Adventurous to Picky Eater: Where did I go wrong?

My youngest son, who is now 4 years old, is a top contender among the world’s pickiest eaters, I’m sure of it.

I was determined to get the nutrition thing right by the time I had Tyler, my fourth and final child.  I made all his baby food, served him the same toddler-safe versions of what everyone else was eating for dinner, and he loved it all!

But even though we got off to a great start, something went wrong along the way.  These days, if he is not eating  waffles, mac n cheese, or an ABJ (almond butter and jelly) sandwich, he is not eating.  Period.

Adventurous Little Eater

Ty was my most adventurous eater as a newbie to solid foods. 

He loved everything I put in front of him.  He devoured avocados, quinoa, pureed spinach, ground turkey.  If it was on my plate, he wanted to try it. He loved EVERYTHING! 

A lot of kids start out this way.  You introduce them to foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, green beans…and they eat it.   They don’t argue or throw a tantrum.  They may even kick their feet with excitement as you scoop up the next spoonful. 

This is how Tyler was.  I have never seen a child more excited to eat a scoop of pureed peas than him.  I was hopeful it would stay that way, but as you might guess, it didn’t.

So where did I go wrong?

Around the time he hit the terrible two’s, I remember noticing he was beginning to refuse a lot more foods.  I figured at the time that it was just his newfound ability to say no to anything and everything.  I would later learn that I was mostly to blame for the disappointment I felt when he rejected any new meal I put in front of him.

Arizona State University psychology professor, Elizabeth Phillips, has focused her research on the psychology of tastes and eating to find out how it is that our food preferences come about.

pregnant bellyHer research indicates the food preferences we develop throughout our lives likely start in the womb.  When inside the womb, a fetus will inhale and exhale amniotic fluid, which is flavored depending on the dietary habits of the mother.  This explains why Tyler loved all the same foods as I did.

Phillips says, “you will eat anything up until you reach 2 years old,” as food preferences continue to develop for about 2 years following birth. Chances are, you are less likely to enjoy a particular flavor if you have not been exposed to it by the age of 2. 

This is where many parents make a mistake, thinking their child doesn’t like a particular food when in reality they just don’t like anything that is “new” to them. 

Assuming their child doesn’t like a certain food leads parents to stop attempting to feed it to their child, and the child ends up apparently hating it for years.  Phillip says, “if they just keep giving it to their child, they will eventually like it.”

So this is where you, as a likely frustrated parent, continue to expose your child to the “hated” food to ensure the food is “not new”.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post,  it may take more than 20 exposures before your child will try a particular food.

The point is:

We don’t just eat foods because we like them, we like them because we eat them.

What now?

When I first read about this concept of continuing to place disliked foods in front of my toddler, who was 95% more likely to hurl it across the room than to eat it, I balked.  Who wants to deal with a mealtime temper tantrum from an angry two year old at every meal? 

But some of the studies Phillips has done kept my attention.  For example, she found that by adding a dash of sugar to broccoli, she could get kids to actually eat it.  After doing this about six times, the kids actually enjoyed eating the broccoli by itself.

green beansSo if your child is not a fan of green beans but he likes sweet potatoes, try mixing the two together.  You are conditioning them to like a food by association; Mixing something disliked with something they like. 

Phillips says, “You can mix disliked foods with anything you like but you still must be able to taste the thing you are trying to condition for”.  This means they have to be able to still taste the green beans in order to eventually begin to like its flavor. 

I despised tomatoes on my sandwiches when I was growing up, but I loved eating them in salads and on tacos.  So I would like to think that as I continued eating them with the foods I enjoyed, I eventually outgrew my dislike for them and can now proudly eat them on my sandwiches.  (That sounds like such a dorky story, but it’s so true).

Work in Progress

Its sometimes a battle, for sure.  However, despite many tears from both of us, we are S-L-O-W-L-Y making progress.  The list of foods he is beginning to actually eat is growing each day.

He blew my mind at dinner the other night when he cleaned his entire plate of honey chicken and fruit.  I mean, this kid NEVER does that.  Is my persistence in putting these usually disliked types of foods in front of him actually working??

I have been consistently putting foods on his “I WILL NOT EAT THIS” list in front of him, mixed in with something he likes, and it seems to be paying off.  For example, he doesn’t usually like chicken, however when I make him a quesadilla, I will put shredded chicken in it.  Then magically he ate all his honey chicken one night!

Also, when I pack him his favorite school snack of strawberries and blueberries, I will add in a few blackberries and raspberries as well.  Of course, for a while, I would hear about it from him after school but he has been complaining much less and is actually eating them now. 

It’s like magic;  Retraining your child to like food. 

My advice to you is don’t settle for being a short order cook at dinnertime just to ensure your child will not throw a fit.  Be consistent. 

Even the once adventurous-turned-picky eater can be retrained!  It’s a slow process but in the end, you will both benefit and be happy.