There is No Accounting for Taste: Some Fun Facts About Your Picky Eater and 7 Cheats so They Eat Their Beets

Point of fact: Telling picky eaters that veggies will help them grow big and strong doesn’t work. They don’t care!

There really is nothing more exhausting than waging daily war with a picky eater at mealtime. You find yourself asking, insisting, explaining, and then resort to bribing, yelling, and ultimately, giving up. And of course, the fit over not getting the thing you tried to bribe them with follows.

Why does nature set it up this way? Scientists have discovered recently that taste is actually determined long before you ever try the cantaloupe. Genes and brain makeup play key roles in your child’s fussiness. Because humans are omnivores and therefore have access to a much broader range of nutritional choices, discerning taste buds might be nature’s way of helping us steer clear of things that are not good for us, a curbing mechanism so we don’t eat something like poison berries.1 Science refers to this as neophobic: fear of something new.

 

As it turns out, avoiding certain foods is a survival strategy.

Clearly, that mechanism is far from perfect because it means that those with certain genes will also pass on the asparagus and broccoli too. Even stranger, modern man is way more reluctant to try a new animal protein versus a new plant. “That’s ironic in two ways,” says Marcia Pelchat, a researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center, a scientific institute dedicated to the study of smell and taste. “As far as taste is concerned, the range of flavors in animal meat isn’t that large compared to plants, so there isn’t as much of a difference. And, of course, people are much more likely to be poisoned by eating plants than by animals, as long as the meat is properly cooked.”1

One of the reasons kids naturally gravitate toward white foods like yogurt, bread, and pasta, for example, is the bland and sugary qualities that kids associate with breast milk. So when you keep feeding them those foods, they can become the high water mark for taste. Conditioning is key in acclimating to different flavors.1

So, how do you as a parent avoid the dinnertime struggle and still sleep at night knowing they are not going to starve? Let’s hive-mind that answer from parents and pediatricians who know the pain all too well. Below is a collection of reminders, tricks, and cheats that will serve your child good food painlessly.

  1. Keep putting it in front of them. One pediatrician noted that kids have to be exposed to the food as much as 20 times before they will realize it’s good. Don’t give up after one or two tries. Eat it in front of them so they can watch everyone else enjoying it.  
  2. Try a wide variety of food. This is a good practice anyway, as Pelchat pointed out, as plants have a wide variety of flavors. Sweet peas, avocados, cooked carrots, cherry tomatoes, beans, nuts, or seed­s– just keep experimenting repeatedly with these kid-friendly choices.
  3. Don’t fill them up on juice and think they are getting their nutrition. Even if it’s pure, juice is primarily sugar and the object here is to get lots of other flavors from the plate into their bellies. If you resort to fruit every mealtime, you are showing them that if they hold out, they will get the goods.
  4. Blend it up. You shouldn’t be above cleverly disguising veggies by blending them up into smoothies or soups. Kids will never recognize an avocado, carrot, or a handful of kale if you pulverize it in a little deluded juice and blueberries. And soups are a great way to sneak alliums like onion and garlic into the mix, which are great immune boosters for cold season.
  5. Involve them in the meal from the beginning. Sometimes if kids feel like part of the selection and preparation, they will be more likely to eat the final product. Some studies indicate that toddlers who garden are more enthusiastic about the vegetable because they participated and they know where it comes from2.
  6. Stop bribing. This one is probably the hardest one, but might also be the most important. If you set up a rhythm where they always get dessert after dinner, your children will always expect it. Make treats occasional, and substitute in fruit for sugary deserts when you do indulge. Dinner should have its own merit, not just be a vehicle to the sweet reward.
  7. It’s ok to let them graze. Especially young children want to eat a little food often, so keep in mind that having five small meals is just as good as three large meals. Kids won’t starve themselves; just be patient with the knowledge that their taste buds are imprinting and this picky phase will not last forever.

It’s frustrating, but when it comes down to it, you may need to do less, not more, in the food department. If dinner has become a carnival of singing and dancing, watching TV, or other contrivances to get them to eat, stop. You don’t have to make every meal into a cute dinosaur, or cut carrots into hearts. Children will come around as long as you keep trying, keep demonstrating, and hold the line. And when they turn a corner and discover the wonderful world of food, you and your partner can pat each other on the back, call a sitter, and go out to a really great restaurant.

 

References:

  1. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-are-you-picky-eater-blame-genes-brains-and-breast-milk-180953456/?no-ist
  2. http://www.pbs.org/parents/special/article-nutrition-picky.html

About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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