What To Do When a Good Eater Becomes a Refuser

By Danielle Viola, RD, CSP

Danielle Viola Pic Blog-1

We’ve all been there. Just when we think we have our children figured out or on a good schedule, they change it up on us! This applies to so many things in our kiddos lives, from sleep to behavior and beyond, but a big area this can impact is eating. Even the best eaters can go astray at times.

As a mom and dietitian, I’ve been fortunate that my first son has been a pretty good eater. Some of that is due to work I’ve put in with him, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was open to trying lots of new foods before he hit about 18 months. As long as he was accepting, we kept throwing new flavors and textures his way. For his second birthday he requested Salmon with a Puttanesca sauce (olives, capers and tomatoes for those who are unfamiliar), spinach and roasted potatoes.

You can imagine my dismay when my child who previously ate all things decided that he wanted more control over what he ate and all but gave up on trying new foods and even started to shun some foods that he had previously enjoyed, like sweet potatoes.

For anyone out there struggling with this or even just dealing with a child who is less willing to try new things, the good news is that this is normal and the solution is relatively simple. It just may take some time to actually work. It’s frustrating in the short term when all you want is for your child to be eating well-rounded meals, but it’s more important to look at the big picture and help your child to maintain a healthy relationship with food.


Here are my top 5 tips for dealing with a good eater gone astray:

  1. Model good eating behavior. If they see you eating it, it will just be normal. You can’t expect your child to eat peas if you won’t touch them, how fair is that? I find that the older my son gets, the more likely he is to try foods from my plate when the pressure is off and he is the one doing the asking. He wouldn’t get that opportunity if I weren’t striving to eat a variety of foods.
  2. Eat dinner as a family. Eating together is a key way to model eating behaviors and to talk about food. Family dinners end up becoming so much more than just a time to eat and with everyone eating together, some of the pressure is removed from a child who would otherwise be eating under the watchful eye of his or her parents. The more you chat together at the table, the more relaxed the atmosphere is. That inviting atmosphere helps kids to feel more comfortable to experiment with their eating. Plus, who wants to eat alone?
  3. Talk about food in a positive way. Studies show that children are more likely to try and eat new foods when caregivers talk about the benefits of foods instead of the negative consequences of “bad” foods. Think talking up the benefits of broccoli over the harm in eating cookies all day. Choose something that motivates your child. Our oldest was desperate to ride a roller coaster at a local amusement park. We talked about the types of foods that would help him to grow big and tall in order to do that and guess what he started asking for more of? It totally works!
  4. The food choices that children make will only be as good as the foods that are offered to them. Enough said.
  5. Don’t force your child to eat. Kids will eat when they are hungry. As a parent, it is your job to provide a variety of foods to your child. Your child should be deciding which of those foods he or she will eat and how much. Battles over finishing food at the table only result in frustration on both ends and can ultimately disrupt your child’s ability to sense when he or she is full. Trust that ultimately, your child’s body knows what it needs and in turn, your child will become more adventurous as he or she begins to trust that you won’t be forcing food at mealtimes.


Disclaimer: These suggestions are for children who are otherwise growing and developing at a rate deemed appropriate by your child’s physician. If you are struggling with eating habits in a child who is having growth failure, it is important to seek out individualized advice from a professional, such as pediatric dietitian.


Salmon Summer Rolls


By Nutrition Student, Deanna Ronne and Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services Team

These light, refreshing, and nutritious summer rolls are simple and fun to make, easily packed for lunch, or stored for leftovers, and even your kids will love them! Try keeping them in the refrigerator and eating them cold after a long hot summer day. Packed with protein and healthy fats from salmon and avocado, this roll will satisfy your hunger without making you feel too full.1

Rich in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, Salmon has many health benefits. One omega-3 in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is the brain’s favorite fatty acid. A diet rich in DHA is associated with improved learning abilities and disease prevention.2,3



  • rice paper wrapper (find them in the ethnic foods section of your health food store. I recommend brown rice)
  • carrots
  • avocado
  • cucumber
  • spinach/spring mix/ lettuce
  • salmon

