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.
"Our results clearly show that the children were not given numerous and consistent exposures to unfamiliar foods over time," the authors write.
So what's a mother to do?
Satter's theory is to introduce new foods gradually -- to her diet and her child's. "Look at food in the grocery store and, at some future time, bring it home, cook it, but don't feel obligated to eat it," she says. "Eventually, get to the point where you want some on your plate or in your mouth. But then, you don't have to swallow it.
"The napkin trick is absolutely pivotal when it comes to food acceptance," Satter says. "It works like this: Put the food in your mouth, taste it, feel the texture, and take it out again. If you do this repeatedly meal after meal, eventually, the food becomes familiar enough that you'll like it."
What doesn't work, she says, is coercing, threatening, or rewarding the child to eat. "That just exacerbates the problem, and then you really do have a picky eater, because he will resist doing something that he's not ready to do," she says.
Moms need not be concerned about nutrition deprivation if they are routinely offering a variety of foods, having regular family meals, and not catering to the child's limited tastes, Satter tells WebMD. Instead, just continue to offer a variety of foods and let the child pick and choose from what is put on the table.
While the advice is easier given than followed, Satter acknowledges that, "Like a new song, food will grow on you."
In the meantime, hold on to your broccoli -- picky eating behavior is likely to continue throughout the toddler years. In fact, the process of food acceptance goes on throughout a lifetime.