Picky Eaters

There is an important distinction between picky eaters who are children and picky eating by children.

Labeling children as ‘picky eaters’ implies that we think of picky eating as a core identity issue, not just a behavior they’re passing through. Whereas, calling the behavior ‘picky eating by children suggests that it’s a natural developmental phase and something to work through.

I’ve yet to hear of, or know, a child that has never hit a food bump. Maybe the same could be said of us parents. In fact, there may be some evolutionary sense to not trusting all the food nature has to offer. Familiar, sweeter and bland foods are less likely than the exotic to poison or make us sick or destroy our appetites.  From a more specific perspective, we’ve begun to understand genetic influences leading toward and away from particular food preferences. Certain children carry genes (which they may not share with their parents) that intensify the reaction to bitter foods, leaving these children with a preference for sweeter foods and drinks in general; not to mention a different palate than their parents.

A few years ago, many nurses and pediatricians noticed a parental ‘bump’ around the introduction of ‘staged’ food menus for prepared infant foods; parents worried that their children weren’t transitioning well from the younger to the older food stages. The source of this reluctance was difficult to verify. Was it hard for children to progress from one stage to the next because of the newer food’s taste, consistency, or was it simply its ‘newness’?  This brings us back around to the picky eating versus picky eater distinction…

Picky eating is common, especially in girls, and can occur with both familiar and unfamiliar foods. Picky eaters are less common, and tend to be reluctant eaters around new foods. Some clinicians are trying out the label ‘neophobia’ to categorize picky eater behavior in younger children as a way of improving research and communication about the phenomenon.  For instance, some researchers have found that pickiness was predicted primarily by environmental or experiential factors subject to changes; neophobia was predicted by more enduring and dispositional factors.  (Galloway, A. T., Lee, Y., Birch, L. L. (2003). Predictors and consequences of food neophobia and pickiness in young girls, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 103(6), 692-698.).

There are some things that you can do to help your child’s food bump from becoming a pothole:

1)    Your infants and toddlers are such social beings; they are pre-wired to be interested in how you treat your food. New foods will be more acceptable to your toddler if they’ve seen you or another adult they care about eating it regularly. And that positive effect is increased if your talk (with feeling) about what you like about the food. Interestingly, if you eat more fruits and vegetables, even when your child is not watching, your child will be more likely to accept food.

2)    Match up familiar with the unfamiliar. Hummus or yogurt dips that your child already likes can be paired with the new zucchini slice or broccoli floret.

3)    Never pressure or rush to introduce new foods, and only introduce one new food at a time.

4)    Introduce new foods when your child is actually hungry – forcing a new food on a diminished appetite is going to be less successful.

5)    Give it time – most children, and their parents, grow through this phase.