Wed, 02 Aug 2000

Children and their finicky eating habits

By Clare E. Urwin

SURABAYA (JP): Young children are notoriously finicky about food. Much to the despair of many parents, sometimes their two or three year olds seems to live on nothing but an occasional peanut butter sandwich made from polystyrene white bread with crusts removed and cut into triangles.

Most young children think all vegetables are revolting, with green ones, except peas, being particularly evil. As for fruit, well, if it isn't orange juice, or a melon stick, forget it. Sometimes, their idea of a culinary delight, such as french fries with chocolate sauce, makes concerned parents cringe.

If this sounds familiar, and you are now exhausted trying to get your child to eat what's good for him, just stop, relax and don't panic. As long as they are generally healthy and not losing weight, you really have nothing to worry about. Sheer boredom with a very restricted diet will soon mean more variety will be wanted.

Finicky eating is not an eating problem at all, it's a behavioral one. Power struggles are frequently set up around eating because it's among the few areas where a child can attempt to exert control over his parents. Children may be young and small but most are definitely not stupid. Be warned; they instinctively know at a very early age what foods are being forced on them.

Toddlers quickly recognize that eating times are wonderful opportunities for some extra parental attention. Food preferences become extremely effective weapons in the battle to assert their independence. To young children, refusing to eat what their mother wants them to is far more important than if the food is fish or fowl.

Finicky food habits are almost always temporary and will disappear if not reinforced by parents making an unnecessary fuss or by creating unnecessary rules. In other words, don't make a big deal out of it. You may unintentionally make your child's eating problems worse by blowing the situation out of all proportion.

Of course, all caring parents want their offspring to eat a variety of good healthy foods to get all the nutrients necessary for proper growth and development. So, it's understandable to be worried when this doesn't seem to be happening.

A new mother, being overly anxious, can fear that her child may starve and will try any measure, including bribery, to cajole the infant into eating.

"Just taste one mouthful for me. You can have some ice cream and watch TV if you please eat these beans."

Have you said anything like that before? Unfortunately, such pressure is more likely to create a food aversion than a desire to eat the food in question. This sends a clear message that eating ice cream is a nice reward but eating beans is an unpleasant duty. Soon, the child will dislike, then eventually hate beans. Thus starts a lifetime of avoiding them.

Pushing so-called healthy foods will make your child suspicious. They are not stupid, remember? In fact, a liking for junk foods can be reinforced by a constant insistence on eating healthy ones. Childhood eating habits do have the potential of continuing into adulthood too. Treats like chocolate, cake or cookies are often offered to pacify children when they are upset. Do that enough times and the seeds of adult comfort eating are firmly sown.

Food, is a highly emotive symbol for many cultures. We use it for hospitality, to welcome, celebrate, console and bid farewell. Understandably, very small children can't appreciate its importance or significance. Sometimes, a child who is picky with his food is seen by many adults as being spoiled or overindulged. Especially when for many children of the world, an actual choice of what to eat would be an unimaginable luxury.

However, there are some biological and developmental reasons behind the weird dining behavior of small children. A child has more sensitive taste buds than an adult. They enjoy the true flavor of foods and normally dislike those overwhelmed with sauces, gravies, syrups, herbs and spices.

Young children don't usually like anything which has a bitter taste. This could be a reason for a common aversion to dark green vegetables. However, many poisonous plants do taste bitter, so historically, this may be a sensible protective mechanism in the survival of our species.

Children are great mimics and they learn by imitating those around them. Consequently, the eating habits of parents will greatly influence a child's food preferences. For instance, if grownups indulge in quick junk food while serving healthy meals to the next generation, children will naturally desire those forbidden foods too.

Good nutrition for a growing child is vital. Learning to like many different healthy foods when they are young, gives children the best possible start for a long disease-free life. Because it is so important, and if peanut butter sandwiches cut into triangles are driving you crazy, try a completely new approach.

Expect your child to reject any new food the first few times it is presented. Bring it back, say once a week, for a total of 14 or 15 times, but let the child know they don't have to eat it. In the meantime, when the occasion arises, you and any other siblings should eat the same food with obvious pleasure.

Offer two new types of vegetables at a meal to increase the likelihood that your child will at least try one. Because of their invaluable nutrient density, keep trying different vegetables, prepared and presented in various ways. Experiment with chopped ones in soups, sauces and salsas. Brightly colored vegetables sticks are often accepted as a snack.

A good tip is to introduce new foods at the beginning of a meal when your child is hungry. Also, finicky eaters are more likely to eat food they helped to make. Encourage your child to be actively involved in shopping, preparing, cooking and serving the meal. Strange new foods are a lot less threatening when they become used to them before reaching the table.

Teach your child why a varied diet is so important to get all the nutrients we need to be healthy. Explain that when they are feeling tired or bad tempered, it may be because of bad eating. Surprisingly, quite young children can easily grasp these fundamentals of a healthy diet. Providing of course, that this strategy is not being used in the middle of a peanut butter triangle battle.

Finicky eaters can be influenced to be more adventurous with their range of foods. Gentle persuasion works a lot better than threats or bribery. Use your common sense. Provide a variety of healthy foods in a relaxed atmosphere. Take a low key approach, encourage them to try new foods, take time to eat them and generously tolerate occasional rejections. Good luck.

The writer, (, is a nutritionist and health advisor based in Surabaya.