Like many parents, when it comes to picky eating, I wonder where I went wrong along the way...
I steamed, mashed and pureed all manner of delicious, nutritious and exotic fruit and veg for my babies, dutifully decanting the resulting mush into ice-cube trays and feeding the vitamin-packed gloop to my boys from the moment they were weaned.
I silently congratulated myself (slightly superciliously in retrospect) when, on days out, I fished out my vivid organically-green pottage from its phthalate-free containers while other mothers fed their tots from ready-made jars.
My industrious kitchen endeavours were as much to do with my attempts to feed my children the very best that no-additive-nutrition could bubble up on the hob as they were with my desire to bring up children who wouldn't grow into fussy eaters.
All the literature I read around the subject of picky eating stated that feeding your baby fresh food was the answer. They'd get used to new, varied tastes and, by pureeing the food that you were eating en famille, they'd become accustomed to eating what the whole family did at mealtimes without a fuss.
Did I do something wrong?
Well, I'm glad to say that a new book by US parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley - The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution has convinced me that having two picky eaters isn't my fault – or theirs for that matter.
"It's popular to blame picky eating on weak, indulgent parents and stubborn power-seeking kids," she says. "But after months of research and interviews with several hundred parents, I can confidently say that this theory is totally off the mark."
Elizabeth's research discovered that 85 per cent of parents have a child who is or has been picky about food.
"When I read that statistic, I knew there was no way that all those parents were indulgent and all those children willful every day. Let alone at every meal. There must be more to this story.
"Anytime I discover that a majority of children share a trait, that tells me it is normal childhood behaviour, so I seek to find the reasons it's so common."
Her subsequent investigations led her to many conclusions about where picky eating can stem from, including:
Studies show that if one or both parents were picky eaters as children then chances are the child will be a picky eater too and that a dislike for a certain food may be just part of your make-up.
Evolution and Instinct
Breast milk has a sweet flavour, and fruits that are safe for humans to eat – such as strawberries and bananas – are also sweet. Poisonous plants, toxic chemicals and spoiled foods, however, are sour or bitter, so a child's natural instinct is to avoid those flavours or spit them out. "Unfortunately, the compounds that provide vegetables with their health benefits are in the bitter range, so a child's aversion to vegetables may be based on his natural instinct," says Elizabeth.
Babies have a more enhanced recognition of sweet tastes. Their ability to distinguish and enjoy other flavours increases over time as they grow. By the end of their teenage years, they will have a decreased predilection for sweet flavours and an expanded appreciation of other tastes. Also children are programmed to like sweet tastes because it fills a biological need by steering them towards higher energy sources, which sustain them during high-growth periods.
About one-quarter of children are born 'supertasters' – the scientific label for children who have an unusually high number of taste buds, says Elizabeth. This gives them a heightened sense of taste, which means sweets are sweeter and sour and bitter tastes are more intense than for other little ones. This makes foods like vegetables off-putting as they contain antioxidants that taste unpleasantly bitter to supertasters. These children may also avoid some sweet and fatty tastes, due to the increased intensity of flavour, and therefore limit their diet choices immensely (Check out the back of your child's tongue with a torch. If he has lots more of the little bumps that house taste buds than normal, you may have a supertaster on your hands)
The Pull of Familiarity
Foods can become familiar pre-natally - what a mother eats repeatedly while pregnant can influence the future food preferences of her baby.
So much, so scary.
But don't despair. Even though you are up against all these obstacles that nature is throwing at you, Elizabeth says there are lots of things we can do to tackle picky eaters and to make changes in a calm, positive way without bringing a full-blown battle to the dinner table.
Try these for starters:
*When introducing your child to a new food that's sour, bitter or tart, use recipes that sweeten the foods – such as adding a touch of cheese to cauliflower, mixing raisins with broccoli, or dipping carrot pieces in yogurt. Roasting vegetables slowly caramelizes them and brings out the sweetness, so this can also do the trick.
*Try, try and try again. A picky eater often has to be exposed to a new food ten to fifteen times before even tasting it. Children trust familiar things in their lives and are often suspicious of something new and different, Repeated exposure to a new food helps – eventually the new food becomes familiar and then your child becomes open to the idea of tasting it and giving it a fair evaluation.
*Begin by putting a tiny bit of the new food – such as two chick peas or a brussels sprout – on a child's plate along with his regular favourites. Don't expect him to eat it and don't make a comment if he pulls it apart, smells it or smashes it. It's the first step to acceptance. Let your child observe you eating the new food – mention to your spouse or a friend that you enjoy the food so your child hears the comment. Studies have shown that when children are certain their parents or other important people in their lives really like a food they decide it's a good thing to try for themselves.
*Let your kids help prepare the food. Even a three year old can spread jam on toast or snap the ends off beans. Children are more likely to eat and enjoy a meal when they have had a hand in its preparation.
*Does your child complain if his food is 'touching' another food? Try serving dinner 'family-style' by putting all the foods in bowls or platters on the table and allowing your child to fill his own plate. Often, if a child has more control over what's on his plate, he'll be more likely to eat it.
* Many picky eaters have only a few staple foods they willingly eat – pasta or white bread jam sandwiches for example - and these form the 'basis' to their diet. Elizabeth advises working out how to make subtle changes to their favourites to create a healthier well-rounded diet rather than banning them or attempting to completely change what they eat. Buy low sugar jam, for example, swap just the bottom layer of his sandwich with a wholegrain bread and incorporate small amounts of wholegrain pasta to his meals. Add a few tablespoons of a new food as a sidedish to his regular fare – and be creative with the new food's presentation (using the ingredients to make a 'food face' for example) whist keeping the familiar food boring
* Give him a choice of vegetable – 'do you want brocolli or carrots' – rather than asking him if he is going to eat a vegetable today.
*If necessary, hide the veg! Add chopped spinach to homemade hamburgers, for example, or crushed cauliflower to mashed potatoes.
*Be a good example – if you show your child that fruit makes a great snback, vegetables are enjoyable and sweets are to be savoured in small and infrequent servings, she may follow your lead.
There's lots more food for thought in Elizabeth's book: published in the UK in December: The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution,Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat - and Eat Healthy, £12.99, McGraw-Hill.
Is your child a fussy eater?
What tricks have you tried?