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Converting Parrots to a Better Diet
by Sally Blanchard

This article and artwork  is copyrighted and may not be reprinted without the written permission of Sally Blanchard.Also See TECHNIQUES for converting your parrot to a Healthy Diet.

This article was written in the mid-1990s. Now the same principles that applied to a predominantly seed diet apply to pelleted that are not nearly as healthy as most people think they are.


Andy, the African gray, shoveled through his dish impatiently. There was no "food" in the dish, only strange shapes with funny colors and textures. Was this green stuff something he was supposed to eat? The mushy things felt funny clinging to his foot and beak. Frantically, Andy pulled the glop off of his foot with his beak and wiped it onto his perch. He had never seen things like this in his "seed cup" before.

Digging for his familiar sunflower seed, he took everything else, piece by piece, and flung it as far as he could. Some food splatted against the walls. He stood and curiously watched a glob of it slide down the wall. Investigating further, he found a new bowl in his cage. It must have seed in it! What was this red crunchy long stuff in the other bowl? It was just the right size to hold in his foot. He liked that and grabbed several pieces. After ripping some in half with his beak, the gray tossed them down on the floor of his cage. It wasn't seed! Andy grabbed another piece. It was fun to rip it with beak but he wasn't sure if it was food, so he let the chewed pieces fall to the ground instead of swallowing them. Now Andy was upset. He had pulled everything out of his "seed cup" and there was no seed - just the shiny bottom of an empty bowl.

The disgruntled gray climbed down to the bottom of his cage and picked around at all the discards. Still no seed! He climbed back up to his perch. Andy reached out and grabbed one of his toys and smashed at it, flinging it back and forth. He was hungry and there was no seed! He grabbed another toy and really shook it this time! What was this? Something hanging from a toy? It looked familiar. Andy had seen little pieces of this in with his seed. He grabbed it with his foot and pulled it towards his beak. It was little pieces of corn all stuck together. It might be ok to try just a little teensy bite. Ugh - it was too mushy! What was going on? Where's was his seed?


Andy was a two and a half year old domestically-raised African gray parrot. Tony and Sarah Quinn purchased him from a pet shop just after he was weaned. Unfortunately, the store weaned their baby parrots to nothing but seed, mostly sunflower seed. The Quinns bought a bag of vitaminized parrot mix, being reassured that it was a total diet for their new pet.

Andy was their first parrot and Tony and Sarah didn't know any other bird owners. They trusted the information that they had been given at the pet shop. Occasionally, Tony would share a snack with his Andy when the bird was out of his cage. Other than that Andy had eaten nothing but seed since he was weaned.

About the time he turned two years old, Andy started shaking his head and falling off of his perch. The veterinarian who sees the Quinn's German Shepherd referred them to Dr. James Harris, who was a San Francisco Bay area avian specialist who diagnosed malnutrition in the African gray. Andy was having brain seizures caused by severe calcium deficiency. In addition to treating Andy, Dr. Harris recommended that they consult with me about improving Andy's diet.


As a behavioral consultant and the instructor of many bird-care seminars, I am always surprised how many bird owners still feed their pets a seed-only or mostly seed diet (and now how many people think that they should only feed a pelleted diet) . Some owners feed their birds occasional fruits, vegetables or table scraps but still rely on a seed mix as their parrot's nutritional base. Often, when I ask what other foods the birds eat, the owner mentions apples, grapes, corn, pizza, french fries, tacos, lettuce, celery, peanuts and other foods that lack the basic nutrition that birds need for health and long-life.

It can be dangerous to tell bird owners to feed their birds "people food", considering the diets that many people are on today. Many bird owners believe that the parrot mix that they feed their pet bird will provide the needed nutrition. How did the seed myth get started? For many years we had very little accurate information about the diet, habits and behavior of wild parrots.

Parrots were often classed as seed-eaters even though they are opportunistic omnivores, eating almost anything edible that they discover while foraging. Caged birds accept seed readily which does not mean it is good for them. It is abundantly available, relatively inexpensive, clean, easy to feed and requires no preparation or work for the owner.

