Magazine

The Families Issue

Are picky eaters born or made?

To break the cycle of the mealtime stress fest, parents must face some bitter truths.

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ASIDE FROM THE MONTH OR SO IN THE LATE ’70s when I lived exclusively on hot dogs and applesauce, my mother reports that I was an easygoing customer as a child, happy enough to consume whatever was put in front of me. Later, this insouciance became a source of praise and attention — “Look at that,” someone would say, “she’ll eat an anchovy” — especially against the model of my younger cousin, who, to our Italian grandmother’s consternation, preferred his macaroni plain, and still does.

Like any kid, I had my favorite meals, not to mention my fair share of McDonald’s (often eaten in the car), but, in general, I could find something to like about most food, which pretty much describes how I am today. Preferences, definitely, but certainly nothing was or ever has been impossible to stomach.

So did my parents get lucky — was I born this way? Or was it something they did, or didn’t, do? My mom remembers neither encouraging my agreeableness nor discouraging complaints. But she also doesn’t remember picky eating “being a thing back then.” Informal canvassing of my friends turns up similar results: Lauren didn’t like rubbery cheese, Bob preferred his meat loaf mashed up in a bowl and drowned in Heinz ketchup, but the consensus is that when we were kids, the menu was set and some nights were just better than others.

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Somewhere over the last 40 years, it seems things have changed. Parents talk of young and not-so-young children who adhere to a strict kiddie menu diet, even at home; children who “scream bloody murder” at the sight of a green bean, who subsist entirely on “crunchy carbs,” who can’t be in the same room as a bowl of cereal or refuse a milkshake because they “can smell the banana”; children who exert far more control over mealtime than their parents ever did, or even dreamed they could. The family dinner, in turn, has become conspicuously buffet-like — something for everyone, guaranteed. That way, everyone’s happy and everyone’s fed.

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Some parents are more bothered by this state of affairs than others. “Ninety-nine percent of questions we get [at events] are about picky eating,” says Sally Sampson, founder and president of Belmont-based kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Picky Eater Project. “But, of course, [fixing it] can be a lot of work, like letting your kid cry through the night. People don’t want to do it. Parents want their kids to be happy.”

Christine Zanchi of Sherborn says her son Andrew was about 3 when he began refusing to eat whatever she’d made, usually before he even sat down at the table. She played along for a year — Andrew and his considerably easier-going twin brother were served dinners Zanchi knew Andrew would like, while the grown-ups got something different — until the spring day she began planning a family garden. She asked Andrew what he wanted to plant. “Hot dogs,” Andrew replied. “I said to my husband, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ ” Zanchi says.

Other parents, though, seem mostly content, or at least resigned. One friend, whose four kids are all under the age of 7, has by philosophy and necessity a rule: If they don’t like what’s for dinner, they don’t eat. “I’m not a short-order cook,” she says (though she does make a different meal for the kids than she does for the adults, if mostly because work prevents her husband from being home in time for family dinner anyway). On a recent night, kids’ dinner was cinnamon French toast with strawberries. The 7-year-old just ate the strawberries. And if she were to present to the crowd the pork tenderloin she had going in the crockpot? “They would just stare at that and throw it away,” she says.

Which, of course, gets expensive, and for many families, grocery costs are high enough already. Harvard sociologist Caitlin Daniel, who spent two years studying how 73 Boston-area families decided what to feed their kids, found that, for many families, anticipated waste played a big role in just how far parents would, or could, go to get their kids to eat better, or different, foods. Some parents cringed at the thought of food waste. Others couldn’t afford to offer kids a variety of foods if it meant food would go uneaten. For those families, says Daniel, “food rejection simply costs too much.” And so they only bought what they knew their kids would eat. “Across income levels, the parents who identified their children as ‘picky’ wanted them to like a wider array of foods and wanted to do something about it,” says Daniel. “That said . . . some parents thought that if the child liked at least some ‘good’ foods, that was enough.” That is, if he eats the carrots, why bother making him like the squash?

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Ipswich mom Jessica Holmes’s 2½-year-old daughter eats a total of 15 items, including mac and cheese, pizza, and chicken fingers, but also avocado, berries, and oatmeal (as long as it’s made with milk and not water). “It’s tough to buy things knowing she won’t eat them,” says Holmes. Instead, she just tries her best to buy organic versions of the foods already on her daughter’s list, which she keeps taped to the fridge.

