House rules

The Koniskys get expert advice on how to end dinner table tussles

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

Date: Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It's the first day of big changes at the Konisky table.

Amy Konisky and her husband, Steve, decided they had enough of their 5-year-old Jacob's picky eating. No more making a turkey hot dog if he turns down dinner. No more chasing him back to the table. No more listening to his whining about the food. That's the goal. Amy has met with registered dietitian Dianne Fagan, and psychologist and parenting coach Randy Cale. Eating is Jacob's responsibility she's been told, and in order for his fussing and whining to stop, the parents' coaxing and cajoling must also end. Otherwise, it just becomes a battle of wills.

Amy hustles to make dinner: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, broccoli and bread, a menu packed with all the things Jacob doesn't like.

Jacob peers over the edge of the countertop, pointing to a bag of pretzel rods.

He looks at Amy, brown eyes pleading.

``Mom, why can't I have one more snack?''

``Because we're going to eat dinner soon, and we don't eat snacks right before dinner.''

``A little snack, a couple, Mom?''

He opens his Spider Man lunchbox, offering to eat whatever he left behind at kindergarten that day.


He closes the flap, then opens it again.


``Can I have more of these?'' he says, turning his attention back to the bag of pretzels on the counter.



Jacob had a pretzel rod and some chocolate milk when he got home, but the apple and cheese stick she packed in his lunch, half of the meal, came home with him on the bus. He must be hungry. He seems so small, tearing barefoot around the house with a pair of plastic Spy Vision glasses wrapped around his face. She's always thought of him as fragile with his asthma and ear infections. Maybe she's babied him too much.

Not today.

She leans on the breakfast bar, facing away from Jacob, and pretends not to hear his question.

He drops onto the floor.

Amy takes a few steps toward the sink, acting like she doesn't notice he's attached to her legs.

``Mom. Can you stop moving so you can answer me? Mom? Mom? Mom?''

He jumps up and runs screaming down the hallway to his bedroom. Slam.

``Mom, I need help! Hurry up! My finger!''

Tears waterfall down his cheeks. Amy rushes to him, and wraps a Band-Aid around the finger he slammed in his bedroom door. But she retreats to the kitchen, leaving him to sob in his bedroom.

``Mom, I was trying to tell you something and you'' -- he gulps air -- ``you'' -- he gulps more air -- ``You didn't answer me. Why don't you answer me! Why won't you answer me?! Mom, come on, answer me!''

The door slams. Amy leans on the breakfast bar again, waiting for Steve to get home. She knew a meltdown was coming, from the moment she heard Cale's plan. She half smiles at Jacob's tantrums, playing out down the hall.

``Answer me, and I'm asking nicelllllly!''

Slam. Ten seconds elapse. The door flies open.

``Answer me, Mom. Now you're doing this again. Why are you doing this to meeeeeee???''


Amy checks the pasta cooking on the stove. The plan should work if she can just survive the tantrums. Maybe someday she'll glance across the table and see him munching on broccoli. She's imagined tossing a floret in his mouth when he yawns. At least then, she'll know he's tasted it before saying it's gross.

Jacob calls for her, asking her for help. He's dragging his electric guitar, taller than he is, into the living room. His eyes are dry.

About one out of every eight patients come to Cale for help with their picky eaters, and orders come in every day for his ``Cure the Picky Eater'' program, which on his Web site promotes results in seven days or less.

Amy sits on the couch in his Clifton Park office, taking notes. Cale leans back in his chair.

The first step, he says, is to stop giving any attention to picky behavior. If Jacob starts complaining about the food on his plate, turn to Hailey and start asking her about school.

Cale talks about weeds and seeds. Unless there's blood or serious threat of injury, he says, don't pay attention to bad behavior, the weeds.

``You've got to be really simple about this, concrete. If you don't want it, you've got to ignore it.''

He gives her a vibrating beeper to wear on her waistband that will go off throughout the day. When it does, she should walk around the house, and if Jacob and Hailey are doing things that please her, she should just hug them or smile, gently showing them what kind of behavior she appreciates, feeding ``the seeds.''

She has to lay out dinner time rules for both kids, like letting them know she won't acknowledge complaints about the food. And she can't make Jacob anything special for dinner.

Eventually, Cale tells Amy, Jacob will eat because he's hungry.

``This is a relatively quick thing,'' he says. ``It's not like you're doing this for a year. It's not like you're doing this for a month. Most of the drama will go for a few days.''

She's just got to trust that Jacob will figure it out, and to abandon her fears that he'll starve himself first.

