Food & Drink

Repetition, choices help picky children become better eaters


If Alex Macintyre had his way, the 11-year-old would have haggis for dinner tonight. It’s a Scottish dish that would even make many adults shudder: a blend of minced sheep organs that’s traditionally simmered while encased in a sheep stomach.

His 13-year-old sister, Kate, certainly isn’t having it. She proclaimed herself a “foot-atarian” at the age of 4, saying she wouldn’t eat anything with feet – but does make an exception for hamburgers. Their mom, Kirsten Macintyre, wonders how her two kids ended up on such opposite sides of the picky eating spectrum.

“Alex will say, ‘Let’s try some new Indian place in Davis,’” said Kirsten Macintyre. “Kate, she’s terrible. I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t love Chinese food. What’s up with that?”

Dealing with picky eaters and encouraging kids to think outside the Happy Meal box is a common predicament for parents. While most moms and dads don’t expect their kids to have a hankering for haggis, introducing young people to the wider world of foods remains a challenge for many parents.

But the dinner table doesn’t have to feel like a battleground when kids won’t budge on trying new foods. Keep in mind that cycles of finickiness often come and go through childhood. That even goes for the two kids of Ashley Rosales, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who serves as a manager for the Dairy Council of California.

“All kids fall into times when they’re more picky and eat less than the previous couple months,” said Rosales. “It really validates a natural progression. Children start categorizing things in the world around age 2. At that stage, they can enter into an ‘I don’t want things mixed’ phase. It’s not like they’re an infant and can combine all these foods together. They want to see grapes cut on the side, and then a side of rice here.”

To raise good eaters, Rosales is a proponent of the “division of responsibility in feeding” developed by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian who specializes in childhood eating issues. The system creates an overall structure for family meals, one that presents a series of healthy options but allows the child to make the final pick.

Let’s say dinner is a meal of grilled salmon, rice, fruit and milk. The child might say “yuck” to the salmon, but if they have the rice, fruit and milk, they’ll still walk away with a fairly full stomach of healthy foods.

“You’re providing a structure where balanced nutrition is available throughout the day,” said Rosales. “Within that foundation, they make healthy choices based on their needs and intuitive nature. It gives them autonomy and helps them develop a healthy relationship with food.”

And even if they keep passing on that salmon, Rosales suggests to keep making it a routine dish. Sustained exposure makes it likely that a child will at least try it some time. Having the child help with the cooking can also encourage them to take a taste.

But getting some kids to embrace vegetables might be a challenge that goes deeper than a war of wills. Our taste buds and heredity may also influence our choosiness.

A team of researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions found that genetics may play a role in acceptance of bitter foods. The 2005 study found that variations of the gene TAS2R38 may account for a range in sensitivity of bitter tastes. For those kids who are perhaps hard-wired to perceive bitter flavors more strongly than others, good luck getting them to ask for seconds of kale or arugula.

And the amount of taste buds a person has varies by age, and can dwindle to 5,000 for the elderly. The average adult has 10,000 taste buds, but newborns can have up to three times that amount, making little ones especially sensitive to sour, salty and sweet flavors. That’s why baby food tends to taste bland to grownups.

Even in elementary school, kids are generally more loaded with taste buds than their parents. No wonder there were so many winces when The New York Times recently produced a video of second-graders eating a richly flavored $220 tasting menu at Daniel, the Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant overseen by chef Daniel Boulud.

Pronounced flavors aside, unfamiliar textures and aromas can also make it tough to introduce new foods to a child. The key is to just keep bringing them to the table until they become less of a curiosity. They might become willing to experience a taste down the road.

“Kids are really averse to trying things the first time,” Rosales said. “When they grimace, it’s not because of the taste, but it can be because of a lack of familiarity. The concept of not forcing, but freely exposing a variety of foods and textures over time almost always leads to the kid willing to experiment.”

One of the worst ways a parent can address a picky eater is to offer a reward system, for instance, a pizza dinner tomorrow if they eat all their vegetables today. The practice can backfire.

“They learn that green beans are bad, but if they have them, they get pizza,” said Rosales. “The subliminal message is that one thing doesn’t taste good, and one thing tastes great.”

Rosales also cautions against creating a hierarchy of foods, that no ingredient should carry extra weight than others. The ultimate goal is to find balance and show that all food groups bring something healthy to the table.

“Never make vegetables any better than any other food group,” said Rosales. “Each food group provides specific nutrients for our health. We tend to fixate on things like broccoli, but other things are important, too. Take the pressure off and give them freedom at the table.”

As for the Macintyres, young Alex was introduced to haggis through the family’s participation in Scottish festivals. But the family is basically divided in two by eating preferences. Mother and daughter tend to stay on the picky side, but father Corey seeks out food adventures, be it haggis or trying new restaurants. While Alex’s sister still opts for In-N-Out Burger, he’s now interested in learning how to cook wild game in a gourmet style.

“Alex grew up seeing his dad walking into ethnic restaurants and saying, ‘Bring me your house special,’” Macintyre said. “Alex does that too. I don’t know if it’s just a boy being adventurous and wants to impress people, but he will eat absolutely anything.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.