Picky Child Eaters Before Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

According to Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, there is very little evidence in the historical record for “concerns over children refusing what they were given” to eat much before the 1880s.  That makes Betty MacDonald a seeress when she invented “The Picky-Eater Cure” in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). This cautionary tale zeroed in the sin of Will Pemberton,which was eating nothing but boiled noodles.  His distraught parents consulted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and came home with magic crystals, which when sprinkled on Will’s dinner, turned everything on the plate into his favorite (only) food.  In time Will grew tired of nothing but boiled noodles and was forced to dig into other dishes. Before Will, there was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Suppenkaspar, who would not eat his good soup and wasted away for lack of nourishment.  The marker on his grave was a  tureen, naturally.Picky eateritis is surely a disease of affluence, but the condition’s psychological aspects must be of equal importance.   Casual observation suggests that the child who turns down what’s on the plate is a child who knows full well that there are plenty of options in the refrigerator that are more to his liking.  So begins a battle of wills between child and parent, the child reasonably confident that his mother-combatant will throw down her lance rather than let her baby go hungry.

Let’s suppose that abundance of choice is at the heart of picky eateritis.  Then there ought to be evidence in the literature of parenting before 1880s that elite parents were tussling with children at mealtimes.  I didn’t find a Will or Kaspar in my quick and unscientific survey of late eighteenth-century sources, partly because the experts were concerned chiefly with the diet of infants and toddlers.  Among the problems that did preoccupy them were the prevention of letting children consume too much sugar or drinking wine and spirits.

There being no fast food industry to point the finger at, the blame for getting children off on the wrong foot fell squarely on the shoulders of adults. In 16th edition of Domestic Medicine (1798), Dr. William Buchan thought the practice of sweetening babies’ food with sugar encouraged them to overeat: “Their excesses are entirely owing to nurses.  If the child be gorged with food at all hours, and enticed to take it, by making it sweet and agreeable to the patate, is in any wonder that such a child should in time be induced to crave more food than it ought to have?”   Some parents, he observed disapprovingly, “teach their children to guzzle ale, and other fermented liquors, at every meal.”  Buchan’s advice was considered sufficiently authoritative to have been regularly repeated or plagiarized.

The good news was that sensible mealtime management was possible to establish and maintain, even before children could comprehend why restraining their appetites for certain things was good for their health.  Richard Edgeworth and his co-author/daughter Maria discussed this topic in Practical Education (1798-9), an late eighteenth-century forerunner to Dr. Spock, based on their experience raising a brood of twenty-two: “if they [children] partake of the usual family meals, and if there are no whimsical distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome dishes, or epicurean distinctions between rarities and plain food, the imagination and pride of children will not be roused about eating.  Their pride is piqued if they perceive, that they are prohibited from touching what grown up people are privileged to eat….  In families where a regularly good table is kept, children accustomed to the sight and taste of all kinds of food, are seldom delicate, capricious, or disposed to exceed.”  The thrust of the passage is that children observe the food preferences of adults and are likely to imitate them.  Picky children pick it up from picky adults.

A mother of twelve, Mrs. Trimmer weighed in on how to get children to eat in An Essay on Christian Education, which was published in installments in her children’s book review journal, The Guardian of Education (1802-1806).  She made a couple of observations which sound as if they were based on long experience with little people: “Children are generally averse to food which they have never tasted; and, in this case, the difficulty is to get them to taste everything.”   Another interesting remark she made was that “it is next to an impossibility, except in a very secluded situation, to keep a child in ignorance of the taste of rich cakes, &c. &c. and when these are placed before him in profusion, and set out too in the most inviting manner, they are real temptations.”   True words, indeed,

Did children’s book authors portray children who were bad eaters as negative examples?  Yes, indeed.  Here is the opening of “The Boy with the Sweet Tooth” from Profitable Amusement for Children (1802):   “Luke Lickerish was so very fond of sweet things, that, whenever his father or mother gave him a few pence, he immediately ran to the grocer’s or confectioner’s, and bought barley-sugar, licorice, sugar-candy, or something else of the sweet kind.  Besides, at breakfast and tea-time he always watched the sugar-basin; and, whenever he was his mother’s back turned, he slily filched three or four lumps of sugar, thrust them into his pocket, and afterwards ate them in private.  By continuing every day to eat such quantities of sweets, he injured his health very much and spoiled his appetite, so that he seldom relished his meals, ate very little of wholesome food, and was growing very thin, weak and puny.”

