December 2006

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Picky, Picky, Picky

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The Picky, Picky, Picky

by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer

Okay, time to ‘fess up—are you now, or have you ever been, a picky eater? Is there a food you just won’t consider consuming? Most of us have a few things we won’t eat—ask me about liver or lima beans sometime! One or two non-favorites won’t compromise good nutrition, but what happens when a person has only one or two foods they will eat? And what if that person is a child? Virtually every parent has had to cope with a picky eater at some stage and it can be a worrisome time. How big a deal is picky eating? Should we be worried about what our kids do or don’t eat? Are picky eaters born that way or created by their caregivers?

Through history

The recommendations for feeding children have undergone many changes in the past two centuries. Until the middle of the 19th century, all children were breastfed, often for at least the first few years of life. The Industrial Revolution brought us baby bottles for feeding, and by 1870, the Nestlé Company had introduced the first infant formula powder in the United States. Formulas went through many revisions during the following decades as scientists tried to find the optimal recipe for healthy babies while relieving “ladies of quality” from the “burden” of breastfeeding their children. By the time we baby boomers came along, breastfeeding was almost unheard of in the U.S. and infants were being fed thin cereal in their formula bottles sometimes as early as six weeks of age.
In the intervening years, much has been learned about the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby. We have also learned more about how and when infants learn to use their tongue, jaw and throat muscles to effectively swallow solid and semi-solid foods, and now the days of feeding cereal to newborns are gone.

Feeding babies

Babies are rarely given solids until they are six months now, when they are able to sit up fairly well, their swallowing reflexes are strong, and teeth are forming to facilitate chewing. Babies that are ready for solid foods will usually show interest in what their parents are eating—reaching for food or a spoon, opening their mouths when food is offered and mimicking chewing and swallowing. In the first months of feeding solids, foods are very soft in texture and are often rather sweet to take advantage of babies’ natural sweet tooth. This includes things like very ripe bananas, rice cereal, and pureed pear, apple and carrot. At this point it is important to remember that you are introducing solids to supplement breastfeeding or formula, not to replace it.

Young babies may have distinct preferences for certain foods but are not usually picky in the sense of absolute refusal. They will refuse food when they are full, though, and it doesn’t take much to get them there. Most babies can only eat one to two tablespoons of food at a meal, though it is likely they will want six to eight meals each day! Many experts on childhood nutrition agree that forcing a child to eat more than they choose is one of the big factors both in developing pickiness and in excess weight gain during childhood. It is also believed that when children are not allowed to regulate the amount of their food intake from a very young age, they tend to grow up not recognizing true hunger or feelings of satiety. There are a couple of suggested ways to gauge an appropriate quantity of food for a child’s meal or snack. One guide is to figure about one tablespoon of food per year of age; another is to remember that a young child’s stomach is about the size of his own fist. The rate of weight gain slows fairly dramatically after the first year and that also affects the amount of food a child needs or wants. Nutritionists advise parents to remember that they control what foods their children eat and the children control how much food is eaten.

Sometime around seven or eight months, babies start picking up everything they can. Parents can take advantage of this new skill and begin to introduce small pieces of soft finger foods and new flavors at the same time. Try pieces of cooked pasta, cubes of tofu and cheese, small bites of cooked vegetables, eggs or fish, and don’t forget favorites like peas and yogurt. At this stage you may want to offer small pieces of food in various shapes in the compartments of a muffin pan or ice cube tray, rather than on a plate. This can make it easier for little fingers to grasp things. Foods that become familiar at this age are usually still accepted during the pickier preschool years. If you want your kids to grow up eating healthy, whole foods, start them young. Some studies show that new foods are better accepted by two to four year olds than by four to eight year olds.

