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.
One common technique for expanding a child’s repertoire of foods offering him a bribe to eat his spinach may backfire. As with many other behaviors, studies have shown that disproportionate rewards for eating a particular food tend to make children like that food even less. Forcing a child to eat a particular food will often lead to the child’s developing a long-standing aversion to it.
A better approach would begin by parents changing their mindsets and expecting their children to reject new foods the first few times they encounter them. Instead of using bribery, simply present the food eight or ten times over a period of a few weeks so that it becomes more familiar.
Also, look for ways of incorporating new foods into familiar presentations so that they don’t seem quite as strange. A vegetable that your child pushes aside when served alone may be more palatable when added to a soup. A preschooler who likes spaghetti is more likely to taste a new stir-fried dish that’s served over Chinese noodles instead of rice.
What do you do if your child refuses to eat anything but peanut butter-and-jelly or egg-salad sandwiches for weeks at a time? First of all, don’t panic. As long as your child is generally healthy and isn’t losing weight, you have nothing to worry about. It might be a good idea to supplement your child’s food with a chewable children’s multivitamin. Remember that if you don’t make a big deal out of it, your child will probably grow bored with his limited diet within a few weeks.
Here are some other ideas that can help finicky eaters become more adventurous:
- Remember when your mother told you not to play with your food? Well, she was wrong. (This may, of course, have been the only time she was wrong.) Children learn about the important things in their world by playing with them. Touching, feeling, stretching, and generally playing with new foods is a way for your children to figure out what they’re like.
This doesn’t mean you should allow your son or daughter to fling meatballs or lima beans across the living room. Rather, you should actively involve your child in preparing and serving foods. Although I wouldn’t recommend handing a 3-year-old a chef’s knife, toddlers should be able to pour something from a measuring cup into a bowl, and preschoolers can help wash and peel vegetables or push the buttons on a microwave oven. Strange foods are a lot less threatening when a child has made their acquaintance away from the dining room table.
- Use social pressure to your advantage. Children pay closer attention to what other kids eat than to what adults eat. If the older children at your table are trying a new dish, the younger ones will probably taste it, too. Be aware that this approach can backfire. Children’s food aversions are also contagious. If an older child refuses to taste a new casserole, the younger ones will likely do the same.