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Picky Eaters: The Struggle Is Biological

I’m learning the best-laid menu plans for a kid may not work out the way I want them to.

As a fitness instructor, clean eating advocate and mom-to-be first-timer, I’m abiding by the dietary safety precautions and sacrifices during my pregnancy (Dear sushi, I missed you first.), but I already have fairly good eating habits. I’ve been looking ahead (okay, way ahead) and thinking about what turns kids into picky eaters. I hear from friends and clients about their struggles, and because I’m in the business I’m in, I can’t help but think about the challenges in store for me at mealtime when this baby makes her debut. (It’s a girl!) I have this dream I’ll be one of the lucky moms whose kid eats anything—but is it all luck?

Eating for Two
Here’s the first thing I learned when I started researching this topic: what you eat when you’re pregnant can influence what your child chooses to eat later on. According to a study co-authored by Dr. Julie Mennella with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, the flavors my baby experiences through the womb are tied to what they’ll experience when breastfeeding. Breast milk then “bridges” their in utero flavor experiences with solid food.

Those flavor experiences are heavily based on aroma volatiles—the compounds in food that affect the way it smells. This surprised me: flavor is 20 percent actual taste, but 80 percent comes from scent (plus some temperature and texture signals), according to Dr. Mennella. “Babies are already biologically hardwired to be attracted to foods containing sugar and salt, but they have to be exposed to fruit and vegetables if they are to learn to accept and like these flavors.” She also stresses that even mothers who don’t breastfeed can influence their babies’ preferences by introducing healthy food early.

Winning the Mealtime Battle
“It’s such a complicated topic. Kids’ taste buds are changing every day, so what they ate for dinner, they may not touch tomorrow for lunch. I’ll tell you, my daughter doesn’t eat fruits or vegetables, and it’s a stab to the heart,” admits Becca Miller. She’s a registered dietitian nutritionist with Ochsner Fitness Center—her daughter is two and a half. “I think why a child turns out to be particular or selective really depends on them. Offering the healthiest variety of foods to your kid as early as you can is always best, but it’s no guarantee.”

If you’ve got a picky eater, and want to expose them to different foods, here are some strategies to help plan meals that accommodate kids’ shifting tastes without catering to demands:

One Bite Rule. Because their palates are continually changing from one day to the next, Becca’s pediatrician recommends having kids take one bite of what’s offered. “They don’t have to take more than one, and they don’t have to like it. You don’t want to force them so they rebel and have a bad experience, so be careful,” she warns. It goes back to the age of the child—this is a good tactic for older kids, but not toddlers.

Same Food, Different Way. Kids may not touch salmon today, even if they loved it yesterday. That means continually reinventing how you prepare food, so research different cooking methods or serve things differently. Maybe instead of roasting broccoli, you steam it and make it into a southern-style broccoli salad. Be creative!

Include One Thing They Like. According to Becca, kids are more likely to try a new food if there’s something comfortable that they already enjoy on the plate.

Make a Gradual Change to Something Better. When you’ve got older kids and want to tweak their eating habits, a tactic called “food chaining” might work. Make one small change that leads into another. For example: if they’re already eating potato chips, switch to the baked ones. Then, switch to Beanitos, which are made of beans and come in nacho cheese flavor. “Wait about three weeks between changes,” Becca advises. “You can go from there to the crispy green bean chips—which aren’t healthy, they’re fried—then switch to Veggie Stix, then raw carrot sticks, and eventually you can progress to a salad.”

Give Them Choices. Let kids pick parts of their lunches or help with cooking dinner (if they’re old enough). The more choices you give them and the more ownership they feel, the more likely they are to eat it.

Keep Offering. It’s exhausting, but you have to keep trying and re-exposing them to the foods they reject. Research shows kids need to be offered a new food between 10 and 15 times before they’ll accept it. Becca turned smoothies into popsicles, and it took several tries for her daughter to give them a chance.

“Build Your Own” Dinner Night. Whether it’s a taco bar or mini English muffin pizzas, anything that gives them choices and gets the kids involved has a higher chance of success. Plus, it makes squeaking in healthier options, like whole grain or cauliflower crusts, easier.

Pick Your Battles. “If you, or the kids, really love or are craving something in particular, go ahead and indulge a little and don’t feel bad about it,” Becca advises. The goal is to avoid emotional bingeing or retaliation eating. “Offer them a treat once a day, and let them pick what and when—even if it’s before dinner. It’s not a perfect world, and some days the animal crackers with breakfast mean they finish everything on the plate.”

Barbara Bolotte Blank is a Louisiana native and the owner of Clean Creations, a clean meal delivery business serving New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Northshore. You can ask her anything about eating clean or going vegan, paleo or gluten free.

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