Playing with food

You may have to offer a new food 10 to 15 times over a period of a few weeks before a child of any age tries it. Before eating something new, children will give it close visual scrutiny, usually followed by “playing” with the food. They will touch and handle it, smell it, squish and smear it, and probably generally make a mess! This behavior is thought to be an evolutionary safeguard and more than likely is not just your child being difficult. Do not assume the child is never going to eat the new food—they are testing to make sure it will not hurt them; they are watching to see what other family members do with this stranger on the plate; and making sure that no one is becoming ill from it. Continue to offer the new food and try preparing it in different ways until something clicks. It is also suggested that any new food be served with something already accepted and also served to all family members at the beginning of the meal. Everyone tries the new dish and offers a comment that is specific like, “It’s crunchy/sour/curious,” but not overtly negative such as, “It’s yucky.” Take advantage of similarities between foods too. If your child likes carrots, he probably will accept sweet potatoes and squash. Does he already eat spinach? Then try chard or kale and so on.

Nutrition recommendations

Nutritionists recommend sticking to healthy foods and keeping sugary or fatty fried foods to a bare minimum if offered at all, but during the first year, 40 to 50 percent of an infant’s calories should come from high-quality fats. These foods include breastmilk, flaxseed, avocados, eggs, and oils from seeds and nuts, among others. Do not feed whole seeds or nuts to infants though because they are a choking hazard. Start reducing the amount of dietary fat at about three years—children and teens need about 30 percent of calories from fat and adults even less. As the amount of fat in the diet is decreasing, the amount of fiber should be increasing, along with water to help process it.

Feeding toddlers and older children

Studies have shown that toddlers and older children often eat a much more limited range of foods than they did as infants. As parents we tend to provide a wide variety of “baby” foods, whether we are making our own or buying commercial food, but after the first year baby usually eats the same foods as the rest of the family. If we, as parents, don’t keep offering that variety, our kids will eventually refuse some of those foods. Children love to mimic the behaviors of their parents and siblings, and one of the keys to avoiding pickiness is to eat lots of different foods ourselves so our children have good behavior to copy. Lack of variety sometimes causes children to develop some strange eating patterns too, such as eating only food of a specific color. For example, if lunch is regularly mac and cheese, corn, and bananas, you may end up with a three year old that only eats yellow things.

A growing sense of independence

One of the main factors in what we often characterize as pickiness, is simply a normal manifestation of a toddler’s growing sense of independence and desire to control his world. Experts say that this is where parents need to take care with their reactions. If a child receives a lot of attention by asserting himself, he may decide that is a good thing and then the situation repeats and escalates until soon Junior isn’t eating and he and his parents are stressed over every meal. It is better not to make a big deal over the behavior and let the child eat the parts of the meal he will. That is not to say you should become a short order cook. If most meals are well balanced kids will find something on the table they like, and if they choose not to eat at a single meal, they won’t starve. In this situation, some families decide to offer one plain alternative to the meal. This might be bread and nut butter or whole grain cereal and milk, but the alternative never varies from meal to meal, or day to day, making it a boring choice for the child.

Beware of bribes, threats and rewards; your child will learn to use behavior to gain attention. Be especially careful of using food as a bribe or reward­—this is a fast track to increased pickiness among young children and eating disorders with older kids and adults. Sometimes young children will try to exert their control in order to continue with play rather than sitting at the table. Most experts in pediatric health and behavior suggest having children sit at the table with the family for at least ten minutes; even if they still refuse to eat, there is value in learning to sit quietly and share family time and conversation before returning to their play.

Common sense approaches

There are some other common sense approaches to help head off picky eating. Children usually need three meals and two to three healthy snacks to keep their energy levels at an even keel all day. Try to serve snacks at a regular time each day, at the table or another specific place. This helps kids learn to sit and relax while they eat, and it develops a sense of awareness of the food they are consuming. Just be sure that snack time is not too close to mealtime so children are hungry when they sit down. When it is time for a snack or a meal, turn off the television. It is very distracting and tempts kids and adults with food advertising. Remember that adults control what is available to eat—young children can’t eat junk if we don’t serve it to them. Do you always prepare food in the same way? Kids get bored too, so change it up. Dehydration can reduce appetite so be sure everyone in the family drinks enough water every day. Some fluids can come in the form of milk or juice, but remember that these contain calories that will fill tummies, young and older. A few studies have shown that children under five who regularly drink 12 ounces or more of juice each day are more likely to have weight problems that begin during childhood. Stick with water, or at least diluted juice, to quench thirst.

