Picky predicament

It's dinnertime, and waffles and cheez-Its aren't on the menu

JENNIFER GISH Staff writer
Section: Life - Health,  Page: D1

Date: Tuesday, November 14, 2006

About two dozen parents answered the Times Union's call for families dealing with picky eaters. We promised parents help from a psychologist and a registered dietitian and chose Amy and Steve Konisky of East Greenbush, who have been struggling with son Jacob's limited diet and mealtime tantrums. Here is their story:

``Why do I have to eat chicken every day?'' 5-year-old Jacob Konisky says. He sits at the breakfast bar, small bare feet resting on the top rung of the stool, and peels the banana he begged for after he got home from kindergarten.

Amy Konisky, whose two children match her looks with baby-blond hair and fair skin, doesn't stop to answer Jacob's questions about dinner. She tends to the chicken sizzling on the backyard grill. She lifts lids on the pots of boiling water that hiss and spit on the stove. As sunshine splashes the dining area in the East Greenbush home, Amy moves through the kitchen with a clenched jaw, eyes focused, like someone adding a list of numbers in her head. She wears stylish boot-cut jeans and a fitted top, like any health-conscious woman who works out religiously at the YMCA and serves salad once a day.

And she frowns when she sorts through the herb-marinaded chicken breasts. She needs a piece that's not too dark or too light, the piece that might at last please her son. If only she and her husband, Steve, could eat just one dinner without Jacob's tantrums, and in the end she wouldn't have to scrape all the food off his plate.

When Amy goes to her part-time job as a cook and server in an elementary school cafeteria, she's supposed to watch the kids move down the line and be sure their trays are filled with a balanced meal. It's the rule: a protein, a vegetable, a grain, a fruit, a dairy, like it or not. But when it comes to Jacob, the battle doesn't end when she dishes out broccoli.

So she sits on the sidelines of Jacob's tae kwon do classes and 8-year-old daughter Hailey's gymnastics practices, asking other moms if they have picky eaters, and hearing about how their children won't eat pizza unless the cheese is scraped off. They talk about their little one's eating habits -- too many carbs and too few vegetables -- applying adult-sized worries about cholesterol and fiber to a common childhood issue.

But like Amy, these parents live in a world that embraces whole grains and demonizes trans fats, and when they see the newspaper articles and television stories about childhood obesity and rising diabetes rates, every bite feels like an investment in their child's future.

University professors who study picky eaters say that pickiness is natural, found in every culture and in, according to pediatrician reports, at least 25 percent to 30 percent of families.

But what has changed, psychologists and dietitians say, is the way today's parents manage mealtime. They obsess over their child's diet but then, when there's resistance, turn to plentiful, kid-pleasing convenience foods. Power shifts to the young nugget-eater.

The family is gathered around their wide wooden table, Steve beside Hailey, and Jacob beside Amy, who's just laid a leaf of baby spinach on his plate.

Jacob looks at his mother, bright brown eyes growing stern, mouth drawing into a short straight line across his face.

"Take it back !"

"Spinach will give you big muscles," Amy says.

Since Jacob was a baby she's had to worry about his asthma and frequent ear infections. Maybe that's why she catered to him, making him turkey hot dogs when he picked over everything else at dinner. He's not overweight and is as active as most spunky little boys. But just about every day she thinks about his eating habits, fretting he'll grow into an adult who eats only waffles and hot dogs. The pediatrician said those ridges in his fingernails weren't a problem, even though Amy read it was a sign of nutritional deficiency.

"That's what dinosaurs eat," she says, her voice fading with each word.

Jacob's pulls his small ear of corn off his plate and onto his napkin, away from the grilled chicken Amy has carved into chunks and away from the offending spinach leaf.

Amy and Steve can rattle off the short list of foods Jacob will typically eat like it's their address and phone number: waffles, hot dogs, pizza, yogurt, some chicken, cheese (square only), occasional bites of corn on the cob, and most fruits.

They've tried cutting his sandwiches into the shape of a teddy bear, and hiding vegetables under the cheese of his pizza. Nothing works.

"Eat your chicken," Steve says in his booming father voice. He's a tall and trim manager at a power plant who wears his cellphone on his belt and is proud of Jacob, who has taken a liking to his Yankees. But he's also tired of this scene.

"You can eat it," Jacob says, matter-of-factly.

"Eat your chicken."

"You can eat it."

Steve, his fork hanging over his plate, stares down the boy, his chin pasted to his chest.