A manufacturer or retailer that encourages a pet owner to feed a seed only (or pellet 0nly) diet receives one hundred percent of the bird food profit. If the seller also recommends feeding fruits and vegetables, then they lose profit to the supermarket. The manufacturers, pet shops and breeders who are concerned about the welfare of pet birds recommend seed only as a portion of a bird's diet. Breeders and pet shops should wean their baby birds to a varied diet. Weaning them to a predominantly seed diet can cause serious health problems and often make it difficult for the owner to convert their bird to a nutritious diet.


Although nutritional content may vary somewhat in different seeds, a mixture of many seeds still can't meet a bird's protein, mineral and vitamin requirements. The arguments about sunflower versus safflower seed or black sunflower versus gray, safflower versus sunflower seed are insignificant if seed is properly considered as a small part of a varied diet. With the exception of millet, none of the seeds commonly occurring in a "parrot mix" are seeds that any species in the parrot family would eat in their native habitat. Even seed eating parrot family birds don't eat the dry packaged seeds that are available for the pet market. In the wild, they eat fresh, growing, germinating seed that has much more nutrition than any dry mix.

Most parrots never saw a sunflower seed before they entered the United States. Depending on the species of bird, a maximum of 50% seed to none at all may be acceptable. I have many clients with pet birds, including parrots, that thrive on a diet that is totally void of a commercial seed mix. My birds eat Totally Organics, a quality manufactured food as about 20 to 30% of their diet. They get daily rations of vegetables, fruits and other nutritious goodies. Seed is dessert, a special treat that I feed sparingly a few times a week.


Despite the occasional controversy, a proper balance of protein is an essential part of a bird's diet. Much of the recent "protein scare" has been based on misunderstanding of important nutritional concepts. There is no evidence that a diet with 20% high-quality clean protein, a balanced protein/fat ratio and the proper proportion of essential amino acids will cause heath problems in cage birds. Proteins are an essential ingredient of a bird's diet and too low a level will result in deficiencies. Some companies, bowing to popular pressure, may actually be creating a diet for birds that is protein deficient. Although some seed mixes can contain as high as 40% crude protein, the parrots eating them can still suffer from protein deficiencies because they are lacking the essential amino acids for a complete protein.

Seed mixes do not provide the proper balance of amino acids which combine to create high quality proteins. The finicky "seed junkie" will usually pick out the seeds highest in carbohydrates and fats such as sunflower and safflower. I've worked with many obese Amazon parrots that slim down very well on a nutritionally balanced diet. In the rainforest, an Amazon parrot flies many miles each day in search of food. In captivity, even domestically-raised parrots seem to have an "instinctual craving" for high energy foods. However, their activity level is so compromised that even the most active pet parrot can not possibly expend the amount of energy needed to utilize the caloric intake of the high-fat seed-only diet.


For a long, healthy life, cage birds need a nutritionally complete diet that includes the proper balance of protein, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, fiber, fat and carbohydrate. High-quality protein, vitamin A, vitamin K and calcium are the most serious deficiencies in a seed diet. To make up for their nutritional shortcomings, many seed mixes are vitamin-enriched or coated. Several vitamin supplements instruct the bird owner to put their product on the bird's seed.

Coating seed with vitamins makes as much sense to me as putting vitamins on a candy-bar wrapper. As the bird works the seed with his beak, the hull with its vitamin coating is discarded to the bottom of the cage. Since parrots have "little rubber eraser" tongues and the beak area is dry, they must swallow food to derive the necessary nutritional benefit.

Most birds that become habituated to high fat seeds ignore the chemically vitamin fortified pellets included in many seed diets that claim to be "total diets". Adding vitamins to the drinking water is another ineffective way of providing nutrition to pet birds. Recently I've seen "vitamin-enriched" wooden toys on the market. The toys may be fun to chew but there is no way that a pet bird will derive any nutritional benefit from them. Nutrients are only effective if the bird consumes them. I think that fresh foods combined with a NATURAL manufactured diet is the most effective ways of making sure your bird receives the nutrition that he needs for a long and healthy life.


