Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Picky Eaters

Kathryn asked me about picky eaters, " . . . would you please share some suggestions on getting children to try new foods!? This is something we are constantly struggling with. Does your babe eat black beans? I love it!"

(My youngest has a thing for beans. He likes picking them up between his pudgy little fingers.) This is such a hard topic. I've been thinking about it, and don't know that I have any answers for you. Food and eating are fraught with so many physical, social and emotional issues. Although there are things we do and do not do with our children, I'm not sure if any of it is really working. So if the opinions below offend you, sorry. Like with all of parenting, there are many ways to be a good parent.

I did a little research and found some interesting studies.
One found, among other things, that children's eating habits are influenced by parents and siblings. Jonah is going through a picky phase right now, but wants to be just like Dad. Josh will get him to try new foods by talking to him on his level and doing it together ("I'm not so sure I'm going to like this either, should we try it together?") The same is true with adults. When are we most likely to try new foods? In social situations, often influenced by friends or family.

From another: "Studies of preschool children have shown that mulitple exposures to unfamiliar foods enhanced their acceptance." In other words, if your child tries a food and doesn't like it don't exclude it from your meals. They may need to experience this food MANY times before they like it. Luckily, I'm naturally a little forgetful and ditzy and I'm often heard saying to my kids, "Oh, you don't like that. I forgot." I've found that this forgetfulness has worked to my advantage in getting my kids to eat. All people, kids and adults go through like and dislike phases. I try to not make a big deal about their likes and dislikes and treat them as if they are passing phases, not a permanant fixture of their personality.

This study talks about how some children really taste foods differently, and how they do taste differently than adults. The study had mothers and children taste a variety of foods and rate them according to sourness. More than 1/3 of the children tested preferred high levels of sour taste, while none of the adults preferred them. The children who preferred the extreme sour taste were less food neophobic (picky) and enjoyed a greater variety of fruits than the other children. My sister-in-law hates raw tomatoes, but not until she was an adult was she able to identify that the "hairy" taste was probably an allergy. I would never eat fish when I was younger but now love it. In other words, new foods, even if they taste good to you, may not taste good to your child.

This study says, "Some of the food-related behaviors found in toddlers may relate to developmental issues such as independence." In later years this may turn into a power struggle. This is what scares me the most. I really try to avoid making food about power. I try not to make rules about eating everything on your plate, or not getting dessert unless you eat dinner, or sitting at the table until you have finished. I have been known to do some of the above, but I don't think it's a healthy way to teach eating. I figure my kids will eat when they want to and if they don't eat dinner and are still hungry at bedtime I will let them choose a small, healthy snack (apple, string cheese, piece of bread). But if they start doing this every night for say a week, we stop the snacks and try something else to encourage them to eat. I'm always worried that by giving them a snack before bed when they haven't eaten dinner will become a bad habit, but it our case it never really has.

We try to encourage new foods in the following ways.
1. The other day in the grocery store Jonah spied a small pineapple and was very curious about it. So we bought it and brought it home to try. We had a fun time guessing what it might taste like and comparing it to a big pineapple. Not super exotic, I realize, but the fun of trying something new was more the point. Hopefully, Jonah had a positive association with trying something new.
2. The kids love to cook and so I try to involve them in the cooking and planning when I can; especially if they've seen a new recipe in a magazine or cookbook and want to try it.
3. Roxcy loves sushi, well, california rolls. I realize this is a pretty odd, but mature taste for a 7 year old, so we really encourage it. I try to make sure she gets to eat sushi at least once a month and I say things like, "That's so cool you like sushi. When I was a kid I didn't even know what sushi was!" In her mind she believes she's adventurous with food (even though she has her fair share of dislikes), and hopefully she won't be afraid of new foods.
4. Planning meals has helped me to make sure that we are trying a few new foods, along with some favorites every week.
5. I'm nervous giving my kids negative labels that they will try to identify with or live up to, so I don't tell them they are a picky eater, or tell others in front of them that my child is a picky eater.

Kathryn, I hope this helps. And if not, maybe someone else has a great idea for you. I'd love to hear more opinions on the subject. Please share yours!


rachel said...

A couple of things that have worked for us. "Wow, you are going to be 4 years old! Four year olds get to pick their own clothes and make their beds by themselves and 4 year olds eat all their peas!" It has worked better for some, not so much for others.
As they get older I remind them that I didn't like onions until I was 12 and now I love them so they should keep trying things all the time. I remember when Little Paul realized he liked the flavor of onions, he felt so mature.

liz said...

I loved this post- thanks! Great ideas. The only little tid bit I have experienced with my 2 year old was the difference between a positive versus forceful attitude at the table.

'take a bite now!' with a stern and frustrated tone and he ate nothing. even fruit that he loves- nothing!

'let's see how big of a bite you can take' or 'let's open up these green beans and see what's inside....I bet you can take a big boy bite' with a playful and positive tone and he ate 2 helpings at his first try!

Sometimes if I get him to take a bite of new food and he spits it out we still cheer him on for trying it and make a big deal out of it.

oh yea, I have been pasting cookie monster's face on all my labels of veggies and it's worked for him. But I know it won't for much longer.

Your tips are so great for the world I don't know beyond the age of 2!

liz s said...

Being picky wasn't as much of an issue at our house growing up as fairness in portions (being the daughter of a very pragmatic lawyer and crowd pleasing mother). Everyone regardless of age got, for example, 3 slices of steak and 3 strawberries for dessert, if the portions looked the least bit uneven the pieces were re-cut (one sibling cuts, the other picks first). It was painful at times especially being one of the oldest (and LOVING steak)

Jenni said...

with max, we have tried rewarding him for trying a new food. we say they have to at least try it and if they don't like it they don't have to eat bite is max gets a star each time he tries a new food and if he collects 10 stars he gets some kind of prize...i have also had to talk about where foods come from and if you like chicken nuggets you will like chicken cordon bleu, french fries...mashed potatoes etc. I also like the idea of hiding things, like my sis-in-law used fresh spinach(gasp!) on her kids' sandwiches in place of lettuce, they never knew the difference. give them lots of healthy choices and no bad choices and they will eat if they are hungry.

Jenni said...

i forgot about a cute book...I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

jared said...

one time my mom made me stay at the table until i tried some of the croutons in the salad, and i wouldn't so i sat there until it was time for bed, like 10 o'clock. I like them now though.

Kathryn said...

Erin, thank you so much for your suggestions, and to everyone else for commenting. I really appreciate all the time and effort you went into researching this information. It will make a difference in how I approach the table with the children. Thanks for the many good reminders and new things to try.