Optional Sauce:

  • ¼ cup soy sauce (reduced sodium)
  • 1 tbs honey
  • siracha sauce (to taste, 1 tbs for a mild sauce)

salmon roll


  1. In a bowl mix the soy sauce, honey, and siracha sauce. On medium heat, add the sauce to a pan with the salmon. Once cooked, set the salmon aside to cool off.
  2. Wet paper towels large enough to cover the bottom of your plate. Place a wrapper on the paper towel and dab it with another wet paper towel. (You don’t want to get the wrappers too wet, because they will break easily.)
  3. Place a handful of spinach in the middle of the wrapper and the rest of the ingredients on top.
  4. Wrap the roll: start by folding the shortest sides in. Fold the bottom up and roll up to the top.
  5. Enjoy! The optional sauce can also be used as a delicious dipping sauce.

salmon roll finished


  1. III, V. L. F., Dreher, M., & Davenport, A. J. (2013). Avocado consumption is associated with better diet quality and nutrient intake, and lower metabolic syndrome risk in US adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001-2008.
  2. Kris-Etherton, P. M., Harris, W. S., & Appel, L. J. (2002). Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. circulation, 106(21), 2747-2757.
  3. Horrocks, L. A., & Yeo, Y. K. (1999). Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacological Research, 40(3), 211-225.


Finally Free from Fruit Fears?

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

By Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD

So you may recall my disclosure in a previous blog, sharing that my son is anything

but a fruit lover. He politely refuses whenever offered any – whether it’s the

sweetest, most amazing strawberry, or the crunchiest red apple. When he has tried

the occasional bite, his eyes water, he gags, and just can’t move beyond it. He’s

made it into his teens allowing only raisins, applesauce and an occasional juice into

his otherwise varied nutritional palate. While he enjoyed fruit as an infant and

toddler, something switched when he became a more independent preschooler, and

while I accepted that there must be a lesson of humor and irony for me as his

nutritionist-mom, I inwardly believed that he would just shift out of it as he became

older and around other kids who ate fruit freely.

While I’ve held onto that hope, I’ve become a little more concerned that the mood

may never just strike him out of the blue. I doubt he’ll wake one morning saying,

“Cool – today’s the day I’m super excited to try blueberries”, unless I give him a little

more assistance. And that help must somehow go beyond “just try a little bite”. A

wise friend and extremely gift occupational therapist, Wendy Chen-Sams, MS, OTR,

NDT, actually confirmed my suspicions. She said that the likelihood for young adults

to expand their palates greatly diminishes once these teens have left their childhood

home, particularly when there are strong aversions to flavor and/or texture, as is

my son’s case. Fortunately for him (and me!), he’s become more curious and

actually would like to explore and expand. He’s motivated to grow to his height

potential, and assist his overall health. Cool – the critical first step of motivation is


Wendy recommended that we not only move slowly, but also focus on only one

sensory area at a time. Since he seems to have some taste and texture aversions, she

suggested we begin first with introducing a new, mild flavor. Of particular interest

to me was the fact that colder fruits would be much less likely to trigger his gag

reflux, and will slightly numb the sensors so it’s less overwhelming — homemade

popsicles are going to be our new friends!

Our first step will be to combine familiar flavors – banana (which he loves in

pancakes & bread) and orange juice – with a new one, pear. Because we aren’t

exploring texture yet, we will be blending them together until smooth, then pouring

into popsicle molds. Once they’re ready to go, he will explore the taste receptors on

his tongue, particularly on the tip and sides. The receptors at the back of the tongue

are more sensitive, so we’ll gradually make it to those.

Once he’s tolerating (hopefully enjoying, too!), we will introduce some ever-so-

slightly larger pieces of pear within the pops, and graduate to even more texture.

As his acceptance of taste and texture improve, we’ll gradually introduce the same

pear flavor at refrigerator temp. The ultimate goal is for him to eat a pear or new

fruit without any processing. As important as it is for kids to repeatedly try new

and different foods as they begin to acquire a taste and tolerance, it’s also crucial

that we don’t try the new food every single day. A few times a week is just fine, says


So this is part of our summer adventure, and you can be sure that I will keep you

posted as it unfolds!


