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Picky Eaters: Born or Made?

To Eat or Not to Eat? That Is the Question
Once upon a time there lived a storybook badger named Frances, who would only eat bread and jam. Bread and jam for breakfast, bread and jam for lunch, bread and jam for supper. Her mother tried to interest her in eggs, sunny-side up, or a delicious plate of spaghetti and meatballs, all to no avail. Finally, Frances' mom gave up and gave in, serving only bread and jam to her fussy child until one day even Frances was forced to admit that there can indeed be too much of a good thing.

There's good reason why the classic picture book, Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban, has enchanted children for three decades: friendly, furry Frances reminds young readers of themselves. Many children go through stages when they refuse to eat certain foods, or insist on only eating a few favorite things (usually devoid of all nutritional value, or so it seems). Eating is often divorced from hunger in the power struggles and manipulative game-playing that result:

"I won't eat broccoli! It's like eating baby trees!"
"You must have two bites of salad and one bite of meatloaf to get dessert."
"Why do you always make fish when you know I hate it?!"
"If you drink your milk, I'll play Candy Land with you."

We wonder: Is this our fault? Are all the other children in the neighborhood happily eating salad and meatloaf right now, while our willful, whiny child holds out for chicken nuggets? Are the other parents who meekly made PB&J in advance, knowing their children would refuse meatloaf and salad, enjoying a happier, quieter supper than we are right now?

But the first question, before we get to "how to make them eat," is, "how to get ourselves off the hook." To find the answer, we surveyed parents from Seattle to Boston, asking them: "Are picky eaters born or made?" Not surprisingly, those with picky eaters believe they came into the world as such. Those whose children eat everything give themselves a big pat on the back. A sampling of the findings:

Andrew, father of Nathan, 18 months: "They're born. We have struggled so much to get this kid to eat. He loves noodles and sweet things, but he likes them better on my plate than on his. He loved American cheese slices for a few days; now he won't touch them. It's not what we're doing, it's that he just keeps changing."

Sam, father of Peter, four years: "They're made. We've never made special meals for him, always insisted that he try new foods, and as a result he eats everything. He loves fruits and vegetables."

Amy, mother of Michaela, five years, and Lily, three years: "It's both. It's personality, temperament. They're born that way and it just gets made worse, or not. When Michaela was a baby she would eat everything, then at two she wouldn't, and now she's starting to branch out again. Lily has always been more particular. She looks at a food first, asks a lot of questions before she'll try it. But let's face it, this is almost always about the parent, not the kid!"

True, perhaps, but since establishing parental guilt or innocence will not get us where we want to go, let's now move beyond bread and jam and look for solutions.


Beyond Bread and Jam
The good news is, what is true for a storybook badger is also true for children. In other words: This too shall pass. Most kids won't starve, since much of this conflict has nothing to do with actual hunger or intake of food, anyway! Picky eating often represents a child's desire to exert control (which is why we see so much of it during the toddler years). There are simple things we can do to encourage good eating habits, but only if we are willing to stop micro-managing the intake of every morsel. A few simple suggestions:

1. Don't barter, plead, or make deals involving food. Drawing connections between eating and good or bad behavior ("Good girls who eat their carrots get ice cream") sets up a dynamic that can prove to be disastrous in adulthood ("I'm entitled to eat this entire bag of cookies because I won the new account" or conversely, "because I'm feeling anxious or unloved.")

2. Limit or ban the amount of junk food and sweets kept in the house. New York Times' health columnist, Jane Brody writes that she never kept candy, chips, soda, or ice cream at home when her kids were growing up. Instead, she gave them money once a week to go out and buy their own goodies. This had the effect of restricting their access to foods void of nutrition, but without complete deprivation. Similarly, you can cross frozen fries (loaded with hydrogenated oils!) off your shopping list, but build in a visit to a fast-food emporium instead.

3. Choices, choices, choices. Since picky eating is often a power play-- "I refuse to eat what you say I must" -- you can increase the chances that kids will make healthy food choices by spreading the dining room table with a myriad options. Instead of meatloaf, for instance, serve "make your own" tacos and let kids "build" their own dinner, choosing whether or not to add cheese, tomatoes, or lettuce. Replace a single salad with a colorful platter of cut-up veggies, including baby carrots, pea pods, celery, and red and yellow peppers, perhaps with a selection of dipping sauces (nothing fancy, dressing out of a few bottles with do!) Fondue, now back in vogue as a chic dinner-party option, is great fun for kids because eating becomes an engaging activity.

4. Read labels. Think that six-pack of applesauce is a healthy snack choice? Chances are it's low fat or fat-free, but most likely packed with sugar and utterly devoid of nutrients. Then again, juice boxes that seem surprisingly devoid of vitamin C may have added calcium. With heavily processed foods, it's impossible to make assumptions. Check the ingredients.

5. Be realistic about portions, mindful of hunger. Two-year-olds, for example, should get one-quarter to one-third of an adult's food portion. That's not a lot, and yet another reason not to force-feed by demanding "four more bites." Kids need to learn to eat in response to hunger cues, not because you say so.

6. Be sneaky. There's something to be said for "what they don't know won't hurt them." Soft tofu or cooked vegetables can be pureed and added to tomato sauce. Finely chopped spinach or broccoli can be mixed into ricotta cheese when stuffing shells. Add unsweetened applesauce or shredded carrots to muffins.

7. Be patient. Good eating habits are built over time. Nutritionists and pediatricians say you should consider your child's nutritional intake over the course of a week, not a day. Leaving aside economic variables, most children with access to enough food will get enough of what they need to be healthy.


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