My middle child, a boy, has always had strong opinions about his preferences. From the way his socks feel on his feet, to the way foods taste in his mouth, his sensitivities and aversions have caused many moments of frustration and tears in our house. For some reason, we parents are more apt to go along with the somewhat strange idiosyncrasies of clothing preferences and bedtime routines that can’t be broken or bent, than we are with their sensitivities to food, often labeling them as picky from barely a year old. Grandparents and older generations surely have a part to blame in how negatively we view and handle food aversions. Often times we as parents of “picky” eaters have to hear time and time again how tough older generations had it, and there was no allowance for picky eaters, as they were all just lucky to have food. And of course there’s always the reminder that there are starving kids all over the world who would be thankful to have a meal to eat.
While of course all of that is true, and many kids in America do indeed suffer from a plethora of food excess and could use a good lesson in appreciation, that type of logic rarely works on a fussy 3-year-old who’s resistant to try anything green. And it certainly does little to help out the parents of said-toddler who are ready to pull their hair out after another good dinner is laid to waste.
Then there are the lucky parents of kids we label “good” eaters who have never had to deal with meals being refused with disgusted looks and gags, who look at you clueless when you say your child won’t eat brussel sprouts. “Oh, have you cooked them this way or that? My kids just LOVE brussel sprouts! They gobble them right up!” Or all the not-so-subtle suggestions and questions (interrogations) of all the things you could or should be doing to get your child to eat more veggies. While most people do indeed dole out advice with the best intentions, parents of picky eaters can’t help but feel a little defensive when asked time and time again if they’ve ever tried cooking with their picky eater, to you know, get them interested in their food (see this article I wrote which answers, “yes”).
I continue to live in this world of parenting a picky eater, and in the past year as I laid more hard and fast rules about food and introduced more unusual flavors and ingredients, many days have been hard as hell that literally brought me to tears. After one particularly grueling night where my son declared once again that the food I was serving him was gross, I sent him to bed and stewed in my own anger for a while.
And then I started thinking that there had to be something to explain why one child out of three had such strong food aversions.
While we had made many huge strides in broadening his taste palate, there were still certain foods he detested, which I could predict with pinpoint accuracy. And I could tell that his anxiety centered around mealtime seemed to be growing. My daughter would bounce into the kitchen each night, and with genuine curiosity ask what’s for dinner. My little toddler would grab his fork and hobble over to his highchair, bang on the table like a little caveman and simply alert us that he was ready to eat. He didn’t care what it was, just feed him. My middle child however, seemed to almost become depressed when he found out dinner was something slightly unusual or contained ingredients he was adverse to. While it made me frustrated, it also made me sad too. I wanted him to grow up to love food and see its wonderful potential for pleasure and fulfillment. I didn’t want his food aversions to become so deeply embedded that they crept into his adult life.
The Internet to the rescue. At first I used search terms like “help with picky eaters” and “why are some people picky eaters?” and “why are kids more picky than adults?” What I found was much of the same: article after article of advice to parents of picky eaters and how they needed to change, to change their child. Some articles were positive in tone, some accusatory, but most boiled down to pointing blame squarely on the parents and the role they played in feeding into their child’s picky behavior. Not exactly encouraging.
And then I decided to search for “the science of picky eaters,” and what I found was a breath of fresh air. I may have exhaled a small sigh of relief.
Study after study showed how huge of a role genetics play in determining a person’s pickiness when it comes to food.
Dr. Dennis Drayna published a study 10 years ago now, in which he successfully identified the actual gene which determines how we all perceive the bitterness of the chemical compound PTC, often found in many vegetables.
Furthermore, by looking at which gene sequence you inherit from your parents, you can determine if a person will naturally be more sensitive to bitter flavors than others.
Non-tasters, those who can’t detect the bitterness of PTC, inherit the gene sequence GTA from both sets of parents.
Tasters of the bitterness of PTC inherit the gene sequence CCG from both sets of parents.