And besides: Who isn’t restrictive, or at least discerning, about food these days? Zanchi was on a vegan kick when Andrew started being fussy; Holmes’s husband avoids salad; there’s hardly a bakery around that can get away with not having a gluten-free case. “I used to be of the mind-set that you eat what I prepare for you, but I think we live in a day and age when everyone is making special requests for their food, always asking for ‘this but not that,’ ” says Leah Klein of Cambridge, mom to 9-year-old Henry, whom Klein describes as a “bit of a perfectionist. If it isn’t exactly right, he doesn’t want it.”

At press time, Henry will eat: rice, miso soup, edamame, apples, English shell peas (in the pod), broccoli, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza, pasta, and his father’s pancakes, because the ones Klein makes are “too dark.” (Henry also eats one type of salami from Formaggio Kitchen, “but what is interesting,” says Klein, “is that it used to be cervelat, but then the consistency of the sausage changed and now he only likes the Salame Ligure. We all noticed the change . . . but only Henry couldn’t let it go and just eat it.”) He used to like avocado sushi, but no more, which is too bad, given the family’s upcoming trip to Japan was chosen in part to accommodate Henry’s food preferences.

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SOME SELECTIVITY IS A NORMAL PART of development, one with evolutionary roots. Kids are most physiologically amenable to liking new foods before the age of 2, according to Anne K. Fishel, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. The disgust emotion emerges at around age 2 to help protect the newly mobile from ingesting toxic substances and peaks between the ages of 4 and 8. But modern parenting and modern life have both exacerbated and prolonged the disgust, while also allowing kids to apply it to things that maybe aren’t quite disgusting but aren’t french fries, either. And, well, we let them. “Sometimes it’s not clear whether a kid is selective or whether they ‘only do mac and cheese’ because the family only serves mac and cheese because the family is afraid of what would happen if they didn’t serve mac and cheese,” says Dr. Georgina Garcia, director of the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center’s Child and Adolescent Program.

All of that could help explain why more and more kids aren’t outgrowing their selectivity, carrying it far beyond the age of 8 and to new extremes. This might include my 11-year-old stepson, whose current breakfast of choice is a Kraft American single. My husband describes him as having “bar food tastes,” though, if we’re honest, taste is only part of the issue. He likes orange juice but won’t eat oranges; refuses smoothies made of strawberries and yogurt but loves strawberry yogurt. Insisting he eat certain things — or what we were eating — was never something my husband did for a combination of reasons that include limited time spent together, the fact that my stepson's preferred foods are microwave- or toaster oven-friendly, and the relative unconcern of his doctors, who say he’s perfectly healthy — processed sludge coursing through his veins or not.

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Wakefield, Rhode Island, mom Heather Waddell says, “Our doctor has always been like ‘Everything’s gonna be OK, as long as he’s eating something.’ ” Waddell viewed getting her 9-year-old son to add pizza to his short list of foods as a victory — mainly so he could attend birthday parties without having a fit — until he decided he liked it so much he put on 20 pounds in a year. Even then, she says, the doctor said, “It’s fine, he’s growing. . . . Just eat more fruits and vegetables and try to cut back on the snacks.” My mother-of-four friend says her pediatrician’s advice was that as long as everyone ate pretty healthfully during the day, it wasn't a catastrophe if they had string cheese for dinner, and “that we only think of dinner as a big meal because we were taught that,” she says. “So I went with it.”

But new research shows that picky eating does matter in ways that go beyond concerns around obesity or malnourishment. A study conducted by Duke University’s Center for Eating Disorders and published in the fall found that even moderately selective eaters were more likely to show symptoms of depression, social anxiety, or ADHD than those kids who weren’t picky eaters. Severely selective eaters were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or social anxiety. Many adults with eating-related issues, meanwhile, reported being picky eaters as children. Garcia points out that there are more serotonin receptors in the gut than in the brain, which suggests that selective eating may be not only an effect of depression and anxiety — a coping mechanism that affords an anxious kid some sense of control — but also a contributing factor. “Picky eating is a normalized phrase, part of a culture of new, individualized parenting,” says Garcia. Kids pick their clothes, their bedtime, so why not their food? “But it can actually turn into a medical problem later on.”

