So your child has never eaten anything but noodles and cheese, yogurt, and white bread. Your relatives say she’s just stubborn. Your friends say that their kids were never this picky. In this article, we’ll debunk some of the myths surrounding picky eaters and explain various techniques you can use to expand your child’s list of accepted foods.
"Kids become picky because their parents let them be picky."
Status: Myth. Although a small percentage of children may become picky due to environmental factors, new research has shown that most pickiness is genetic. This study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at 5,390 sets of twins. It found that 78 percent of refusal to try new foods is genetic, and not due to environmental factors. What can this mean?
According to Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist specializing in eating dysfunction and disorders, scientists have recently begun to discover that vegetables, for example, can taste metallic to certain picky eaters. In some way, the child’s body biologically impacts the tastes of certain foods, making them unpalatable. What adults may see as stubbornness or defiance is most often a real biological phenomenon. Picky eating may also be caused by a sensory integration issue, where the child has hypersensitivities to certain smells, tastes, and textures in their mouths. “The first thing for parents to know is that they’re not insane, they haven’t trumped this up, even when everyone around them says it’s not a problem,” explains Natenshon.
"My child’s pediatrician says she’s fine, so there’s nothing to worry about."
Status: Myth. When a parent brings a picky eating concern to the child’s pediatrician, the response is often something like, “Well, her weight is on the growth curve, so she must be fine. Wait a bit, and she’ll outgrow it.” Although this may be true occasionally, picky eating is not a stage for many children. According to Natenshon, doctors are trained to treat pathology, and because nothing appears to be wrong with the child physically, a pediatrician may completely ignore the problematic issues that can arise with a picky eater.
Dr. Julie Garden-Robinson, an Associate Professor and Food and Nutrition Specialist at North Dakota State University, points out one example of these issues. “Nutritionally, if your child is not eating a wide variety of foods from all the food groups, you may want to add a vitamin/mineral supplement to his or her daily routine as a bit of nutrition insurance,” says Garden-Robinson. “However, dietary supplements are not a substitute for a healthful diet, since food provides a wide range of nutrients that supplements do not include.”
"You can prevent a child from becoming a picky eater."
Status: Partial Myth. A child who is biologically inclined to become a picky eater will probably develop accordingly, no matter what his home environment looks like. At the same time, there are a few steps that parents can take to try to minimize the risks. Parents can offer children as many varied, nutritious foods as possible over the first few years of their life, preferably as early as possible. They should continue offering these foods even after they’ve been rejected multiple times. Research shows that it can take up to a dozen times for a rejected food to finally become accepted – and that’s still normal.
"Rewarding your child for eating will only backfire."
Status: Partial Truth. To some degree, this is true. Dr. Garden-Robinson specifically points out the negative aspects of using food as a reward. “We already are born with a natural liking for sweet foods, so children do not need the extra encouragement to eat desserts,” she says. “In fact, eating could become a power struggle with escalating rewards. ‘Do you want me to eat that broccoli? I will eat it if I get dessert all day tomorrow.’” Natenshon, on the other hand, believes that rewards can be fine, assuming that the child is capable of actually succeeding. If a child is incapable of eating a food that tastes metallic to her, for example, refusing to give the child a reward every single time is punishing the child without resolving the problem.
"If your child is really hungry, he will eat."
Status: Myth. Many pediatricians suggest that parents refuse to offer alternative foods to children, a suggestion that Natenshon rails against. Imagine if someone told you that the only food available for dinner was dog food, and you could either eat the dog food or starve. Understanding that many picky eaters actually detest the taste of certain foods can change your attitude from confrontational to understanding.
"You can keep your children healthy by sneaking pureed vegetables into their food."
Status: Uncertain. Some best-selling books have publicized this approach, but some nutritionists disapprove. “Sneaking food into your child’s diet could backfire and result in them not trusting you in other realms of your relationship,” Dr. Garden-Robinson explains. Natenshon points out a different problem with this approach, which is that it just won’t work for many picky eaters. If the child has a sensory problem or a special taste deficiency, you won’t be able to get away with simply grinding up the food. No matter how much you try to cover up the taste, it will still be there.
"There are treatment options that can help picky eaters."
Status: Truth. Here are some techniques that you can use to help your picky eater become slightly less picky.
- Be a good role model. Eat your vegetables, and show your child that you are willing to try new foods.
- Invite over friends who enjoy a variety of foods. Sometimes peer pressure will encourage your child to taste a new food.
- Take it slowly. When introducing a new food, try to pair it with a food that your child enjoys. Serve only a small amount of the new food to avoid overwhelming your child.
- Make eating new foods fun! Cut your child’s vegetables in interesting shapes or let your child dip them into a healthy dressing.
- Create a garden, and let your children help to grow the foods that you would like them to eat.
Offer food up to a dozen times before giving up. Over time, the food may become more “familiar,” spurring the child to try it. If you’ve tried these basic techniques and feel that you’re dealing with a strong biological or sensory issue, you can try one of the following ideas:
- Try behavioral therapy, which uses desensitization or food chaining.
- Look into the Feldenkrais and Anatbaniel methods, both of which provide pleasurable play experiences for children that can help the brain and body become better organized.
- Consult with speech and occupational therapists who understand how to change neurology.
- Give your child a multivitamin and/or a health drink that includes the vitamins and minerals that your child needs in order to thrive.
No matter what your picky eater is picky about, there are simple steps you can take to help de-wrinkle that scrunch face, and get your kid eating delicious and nutritious meals that you're both happy about.