Experts say it’s normal for children – most of them, in fact – to go through picky eating periods, typically beginning sometime between 18 months and 3 years of age. Most kids will outgrow the picky phase if their parents don’t cater to the pickiness or force their children to taste foods.
It’s a common concern of parents. Your pesky preschooler eats Cheerios for breakfast and peanut butter and jelly for lunch – nearly every single day. As your child rejects broccoli, chicken and other healthy food, it’s impossible not to worry about the lack of nutrients.
Mary Ann Salvucci of Quincy can relate. Her 9-year-old daughter Olivia has been a picky eater all her life, starting as a baby when she would spit out her spooned-in cereal.
“I’d cook a meal and get so frustrated because she would just move her food around and not eat it,” Salvucci said. “Even desserts, if she didn’t like the way they looked, she wouldn’t eat them. I used to cry about it.”
What to do?
Most pediatricians and nutrition experts essentially boil their advice down to one word: Relax.
They say it’s normal for children – most of them, in fact – to go through picky eating periods, typically beginning sometime between 18 months and 3 years of age.
“Children are inexperienced eaters,” explained Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician and family therapist in Wisconsin who has written the book “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense.”
“Whatever parents present to children is unfamiliar, and they need time to get used to seeing it, seeing other people eating it and gradually approaching it, then tasting it and taking it out of their mouths. After they have done this repeatedly, they get used to the taste and texture and get to the point where the food is familiar enough to eat.”
Some kids never seem to eye their food suspiciously, but among those who do, the level of pickiness is hard to predict from child to child.
“Children are different about what they will be finicky about,” said Claire McCarthy, director of pediatrics at the Martha Eliot Health Center in Jamaica Plain and a contributing editor for Parents magazine. “Some kids will never eat anything green, some won’t like certain textures, some don’t like things that are hot, some will go on food jags and eat only rice or only pasta for a while. It’s all very common.”
Most picky eaters are healthy, and most end up emerging at some point consuming all kinds of foods their parents were sure would never pass their lips. That is, children wind up eating better if parents handle the finicky phase in the right way, experts say.
McCarthy, who is raising five children ranging from 17 to 2, has a 15-year-old who is still choosy about food.
“If he could live entirely on dairy, bread and pasta, he would be a happy camper,” she said.
She believes in keeping the food the child finds offensive on the table. She has tried the “three-bite rule” – even if a bite constitutes of a single grain of rice – and the rule works with most of her kids.
“I tell my kids I don’t care if they want to pour ketchup all over it or melt cheese on top, I want them to at least have three bites,” she said.
Yet she has had to bend that rule for her picky eater after a few food standoffs. “There were times I wouldn’t back down and my son would literally be in tears,” she said. “There are only so many fights you want to have with your child, and you never want to traumatize your kid.”
Satter agrees with taking a non-confrontational – and in fact, completely silent – approach to coaxing kids to eat: Serve the same dinner to the whole family, but don’t force your picky eater to try a food or take a certain number of bites – and don’t say dessert is off limits if they skip the vegetables.
Camy Loucks of Canton, whose 4-year-old son James refuses most family dinners and has never met a vegetable he liked, found that when she has dug in her heels about making her son take just one bite, it has never gone well.
“After an hour of fighting with him about it, he’ll try it and he ends up not liking it and spitting it out,” she said. “By that point, he has already made up his mind he’s not going to like it. It’s not a fight I want to have with my child.”
Satter said parents need to realize that all they can do is offer the food; they can’t talk a child into trying it. Turning the dinner table into a battleground – or even gently encouraging a child to eat certain foods – can set a child back.
Research has shown that children are less likely to incorporate more foods in their diet if there is any kind of pressure involved, however subtle. Even positive reinforcement in the form of praise for eating a healthy food or sticker charts for tasting a new food backfires, Satter said. So if a picky eater chooses to taste a new food of his or her own accord, don’t say a word.
“Cheering can be seen as pressure, and even positive pressure will slow down food acceptance,” Satter said.
Parents are better off making meals and not even hoping their kid will taste it, Satter said.
“Parents should not pin their hopes on a child eating any particular food, and they should not try to predict what a child will eat,” Satter said. “The parents’ role is clear: Keep putting the food on the table.”
At the same time, experts say it’s a no-no to cater to a child’s pickiness by serving something separate from what everyone else is eating.
“I don’t think any parent should be a short-order cook,” McCarthy said. “If you set it up that it’s fine to have chicken nuggets every night, that’s all they will want.”
Satter suggests parents serve a healthy, well-balanced meal with four or five items on the dinner table, such as a protein, fruit or vegetable and a couple starches – and try to make sure at least one of those items will appeal to the picky eater in the house.
“If you are serving something new and strange, always make sure you have an old standby on the table, like bread,” she said. “You’re not catering to them, but you’re setting up meal time so they can be successful with it. And if they only eat bread, that’s OK.”
Other tips include: Making sure parents are modeling healthy eating habits; involving kids in preparing food; pureeing vegetables and mixing them into sauces; and, when all else fails, doling out the daily multivitamin.
Dr. Ari Brown, pediatrician and author of the book “Toddler 411,” also encourages parents to introduce babies and toddlers to a wide variety of foods as early as possible before they reach the age of skepticism at about 18 months.
“Don’t be afraid to offer food with spices and herbs,” Brown said.
There is some evidence to suggest that there could be a genetic component to fussy eating. According to a study published in August 2007 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers who examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between the ages of 8 and 11 found that children’s reluctance to try new foods was mostly inherited. The report claims that 78 percent of pickiness is genetic and the other 22 percent environmental.
Besides, a toddler’s taste buds are more sensitive than that of older children and adults. Research has shown that as many as 25 percent of people are “supertasters;” they have more taste buds than most people and find certain foods, like vegetables, too bitter to handle.
Some people remain supertasters into adulthood. Yet for the vast majority of kids, fussy eating is a stage they will outgrow, experts say. Many seem to get more adventuresome with food between ages 4 and 6.
Pediatricians say young children often need to be exposed to a food 10 times or more before they feel comfortable enough to try it. Other kids take much longer and don’t come around until their teen years.
“It’s a lot more fun to put meals out if children will eat them,” Satter said. “But parents have to let go of that. Parents should control the menu, and then they need to relax and turn the rest of it over to their children. They have to trust that over time their children will push themselves to learn to like a variety of foods.”
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Patriot Ledger writer Dina Gerdeman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.