As a child, I remember my parents pleading with me to try a mashed sweet potato. “But, it’s soooo good”; “I promise you will like it”; or my favorite line “It tastes just like candy!”. Ironically, today sweet potatoes are one of my favorite foods; however, at age 5, there wasn’t a chance I was going to touch that neon orange mush on my plate, no matter how long I had to sit at the dinner table. And really, “Tastes like candy?!” Yes, they are sweeter than the average russet potato, but there is no mistaking a sweet potato for a chocolate bar… So why do kids refuse their veggies? I came across a very interesting article that may help better explain.
Alexandra Logue, PHD, is the Research Professor for The Center for the Advanced Study of Education (CASE) at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York and author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking. Her research suggests that there is a strong genetic component to taste preferences. “It’s not kids’ or parents’ fault.” Logue describes “supertasters” who naturally taste lower concentrations of certain chemicals, making them sensitive to the tastes and textures of particular foods. Research shows that 70% of preschoolers taste the bitter compounds found in many vegetables called 6-n-propothiouricil (PROP), which is why young children often shun vegetables. A recent study showed both genetic and environmental effects on food preferences but found liking fruit, vegetables, and proteins is more likely to be genetically linked, while preferences for starchy foods, snack foods, and dairy is more likely to be due to a child’s food environment.
Having a picky eater can easily put stress on the entire family. I have witnessed many parents at their wits end. So, what can you do?
• First, RELAX and stop PRESSURING. Especially for young children, taste buds are still evolving. What they taste may not be the same as what you do. Research has shown it can take up to 20 times before a child develops a taste preference to a particular food. Kids are excellent at detecting stress and anxiety, and the more they know you want them to eat it, the less likely they will want to.
• Be a good role model and keep up with family meals: If kids don’t see how much their caregivers are enjoying a food, they will not deem it as safe.
• Involve kids in the preparation and cooking process. For younger kids, have THEM choose a vegetable at the market, let them hold it, smell it, even play with it. The more interaction and exposure a child has with a food the more likely they are to eventually eat it.
• Never, ever, force feed, hide, or sneak food into a kid’s meal, by any means. There is nothing wrong with amping up the flavor, adding breadcrumbs, sprinkling cheese, adding a dipping sauce, etc. to a food, but avoid deception. You will only weaken trust and likely create more resistance to the food.
It should be noted that children refuse food for many reasons. Behavior, age, and development often play a role in this; however, always consult with your pediatrician and healthcare team to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Katie Weller, MS, RD, LDN