The best way to get good nutrition into your pet is to feed a balanced diet. Although there is a vast difference in the nutritional quality of the many manufactured diets on the market today, most are superior to a seed only diet. My concern is that many of these diets ignore the psychological benefits of a varied diet. The majority of a wild parrot's daytime is spent in food-related activities. Much of their behavior and courtship is based on food gathering and mutual feeding. My extensive work with captive bird behavior has convinced me that it is essential to provide our companions and breeding parrots with a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and textures in their food. I believe that there is no such thing as a total diet. There is no one food, with its uniform shape, size, texture or color that can satisfy both the nutritional and psychological food needs of caged birds. A manufactured diet may be superior to a seed diet but we need to read the labels because so many of them are loaded with chemical additives. One that is common it almost all pelleted diets is Menadione, which is banned in human food. However, I wouldn't recommend feeding any pelleted food or any one food as a total diet no matter how nutritionally sound it is. I do NOT recommend any manufactured diets with food coloring or other chemical ingredients to make them smell "good" or as a preservative. I believe that these foods will eventually cause some serious health problems with captive parrots. 


The foods that are good for us are good for our birds. The high vitamin A vegetables and fruits are essential in a cage birds diet. These include the orange and green foods such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, winter squash, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, broccoli. peppers, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cantaloupe, mango and papaya. Toasted whole grain breads, brown rice, enriched pasta, tofu, nuts, hard-cooked egg, yogurt, bananas, oranges, berries, small amounts of reduced-salt cheese, fresh well-cooked chicken or turkey, beans, beets, corn and quality breakfast cereals without sugar are all foods that can be a part of a balanced and enjoyable diet for your birds.


"My bird won't eat that!" "My bird won't eat anything green." "She won't eat any food that's mushy." "He hates vegetables!". "None of my parrots will eat anything crunchy.". "He just throws anything new on the floor of his cage!" "I'd rather have my bird eat seed than get sick and die." "She hates me when I don't give her seed.". These are all statements that I hear over and over from bird owners. Without realizing, these owners are telling me that their bird is in control of its own life and manipulating them into feeding what it wants. Some birds switch to a better diet immediately. Some take a tremendous amount of patience and time. I am convinced that any pet bird, no matter how stubborn, can be switched to a quality nutritionally sound diet if the proper techniques are used. When an owner tells me that his bird hates vegetables, I ask them "do you like vegetables?". It is interesting that the majority say "No, I hate vegetables!". Since parrots are so empathetic, mirroring our moods, they usually can tell when we're trying to "con" them. The owner must realize how important it is for their bird to eat well and must commit themselves to working with their pet until the bird is on a good diet.


For several years, I was a bird rescuer. Much of my parrot knowledge came from working with these birds. I would bring them into my house, keeping them separate from my own pets, gentle them into accepting my attention, help them become healthy, convert them to a better diet and then find a good home for them. I never made a penny doing this but the experience was invaluable in the work that I do today. Often these parrots were sick. Their bodies were run down from diets lacking the raw materials needed to keep them functioning well. On a sunflower seed only diet, the birds just couldn't fight the infections. One of the most hard-core seed junkies that I ever worked with was Jupiter, a large wild-caught male Moluccan cockatoo. When he was given to me, it seemed he had every curable disease that birds get. I had to medicate him for several weeks and he did not appreciate the routine of injections and oral medications. Jupiter wanted nothing to do with me and all he would eat was sunflower seed. After months of unsuccessful manipulation and coercion, I was ready to give up. I had tried every technique and method I knew at the time. With a big bird like Jupiter, two days was the longest I would ever let him go without eating anything and he had taken his two days many separate times. One day I threw his broccoli and other goodies in his food bowl and stormed out of the room proclaiming, "I don't care if you ever eat anything but sunflower seed!" I heard him climb down to his dish and suddenly I heard crunching noises. From then on, he started eating his new foods. I doubt that it was my little temper tantrum that did it, although it might have helped. I think it just took him that long to become familiar with the new objects as food. For the several years, Jupiter has lived a happy life. He eats lots of good nutritious foods and is quite tame and bonded to his new owner.


Many birds that have been on seed-only diets have chronic infections and other health problems caused by nutritional abuse. It's a vicious circle, to help them become healthy they must be on a better diet but to switch them over may cause stress which may make them sicker. Your avian veterinarian can help your bird with injectable vitamins or minerals and by treating it's health problems. Once it is stable, the conversion process can begin. First check your bird's weight and keep track of it during the changeover.

