Picky eaters are a tough crowd to please, no doubt about it. You could whip up an award winning culinary masterpiece and they would still recoil from broccoli, shudder at an egg yolk, and shun cantaloupe. The best thing to do if you have a nightmarishly picky eater is to inform yourself of its causes and effects, then take action.
Why it happens
There are two factors involved behind the making of a picky palate: genetics and biology.
- Genetics: That’s right, if you have a picky eater, you may have only yourself to blame. A study by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London showed that food neophobia, or picky eating, is about 78% genetic, while the other 22% is environmental.
- Biology: Okay, you may not have _only_ yourself to blame (but it’s mostly your fault). Many pediatricians contend that young children are “prewired” to select the most energy-rich foods available. Dr. Gwen Dewar informs us that, “Smaller creatures tend to have smaller, shorter digestive tracts, making it more difficult to digest food that is high in fiber and/or toxins. So natural selection has put the squeeze on little guys: They need to focus on foods that deliver a lot of energy with little bulk.” The foods with the most energy and calories? Sweets, French fries, and sodas. While such statements are still a bit controversial, it’s logical to hypothesize that children gravitate towards the sweetest and most energy-rich foods for reasons of survival.
How to React
There are plenty of different tactics that we, as parents, can take when trying to get our children to eat nutrient-rich foods. Of course, your parenting style and the severity of your child’s “food neophobia” will dictate how you should approach your child and introduce new foods. You may try some of these options when trying to get your child to eat new foods:
- Work with them: Instead of working against them, work with your children. Just relax, take a deep breath, and remember that they no matter what you do, children are not going to simply change their tastes overnight. Jean Mercer, PhD, says, “As for what we can do–it’s very clear that forcing, bribing,or coaxing children to eat specific items does not increase their preference for those foods. Working to make those foods more familiar can help.” Constantly putting broccoli or a salad on the table will help your child become more familiar with these foods. Eventually, your child will come around (or so we hope!).
- Playing Sneaky Mommy: If your children are severely malnourished and you are desperate to give them the proper nutrients, you may have no other option than to subtly cook with nutritious ingredients. Reference Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious,” a book of recipes based on fruit and vegetable purées that are blended into food in a way that she says children won’t notice. Seinfeld’s mac & cheese includes winter squash and cauliflower, pureed and added to the recipe and disguised under low fat cheddar cheese while her hamburger patties call for cauliflower, carrots, and sprouts. Now that’s sneaky. If trying this tactic be very careful: if your deceptive plan fails, your kids could remain skeptical of your cooking for years to come.
- Getting them involved: If you’re not exactly the “Sneaky Mommy” type, you could try simply getting your kids involved with your cooking. Dress them up in an apron and have a cooking day. With a behind the scenes view, your child may be less leery of the food you prepare and, fingers crossed, more eager to try it.
If you’re feeling hopeless about your picky eater situation, don’t be! Picky eating will pass in time. “Unless it becomes a huge issue, [picky eating] tends to be a little more fleeting than parents think,” says Harriet Worobey, director of the Nutritional Sciences Preschool at Rutgers University. “I know a year can seem like five to parents, but these food jags are normal.” Like Worobey says, be patient and your child will eventually reach for the veggies.