Amy stands at the end of the family's kitchen table, holding a one-page document she typed up on the computer titled, ``Dinnertime Rules.'' It's mounted neatly on green posterboard, and she's punctuated rule No. 3, ``Everyone has the choice to eat all of what is on their plate and feel GOOD or not to eat what's on their plate and feel HUNGRY,'' with smiling and frowning faces.

Jacob and his 8-year-old sister, Hailey, sit on one side of the table. Their father sits on the other. They all wait quietly for Amy, who wears her best stone face.

``There's six of them, and if you have any questions, you're going to ask me, all right?''

They nod.

``Rule 1: Everyone will eat the same food that is placed on the table. A different meal will not be fixed for anyone.''

``Or you can still not eat it right?'' Jacob says.

``Yes. But do you understand I'm not going to cook you a hot dog? OK?''

Jacob looks at his mother.

``Can I have a separate plate?''

``Yeah, that's a good question,'' Steve says, leaning back in his chair. ``Can he have separate plates?''

Amy shoots her husband a look. She's not sure about the separate plate thing. She'll have to ask Cale the next time they meet. For the time being, no.

``Everyone who chooses to eat everything on their plate will be able to have dessert and a snack before bed. Do you understand that, Jake? So if you don't eat what's on your plate, you won't get dessert. You won't get a snack before bed.''

``But I'll be hungry?''

``That will be a choice that you make,'' Amy says, and moves onto Rules 5 and 6.

There will be peace at the table, and there are no exceptions to the rules.

Amy and Steve visit Fagan's Niskayuna office, which is wrapped in Easter-egg green walls. They sit on SpongeBob chairs.

Fagan takes down a health history, asks for a copy of Jacob's growth chart, and writes down a list of the foods his parents know he'll eat to get a sense of his favorite food groups.

She arms the parents with information on recommended serving sizes for kids, so Amy doesn't worry when Jacob eats only half a bagel. And she suggests that Amy keep a food log so she can get a realistic picture of Jacob's diet.

There are worries: Amy talks about all the simple carbohydrates Jacob eats, and about how he'll make excuses by pointing out ``problems'' with the food.

And guilt: ``We probably started off the process when we had our meal and Jake had chicken tenders afterward or Jake had a hot dog afterward,'' Steve says.

Fagan reassures them, sharing stories of picky-eating battles with her own children.

``These are absolutely common things. You are not the only parents that do these types of things,'' she says. ``We live in a world where kids are constantly exposed to these things on television. There's constant, constant, constant food messages.''

Jacob puts down his slice of buttered bread and looks at his plate. His face crumples.

He picks up his cup of apple cider, which as he told his parents earlier, is healthy because it's from squeezed apples.

``Mom, when are you going to change your rules?'' he asks, looking up from his cup. ``Mom, when are you going to change your rules?''

Amy keeps eating.

``Hey, mom. Every day are you going to change what you're having? Are you going to put grapes and apples and different stuff? Mom, aren't grapes and apples healthy, so can't I have some for a snack even if I don't eat all of it? Mom?''

Jacob's plate looks exactly the way it did when Amy dished it up 10 minutes ago. A meatball rests on top on just enough spaghetti to be swirled around a fork. A floret of broccoli sits beside it, along with a couple lettuce leaves. The bread, nibbled along the edge, rests on his napkin.

``Excuse me, daddy?''

Steve turns to Jacob.

``If I win that big pumpkin can we make a big zombie face?''

Amy talks about how she outdid herself with dinner that day, laughing a little at her attempt to make conversation that no longer focuses on what her son is eating. At least, she thinks, he's sitting at the table with broccoli on his plate. He used to refuse to come to the table if broccoli was on it.

Jacob looks at everyone else's plates, which are quickly emptying.

``You guys are getting snacks, and I'm not,'' Jacob says, and goes back to his bread.

Amy touches the bottle of ranch dressing, the thing Jacob will sometimes dip chicken in.

``Do you want any dressing, Jake, for your salad?''

``I don't eat salad. I only eat chicken.''

She turns away from him.

``So Hailey, for the apple race. ...''

Jake scootches down in his chair.

Two silent tears roll down his cheeks. For him, dinner has ended.

Tonight, he carries his own plate to the garbage can.

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at

Picky factoids

Babies who are breast-fed typically aren't as picky as they get older, because flavors from the mother's diet are transferred into the milk.

Bananas, dairy products, grains and chicken were more popular among picky eaters than other foods, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Mixed dishes, such as spaghetti, ravioli and lasagna are less popular with that group.

