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Child Caring

Picky, picky, picky

From left: Brenna, Tim, and Maura Curren made faces at food they hate, including swordfish, onion, squash, and beets. (Globe Photo / Scott Maguire) From left: Brenna, Tim, and Maura Curren made faces at food they hate, including swordfish, onion, squash, and beets.
By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / May 3, 1996

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Fourteen-year-old Tim is the pickiest eater of Paula and Michael Curren's three children. ``A vegetable hasn't passed his lips in I don't know how many years,'' says Paula, who has worried about Tim's nutrition since he was a toddler. Seven-year-old Brenna, on the other hand, became a finicky eater only recently, eschewing anything that looks or smells funny, like tomatoes, nuts and raisins. Eleven-year-old Maura's eating habits, meanwhile, are a cause of wonder: She'll eat anything, says her mother, ``even calamari.''

Feast your eyes on a picky eater and most likely you'll find an anxious parent nearby who won't hesitate to bribe or beg to get a nutritious morsel down a child's throat. In these families, mealtime is often a battle of wills where someone ends up in tears, and it's frequently not the child.

If this describes what you do in your home, nutritionists and pediatricians have one word of advice: Stop.

``Struggles only make matters worse,'' says Lynn Tougas, a nutritionist at Children's Hospital. Indeed, parental pressure is often why a child becomes a picky eater in the first place.

Consider the typical toddler who is experimenting with her environment, looking for cause and effect. The first time she says `no!' to a food, maybe even flings it, it's more by accident than purpose. But something exciting happens.

``Mom acts just like a windup toy,'' says Tougas. ``She reacts: She begs, she yells, she plays airplane. The toddler wonders, `Will it happen again?' Now behavior is purposeful.''

The better response, according to Tougas, is to give positive attention for whatever your child does right at mealtime and deal matter-of-factly with what she does that's inappropriate.

Parents also unwittingly encourage finickiness when they provide food on demand, all day long.

``You know the kid who goes around with a juice bottle all day, or the house where there's Cheerio stations in every room?'' asks Tougas. ``Having a constant source of food -- we call it grazing -- means a youngster never knows what it's like to feel hungry.'' For them, there's no point to mealtime.

Instead, consistently scheduled snacks and water for juice can help a toddler be hungry for meals, she says.

Nutritional concerns

What parents of picky eaters worry about most, of course, is nutrition. ``If you wonder how your child is surviving on the same steady diet of just a few foods, or on an intake of crumbs, look closer,'' says pediatrician Ronald Kleinman.

``Is he active, doing well? Growing, playing hard, crashing at bedtime? Then he's eating more than you think.''

Kleinman says it's not daily nutritional intake that counts but the average over a week. ``In a week, you want to see something from each food group, but not in a day,'' says Kleinman. He is chief of pediatrics, gastroenterology and nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor of ``What Should I Feed My Kids?'' (Fawcett, 1996).

Limited repertoires usually become an issue only when parents make it one. ``Left on their own, children tire of a favorite food after three or four weeks, six at most,'' says Kleinman.

That children's tastes change without warning is the reason why dietician/social worker Ellyn Satter tells mothers not to cater to a child's tastes. ``You'll end up disappointed and frustrated. What was his favorite meal last week is repulsive to him today, and he's not being obnoxious. Kids' tastes are very changeable, they can't help themselves,'' says Satter, whose practice in Madison, Wis., specializes in eating issues.

Since this finickiness comes naturally, Satter tells parents to go with the flow, not fight it. Similarly, she says, ``Some children are incredibly sensitive to texture and smell. Their gag reflex is activated much more easily.'' She says a child who is made to stay at the table to finish what's on her plate can literally be revolted by the food. Satter is author of ``How to Get Your Kid to Eat'' (Bull Publishing, 1987).

Paula Curren says eating habits reflect personalities. Maura is a risk-taker by nature, Tim and Brenna cautious in all ways. When Tim was young, Curren catered to his tastes, pushing eggnog so he'd get protein, bribing with dessert, rewarding him for eating the same number of peas as his age.

