An adamant “I’m not going to eat that” from three-year-old Zachary is common dinner-table chatter for Toronto mom Erin Griffiths. She’s not surprised by the statement; her parents say that she was a picky eater too. “I think there are certain things that children generally dislike — vegetables, bread crusts, fish — without actually being told not to like them. That’s Zachary.”
A recent poll found 60 percent of Canadian moms think their children are picky eaters. And many parents stress over their children’s food jags and tiny appetites, but according to the experts, their worries may be unwarranted. “Picky eating is normal,” says dietitian Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense (Bull Publishing). “Everyone, from child to adult, enjoys some foods and not others.” Children who only like certain foods, eat more one day than the next or have small portions are simply displaying expected developmental behaviours, she says.
Some parents think children use pickiness to get attention or manipulate certain situations, and for about 20 percent of children this may be the case. If kids can get away with bad behaviour, they’ll keep at it. However, picky eating is likely genetic for the other 80 percent. This means each child has a unique set of food preferences that are preprogrammed. So you can drop the self-blame game — it’s not your cooking! These kids aren’t looking for attention. They may just dislike the taste or texture of certain foods.
A study conducted at the University of Copenhagen involving 8,900 Danish schoolchildren discovered taste perception does change as kids enter their teen years, with a decreased preference for the sweet flavours little ones love so much. And as we age, we also tend to lose taste buds.
This is why to a child, sodium is saltier, sugar is sweeter and spicy is hotter than how adults perceive these flavours. Satter explains that some kids are even considered “super-tasters” and detect bitter flavours in foods such as broccoli and cabbage, which adults find neutral tasting.
“Some kids are picky about certain textures too,” continues Satter. Anything from creamy-smooth yogurt to crunchy crackers can be a turnoff, depending on the child. The good news is that this doesn’t mean your child will never eat these things. “Picky kids can learn to like certain flavours and textures; they may just need more time and exposure to these foods than other children,” says Satter.
Repeat this mantra: “Battles at the dinner table will not last forever!” Like other bleak childhood stages (remember midnight feedings and the terrible twos?), picky eating is usually just a phase. However, it is important to seek some professional help if you feel your child’s intake is being compromised or if you are feeling overwhelmed in managing his pickiness.
“In young children, what and how much they eat is an expression of their growing need for independence,” says Anna Tedesco-Bruce, a dietitian at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and mom of four. “Food is an easy tool for kids to use since we are dependent on it and eat many times each day.”
To introduce more foods into your child’s diet, each meal should include at least two that he enjoys. Then, introduce new foods by pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar, suggests Satter. It’s up to your children to decide what and how much they will eat from the healthy foods you offer.
Another helpful idea is to eat as a family so kids will see how enjoyable food can be. “We used to feed Zachary first, put him to bed and then have dinner on our own. Lately, we have started to eat together as a family. It seems to be making a difference,” says Griffiths.
Picky eating habits can dissipate if parents are patient at mealtimes. Do not cater to your child’s every whim or pressure him to eat certain foods. Retain control, don’t dwell on the pickiness and your child may one day enjoy broccoli. “When I think back on all of the foods that I hated as a child and subsequently came to love as an adult, I am very hopeful that Zachary will follow suit as he gets older,” says Griffiths.
Toronto-based registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom’s four-year-old daughter enjoys most foods but dislikes hummus and avocado.