Of course there are a plethora of different sensory food aversions, and I am aware

that my son’s are quite mild. If you have a child struggling in a manner that is

interfering with his development or quality of life, it is crucial that you seek some

additional assistance, first checking with your pediatrician who may then refer you

to an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and/or registered dietitian who

specialize in this arena.


Two suggested reads:

Meals Without Tears: How to get Your Child to Eat Healthily and Happily,

by Dr.Rana Conway

Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food,

by Linda Piette

Chipotle Shrimp Tacos

Tacos are a great and fun dinner to make especially when you are low on time. Instead of using taco meat, try fish as your protein!  We love this Chipotle Shrimp Taco recipe from Cooking Light. This recipe gives you a flavorful blast of chipotle chile powdered shrimp tacos in 15 minutes!

Cooking Light Chipotle Shrimp Tacos
Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light


2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder

32 peeled and deveined large shrimp (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 teaspoon olive oil

8 (6-inch) white corn tortillas

2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce

1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into 16 slices

3/4 cup salsa verde



  1. Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl; add shrimp, tossing to coat.
  2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp mixture to pan; cook 1 1/2 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from heat.
  3. Heat tortillas in microwave according to package directions. Place 2 tortillas on each of 4 plates; arrange 4 shrimp on each tortilla. Top each tortilla with 1/4 cup lettuce, 2 avocado slices, and 1 1/2 tablespoons salsa.



The recipe and photo featured in this post were provided by Cooking Light. To read the original recipe please click here.

Something More Than Fish


Charlie tells his younger sister: “These are not fish sticks. These are ocean nibbles from the supermarket under the sea—mermaids eat them all of the time.”

—I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

As you know, I’m not perfect. Rather, I’m the real deal! I am the dietitian with the picky kids. My children definitely give me much practice about what I preach. And then, thank goodness, there are other times. I continue on this long journey of exposing my children to foods and trying my best to allow them to develop positive relationships with eating and neutral relationships with food. Mind you, this is no easy task. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

Our latest feat was fish sticks. Just remember that when we talk about fish sticks, we are really referring to something of a metaphor for life. Read on to learn more.

My youngest son Billy has been picky and often frustrating about food since the day he was born. At one point he loved Dr. Praeger’s Fish Sticks; he would eat four or five of them in one sitting. Billy’s enjoyment was of brief duration and he never seemed ready to reincorporate these ocean nibbles onto his personal “I really like this!” list despite our best efforts. Well, for some reason, this week was different. Once again, we offered fish sticks to Billy. To be exact, I made both boys fish sticks—a very child-friendly food—and put them on their dinner plates. However, I put only one fish stick on Billy’s plate. My husband and I were eating kale salad, herbed pork tenderloin and roasted potatoes. I know the boys won’t eat this dinner and I don’t make a big deal about it. This frustrates my husband, especially as the boys get older. However, when we push, like I did with the sweet potato puree (Read my recent blog, The Imperfect Food Mom), the boys push back.

In recent months, I’ve seen Billy eat a fish stick. I’ve actually seen him gobble it down! I can’t remember the specific circumstances around that particular meal. The one thing I realized was that he’s been playing us with the darn fish sticks. The way he scarfed down that fish stick made it clear that he really likes the taste or, at least, doesn’t mind the taste. Lately, I’ve been telling the boys how important it is to try new things whether they are sports activities or different foods. I have also been telling them: “You don’t need to eat your favorite foods every night. Mommy and Daddy sometimes make a meal that we don’t particularly enjoy, but we eat it anyway. Every meal doesn’t have to taste great. We just need to get nutrition from eating it. Eating our favorite meals happens just some of the time.”

