|Photo by CarbonNYC|
I was eating dinner at a nice French restaurant recently, and overheard the conversation at the next table. It was a family with a young boy, perhaps 6 years old. The only thing the boy would eat was French fries. I was like a kid in a candy store – could hardly decide between the snails, frogs, sweetbreads, or bone marrow. And of course, there were more conventional menu items available as well. It seemed like such a pity that this child wasn’t taking advantage of this opportunity to experience all these different foods.
I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t have kids, but is quick to judge parents. At the same time, I wonder if there isn’t more that parents can do to help their kids enjoy food, and get the nutrition they require.
I don’t buy into the concept of “kid-friendly” food. Food is food. Kids are human. They should be eating the same things as their parents. Sure, everyone is allowed to have food preferences. But there’s a vast difference between a food preference and being a picky eater. I was watching the documentary Tableland last night, and there was a little boy (5 years old?) who was helping his dad pick fresh vegetables from the garden, and devouring them, barely pausing long enough to shake off the dirt. I can’t help but think that kids’ food pickiness has more to do with how they’re raised than some inherent kid trait.
Why Should Parents Care?
Nutrition is of paramount importance when kids are growing and developing. It’s also when kids are most impressionable – the best time to teach them lifelong healthy eating habits. Many kids eventually outgrow being picky eaters, but some do not. This can be a detriment to both physical and emotional health. The clinical name for being a picky eater is Selective Eating Disorder (SED), which often results in stress and anxiety. It can also lead to malnutrition, and an unhealthy relationship with food. Adult picky eaters often complain how SED wreaks havoc on their social lives.
Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?
No one really knows why some kids are pickier than others. Some kids start out being picky, while others may have eaten adventurously in the past, only to abruptly become fussy. One theory is that some kids may be especially sensitive to certain tastes and textures. Picky eaters tend to prefer bland foods that are texturally uniform, easy to chew, and not colourful (typically white). Oftentimes, kids will refuse entire food groups – usually meat and vegetables. Most commonly preferred food items are chicken nuggets, bread, French fries, yoghurt, and pasta.
Best Approach to Picky Eating
Unsurprisingly, bribing, rewarding, and tricking are common approaches parents desperately use when feeding their children. Parents try to sneak in healthy foods or provide incentives for the kids to clean their plates. Although understandable, these are only short term solutions that in the long run may do more harm than good. I think that in their frustration, it’s easy for parents to forget their crucial and powerful role as the providers of food. When parents say that their kids will only eat chicken nuggets, the first question that pops into my mind is: who buys them those chicken nuggets? It’s the parents’ responsibility to provide healthy food options, regardless of the resistance it may cause. I like Ellyn Satter’s philosophy (author of several books on the topic of feeding):
Feeding demands a division of responsibility. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding; Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating…”
How do you put this kind of approach into practice?
10 Tips to Help With Picky Eaters
1. Cook a variety of foods for the entire family. Don’t cater only to the picky eater’s preferences.
2. Serve dinner in a family/buffet style manner, providing various nutritious options. Let the kids choose if/what they would like, allowing them to eat whatever they’d like as long as they’re not eating someone else’s share.
3. Allow kids the decision to not eat, but make sure they stay at the dinner table for the duration of the meal.
4. Don’t allow kids to graze between meals and snacks, which makes them less likely to be interested in food at mealtime.
5. Don’t nag or guilt kids into eating and don’t draw attention to their pickiness.
6. Set a good example by not being a fussy or picky eater yourself.
7. Having a varied diet before and during pregnancy has been said to help with acclimatizing the baby to various flavors.
8. Start introducing new foods early and be persistent. It can take 20 times for a baby (or anyone, really) to warm up to a new food. But don’t make a fuss about the food being new or unusual. And don’t make these exposure attempts consecutive – skip a few meals in-between.
9. Provide variety. Both adults and children will tire of eating the same foods. Mix things up.
10. Involve your kids in the shopping and cooking process. If they’re partially responsible for the input, they’ll be more excited and likely to eat the end product.
Picky Eating and the Paleo/Primal Diet
Picky eaters tend to favor both carbs and dairy – two items that aren’t major components of the paleo/primal diet. Is it really surprising that kids gravitate towards “white” foods? Those are typically the most refined, starchy, and sugary foods available. Not to mention the most addictive. And the most advertised. If adults didn’t know better, many would prefer to only eat those food items too (and many sadly do). So how can we expect children, who don’t know about nutrition, to behave any differently? Again, that’s where the parents come in. This may be less of an issue for a family who eats paleo/primal. It’s hard to get hooked on pizza and pasta, if you have no idea what they are. And it’s difficult to avoid the meat and vegetable food groups if they’re all you’ve ever known.
Know a picky eater? Share your approach/thoughts in the comments.
Shared with Real Food Wednesdays.