one bite at a time

Koniskys get a taste of peace at the table. Next course: broccoli

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

Date: Thursday, November 16, 2006

Day 18: Five-year-old Jacob Konisky stands at his mother, Amy's, side, helping her make pizza for the family. He asks her what a mushroom tastes like, but declines to try one.

Amy Konisky counts this as progress, even nearly three weeks into her efforts to reform her son, one of the toughest picky eaters to ever stare down a salad. They survived tantrums, tears and heartsickness, which set in when Amy put Jacob to bed hungry for the third or fourth time.

``I thought it was good that he clearly understood the rules, and I thought, `OK, he knows what we're all talking about,' but when he didn't try anything, I kind of got discouraged. I felt discouraged almost like I don't know if this is going to work because he's very stubborn,'' she says. ``There have been moments where I've felt like, `Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?,' and I feel like giving up. I don't know why he's not breaking.''

Two experts, a psychologist and registered dietitian, set the East Greenbush family on a course. The psychologist talked to her about ignoring mealtime fits and withholding dessert and after-dinner snacks if Jacob refused to eat dinner. The dietitican guided them through the food pyramid. Both told the Koniskys that eating was ultimately up to Jacob, and the badgering and bribing needed to stop.

Now, behavior is more in hand, and after an analysis by the dietitian, they know exactly where Jacob's nutritional needs lie. But in addition to behavior management and serving sizes, the Koniskys have learned something important: Some mealtime changes come slow.

Jacob sits at the table beside Hailey, his 8-year-old sister, and in front of the pizza he helped make. The cheese glimmers under the kitchen table lights, still gooey from the oven and the room warms with the smell of tomato sauce. They served the pizza up on a platter, the slices he made for himself (just cheese) sitting beside the others, which he carefully layered with broccoli and mushrooms (vegetables he once found too yucky to touch).

``Mom, can I have that new strawberry drink?'' he says.

Amy pulls the strawberry-banana drink out of the refrigerator with a smile. It's one of her small victories. The juice is made without added sugars but is packed with fruit and some vegetable juices, enough to count for a full serving of each. She pours it into his small glass, and then looks over the table.

``Jake, do you want an olive?''

``No, thank you.''

``Jake, do you want some carrots?''

``No, thank you.''

She doesn't fight with him or ask again. From the beginning, the experts' plans for her were based on a singular point: Don't make what Jacob eats or doesn't eat the focus of every meal. Pressure only creates resistance.

Bad behavior

So ``No, thank you'' is fine. It's actually a huge improvement from Amy's perspective. Her favorite new dinnertime rule -- The family will ONLY eat in PEACE! -- has, to her surprise, been observed by her son, who used to put the whole table in chaos by freaking out over the grill marks on his chicken.

But Clifton Park psychologist and parenting coach Randy Cale told her that when Jacob learned she wasn't going to pay attention to bad behavior, he'd stop, and that included bringing an end to picky mealtime complaints. In time, it did.

What hasn't come as fast is Jacob's willingness to try new foods.

For weeks, Amy's been sneaking glances at Jacob, waiting for the moment he'll take an unsolicited bite of broccoli, maybe venture into a forkful of salad.

As she served eggplant Parmesan and pork with broccoli and pasta, she talked to Cale on the phone about how Jacob, even 10 days in, was often leaving the dinnertable without having eaten a thing. Her husband, Steve, thought the boy was looking ``scrawny.'' Cale reassured her that as long as Jacob's energy was up, a small weight loss wasn't cause for alarm. But shortly after, when Jacob went to the pediatrician for a checkup and was down a pound from four months before, the pediatrician suggested Amy make changes.

Control over choices

So that night, Jacob had an apple after he passed up dinner, and Amy started thinking about how she'd modify the dinnertime rules she typed up on the computer several weeks ago:

Rule 2 -- Everyone will have a spoonful of each prepared dish served on their plate -- will disappear in favor of letting Jacob dish out his own meal. Dianne Fagan, the registered dietitian from Niskayuna who worked with the family, suggested they give Jacob a little more control over his choices.

