Pasta, no sauce. Chicken fingers. Fries. Apples. This was the all-white diet favoured by Emma Waverman’s son Zachary when he was three and four years old. And it drove his food-writer mom crazy. “It lasted about 18 months — too long.”
Luckily, her friend, co-author and chef Eshun Mott, could commiserate; her preschooler was equally picky. The two food lovers began trading tips back and forth and searched for helpful information “that didn’t leave us feeling guilty and anxious about nutrition,” says Waverman. Together, they came up with their book, Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them (Random House).
In fact, the ages three through five are prime time for pickiness. “This is when kids start developing opinions about what they like,” says Dr. Chaya Kulkarni, vice-president of parent and professional education with Invest in Kids (a non-profit organization focused on early childhood development). “They are developing a sense of independence and want control over things in their world. Food is a great way to assert power.”
Being fussy about food is such an issue that researchers at University College, London, examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between eight and 11 years old. They discovered that genetics contribute to childhood neophobia (fear of new food). The identical twins (who share all genes) in the study were much more likely to respond the same way to new foods than non-identical twins.
Of course, sometimes kids are picky because they can be. “The reason picky eaters exist is because parents allow it,” says Waverman. “What we found is that kids who are the least picky are those in families where everyone sits down together for dinner and eats the same meal. There isn’t a lot of pressure put on the kids, or a lot of attention put on the food. It’s just “Here’s dinner, and we are here together to eat it.”
Sound good? Here are a few tried and true strategies to help take the drama out of mealtime.
1 Recruit help Include your kids in the meal planning and food preparation. Eshun Mott’s son never ate a carrot until he peeled some. “Kids love to help out and if you allow them a voice in what’s being served, they will be more open to trying it,” says Kulkarni.
2 Relax Toronto mom Kim Rossos was worried her eldest daughter wasn’t getting enough protein. “I talked to my doctor about her diet and he wasn’t concerned. What she did eat was healthy and she was growing.” Now, Rossos introduces new foods in a pressure-free environment. Translation: no begging, pleading or threats (e.g., “if you don’t it eat it now you’ll have to eat it later”). It may take a few times before she actually tries it, but Rossos always makes sure there is something her daughter will eat on the table so she won’t leave hungry.
3 Self serve Present the meal family-style, which means you put the dishes on the table and the kids serve themselves (with help, if needed). They choose how much they want. “This way you are not as invested in them finishing what you’ve put on their plate, and it allows you to sit and enjoy your meal more,” says Waverman. “At the same time, they have a sense of control over what they are eating and they learn how much they need and when they are full.” Also introduce one or two new foods alongside your usual offerings.
4 Schedule regular snacks and meals If your child didn’t eat a lot at breakfast or lunch, provide a small snack to get him through to lunch or dinner so he’s not coming to the table with a chip on his shoulder.
5 Be inventive Stuck on how to get her children to eat veggies, Rossos started making spinach-cheese muffins, which soon became a family fave. “The kids love muffins, so I thought, why not put something healthy inside?” You can also try the same strategy with soups and sauces.
Still worried? Given healthy choices, kids will eat what they need. “Your responsibility as the parent is to provide healthy meals and snacks,” says Waverman. “It is your kids’ responsibility to choose what to eat and how much. Stop fighting about food and your child will be more open to trying new flavours.”
Mary Teresa Bitti is thankful to be the mother of two foodies, 14 and nine, who love to cook and eat.