My embarrassing admission as a doctor: my son doesn’t have a healthy diet

As a pediatrician I am embarrassed to admit this, but my 6-year-old son has a terrible diet.

Well, not terribly terrible. He doesn’t live on chips and soda. But it’s remarkably lacking in the things I always tell my patients to eat, like fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

It’s not for lack of trying on my part. I serve these foods to him regularly, including in the snack I pack him for school. As I encourage parents in my practice to do, I pack things like grapes and string cheese—which often come back uneaten. I think it was out of sheer exasperation that he wrote the note to us (in his best kindergarten spelling) that I found in his backpack.

Cheese isn’t the only food that gives Liam a “hedache”. So do apples, carrots, mandarin oranges and any green grapes that have even a little bit of brown on them. Yogurt is a problem too, as is salad, spinach, tomatoes, brown rice and finishing his milk. The genius of his approach cracks me up. He’s not saying he doesn’t like the foods or understand that they are healthy. He’d be happy to eat them if they didn’t give him a headache.

Crackers, pretzels, mashed potatoes, popcorn, pasta, Oreos, Cheezits, French fries, white rice, candy and bagels do not give him a headache. Basically, the diet that suits him best is the White and Sugar diet. Which, interestingly, is the exact same diet that suited his older brother Zack best. (Since my daughters eat pretty well, I can’t help wondering if my husband gets the genetic blame.)

I see this all the time in my practice. Well, not the headache part. But when I ask parents if their children are eating fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods, it’s really common for me to hear, “He won’t eat them.” It’s really true that once kids are no longer babies, once you are no longer literally spooning the stuff into their mouths, it’s hard to get them to eat things they don’t want to eat.

I’ve tried everything I tell parents to do. I started early with healthy foods and have offered them consistently. Our house is stocked with healthy snacks (just ask the older kids, who are always complaining, “there’s no sugar in this house!”). We set an example by eating well ourselves—Liam is surrounded by good examples, including his 11-year-old sister who happily eats the fruit and cheese I pack for her every day. But nothing has worked. As was the case with Zack, he just doesn’t like them and will not eat them.

Like I said: embarrassing.

So, having left ideal in the dust, meals are about compromise. Since peas, corn and the very top of broccoli crowns do not give him headaches, we try to serve them often. We buy fresh grapes every week so as to increase the chances of finding ones that have no brown spots. We have a Three Bite Rule when it comes to foods he doesn’t want to eat (mostly this works out okay, although there have been some OK Corral moments over eating three bites of certain vegetables or casseroles that have made me wonder if it’s always a good idea). We negotiate over how much milk he needs to drink (we use numbers of gulps or how low he needs to get on the cup). And we give him a multivitamin every day.

Over time, Zack’s diet did improve (a lot, actually). He didn’t listen to us, but he did listen to coaches and others who told him that a healthy diet would make him a faster swimmer—and give him a leaner, meaner physique. He discovered that he liked chicken Caesar salads and that carrots weren’t evil. It took until late in high school, but that’s okay—I’m all about better late than never when it comes to healthy habits.

So I’m holding out hope that one day cheese won’t give Liam a headache. Until then, I’ll keep trying and compromising. Which, sometimes, is the best we can do as parents—or doctors.


8 thoughts on “My embarrassing admission as a doctor: my son doesn’t have a healthy diet

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this!  As a mom to 6 children, including 3 picky eaters, it is reassuring to know that I am not alone in my never-ending quest to improve my children’s’ eating habits.  I was extremely picky growing up. Compared to most adults, I am probably still considered somewhat picky but I eat far more foods as an adult than I did as a child and think my diet is fairly healthy:)

  2. My son is  a veggie/fruit hater.  he has a great gag reflex, but we have learned to compromise.  He has to have 5 peas or what ever veggie we are having. (goes by age and we use small bites).  I don’t push the issue, he eats a good breakfast and a good supper so if lunch is crackers and dry cereal. At least I know he is eating, I also let him eat the school lunches he likes.  It just isn’t worth fighting about and causing stress.  Most kides grow out of it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I have a picky eater who, now that he is in college and has a girlfriend who eats healthy has expanded his diet to include more fruits and vegetables. My sister thought I was negligent “allowing” him to limit his diet to the things he would readily eat. It is not easy to explain which battles you choose to engage in with your children. It is certainly a balancing act with their physical and emotional well being on the line. When my son wouldn’t give up his pacifier his pediatrician said not to traumatize him since nobody goes down the aisle with a pacifier in their mouths and orthodontics were cheaper than psychiatrists. It is important to help mothers do the best they can and not feel guilty about their child not being perfect.

  4. Fantastic!  I have four children and they are all different.  What I learned with one was of no use in teaching, feeding or manipulating another.  My most effective eating tips are;
    1) apple slices/grapes/carrots/ blueberries ‘live forever food’ are allowed in front of the TV while I am making dinner.  I demand the sweets/fats/white be eaten in the kitchen.
    2) I put glasses of water on the table before I call everyone to the meal
    3) sugar on the strawberries (they eat more of them)
    4) whipped cream and sprinkles on full fat yogurt (my husband is in marketing)
    5) butter and salt on the veggies (see 3 & 4)
    6) fruit pops for dessert/anytime treat
    Finally, I focus more on getting what I want IN them in and then they can have what they want.  So more than banning sugars, white foods or fats, I make sure they get their protein and fruit/veg.  They have all learned how to trade ‘real food’ for sugar/nutritionally empty foods. 

  5. We joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture farm) when my son was born. Kids will eat what they pick.

  6. Listen to your son and work with him. He is telling you something about his body and its reactions to foods. 

    My daughter is allergic or is hypersensitive to all milk products (cheese, milk, cream), all citrus (oranges, lemons, grapefruit) and all nightshades (tomatoes,chilies, eggplant, potatoes).   All of these foods cause reactions from digestion problems and irritability to skin rashes and eczema.  Derivatives from these foods appears in many products in the form of whey and sodium casienate (milk products), “natural flavorings” (citrus) and “spices” (paprika chili).

    It took us a long time to sort it all out but my daughter now eats a very healthy diet of whole foods, whole grains, meats, nuts, beans and mostly unprocessed food. She is healthy and happy.  As soon as she has one of her allergy foods (even without her knowing) we can tell almost immediately. For example, there were some natural fruit/nut bars she had eaten for over a year with no problems. Suddenly in the course of 3 days she had skin rashes and was very irritable. We poured throughout the cupboards reviewing what she had been eating and found that the recipe for the fruit bars had changed and the newest box we had included lemon flavoring.

    With the strange combination of allergies my daughter has, it would have been very easy to conclude that she hated “natural” foods and liked the “White and Sugar” diet as you refer to it, as she has no problem with wheat or sugar products.  It took careful work to sort out which fruits and vegetables she can eat and which she must avoid. 

  7. Dr. McCarthy:

    Thanks for your admission. Our son is a very picky eater. He has a nut allergy. His allergy doctor says kids with allergies are super picky for good reason. We have tried everything an run into the same issues as you have.

    We now try to maximize the good and minimize the bad. He will eat broccoli tops, salmon and he loves nori. In fact nori has become his most nutritious vegetable.

    You might want to try feeding your son nori, its crunchy, a bit salty and it can slide under the vegetable radar.

  8. I have a similar problem with my 11-year old daughter.

    One thing that helps is involving her more in food selections. I take her shopping and ask her to make the healthy choices. She knows what is healthy and if it becomes more of her own choice,

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