Rule 4 -- Everyone who decides to eat everything on their plate will be allowed to have dessert and a snack before bed -- will change to allowing a snack at night as long as he can select something healthy. It just didn't make sense to the couple to deny Jacob's request for an apple after dinner. They'd just taken him to the orchard, where they picked them as a family, and talked about how healthy they were.

``Jake, did you make this pizza?'' Steve says, looking over his plate.

``Yeah, is it delicious?''

The family giggles.

Jacob details how he made it with help from Amy, while Hailey crunches on baby carrots, grabbing them from the bowl Amy has placed between the two kids.

After asking his mother for permission, Jacob grabs another slice of cheese pizza, brown eyes widening each time he takes a bite. He stares at the bowl of carrots and dip for a moment but returns to chomping on his pizza.

Just like with the slice before, Jacob leaves the crust, and a two-inch margin of sauce and cheese with it. He points to Amy, who's finishing off the last bites of her pizza.

``Why do you like the crust?''

At least he seems interested. He couldn't wait to tell her the day he tried apple pie at school. He didn't like it very much, but he seemed proud of himself for trying.

Amy holds the narrow strip of pizza crust in her hand.

``Because it's nice and crunchy,'' she says. ``It's the best part.''

New frontiers

For the Koniskys, the future holds whole-grain crackers, make-your-own taco nights, and vegetable platters and dip set out on the breakfast bar for an afternoon snack, all the things that Fagan recommended when she looked at Jacob's nutritional intake.

The food log that Amy kept on Jacob showed Fagan that the boy's diet was low on overall calories, iron, zinc and dietary fiber. Fagan suggests they talk to their pediatrician about using a children's multivitamin with added iron, and that his fiber and overall vitamin intake could improve if they just keep exposing him to all kinds of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

She suggests acting excited, like talking about a big sale at the grocery store, when they bring home a fruit they don't eat very often. Fagan remembers her own daughters gathering around her once as she sliced a pomegranate, asking questions about the seeds and what it tastes like. The Koniskys' job is to keep preparing a variety of nutritious foods, she says. Eventually, Jacob's curiosity may take over.

Jacob announces he's finished with dinner. He carries his plate, including the two pizza crusts, toward the trash.

The salad and the baby carrots Amy set on the table that night never ended up on Jacob's dinner plate. She's certainly not going to give up trying, but she is going to learn to relax. Coaching him through every bite wasn't good for either of them. At least now, mealtime is peaceful.

Jacob totters toward the kitchen with the heavy stoneware plate. The juice made of fruits and vegetables, his second cup, sits half-full at his placemat. He stops and calls back to his parents.

``I'm not finished with my drink,'' he says.

And that is progress.

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

On the Web by Connie Evers, a registered dietitian and author who creates kid- and parent-friendly nutritional information. Details the number of servings your kids need based on their age and for serving size guides, a partnership led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's guide to eating. A doctor-approved Web site that provides health information tailored to all ages. Includes recipes, including some for kids with special health needs. A nutrition Web site for middle schoolers by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization that advocates for nutrition and food safety. A health and fitness site for kids that includes recipes and games. It's a partnership of the nutrition, fitness and medical communities. RESOURCES ON PICKY EATING ``Cure the Picky Eater,'' an audio program by Randy Cale, Clifton Park-based psychologist and parenting coach. For sale at ``How to Get York Kid to Eat ... But Not Too Much,'' by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian. ``Coping with the Picky Eater,'' by William G. Wilkoff, a pediatrician.

About this series Two dozen parents answered the Times Union's call for families dealing with picky eaters. We promised to guide the parents toward more peaceful meals with help from Randy Cale, a Clifton Park-based psychologist who has developed a program for dealing with picky eaters, and Dianne Fagan, a registered dietitian from Niskayuna who specializes in childhood nutrition. We chose Amy and Steve Konisky of East Greenbush, a health-conscious couple who have been struggling with 5-year-old son Jacob's limited diet and mealtime tantrums.