Creative kitchen artistry

Try some kitchen tricks to entice your little ones to taste something new. Children love food that is fun, so cut sandwiches or cheese into different shapes once in awhile. Create faces on pita or English muffin pizzas with small pieces of vegetables or other toppings. Serve fruit or veggies as finger food with a nutritious dip or let your child help you make a smoothie with their fruit and pour it into a “fancy” container with a curly straw. “Ants on a log” is always a popular snack, or stuff celery with cottage or cream cheese that has finely diced fruit or vegetables added. Make roll-ups instead of sandwiches sometimes. Use a whole wheat pita or tortilla and fill it with anything—salad, refried beans, veggies, hummus, meat, cheese, scrambled eggs or any combination and then cut into slices sized for small hands and mouths. And don’t forget the time-honored tradition of slipping grated or pureed vegetables into soup, pasta sauce, meat or vegetable loaves, and even bread or muffins. Kids also enjoy colorful plates and cups and other surprises—maybe lunch could be a picnic in front of the fireplace on a chilly day or dinner could be breakfast food like pancakes and eggs eaten in pajamas.

Kids in the mix

Children of all ages can usually be counted on to eat, or at least sample, food they have been involved in cultivating, choosing or preparing. If getting kids to eat vegetables is a perennial problem, enlist your whole family’s help in planning, planting and harvesting a garden. If space is an issue, remember that lots of good things can be grown in containers on a patio or balcony—try salad greens, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, mini-cucumbers, peppers, carrots, or eggplant for starters. Take your kids to orchards and berry farms to pick fruit. Make regular visits to a farmers market or roadside farm stand near your home. Bring your children shopping and encourage them to choose a new food to try each time. Most of those choices should be made from whole foods in the Produce and Bulk grocery departments, but let them try an unfamiliar cheese, tofu, seitan, kefir, or maybe a new kind of seafood or cut of meat. This is one of the ways that kids learn that treats are not necessarily sweet, even though an occasional sweet treat is nice too!

Another way to get kids involved with their food is to get them busy in the kitchen. Let them help choose recipes and then put them to work. Preschoolers can help set the table, cut soft foods with a butter knife, stir dry ingredients, wash and tear salad greens, toss the salad (in a big bowl!), distribute pizza toppings and more. Older children can usually handle more challenging tasks. Let them try things like kneading dough, mashing potatoes, measuring ingredients, peeling vegetables, washing or drying dishes, or putting away groceries. This is a natural time to begin teaching about nutrition—which fats are healthy and which to avoid, why our bodies need fiber, that there is more calcium in a cup of cooked collard greens than a cup of milk, and other food facts. Some days it may seem as though those extra hands in the kitchen are creating more work for parents, but this is a great way to get closer to kids—working together promotes conversation and trust as well as a sense of pride when dinner is served. Cooking with kids is a great way to build family food traditions that will have a warm place in memories for decades to come.

Give us your tips

We would love to hear your strategies for coping with a picky eater. Check out our website resource page at You will find an email address you can send your tips, questions or food suggestions for posting. December’s class schedule in the Co-op Community Room offers opportunities for kids to cook. On Saturday, December 16th, Lydia Critchley will lead kids in “Fun with Fruits and Vegetables.” Ms. Critchley returns Thursday, December 28th with “Kids in the Kitchen.” This issue of the Reader contains several kid-friendly recipes, too.

Talk to a health professional

There are some situations in which a child may be picky for truly serious reasons. If a child has a physical difficulty with chewing or swallowing he may refuse food because he is actually frightened of gagging or even choking. Digestive problems caused by gastric reflux, constipation, ulcers and allergies are becoming more common among young children and can cause pain related to eating. Medications sometimes result in reduced appetite. Some of these include stimulants like Ritalin, antibiotics and antidepressants. A diet that is consistently very poor results in malnourishment, which, ironically, can further reduce appetite and/or create strong cravings for carbohydrates. These are all situations that require the prompt attention of your family health professional.
And finally, trust your judgment! If you really feel your child is not growing as he should, whether that means too much or too little, or something else is not right, get him or her checked.