Why experts say you should go easy on picky eaters

No person in the world will humble you like your second child will. As soon as my firstborn started eating solid foods, I puréed her fresh vegetables and exotic fruits. I took her out for sushi and tacos. She ate with the gusto of what I called a “good eater,” and I applauded myself for it.

Then her baby sister arrived. And she, in contrast, pretty much wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t plain buttered noodles. Like her father, she is a natural-born picky eater. It’s taken me a very long time to get here, but I can now say that it’s not her fault. It’s not my fault either. In fact, it’s not a fault at all.

As my family and I learned over the years, much of my younger daughter’s so-called pickiness was an instinctively wise protectiveness of her sensitive system. Foods that the rest of us tolerate just fine can give her intense pain and nausea. She also has her own specific tastes, and you can’t ever really persuade someone who doesn’t like beets to come around on that one.

As parents, we’re tasked with feeding our children and teaching them to feed themselves. In a world of grocery recalls and conflicting advice, this responsibility can be overwhelming and stressful even in the best of circumstances. If you throw reluctance, resistance or temper tantrums into the mix, it makes mealtime exponentially harder. But no child is going to love every food — you and I don’t either.

There’s mounting evidence that how we perceive taste is baked into our DNA. Think, for instance, of cilantro, the most divisive of herbs. Research in 2012 confirmed those unfortunate souls who find it soapy carry a particular olfactory receptor gene that makes it taste different to them.

A 2017 study published in Lifestyle Genomics similarly found that “genes related to chemosensory perception may play a role in children’s picky eating behavior.” You don’t get mad at people over their finger length or whether their earlobes are detached. Similarly, if your kids are pickier than you are, they may come by it naturally. 

A little pickiness is also developmentally appropriate. “The issue is really multifactorial and often unique based on the individual child and family dynamics,” says Christopher Carrubba, MD, medical director at the test prep company TrueLearn.

“Being a picky eater is often a control issue,” he continues. “What the child eats may be one of the few things that they feel they have a say in — and the child is exerting their personal preferences.”

“Being a picky eater is often a control issue.”

For average level fussiness, it’s better for everybody to keep mealtimes as conflict-free as possible. “Don’t make a big deal about it,” says Michele Schwartz, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of The Virtual Pediatric OT. Instead, “offer new foods along with preferred foods at meals. These can be foods you are eating or foods your child previously ate.”

“Consistency is key when offering your child other foods. Just because they reject them once should not mean you stop presenting them to your child,” she adds. “I like to put these new foods on the table, but I do not offer them verbally or even make mention of them.”

Above all, don’t force your child to eat the new foods, Schwartz advises.

While a certain degree of pickiness is often normal, in some circumstances, it can be a signal of physical or developmental problems. Marielle Marquez, a licensed occupational therapist and feeding and swallowing specialist, notes that “picky eating may be complex. Common issues underlying include oral motor dysfunction, tongue tie, sensory integration challenges, food allergies or intolerances and gastrointestinal issues.”

Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in eating disorders, adds that “sometimes a person is experiencing what is called ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder), which means that they will be extra sensitive to taste and textures of foods. This is not something they will grow out of or be pushed out of. Mealtime can be traumatic for these people.”

“Mealtime can be traumatic for these people.”

“Another consideration,” she says, “is that picky eating can be an eating disorder or a response to allergies or intolerances. Something like an allergy to dairy can cause all foods to feel painful. Allergies should be ruled out before trying other food tolerance techniques.”

I’ve learned this lesson firsthand — it’s funny how much less “picky” my daughter became when we learned she couldn’t handle eggs or dairy.

So when, exactly, should a parent be concerned? “If a child won’t eat an entire food group, eats fewer than 20 foods, has very strong emotional reactions to certain foods being on their plate or is starting to show signs of malnutrition, such as slowed growth or nutritional deficiencies, the family should seek out assistance from a professional,” says Kristen Nauss, MS, RD, the registered dietitian and founder of Buying School Food.

Left to develop their likes and dislikes without pressure as they grow up, picky eaters often become more expansive in their tastes all on their own. If Nigella Lawson — who has admitted that “I absolutely loathed eating as a child” — can come around, it’s entirely possible that with encouragement, the fussy eaters in your life can, too.

Sometimes they won’t. While we usually don’t have to feed the adults in our lives, we still have to figure out how to peacefully eat with them, even as they methodically, maddeningly pick 95% of the ingredients out of a stew or scrape the frosting off a cake.

For those of us who have watched a few too many Anthony Bourdain series in our time, it’s easy to get carried away with our own contrastingly adventurous self-image. It’s true that being flexible in my tastes makes me an easier dinner guest and a more relaxed traveler. It does not, however, make me a better human being.

I realize now that my own bias against picky eaters has often arisen from a sense that they’re somehow not as fun as the rest of us; because they enjoy fewer foods, they enjoy food less. But why would that be the case?

“Oh, I like to eat,” Brian Franklin says.

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Franklin is the public relations and communications director for America’s Test Kitchen — and a self-proclaimed picky eater. Last year, in an effort to expand his horizons and be a positive role model for his son, he endured an “intervention” on ATK’s podcast “Proof.”

Among other things, Franklin tried a fresh tomato for the first time, which he was underwhelmed by. However, he really appreciates “great food.”

“I’ve gone to some great restaurants,” he continues. “I look forward to eating not just because I like it, but also the community aspect, being with family and so forth.”

Being a picky eater doesn’t automatically make a person unhealthy either. Of course, a varied diet is usually a good idea, but a tightly curated one isn’t the same as a junk food diet. For individuals with certain health issues, bland is a whole lot better than trying to be a hero on “Hot Ones,” where celebrities like Kate Hudson have answered questions while eating hot wings.

I’ve tried to raise both my daughters to be gracious, to not be rude about food that is offered to them and to remember that trying new things can be good. With them and my spouse, I have in turn tried not to shame anyone for their personal preferences. I also eat mushrooms and olives on my own time.

It’s a lot easier to broaden our own minds than to broaden anybody else’s palate. And hey, more anchovies for me. There’s room at the table for everyone.

“There have been a few things I’ve tried, and I’m like, ‘OK, this is this is decent,'” Franklin says. “But more often than not, I always go with a proven winner, stuff I know I’ll like.”

“I’m really not up for an adventure,” he concludes. “I’m content with stuff that’s plain.”

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Source : https://www.salon.com/2023/03/16/why-experts-say-you-should-go-easy-on-picky-eaters/

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