The most accurate way is with a gram scale, weighing and keeping track of your bird's weight on a daily basis. You can also check the "meat" around the keel bone frequently. The keel bone runs down the center of the chest. Although you should be able to feel the front of the bone, it should be well-padded on the sides. The chest of the bird should be U shaped, not V shaped. If the bone is sharp and protrusive, the bird is too thin. Although most birds that have good weight may lose some weight, if the weight loss becomes noticeable, you may need to slow down the conversion process. If you can't find the bone, your bird needs to lose some weight. Many birds, particularly Amazons, cockatoos and budgies, become obese on a seed diet and will naturally lose weight on a nutritionally sound diet.


I am adamant about using gradual methods to change a bird's diet. Just taking the preferred food away from a bird and demanding that he eat the new food or starve can be deadly. Many birds, particularly small birds like budgies, cockatiels, finches and canaries, will starve themselves before immediately eating a new food. If a bird does not starve, they can still become very sick. I've had several bird owners report to me that their birds became ill on the diet that I suggested to them. In all cases, it was not the diet but their conversion techniques. As I have said, birds that have been on a predominantly seed diet for very long, usually have health problems due to malnutrition. One of the most serious side effects is a dysfunctional liver. A parrot with a liver functioning 20% below normal will develop serious problems if he is forced into a fast by an owner trying to convert him too quickly to a good diet. No matter how palatable and wonderful a new diet is, there are always going to be birds that reject it because it is not familiar to them as food. I have worked with many parrots and find that those owners who convert their birds too quickly either cause them problems or don't have lasting results. Many birds need time to adjust to the fact that the new food is not a treat but their new diet. A period of time from one week to six months is acceptable, with most birds being converted successfully within two to four weeks. It is also important to realize that once the bird is eating a nutritionally sound diet, the owner may still have to work to maintain that diet. Some parrots seem to be doing fine and one day, out of the blue, reject everything that's good for them. It is usually temporary if the owner works with the bird again for a short time.


Understanding the normal behavior of a parrot, helps us to understand their needs in captivity. Most wild birds, including parrots and other so-called seed eaters, actually eat a varied diet. Leaf and flower buds, cambian, fruits and legumes, grubs, insects and other animal matter, nuts and seeds may be consumed on a daily basis. Although finches, canaries, cockatiels, budgerigars and other grass parakeets do eat a higher percentage of seed, these are usually germinating seeds or green seeds still on the plant and not yet ready for dispersal. Both have a higher nutritional content than the seed mixes commercially available. It is unfair to require that omnivores, birds that eat a varied diet, eat one food. They would normally eat a tremendous assortment of foods with different colors, shapes, sizes and textures. It is only in captivity that birds become "fixated" on one food source - seed.


There is no reason to leave a full bowl of seed in a bird's cage free-choice all of the time. Seed is like "M&M's" to birds. "Seed junkies" will choose the seed over any other food in their cage. If the seed is there, why eat anything else? Empty the "seed bowl" and turn it into a "food bowl". Leave it in the location where you bird is used to finding his seed but fill it full of nutritious foods. Use another location for the "seed bowl" and in the beginning just put a Tablespoon or so of seed a few times a day. Leave some kind of nutritious food in his cage, free-choice all of the time. In the beginning, you may be wasting food. It may take awhile for your pet bird to realize the new shapes in his cage are actually food. He may rip them apart and throw them around. At least he is experimenting with the new food. Don't let the waste stop you. Imagine all the money you'll be saving on future vet bills! Gradually reduce the amount of seed. Start out by letting them go half a day without seed, then a whole day, then a day and a half and then two days. Never let a any bird, especially small birds, go more than one day without food. A large bird should not go more than two days without eating. Once the bird starts trying new foods, watch him carefully and continue to decrease the amount of seed. If he stops eating the new food, give him a small amount of seed again and start the process over. Don't give him a huge bowl of seed. I was working with a 9-year old African gray on a seed-only diet and after two days without seed, the owners misunderstood my instructions and gave him a huge bowl full of seed. He gorged himself so severely that his crop became impacted and he had to go to the vet. The process of seed denial may have to be repeated many times before a bird is securely on a new diet. At that point, I do not recommend ever keeping seed free-choice in the cage again. However it can be a special treat or a bribe to get the bird to do something you want him to.