Fishel, who is also cofounder of the Family Dinner Project at Harvard, says food fussiness can also be a response to tension at the dinner table, as anxiety levels rise among adults, and she cites the decline in shared mealtimes as a key factor in the rise of picky eating. “Kids snack all day long, they eat on the run, they eat lots of meals in the car, and they come to mealtime not very hungry,” she says. “Good eating comes from children being socialized to eat at mealtimes. If a parent offers good food, in a regular setting, a child will become a competent eater.” With tongue in cheek, Fishel tells parents that her family therapy practice would fail if people had regular family dinners. “When I ask families what’s the biggest obstacle to sitting down to a family dinner, when I tell them about all the research pointing to all the benefits,” says Fishel, “the first response I hear is ‘time’ and the second is the challenge and frustration of cooking only to have a child or partner reject it. It’s a hassle, and people are busy and tired.” As Jessica Holmes says, “The doctors say don’t make mealtime a battle, which we’ve tried to do . . . especially because we commute and we’re exhausted.”

As for the ever-changing American palate, the good news is that kids still aren’t born loving McNuggets or even predisposed to bar food. Turns out, that’s parents’ doing, too, with a little bit of biology thrown in. “Beyond infancy, literally all foods are acquired tastes,” says Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and author of Ending the Food Fight. What looks like food preference is actually something closer to addiction, he says. “There is evidence that, over time, highly processed foods recruit brain areas involved in reward craving and addiction, which can overwhelm behavior,” he says. “The more highly processed carbs you eat, the more your blood sugar and insulin surge and crash. After the crash, you’re not going to be interested in fruits or vegetables or beans, but something to rescue your blood sugar as quickly as possible.” In the face of pizza and ice cream, says Ludwig, poor spinach doesn’t stand a chance.

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ASIDE FROM KIDS WITH SENSORY, oral, or autism disorders, the real reason most kids are picky eaters is simple, says ChopChop’s Sally Sampson. Because they can be. “Picky eating is the privilege of the privileged,” she says. Even across income levels, though, Harvard’s Caitlin Daniel found that many parents raise picky eaters because giving kids what they know they’ll eat, regardless of financial concerns, is just plain easier. Sampson tells the story of a colleague whose kids were “good eaters but will only eat frozen meatballs and hot dogs. And I was like ‘Really? Are they doing the grocery shopping?’ ”

But the solution isn’t a parent uprising, a revolution to take back dinnertime. Hypercontrol backfires, too, and all experts agree that forcing kids to eat — specific foods or at all — only makes things worse. For one thing, says Ludwig, coercive parenting practices increase the production of stress hormones, like cortisol, which in turn causes kids to pair those foods, or mealtime in general, with negative feelings. But hunger, says Ludwig, is a great motivator. “We don’t have to be afraid of letting the kid get hungry and experience the consequences of the decision not to eat,” he says. “We need an appropriate division of responsibilities: Parents decide what the kid gets; kid decides whether to eat it.”

And if he doesn’t eat, mom or dad shouldn’t jump up and make mac and cheese from a pack. Sampson says when her two kids were small, if they didn’t like what was served, they were allowed to have yogurt, cottage cheese, or a bowl of cereal. “But they had to get it themselves,” she says. “It was almost never worth it to them.”

Christine Zanchi’s reform of hot dog loving Andrew took about six weeks. The changes she and her husband made were small but effective. Most every meal contains three elements: fruit, something she knows he’ll eat, and something new or unfamiliar. Dessert is occasional and random, but never a reward for eating a certain thing or a certain amount. Sometimes she has Andrew and his brother help shop and prep, which has also encouraged him to be more accepting of mealtime. One study found that kids who made lunch for themselves or each other in a cooking class were far more likely to eat it or ask for seconds compared with those who had lunch made for them. Most of all, she has let go of her own stubbornness while remaining unwavering in her presentation: Dinner is dinner, and there’s nothing else on the menu.

As Sampson says: “The way not to have a picky eater is to expose them to everything, not make a big deal when they don’t want it, but offer it again. Don’t stop serving it. What we see over and over is that you get the crap out of the house, you involve them in mealtimes, you’re consistent but you don’t force, and it works. You may go through a period of time when they’re whiny, but, generally speaking, people get through it.”   

Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.