So Billy looked down at his fish stick and immediately said: “I don’t like fish sticks.” I don’t recall my exact response at that moment, but by the end of our conversation, Billy was expressing his desire for Smart Puffs. (Note: I’m not a fan of Smart Puffs, but I do buy them on occasion because Billy is!) So I clearly told him: “You need to eat something with nutrition. You need to meet your body’s needs for growing. You can have Smart Puffs, but you haven’t eaten enough protein today.” As you might imagine, the little gamer asked: “Can I have some Smart Puffs if I eat my fish stick?” Well, of course! And he did. He happily ate his fish stick and then his Smart Puffs.

The next night we found ourselves with the same situation. This time, however, I put two fish sticks on Billy’s plate. He asked for his Smart Puffs and he got them after eating one and then the other fish stick. Please understand that this was not a food reward. I was not rewarding Billy for eating his fish stick. Rather, I was letting him know it’s okay to have all foods some of the time. You can eat foods lower in nutrition but not at the sacrifice/cost of a more nutritious food when growing…or just on a regular basis. 

After two consecutive nights of fish sticks, Billy asked if he could have fish sticks every other night rather than every night. Sure he can. I wasn’t planning to put fish sticks on his plate every night or even every other night. But since he thought I was—and he now thinks he made the decision about when to have them—I went with it!

I realize fish sticks are not the most nutritious nor desirable food one would want their children to eat. But when you have a picky eater, you must start somewhere. Knowing whether your child is playing you, knowing when to push, and knowing when a child is truly revolted by a food is a hard task to tackle. I choose to walk this line very carefully…and without any rush factor. I choose to do so because I clearly see the negative effects of creating power struggles around food between parents and children in my office. I successfully used this approach with my oldest son Bobby. He has become the best intuitive eater—slowly but surely reincorporating familiar foods and trying new foods almost daily now that he has turned six.

I do believe in the process of food exposure and sometimes even giving a little push. I remember my personal pickiness when I was a child. I actually think my vegetarianism and then veganism in high school and college were in part to send a direct message to my family. My message said: “You made me eat meat…and I didn’t like it!” It also said I am different from you because I eat different foods than you. The same things happen with my clients. I have teenagers either refusing to eat anything at all, or eating only certain foods. And they’re doing this partly to control their parents or get their attention. 

I don’t want to have power struggles about food with my children, so perhaps I am a bit more relaxed with food than others would think. As a parent, this is your decision too. Just recognize that feeding and eating isn’t simply a straight forward matter. Ultimately, it’s how individuals identify, label and communicate their inner selves to the world. This is the metaphor: What happens with food typically represents what’s happening with life at that time!




New Year! New Intentions with Star Charts!

New year! New intentions with Star Charts!


If you’re like me, you need and want to get your kids more involved in their food fare as well as getting excited about the foods they’re eating. With a new year ahead, you and your family can join us as we set intentions to make healthy habits with the help of a star chart. I personally want to get my kids to just try new foods. It doesn’t matter whether they like them but I want them to try. Keep in mind that I eat every kind of food under the sun…from chitlins to kale chips. And my two boys are surely making great strides with new foods at their own pace. However, I’m well aware that my own efforts sometimes get in the way. For example, every Sunday evening I present them options that I’m eager to have them try. But this is just a once-a-week activity…and can be overwhelming for my younger son. Besides, kids like to think they’re calling the shots!

So this past Sunday, the boys and I sat down to create “star charts” to help motivate them to try new foods and to help encourage them to practice self care and/or healthy habits.


I drew the basic foundation and added the three most important behaviors (for my boys at present) and then I gave them space on the charts to add three or four behaviors they wanted to achieve.


So far…so good! As you can see per my older son Bobby’s star chart,  he is enthusiastically awaiting his prize for his healthy habits and even my younger son Billy is motivated. He actually tried cod, broccoli, a new yogurt and peanuts in just two days.


On Monday, Billy refused to try a hard-boiled egg as well as his dinner when I failed to ask him for his choice. I quickly realized my mistake and asked him what he would like to try; he willingly ate the new yogurt and peanuts.


As you might have noticed, both boys like to select their own veggies and their own new food to try. This is typical. So don’t forget this step as you create your own star charts with your child.  Making the chart with the child and letting them have opportunity to make choice is essential. This is where we give them “control”—the ability to speak in their own voice. Read below on tips for stellar self-care star charting! Join my boys and me. Download our PDF Star Chart to start teaching your child healthy behaviors and to make this process easy and fun for both parent and child. Let us know how it goes.

