Picky Eaters at the Dinner Table?
March 8, 2001 -- Millions of moms can identify with that old cereal commercial, in which some finicky kids try to get the unsuspecting Mikey to do their taste testing, saying, "He won't eat it -- he hates everything." Although Mikey surprises them by gobbling up the cereal, parents of picky eaters don't often get that lucky. And a new study shows that when kids reject unfamiliar foods, it might actually be mom at the other end of the spoon who's reinforcing the picky behavior.
The reluctance is called "neophobia," which means the fear of trying anything new and unknown, including food. Most young children exhibit some form of this behavior.
"It's natural ... they're born with it," says Ellyn Satter, a nutritionist and family therapist at Ellyn Satter Associates in Madison, Wis. "Picky eaters are a product of their environment."
Satter explains that when children can't talk yet, "The only way they have of defending themselves of toxic agents is to be extremely cautious. The problem is, parents tend to misinterpret normal behavior, so when the child doesn't eat the food the first time or the first five times, they assume he doesn't like it."
While some researchers have speculated that kids are born picky, Betty Ruth Carruth, PhD, and Jean D. Skinner, PhD, RD, of the nutrition department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, believe that a well-meaning mom might spur the problem eater on.
Satter, a clinician who has consulted extensively with adults about feeding their children and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, agrees. "Children are going to eat the way their parents eat," she tells WebMD. "It comes down to food-acceptance skills. People who have the healthiest diets are those who eat the biggest variety of foods, and people who eat the biggest variety of foods like the biggest variety of foods."
"It is unlikely that children will be accepting of unfamiliar foods if the parents exhibit neophobia traits," Carruth and Skinner write in the December issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. "Educational strategies with young children must include multiple opportunities to taste new foods within social contexts that reinforce that food's acceptability."
In their study of toddlers' picky eating behaviors, Carruth and Skinner interviewed 71 mothers when their children were 3½, 5, 6, and 7½ years old. Moms kept track of their children's diets -- what they ate and refused to eat. They recorded what kids ate at home as well as what they ate in restaurants or when visiting friends.
Results showed that no matter what their age, kids exhibited picky eating behaviors. Researchers also found that only about one in five mothers attempted to improve the picky eating behavior by introducing new foods or trying new recipes.