Humoring Picky Kids

Dear Helena,
My kid will only eat three things: macaroni and cheese, a baked potato with cheese, and cream cheese sandwiches (Philadelphia brand only). I’ve tried everything. Now I’ve given up and I just make him separate meals for the sake of my own sanity. Is this really bad? Will he grow out of it?
—Eat Your Greens

Dear Eat Your Greens,
If your kid grows up to be a picky eater, he’ll have to worry about more than just vitamin deficiencies. A dinner invitation will become a source of shame and fear. He’ll have to figure out how to politely tell his host about all the foods on his “no” list. Or else he’ll have to become skilled at choking down foods he doesn’t like. And Chowhounds may find it very difficult to date him, marry him, or even be his friend.

Luckily, just because a kid is picky doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily be a picky adult. All omnivores, even rats, are reluctant to try new things, says Leann Birch, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University. While people are born liking sweet foods, it’s natural for them to shrink from things like spinach. “Sour and bitter tastes signal there are potential toxins,” Birch says. Eventually, most people learn to override their childhood aversions and appreciate all kinds of things, like pickles, arugula, or vodka. You’ll just want to give your child a gentle nudge into more adventurous eating.

How to do so? It’s no longer in vogue to bargain with your kid, telling him he can have an Oreo if he finishes his broccoli. Forcing your kid to choke down all of his greens will send the message that veggies are just a means to an end, rather than something that might actually be enjoyable. Also, “[c]oaching them to eat when they’re not hungry might have other negative outcomes,” says Birch. In other words, your child could grow up with weight and overeating issues.

And yet the last thing you want to do is give up and cater to your child’s every whim. According to Birch’s research, preschool kids need at least five exposures to a new food before they’ll eat it. Exposure doesn’t mean they have to eat their entire portion. “Just ask them to take a small taste … they have to put it in their mouth, they can’t just smell it. But they can spit it out if they don’t like it.” The more familiar kids are with kale, the more likely they’ll be to try it again—either as a child or a grown-up—and like it.

The important thing—and here’s where it gets tricky—is you need to strike a balance between persuasive and argumentative. Although small children are more willing to try new foods, by the time they hit the age of two, saying no to Mommy and Daddy is their way of asserting independence. You don’t want to signal to them that trying broccoli is massively important to you, or they may decide to make avoiding broccoli a defining feature of their personality.

Also, know that kids often model their behavior on that of adults. “The epidemiological literature says that by 15 months the most commonly consumed vegetable is french fries,” says Birch. That’s because the parents are eating like kids, and the kids are copying them. By that same token, having a family meal together, where the kids see you eating varied things, can inspire them to do the same. That just might mean you’ll have to eat dinner before the sun goes down.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.