Tips to Stellar Star Charting:

For creating healthy habits…

1. Parent chooses two to three behaviors.

2. Child chooses two to three behaviors.

3. If the behavior is open ended like trying a new veggie, let each child choose between at least two options.

4. Encourage each child to help decorate and make their own stars so he/she can proudly show off their efforts. Be sure to display – perhaps on the refrigerator.

5. Rewards are most effective when immediate. Young children may benefit from rewards every three days rather than just once a week.

6. Ideally, set the goal at 60 percent stars (success) per day. This allows for flexibility and the option to opt out and not be penalized on days when your child feels overwhelmed, overstimulated and/or just tired. If your child continuously earns all his/her stars, make the behaviors slightly more measurable; try a quarter cup of veggies with dinner or just reset the goal at 90 percent.

7. Have fun and change some of the goals each week. For instance, when your child loses interest in a goal, you can replace it with a new goal like clearing his/her dishes from the table. When a goal becomes a habit, it no longer needs to be reinforced, so just remove it from the chart.  You can even change a few goals—maybe two out of six per week to keep your child on his/her toes.

8. And of course, remember not to strive for perfection or just set end goals – rather set goals of trying foods and activities to encourage the process of trying.


The Hamburger Bun (minus the hamburger)

They boys absolutely love to go food shopping with me. So when it’s time to restock the kitchen, Billy and Bobby hop into the double stroller, and the three of us take a nice long walk to the Whole Foods in Tribeca (my favorite of their Manhattan locations).

It’s not just the boys who benefit from our little shopping excursions either; I love sharing this experience too, since it gives them the opportunity to pick out all their favorite foods while getting a taste for all the beautiful fruits and veggies on display. Quirky fun fact: They also love checking out ostrich and emu eggs.

While perusing the supermarket aisles, the boys usually grab household staples off the shelves like Kashi Heart to Heart, Laughing Cow cheese and hummus. But on our last trip, Bobby decided to pull one out of left field and toss hamburgers buns into the cart. Hamburger buns?

Of course, my gut reaction was, “Ugh, why can’t my kids try a fruit or vegetable instead of another form of bread?” It wasn’t long before I came to my senses though, and thought, “Well, why not?”

I asked Bobby what he would use the rolls for (considering he doesn’t eat hamburgers), to which he innocently replied, “peanut butter.” Case closed. We bought them.

That night, I decided to take advantage of the rolls to whip up a “grilled chicken sandwich”—a hearty and wholesome meal I knew Bobby would enjoy. (I also knew getting him to try it would be a challenge. More on that to come.)

To create my masterful meal, I simply placed Bell & Evans breaded chicken tenders between the whole-wheat buns and slathered on some ketchup. As predicted, Bobby protested, screaming that he didn’t like it even though he hadn’t taken a bite yet.

Standing in the dining room, Bobby glared at the sandwich as if it were crawling with bugs. “You like all of these foods individually,” I told him. “Just try it.” It’s true; Bobby likes chicken and ketchup and bread. The idea that he could be so repulsed by the combination of all three ingredients was not beyond comprehension.

It wasn’t easy, but after a bit of gentle encouragement, I saw Bobby out of the corner of my eye as he walked over to the once disgusting sandwich and took a bite. And you know what? He did like it! In fact, Bobby liked the sandwich so much that he grabbed the remains and brought it with him into the living room, chomping away while watching TV.

Like I’ve said before, I’m by no means perfect. But on that fateful evening, Bobby and I actually accomplished something: he tried—and approved of—a new combination of food. It was a triumph in my mind.

Would I have preferred if he ate his chicken sandwich in the kitchen, at a table, near a napkin and while my husband and I, instead of staring at the TV? Yes. But sometimes, especially when dealing with a fussy eater, you have to pick your battles.

Do your kids claim to hate foods before trying them? How did you coax them into taking a bite?