Creating Peace around the Palate: Understanding “Picky” Eaters

Food is the great connector–the center of gatherings, celebrations, services, and parties. We bake to show our appreciation. We cook to support an ailing family member or neighbor. Entire industries are built around growing, preparing, delivering, packaging, decorating, and gifting foods.  There is such an abundance in our country that billions of dollars worth of food is tossed out or left on the ground to rot each year.  In our heart of hearts, we know this is wrong. We wish it wasn’t this way and we do our part to stock the local pantries or donate to organizations that feed the hungry. With people literally dying to eat, at home and abroad, well meaning parents cook up ideas to get their finicky children to eat, and they rationalize instituting rules in their homes around meals. There are dying adults and children who would do anything to have a meal like the one I’ve prepared for you.  How can you turn your nose up to this abundance? It’s arrogant to dismiss food of any sort. You are so fortunate and not eating is wasteful. There will be no dessert until you finish the food on your plate. It’s understandable why ideas like the “Clean your Plate” club and using food as a reward come to fruition, but I certainly don’t agree with them. I don’t believe parents purposefully want to create issues around food, I just don’t think they have spent enough time considering how unique children are when it comes to their taste buds.

I admittedly have bristled with slight indignation when my child firmly turned down a meal I made. I’m sure many of you can relate–feeling frustrated that the food you spent time shopping for and lovingly preparing gets rejected. However, that feeling of frustration is my feeling to own and I take my child’s rejection as a signal to investigate further. I was surprised (and relieved) to know that research shows our tastes and food desires may be built into our genes. It makes perfect “sense”.  In every other sensory department we allow and support variations in preferences-temperature or noise levels, corrective vision or not, types of clothing, etc. Furthermore, our food preferences are shown to be influenced by breast milk and early exposures in the womb. It is also conceivable that a picky eater may be a “supertaster“.  A Yale University researcher discovered that nearly one in four people she tested qualified as supertasters, an inherited trait that causes a person to taste foods more fully which is why they shun overly sweet, sour, or bitter foods.  Like most human characteristics, there is a spectrum. For every supertaster there is a person who has a dull sense of taste. These people may eat a variety of foods without complaint because they are not put off by intense flavors. Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. This is comforting news and shows that early pickiness is not about a child trying to give his parents a hard time, but in fact a biological reaction to food.

As children grow they become more entrenched or flexible in their food opinions and choices. Which way they fall is based largely on how their parents and social group react to their choices and either support or try to force their decisions about what they eat. You can probably surmise that using force or bribery of any sort may yield short-term results and set up a winner/loser dynamic. This is not a healthy dynamic to create around food at all.

Good intentions will not replace the negative associations your children learn through manipulative strategies you employ at mealtime. Consider your own freedom to choose meals and snacks, to have seconds or to stop eating before your plate is ‘clean’, to have a taste of the wonderful dessert a host raved about even if you didn’t finish your meal, and ask yourself,  “Why it is so common not to extend this same freedom to children?”.

I’m certain if my husband told me what I was going to eat everyday and that I did not have any say so in the matter I’d be quite comfortable showing him the door. However, he does not do that to me and we do not do this to our own children.  Meals are planned together and in accordance with each person’s unique palate. For starters it’s part of a respectful relationship to communicate interests and listen to each other’s opinions and preferences, plus research bears out that our taste buds deserve respect too.

So if you have a picky eater in your home what are you to do? I’m not a nutritionist or medical professional so I can not speak to specific dietary needs and impacts on health for individuals. What I can tell you is that if shame, punishment, or coercion is used as a means to control your child’s food choices, you may be inadvertently affecting mental health instead of supporting good nutrition.

Here are 5 ways we have created peace around the palate in our home:
  • For starters- Don’t call them picky. Get rid of that word from your vocabulary. Respect differences and do not compare.  My husband will not eat a banana if it’s the last food on the planet. That’s his choice and we respect it as such. To try to force him to eat one or to poke fun at him for it is rude and unnecessary. Same with my kids. One really dislikes the idea of beans and thinks seafood should stay in the sea. The other will try just about anything. That’s OK. I respect their interests in different hobbies, their interests in different shows or clothing, and I will do the same for their food choices too.
  • Include children in shopping for, preparing, and serving meals.
  • Grow food together. Each of our kids has had their own raised bed devoted to the seeds and plants they wanted to grow since they were very young. Their involvement has changed over the years, but witnessing their love for the tender seed pods and plants and watching their faces light up when they saw the beginning of a pepper or cucumber is priceless. Plus they were much more willing to try foods that they grew than those same foods bought at the store. 
  • We have never used food as a reward and it was not uncommon for our kids to eat something sweet before a meal. We didn’t ‘do dessert’ in the traditional sense. To dangle dessert as some prize after you eat a full meal is coercive to me and creates a fixation on the sweet treat. No thanks.
  • If I was concerned about either of my kids food choices, I would observe first. When both of them were younger, they didn’t appear to have an off button when it came to sweets and I was super sensitive to this because there is diabetes in my family. Over time and by sharing information in a non threatening or judgmental way about nutrition, balance, and listening to our bodies, my children are the rightful experts of their own bodies and enjoy a variety of foods happily.
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