Luke sounds a lot like children now who crave heavily sweetened cereal, marshmallows, and Swedish fish.  Perhaps children who do not know hunger haven’t changed as much in certain respects as popular historians suppose…

Empty Calories, Sugar, and Junk Food in Picture Books

Meg Rosoff, Wild Boars Cook! Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. (2008) Private collection.

Today we pay tribute to those artists who elevate calories from  salt, fat, refined white sugar, bleached flour, and preservatives to the empyrean.  The post does not recommend the consumption of over processed food full of empty calories (also known as “cheat food”), nor will it show children eating disgusting quantities of unhealthy things out of the box with their fingers.  There will be, however, graphic depictions of artworks whose raw materials are candy, snack food, and their packaging– plus some picture books in which they figure prominently. If you have high nutritional principles or no will power whatsoever, do not read any farther.

Why wouldn’t sugar be a powerful source of inspiration for artists?   It is packed with cultural significance, it can be molded and spun, and it takes color beautifully.

miss piggy-full

A candy wrapper collage by Laura Benjamin.

As much as we admire how visual artists have exploited the tactile and sculptural qualities of junk food, it is the picture book illustrators who have realized its narrative potential.  When the hero’s father is laid off in Richard Egielski’s Jazper, he takes a three-week job house-sitting for five evil moths.  In the evenings, he passes the lonely hours reading magic books in the library.


Richard Egielski, Jazper (1998), p. 14. Private collection.

By the time the moths come home, Jazper has mastered the art of transformation and decides to hit the boards to supplement the family income.  When the moths read the great newspaper write-up of the Amazing Jazper’s act, in which he changes into anything from a pickle to a cheese doodle, they vow to take revenge for having allowed him access to the library.


Jazper the stupendous cheese doodle. Richard Egielski, Jazper (1998), p. 17. Private collection.

Or there’s Dennis Nolan’s Hunters of the Great Forest.  The reader has no idea what they might be seeking when they set out one warm night over the mountains and through the forest, braving dragonflies, toads, blue jays and irascible chipmunks.


It’s in the lower right hand corner. Dennis Nolan, Hunters of the Great Forest (2014), p. 32. Private collection.

It takes all their strength and cunning to bring the prize home to the village.


Dennis Nolan, Hunters of the Great Forest (2014), p. 34. Private collection.

Toasted on sticks in front of a roaring fire, one marshmallow is enough to sustain the entire Lilliputian community.


Dennis Nolan, Hunters of the Great Forest (2014), p. 37. Private collection.

 It’s space aliens against a cat in David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles!


This doesn’t look good for our space travelers. David Wiesner, Mr. Wuffles (2013), p. 8. Private collection.

There’s no choice except to abandon ship and take refuge under the radiator, where their Brobdingnagian enemy can’t reach.  But he can sit in front of their hiding place and wait.  And wait.  And wait.


Cheese it! David Wiesner, Mr. Wuffles! (2013), p. 15. Private collection.

They take heart when the ladybug finds rations…  Not bad at all!


Don’t despair lads, we’ll outlast it… David Wiesner, Mr. Wuffles! (2013), p. 19.

Fortified by empty calories, our space aliens find the strength to confound the brute, make their way back to their space ship, and blast off towards the safety of their own galaxy somewhere far far away…

Who would have ever guessed that stories of perseverance, courage, and derring-do could hinge on  sugar and…


If sugary and starchy installations prove impossible to conserve, representations of junk food in the picture book will live on, if properly annotated.   Now pass the doughnuts.