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Little people, big palates

How not to raise picky eaters: put unique tastes, textures on toddlers' plates (and go easy on the chicken fingers)

By Peggy Hernandez
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2011

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Hunter Holder likes miso soup and his grandmother’s Jamaican fried rice. Dominic Feller happily munches on curried lamb meatballs. Phaedra Farbrook enjoys California rolls and other sushi, but eschews wasabi.

Hunter, Dominic, and Phaedra are toddlers. But they will eat things that many adults won’t touch. Their adventurous palates didn’t appear out of nowhere. Their parents decided to minimize their dependency on kid staples — pasta tossed with butter, pizza, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese — and introduce these tots, ages 20 months to 3 years, to a variety of tastes and flavors.

“I think there’s this belief that, somehow, kids deserve less,’’ says Dominic’s mother, Eunice Feller, co-owner and chef of the Bread & Chocolate bakeries in Newton. “I think they deserve more.’’

Nutritionists say toddlers are naturally open to a wider range of flavors. “We don’t challenge toddlers enough by experimenting with food,’’ says Jamie S. Stang of the University of Minnesota, a specialist on child and maternal nutrition. “As long as the textures are appropriate for kids and there’s no known food allergies, there is nothing wrong with introducing different foods.“

Parents offer various reasons for introducing full-flavored foods to toddlers. They want to establish healthy eating patterns; they prefer serving only one meal to the entire family; they hope to minimize the picky eater syndrome. “I want my children to make healthy choices as well as interesting food choices,’’ says Jennifer Kordell, a Newton mother of three young children. “We do try and provide food without regard to what they think they’ll like.’’

These preferences take shape long before the child is introduced to food. A child’s initial likes or dislikes may, in fact, be acquired during the mother’s pregnancy, according to developing scientific data. Children “may be more prone to accept spicy foods if mom is not only eating spicy foods while pregnant, but while breast-feeding,’’ says Suzanne Rostler, a clinical nutritionist for the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

During her pregnancy, Erin Holder, of Brockton, mother of 20-month-old Hunter, indulged in carrots, spicy foods, strong cheeses, and toast. “It’s funny because Hunter definitely loves my favorite foods,’’ she says. “It’s like deja vu.’’

Stang’s research has found that flavors such as carrot, garlic, and vanilla can be transmitted to amniotic fluid and human milk. Infants exposed to flavors that early tend to like foods with similar flavors. They also are more receptive to novel tastes and healthy eating habits.

Rostler and Stang both believe babies should be breast-fed until they are a year old. Solid foods can be introduced around 6 months. “By the time a toddler is 10 to 12 months old, they should be eating everything that the general family eats,’’ Stang says. “You just have to chop it up finely or modify the texture.’’

Yana Payusova of Jamaica Plain says her son, Alex Farbrook, 4, was fed prepared baby foods when he began eating solids at 7 months. But his sister Phaedra, who is nearly 3, was eager to try the family meal when she was 6 months. “We started grinding up whatever we were eating and serving it to her, without adding salt,’’ Payusova says. “Phaedra will try anything.’’ Indeed, while visiting a Jamaica Plain playground, Phaedra munches on a black bean burrito. “Not spicy enough,’’ she murmurs. One bite later and she rejects the added chili sauce as too spicy.

Nutritionists recommend giving a new food to a toddler at least 20 times before determining whether a child likes it. Rostler also urges parents to introduce more vegetables and avoid fruit juices in order to curb a preference for sweet tastes.

But watching what parents eat is the largest influence on what a toddler will put in his or her mouth, nutritionists say. That’s the case in the Holder household. “If we’re eating something, Hunter always wants to try it,’’ says his father, Francis. “If he doesn’t like it at first, he’ll usually come back and try it again.’’

For toddlers, texture is as important as taste. “They have to feel and touch a new food, smear it on the table, and see if it hits the floor,’’ Stang says. “Then they’ll focus on taste.’’

Parents say challenges arise when dining out. Kordell is dismayed that children’s menus are heavy on pizza and nuggets. “Much to my chagrin, those tend not to be that healthy and they’re also pretty uninteresting,’’ she says. “We try to encourage our kids to order off the adult menu.’’

“If you go around the world, children aren’t given specific baby foods or toddler-friendly food,’’ says Stang. “That is a sort of food-marketing thing. Kids need a more varied diet.’’

Feller is impressed with how many flavors Dominic, 22 months old, enjoys. “He loves olives, goat cheese, red sauce Bolognese, and kimchi. I’ve even given him sriracha, the Thai red rooster sauce,’’ says the chef. “He can handle spicy. There is a time and a place for chicken fingers. I don’t want to make different meals for Dominic. When you give too many choices at mealtime, then I don’t think kids learn to value the choices they have.’’

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at mpher nan1@gmail.com.

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