``Parents frequently overestimate the amount of food that their young children need to eat. If children are allowed to listen to their internal hunger and satiety cues, they can and do regulate their energy intake,'' says Marcia Levin Pelchat, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, part of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Meal on a Stick

From the American Heart Association's ``Healthy Recipes Kids Love''

Serves 4 (one kebab and 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of dipping sauce per serving)

Vegetable oil spray


1/2 cup orange-pineapple juice

1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon low-sodium Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons firmly packed light brown sugar

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the skewers:

12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts, all visible fat discarded, cut into 16 cubes

1 small zucchini, cut crosswise into eight pieces

8 pineapple chunks, fresh or canned in their own juice, drained

1 medium red, orange or yellow bell pepper, cut into 16 squares

8 grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes

Orange Dipping Sauce:

3 tablespoons fat-free or low-fat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons all-fruit orange marmalade

1 tablespoon orange-pineapple juice

If using metal skewers, lightly spray four 12-inch skewers with vegetable oil spray. If using bamboo skewers, soak them for at least 10 minutes in cold water to keep them from charring. (No need to spray.)

In a large airtight plastic bag or glass bowl, combine the marinade ingredients. Add the chicken, zucchini, and pineapple and turn to coat. Seal the bag or cover the dish and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour, turning at least once. Set aside the bell pepper and tomatoes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the sauce ingredients. Set aside.

Preheat the broiler. Lightly spray a broiler pan and rack with vegetable oil spray.

Remove the chicken, zucchini, and pineapple from the marinade, discarding the marinade. Thread the ingredients on each skewer in the following order: chicken, bell pepper, zucchini, pineapple, bell pepper, chicken and tomato. Repeat.

Broil the kebabs 4 to 6 inches from the heat for five minutes. Turn the kebabs. Broil for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink in the center.

Serve the kebabs with the dipping sauce on the side.

Mice in Jackets

From Annabel Karmel's ``Mom and Me Cookbook''

Serves four

4 small baking potatoes

olive oil for brushing

2 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup milk

2/3 cup grated cheese

salt and pepper

4 small cherry tomatoes


2 radishes


2 green onions


Wash the potatoes, pat dry and prick the skins in several places. Place on a baking tray and brush all over with the oil. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees for about one hour or until they feel soft when pressed.

When cool enough to handle, cut the tops off the potatoes, carefully scoop out the flesh, and mash together with the butter, milk and two-thirds of the cheese. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and cook under the broiler for a few minutes until golden.

For the noses, use toothpicks to fix a small cherry tomato onto each of the potatoes. Add some short lengths of chives for the whiskers -- you can tuck these behind the tomato. Decorate with halved radishes for the ears, raisins for the eyes and spring onion for the tails.

Oven-fried Veggies with Creamy Dipping Sauce

From the American Heart Association's ``Healthy Recipes Kids Love''

Serves four (1/2 cup of vegetables and 2 tablespoons dipping sauce per serving)

2 teaspoons canola or corn oil

6 ounces zucchini, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

6 ounces yellow summer squash, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons fat-free or light Italian salad dressing

2 teaspoons Greek seasoning blend

8 fat-free, low-sodium saltine crackers, crushed

1 tablespoon shredded or grated Parmesan cheese

1/8 teaspoon paprika

1/4 cup fat-free ranch salad dressing

1/4 cup fat-free or light sour cream or fat-free or low-fat plain yogurt

1 medium lemon, quartered (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Using a paper towel, spread the oil over a nonstick baking sheet. Set aside. In a medium bowl, gently stir together the zucchini, summer squash, Italian dressing, and seasoning blend to coat completely.

In a shallow pan or on a dinner plate, stir together the cracker crumbs, Parmesan and paprika.

Working with one piece at a time, turn the zucchini and summer squash in the cracker crumb mixture to coat evenly, shaking off the excess. Place on the baking sheet.

Bake for 10 minutes. Turn and bake for 5 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the dressing and sour cream.

Serve the vegetables warm or at room temperature with the dressing mixture on the side for dipping. Squeeze the lemon wedges over the vegetables before dipping.

Fueling up a 5-year-old

1,400 calories are recommended for moderately-active 5-year-olds. The government recommends they get those daily calories this way:

Serving sizes

Are your kids getting their cup and a half of fruits and vegetables? Here's a guide:

On pickiness

Read and react:

What behavior won't you tolerate when it comes to your picky eater?