Like a lot of toddlers, my son could have lived on macaroni and cheese. Since anything green or crunchy was viewed as an alien substance, only by slathering carrot sticks with peanut butter and celery with cream cheese did I have a chance of getting a vegetable past his wall of resistance.
I often tried mixing in some pureed veggies with the mac and cheese, but I rarely got away with this stealthy attempt at nutritional enhancement. Through trial and error, I learned what would and wouldn’t fly (sometimes literally) on my son’s dinner plate. By the time he was in school, he was actually accepting of broccoli in cheese sauce and a helping of salad (with lots of dressing).
Why do vegetables become the bane of most 2-year-old’s existence? According to pediatricians, the picky eating phase, which can last from 2-5, is a developmental one, partly based on the fact that toddlers only need about 1,000-1,300 calories a day, depending on their height. These days, kids get a lot of those calories from juice boxes and between-meal snacks. In addition, their need for proteins and grains often supersedes our desire to have them eat their vegetables.
“Kids can easily get full if allowed to snack or drink large amounts of milk (especially whole milk) between meals,” says Kate Yerxa, a registered dietician with the University of Maine Extension Service in Orono.
“If they’re getting more than 16 ounces a day (of liquids besides water), that will really dampen their appetites,” agrees Kathryn Landon-Malone, a pediatric nurse practitioner at True North in Falmouth.
Still, it never seemed to matter how much juice or milk my son had drunk if he liked what appeared on his plate at mealtime. Landon-Malone thinks nature gives toddlers a selective palate, which made sense for early humans when foods that tasted bitter or unfamiliar might be deadly. She tells new moms to eat a wide variety of foods while their children are breast-feeding. Believe it or not, the tastes of garlic, cumin and other flavors are distinguishable in breast milk, as opposed to the flavor of formula, which is the same all the time.
“They develop a wider palate and will have a bigger tolerance for new flavors,” Landon-Malone says.
As they grow, kids’ maturing taste buds can either help them or hinder them when it comes to trying new foods. If the dinner table has become a battleground, or if the parent has given in to the whims of the child and become a short-order cook, eating problems can persist. Landon-Malone advises parents right from the beginning not to focus on what the child isn’t eating. Instead, parents should make an effort to create a mealtime that is fun and relaxing, as soon as the child starts eating solid foods.
“Make it a baby-led experience,” she says. “Let them smear it and explore it. It’s so much about textures at that age. They can get this whole sensory experience around food.”
Modeling the idea that eating healthy food is fun and normal goes beyond the dinnertime experience. Yerxa advises parents to involve children in planning and preparing meals, as well as allowing them to help decide which tomato or bunch of broccoli to select from the produce carts. While home shouldn’t be a restaurant with a separate kids’ menu, children should be asked if they’d rather have carrots or cauliflower, just as an adult would be.
It’s also important to offer just one new food at a time, both Landon-Malone and Yerxa say. Otherwise, even the old standbys could lose their appeal.
“Parents have to understand that it takes about 10 times to decide if you like a new food,” says Landon-Malone.
Despite doing everything right, parents occasionally find that their children have developed an aversion to a particular food or group of foods. In her pediatric practice, Landon-Malone sometimes uses hypnosis to help her patients uncover the reasons why they might only like white foods, or why they gag at the mere sight of a strawberry.
“I’ve known a lot of kids who will be afraid to eat something after they had their first vomit,” says Landon-Malone, even if the incident was the result of a virus, and not the food. “We sometimes forget that kids have those experiences and we don’t validate them. I’ll have them imagine (the food) going down a big water slide. In a relaxed state, they’ll swallow and smile.”
For most kids though, what is yukky at 4 is just as likely to be a favorite at 14. The bottom line, according to Landon-Malone, is that parents can help kids grow up eating and liking healthy food by resisting the urge to worry about it.
“Things are over-thought because of Doctor Google,” she says. “I think we can make it harder than it is.”
Ideas to tempt kids’ palate
Kate Yerxa, registered dietician with the University of Maine Extension Service, has a wealth of information to share on the topic of kids and foods. One website she suggests to those looking for help with picky eaters can be found at www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/index.php.
Another good source comes from the federal government at www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers/picky-eaters.html. This site includes some interesting recipes created by kids for a White House-sponsored recipe contest. My choice for a picky eater might be the fun-shaped zucchini pancakes and the passion fruit banana smoothie created by 8-year-old Sakari Clendinen of the U.S. Virgin Islands. You can check out that recipe and all 54 winning recipes at www.choosemyplate.gov/kids/Recipes.html.