist which is what you need. Hang in there mamas their is hope! It takes the average person 20 times of seeing something new before they taste it, it takes the average picky eater twice that before they might smell it. I worked with one family that had her child take no thank you bites, one bite and your done. I worked with another dad that had his son kiss the food goodbye so at least he was bringing the food to his lips, and you know what over time he did try new foods. These are extreme cases of food avoiders but good strategies for any parent to try.

As they get older they do branch out but I agree with one of the previous posts about making sure they get at least a little of everything is better than nothing. It doesn't make you a bad mom or dad to feed your children the foods you know they will eat. Remember that we all have food issues certain textures and tastes we don't like sometimes and our kid's have them too only worse than ours. We all deal with food issues in our house I have to feed my toddler veggies with breakfast in order for him to eat them, it's when he is the hungriest.

My pediatrician said something to me that I really cling to, now that my once "Oh, yes, he eats everything and anything!" 3 year old is a "Omigod, he won't eat any vegetable! He's down to 2 kinds of fruit! And only white stuff and pizza!" 6 year old. Our doc looked me in the eye and said, "Don't worry. HE WILL GROW."

It has been wonderful looking at this discussion! I have a 2 yr old who won't eat meat except for beef jerky and I had been so worried. Looking at this makes me realize that there is a lot of support out there and that in the long run our son is NOT a picky eater. Thank you all for the calm and helpful topic.

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