The birds that we commonly keep as pets have a less developed sense of taste and smell than we do. There was a treat on the market that had hot chilis and curry. My birds loved them because of their strong spicy flavor and the peppers are a good source of vitamin A. Occasionally my dog, Dewey, eats one that a bird has dropped and seems quite surprised. Some parrots like to soak their food in their water dish making a sort of messy soup. Soaking the food may intensify the flavor. Eyesight and tactile senses are keenly developed in parrots. They are strongly responsive to color. Flying over a rainforest clearing, a flock of parrots search for color as a signal in their search for food. A cluster of red fruit stands out among all the green of the trees and vines. Shape and size are also significant to birds in their food preference. Researchers discovered that parrots preferred to hold long and narrow shapes that protruded from their foot when they firmly gripped part of the food. I've watched many parrots rip and shred different kinds of food until it is just the right size to hold firmly with a clenched foot. Ripping and tearing at food is an important part of food behavior. I've never done the definitive study but I am sure that if someone did, they would find out that caged parrots waste over half of the food they're given to eat. This is also a trait of wild parrots. They co-evolved with the plants that they eat in the wild. Their wastefulness is most likely a way of scattering the seeds of these plants and assuring their future generations of those preferred foods.


It is obvious that individual pet birds prefer different shapes, sizes, colors and textures in their foods. Whether these preferences are instinctive or learned, we can manipulate foods to try and find a way that our pets will eat them. Carrots, for example, can be cooked or fed raw. They can be sliced, diced, stripped, made into little flowers, cut into curly-q's, mashed, pureed, or fed whole in a food cup or hanging in the cage. Bongo Marie, my African gray, generally would eat anything, but she refuses to eat diced or sliced carrots. She likes them peeled into little curls or cooked and mashed. She will not eat sliced sweet potato but she loves them mushy in the skin. She ate nothing but sunflower seeds when she came to live with me almost fifteen years ago. When I first started to introduce vegetables and fruit to her, she seemed terrified, acting as if I was trying to poison her. It took almost a year before she was comfortable eating new foods. For several years, she wouldn't eat any green foods unless I poured tomato sauce on them and made them red. She has her food moods, like most parrots, when she won't eat foods she normally likes. She also goes on eating binges where she will pick the same thing out day after day. Then suddenly she doesn't want it anymore for awhile. I love pizza but I don't want it all the time, either.


In the wild, food does not occur in cups strategically placed on the tree branches. Parrots have to reach, climb and explore for food. With a little imagination, the bird owner can have fun coming up with new ways to introduce foods to their birds. I weave greens in the cage bars and my birds seem to enjoy pulling them out. Sometimes they even eat them. Bongo Marie loves her collard greens sopping wet on the top of her cage. She rolls around in them, taking her bath and then rips them apart, eating some in the process. I hang all sorts of foods in the cage. When Brussels sprouts are in season, I buy a stalk of them and put it in Paco and Rascal's cage. The double-yellow heads delight in swinging from it as they rip off the leaves and devour them. Brandy, an African gray owned by one of my clients loves cooked artichokes. She sneaks little morsels of other foods into the leaves that Brandy loves to find. Many garden supply stores carry a fruit feeder meant for wild birds. It is a small flat piece of metal with a large blunt screw with a large wing-nut that grips the fruit slices. My amazons love to hang upside down in their cage to get to the fruit that I hang from the ceiling of their cage. The hanging food holders made by several companies are a marvelous idea. Frances Weaver has a wonderful idea that Picco, her pet yellow nape enjoys. She takes all sorts of nutritious foods and wraps them in corn tortillas and hangs them high in the middle of his cage. Picco has his own parrot pinata that he bats at until he gets to the food. Of course, the corn tortilla is edible too. Most cockatoos are ground feeders and may be more interested in new food placed in a large shallow crock on the bottom of their cage. There certainly is less waste when they start shoveling around and throwing everything out with their foot. Tricking cockatiels, another stubborn eater, into new foods can be relatively easy if you make them think it is their idea. I encourage my clients to take the new food and put it in little baggies and tuck them into the birds hang-out areas. Jennifer Scott's cockatiel, Pokey, spends much of his freedom time in a fichus tree next to the couch. Jennifer hung little bags of food, like ornaments, in the tree. Within just a few days, Pokey, was carrying the tidbits of food back to his cage to soak in his water dish and eat.