Medium tasters, those who sort of have an aversion, but over time, may grow to love the bitter flavor, get the GTA sequence from one parent, and the CCG sequence from the other parent.
This short NOVA documentary explains it succinctly and entertainingly. Interestingly enough, this little video reminded me why kids will often shriek with disgust before the food even touches their lips, and it has to do with their sense of smell. We don’t just taste with our tongues, but with our noses too, which probably explains much of the dramatic behavior and crinkled noses kids often display.
This study and information is not necessarily new, yet we still continue to gently harass picky kids and parents of picky kids, and I’m not really sure why. It seems pretty counter-intuitive to put all this pressure on all parties involved when it comes to such a sensitive and personal issue as food and food choices. Getting nutrients in my kids is priority number one when it comes to feeding them. And almost of equal importance is nurturing the development of a healthy and joyful relationship with food. With this recently discovered information, I’ve stepped back a bit when it comes to pressuring my picky kid to eat certain things, and I’ve definitely stopped banging my head against the wall. For far too long I kept wondering what was wrong with me and what was wrong with him, when the answer could literally be as simple as his genetic makeup. What a startlingly novel concept.
With all that being said, we still do have some ground rules and general approaches to confronting and dealing with my son’s pickiness. It goes without saying that every child and every situation is unique, and what may work for us may not work for others, but this is how we’ve been approaching our son’s pickiness in our home:
1. No rude talk, only respectful language
This is rule number one, because while he is allowed to not like something, he is certainly not allowed to be rude and disrespectful when it comes to the food I cook. No labeling my cooking or food as gross or disgusting. And in turn, I have been trying really hard not to lose my temper and get upset with his aversions.
2. Monitor snacking
We try not to make a big deal out of it, and we do have set snack-times, but if any of the kids gets hungry in between meals, we simply tell them their choices of snacks (always a healthy fruit or veggie), and if they turn it down, we know they’re not really hungry but are just craving something sweet or crunchy and salty.
3. Try at least one bite, and keep trying
Even if it’s a teeny tiny bite, you must try all the foods you’re served. Bottom line. And I in turn, will continue serving them the same thing time and time again, with the hope that eventually, he’ll come around.
4. No short order cooking, but meal amendments can be made
While some may label short order cooking differently, I personally won’t make an entirely different meal for my son, but I will somewhat alter the meal we’re eating, for his specific plate. For instance, he strongly dislikes tomato sauce, but the rest of us likes it. No sweat off my back. Before adding the ground beef to the tomato sauce for spaghetti, I set some plain meat aside for him and plate him up. Strangely enough, broccoli is one vegetable he’ll always eat, so I often have a little container of broccoli available in the fridge, for the nights we’re eating things like brussel sprouts or zucchini. At the end of the day, I’d rather him eat a cup of broccoli and get a good dose of nutrients than a nibble of something he hates.
5. Release some control
Food choices allow kids to feel more in control, so at least one to two times a night I loosely let them choose their meal. I’ll decide on the main dish, like baked chicken, and then they can choose our side dishes. This has helped tremendously.
6. Serve wholesome food
If you have a picky eater, it’s even more important to make sure the food you’re serving them is wholesome and nutritious. Our son is a veracious rice eater, so we switched to whole grain brown rice last year so that he’s at least getting the best dose of carbohydrates he can.
7. Have faith that it will get better as they get older
Many meal times now, I just get by with a glass of wine and a little bit of faith that when he’s 30, his dinner plate will look a little more diverse and the crinkled nose will go away. He does enjoy vegetables like broccoli and even artichokes, so not all hope is lost. He’s a good fish eater and will devour yogurt and sweet potatoes. His diverse taste buds are in there, they’re just heavily masked right now by some pretty strong feelings and sensitivities.
Parents of picky eaters, I feel you, and I stand with you in solidarity. I hope this bit of information was both informative and encouraging, and I wish you many stress-free, battle-free meals ahead (eventually).