``I used to get bent out of shape over it,'' she says. No more. As a working mother, Curren finds herself feeding her kids things she used to walk right by in the grocery aisle: Ravioli in a can, macaroni and cheese from a box. ``They eat lots of cereal, and that worried me at first, all the sugar. But I figure sugar-coated cereal with milk is better than some of the other junk food out there, and if I buy it some of the time, they're willing to eat healthier cereals other times.''

Kleinman approves of compromises like that.

``Forget forbid. Do not forbid any food,'' he says, not even candy. ``That just makes it more desirable and he'll trade for what he wants at lunch or sneak the food at a friend's house.'' In addition, he says, you end up an incredible bad guy: ``High-fat foods are delicious. You put yourself in a position of telling your kids they can never eat what tastes the best.''

Kleinman's solution is to offer a variety of snacks (and sweets) that average each other out during the week. ``Take the kids with you when you go food shopping,'' he says. ``Read the packages together, make them aware, let them make choices.'' He says years of doing that with his children have paid off: When Emily and Adam come home from college, ``they are just as likely to grab for rice cakes and apples as they are chips and pizza.''

Neutral food at each meal

Satter says cooking for the adults in the family, not for the picky eater, will expose children to variety and good nutrition. The caveat is to have neutral food at each meal -- bread, rice, potatoes, pasta -- so a child can be successful with something. No matter what, she warns, ``No short-order cooking!''

She also tells parents to keep mealtime expectations simple: ``You want her to behave nicely while she's there, to pick and choose from what's available, to say `no thank you' instead of `yuk,' and to keep you company at the table, even if she doesn't want to eat.''

Timeouts for misbehavior create only negative associations with meals, says Tougas, although truly horrendous behavior should have a consequence. If a child is excused from the table, he shouldn't be allowed to return, something that is harder for a parent to tolerate than the child.

And if she's hungry 20 minutes later? Don't feed her, say Tougas and Satter; that reinforces pickiness. Kleinman says it's OK, as long you offer what's left over from the meal. Curren has a different strategy altogether: ``Brenna knows if she doesn't eat what's on the table, she's on her own. She can get herself a bowl of cereal, yogurt, or peanut butter and jelly.''

If something is grossly missing in your child's diet, Tougas suggests supplementing it. ``Add powdered milk to anything that already has milk and you double the nutrition without the fat,'' she says. The parent herself of an off-the-scale picky eater, she adds yogurt to her baked goods, wheat germ to meatballs and grated vegetables to spaghetti sauce.

For older picky eaters who are thoroughly entrenched, Satter suggests starting over. ``Let them know you're done begging, done with short-order cooking. You'll put the food on the table and it's up to them to decide whether to eat it.'' Then, she says, sit back and give it up to 10 weeks for results.

Oh, yes: Dessert should be part of the package, even if a child doesn't eat the meal. ``But,'' says Satter, ``no seconds.''

AFTERTHOUGHT -- Children who are excited about the summer Olympic Games will enjoy ``Gold Medal Games,'' an interactive book for 6- to 9-year-olds by Pamela Klawitter and Sherri Butterfield (The Learning Works, $6.95).

HOW PARENTS CAN HELP

- There is no known correlation between children who are picky eaters and those who develop eating disorders, although research shows that among the 10 percent of teen-agers who develop eating disorders, food was one of many battlegrounds between parent and child.

- Because toddlers don't like anything new, put a new food on her plate 15 times -- without comment -- before you expect her to even taste it. If she objects to its presence, tell her, ``You don't have to eat it, just leave it there.''

- A child shouldn't be alone at the table for any meal.

- If you change your mealtime strategy and don't see results within 10 weeks, or if a child consistently lacks energy and isn't gaining weight, consult your pediatrician.

- Dessert is not a reward, just another part of the meal.

- Offer children who don't like breakfast something nontraditional, like applesauce. The surprise of it may be enough to get them to eat.

- Having an egg a day is OK, as long as it isn't made with other cholesterol-laden foods, like cheese or butter.

- Children who hate cooked vegetables often can be enticed by fresh, cut-up vegetables dipped in a dressing.

- Keep portions small, one-third of what you'd like her to eat. Finishing a small amount or asking for more creates a positive association with food.

- Eliminate mealtime distractions for toddlers: no TV or radio. Seat everyone else before you call her to the table.