"Eat your chicken."

Amy sits, waiting for her husband to get really angry. Any moment now her hopes of a peaceful dinner will melt like the parmesan on her egg noodles.

Jacob examines the corn on his napkin, and turns to his mother.

"Mom, what's it made of?"

"Corn?" she says.

She pauses a moment. So many questions for a 5-year-old who still buys into the tooth fairy. When she brings him a glass of water he won't believe it's "fresh water" unless he sees it come out of the tap. Sometimes, when he trails after her, she just wants to lock her bedroom door and secure five minutes of peace.

"Corn is corn," she tells Jacob, and turns back to her plate.

Amy never thought dinner time would go this way. Before she was a parent, she imagined her family chowing down on stuffed shells and salad, talking about school and the news of the day.

When she was a kid, her dad, a manager at the Watervliet Arsenal, came home like clockwork, 4:30 p.m. on the dot, and her mother, who stayed at home with the four kids, had dinner on the table within five minutes. Amy frowned when it was beef stroganoff or goulash, but if she ever complained, the most response she'd get from her mother was, "Oh, well."

"Kids will eat. They come in to the world to live and to thrive," says Randy Cale, a psychologist and parenting coach in Clifton Park who has helped hundreds of picky eaters in his career. "Somewhere along the way - mid-'80s, early '90s - the notion that kids were fragile, that you had to coddle and manage them, developed. They're really managed so carefully there's more of a sense of investment in every bite, and making sure every meal goes perfectly instead of being an opportunity to learn."

Children don't naturally expand their food choices, Cale says. The parents' job is to offer healthy meals every day, and it's up to the child to learn to eat them.

The behavior usually develops during the preschool years and fades around age 7, which is why so many parents complain that their toddlers used to be good eaters and then all of a sudden started throwing dinner-time tantrums, says Marcia Levin Pelchat, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

A lot of kids' eating habits are instinctual. In the hunting-gathering days, those berries collected in the wild could be poisonous, so unfamiliar foods were suspect, Pelchat says. Vegetables also don't have a lot of calories, and the instincts of early man were to go for the high-calorie stuff, just in case the next meal wasn't grazing around the corner. So maybe kids are just built to reject carrots.

Studies show that most picky eaters are smaller than kids who eat a wide range of foods, Pelchat says, but they still often meet the growth markers pediatricians look for.

Yet in her practice, Niskayuna-based registered dietitian Dianne Fagan, who specializes in childhood nutrition, says many of the obese children she works with are picky eaters who have been catered to, permitted to fill up on all their favorite high-calorie foods.

"Jacob," Amy says sternly, and points to the cubes of chicken. He's only eaten a few of the pieces, stabbing them with a fork and then laying them delicately into his mouth where he seems to spend forever chewing.

She looks at her son. Jacob sits on his chair, playing with his feet. He likes dragons, dinosaurs and tae kwon do, and is excelling in kindergarten. He likes to give his mother kisses for no particular reason, and most times Amy finds herself thinking, "He really is a good kid."

Jacob examines the chicken. He grimaces.

"Ew. Ew. Ewwww!" he says, recoiling from the table. "See that green stuff?"

"That's just the marinade," Amy says.

"I don't like marinade."

"You've been eating it the whole time. It's on every piece."

Jacob looks at his mother with doe eyes.

"What's a marinade?"

He turns toward the back of the chair, gripping the wooden spindles in front of his face, like bars in this dining room prison.

"Come on, buddy. You don't have a lot to go," Amy says, softening her voice. He has to be hungry, she thinks.

Hailey's already skipped off with a Popsicle, her reward for finishing dinner. Steve uses his hand to sweep up some stray noodles left behind on Hailey's placemat.

Jacob's half-nibbled corn cob sits on his napkin. Amy took the spinach leaf off Jacob's plate, but most of the chicken remains.

"Now, listen to me, when you ask me for a snack before bed, that's what you're getting," Amy says, locking eyes with him. "That chicken."

Push him, she thinks. He'll see that he likes chicken.

Jacob says he wants to go outside and play. He wriggles down in his seat. She takes his plate away.

"OK, you can get up from the table, but when you ask me for a snack ..."

Jacob dashes through the sliding glass door and into the yard.

Amy sighs. She walks over to the trash can and tilts the plate, scraping it with Jacob's fork.

The chicken slides into the garbage.

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at jgish@timesunion.com.

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