Most birds are social eaters, stimulated to eat when they see their flock eating. We are their flock. When you eat in front of your parrot make sure that the healthy foods are in his cage - not the seed. Although some people are not comfortable with birds at the table, it usually helps to give your pet bird a special dish of his own either at the table or on a T-stand near the table while you are eating. If you have another bird that is a good eater, let the new bird watch him eat the good foods. Hand feed your parrot new foods, saying "ummm, that's good". Say the name of the food and smile. Eat some of it yourself. Birds are very responsive to food pleasure noises. All of my parrots have unique little noises that they make when they really like something that they are eating. Bongo Marie actually said "that's good" when she buried her face in her Crazy Corn Rainforest Rice Pudding. Spike, my black-headed Caique, makes a guttural high-pitched purr when he enjoys his favorite foods. He sounds like a mechanical cat when he goes after a chunk of pomegranate.


Patterning is an important concept in parrot behavior. Most birds will not accept changes readily. But over a period of time, by gradually making consistent little changes they will begin to accept them as part of their routine. The first time a parrot sees a new food in his cage, it may appear that he will never eat it. But if he sees it several times, he will began to accept the new shape. He may pick up the food and throw it down right away, but the next time he might touch it with his beak. Serve it again and he actually might take a bite. Once a bird tries any new foods, he often becomes more adventuresome. Corn, nuts, whole-grain crackers, beans, peas, apples and grapes are usually good transition foods. Not very high in nutrition, they are foods that a parrot may eat more readily than highly nutritious foods like carrots and collard greens. Often if you can get him to eat some of these foods he will continue to experiment and eventually try the more nutritious foods. As an avian consultant, the biggest problem that I have with converting birds to better diets is the owner who gives up too soon. Getting your bird to eat a healthy, nutritious diet may take some time. It may actually be a life-long process. Years ago there were few alternative foods available to the commercially produced seed diet in the pet shops. Manufacturers are now beginning to realize that birds deserve a healthy and fun diet. Besides the abundance of manufactured diets on the market today, many companies are coming up with new snacks and treats for birds. Just because a bird likes a new food, doesn't mean it is good for him. Educate yourself to judge the quality of these new products - a lot of them are gimmick foods full of artificial ingredients that simply are not healthy for our parrots. Not all are good but some are excellent sources of nutrition and fun foods for your pets and breeding birds. The supermarket or produce store with its vast array of fruits, vegetables and healthy people food is still one of the best places to shop for your bird's food cup.


If you were worried about poor Andy digging around in his empty seed cup forever, you can relax. The African gray, is now on a nutritionally balanced diet and is doing very well. Seed is just a memory. He was a tough nut to crack, a real "seed junkie." Tony and Sarah spent a few weeks trying to get Andy to eat new foods with little progress. They were quite frustrated. I had to be creative to figure out how to get Andy to eat the right foods. I realized from my in-home consultation with the Quinns, that Andy was bonded to Tony. Sarah was only ok. Knowing this, I came up with a plan. I had the Quinn's chop up a plate full of fruits and veggies and place them on the dining room table. Tony put Andy on his T-stand and moved the stubborn African grey so that he was at the corner of the table. Tony sat next to him at the head of the table. Sarah sat at the side near Tony with Andy between them. If Andy had been primarily bonded to Sarah instead of Tony, the roles would have been reversed. Sarah reached over and picked up a piece of fruit. Making a fuss over it, she hand-fed it to her husband. Tony opened his mouth wide and as he chewed, he proclaimed just how yummy the food was. This process was repeated until the food was gone. Andy didn't get anything. At first he didn't seem to care. But as he watched Tony eating the food and enjoying it, he became more and more curious. The next night, the Quinns repeated the charade. Towards the last bite, Andy was leaning forward asking for the food. He still didn't get anything. The following evening, about half way through the session, Tony took the bite from Sarah and held it up to Andy. Andy grabbed for it but threw it down. The fourth night, when Andy was given a piece of broccoli, he ate it and asked for more. By the end of the week, Andy was eating anything that Tony or Sarah handed him. Within a few more days, he was eating fruits, vegetables and a quality manufactured diet from his food cup. A few weeks later, Tony Quinn called me with what he referred to as a serious problem. He asked, "What do I do? Now that Andy eats a healthy diet, my wife has stopped hand-feeding me?"


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