When a Child is a Picky Eater
When it comes to food, young children are notoriously finicky. Many parents find that their preschooler’s idea of a gastronomic delight is peanut butter and grape jelly on cheap, packaged white bread that has the crusts trimmed off and has been cut diagonally never into rectangles. To many 3-year-olds, eating fish or broccoli would be unthinkable. Brussels sprouts are simply viewed as an alien life form.
Food is a highly emotional topic for adults. We use it to celebrate our triumphs and to console ourselves in our times of loss. We “break bread” with others as a symbol of peace and hospitality. To leave food on a plate is seen as a sign of rejection in some families and an indication that the host has provided enough in others.
Children, however, share few of these cultural assumptions. A preschooler who adamantly refuses to eat his vegetables may be telling you more about his physiology than anything else. While many adults consider such pickiness a sign of being spoiled especially since rejecting food at all is, for most of the world’s children, an unimaginable luxury researchers have found that there are biological and developmental reasons behind young children’s occasionally peculiar dining habits. Also, parents who become upset and blow these behaviors out of proportion may unintentionally make their children’s eating problems worse.
Children taste things differently than adults do. Their taste buds are generally more sensitive and may be overwhelmed by the spiciness of a dish that their parents would consider intolerably bland. Young children especially avoid bitter tastes, such as those found in dark green vegetables. This aversion may be one reason for our species’ survival, since many poisonous plants taste bitter.
Also, toddlers quickly recognize that both ends of their gastrointestinal tract are effective weapons in their ongoing battle to assert their independence from their parents. (There’s at least one study showing that finicky toddlers were also more difficult to toilet-train and kicked up more of a fuss when they were put to bed.) To a 2-year-old, the act of refusing to eat what his mother is trying to cajole into his mouth may be much more important that the taste of the food in question.
One key factor in whether a child will try a new food is whether he associates it with something he already knows and enjoys. A 2-year-old who likes to eat peaches will probably be willing to try nectarines. A preschooler who gulps down hamburgers and chicken may be reluctant to snack on squid it’s just too different.
This, too, can be seen as a protective mechanism. When you think about it, swallowing a new food is quite a risky business. You’re much safer if you limit your diet to things you know won’t hurt you.
Speaking of squid now there’s a phrase I seldom get to use I recall an article in the Wall Street Journal in 1998 about children’s food preferences in Japan vs. the United States, which showed how arbitrary and culture-bound many of our assumptions about children and food are. The best-selling flavor of Gerber brand baby food in Japan at that time was…brace yourself…rice with chopped burdock root and sardines ground up in white radish sauce. While American toddlers may get excited about Spaghetti-Ohs, Japanese toddlers are wolfing down their cultural equivalent…cod roe spaghetti. American 2-year-olds insist on macaroni and cheese; Japanese 2-year-olds demand the very popular mugwort casserole or flounder and spinach stew.