Most parents hope it’s a passing phase, but pickiness actually can be fostered in the womb and ingrained in infancy.
Babies’ first flavors are discerned in amniotic fluid, says Emily Rydbom, and imprinted during breastfeeding. Mothers’ diets and preferences — or dislikes — for the full spectrum of foods influence their offspring, says Rydbom, board-certified holistic nutritionist at Stone Medical in Ashland.
“There are very few food likes that are inborn,” says Rydbom, adding that about a quarter of the population is genetically averse to bitterness.
Infants’ ability to learn to like new foods is high, says Rydbom, and that readiness doesn’t go away in toddlers. Parents, in reality, are the ones priming kids for pickiness to avoid protests.
“Don’t stop offering the food,” says Rydbom. “Don’t give up just because it feels hard. It is important to view pickiness as a situation we can overcome. We get a pretty big crack at it.”
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life represent the opportune window for cementing healthy eating habits, says Rydbom. Downplay their inclination toward sweet, inherent to breast milk. Pair new foods with familiar foods to increase the likelihood of acceptance.
Providing a variety of flavors, colors, shapes and textures should be parents’ goal for 6-month-old babies, says Rydbom, emphasizing texture. Presenting only purees until kids reach the age of about 10 months, she adds, is a recipe for texture sensitivity during toddlerhood and beyond.
“We so often associate food with taste only, but it’s texture,” says Rydbom. “That texture experience is huge.”
Occasionally, sensory perception disorders, including autism and other medical issues, can masquerade as pickiness. A medical professional can diagnose rare anatomical irregularities, such as laryngeal cleft or esophageal defects, that inhibit food consumption, says Dr. Mary Murdoch of Southern Oregon Pediatrics in Medford. When children are not growing well, it’s time for some medical perspective on pickiness, says Murdoch.
Stomach pain and nausea that quell appetite can arise from acid reflux, bacterial imbalance in the gut, iron deficiency, enzyme deficiencies, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, a host of food intolerances and, less often, allergies, says Murdoch. Milk protein intolerances and fructose malabsorption are fairly common conditions, adds Murdoch, but constipation is about as typical for young children as pickiness.
“We talk about this all the time,” says Murdoch.
Changing the dialogue around food and meals can have the most impact on changing picky behaviors, say Murdoch and Rydbom. Characterizing foods as “good” and “bad” can trigger emotional reactions to food. Instead, express enthusiasm over a food’s beautiful color or interesting shape while reiterating that everyone in the family has it on his or her plate.
Assign mealtime responsibilities to both parents and children, says Murdoch. Parents decide what the family is eating and when. Kids decide whether they will eat and how much. Sticking to regular, appropriately spaced mealtimes affords kids time to “build up a robust appetite,” says Murdoch.
“It’s OK to be hungry,” she says, explaining that it helps kids to learn tolerance for discomfort. “Don’t let them snack until the next meal.”
And above all, says Murdoch: “Avoid shaming,” particularly when it comes to quantities of foods kids are consuming and the size and shape of their bodies. Also consider if the home environment is stressful, disassociating kids from mealtime, says Rydbom. Are parents impatient during cooking? Do family members argue? Modeling healthy behaviors entails more than the foods parents put in their mouths, say Murdoch and Rydbom.
“You turn off the TV,” says Murdoch. “You have a nice conversation.”