Stopping the dinner dramas

Try, try again... Studies show how to lower the chance of dinnertime meltdowns.
Try, try again... Studies show how to lower the chance of dinnertime meltdowns. 

When your child is a picky eater, everyone has advice: Cook with your kids! Eat like a French person! Roast those Brussels sprouts!

Jessica Seinfeld, wife of the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, advocates pureeing vegetables and sneaking them into a familiar food such as macaroni and cheese.

Nancy Tringali Piho, author of the book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, thinks it would be great if you could introduce your child to a wide range of exquisitely prepared foods from around the world, preferably before he's out of the high chair.

So what's a busy parent to do? Like many parents of the young and the picky, I'm basically concerned with increasing vegetable consumption (not with impressing the other restaurant patrons with my kid's passion for octopus). I also place a pretty high value on my own time and effort. So, with those factors in mind, I redirected my efforts: I resolved I would try new techniques for promoting vegetable consumption, but only those that had proven effective in large studies published in respected scientific journals.

That, as it turned out, left me with surprisingly few options.

'It's his favourite, and he wouldn't touch it before,' one parent was quoted as saying

"The vast majority of scientific research has been through repeat exposure," says Terence M Dovey, a lecturer at the Centre for Research into Eating Disorders at Loughborough University.

"You show (the food) once. You show it again. You show it again. You show it again. At no point do you force the child to eat it. Eventually, the vast majority of children will accept the food."

There's plenty that researchers don't know about picky eaters, starting with the basics, such as how many there are. Estimates vary widely, from 8 to 50 percent of kids, with researchers differing on how to define the term. Some allow parents or caregivers to define pickiness, others look at how many foods kids actually eat, and some look at average kids during some or all of the peak pickiness years: ages two to six.

"The research is a bit hampered by that," says Lucy Cooke, a senior research associate at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London. "The definition of picky eating is a very wishy-washy one; it's hard to tell what people mean."

The difficulties, Dovey says, lie in the studies' focus on single foods, and the fact that many of the studies take place in schools, where, scientists suspect, kids tend to be more flexible and obedient than they are on their home turf.

Still, the evidence for repeat exposure keeps piling up; a 2007 review of scientific studies by Cooke in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found repeated exposure can increase liking and consumption.

In the past 10 years, scientists have begun to venture into the ultimate picky-eating battleground - the home - with a few large, well-structured experiments.

In a 2003 study published in the journal Appetite, a team of British researchers divided 143 kids ages two to six into three groups. The parents in one group got nutritional information, the parents in the second (control) group didn't get any extra assistance, and the parents in the third group were asked to offer their kids a taste of a single moderately disliked vegetable every day for 14 days.

The kids in the "give it 14 tastes" group showed greater increases in consumption and "liking" of the despised vegetable than the other kids/ That group was also the only one to show significant increases across all three of the measures used (liking, consumption and "ranking" of the vegetable relative to other vegetables.)

Parents complained about the number of tastes required, but of the 10 parents in the "14 tastes" group who did follow-up interviews, seven felt that the experiment had a lasting effect on their child's opinion of the vegetable. "It's his favourite, and he wouldn't touch it before," one parent was quoted as saying.

Here's the basic procedure: Every day for 14 days, the parent would offer the child small pieces of a single "moderately disliked" target vegetable (either carrot, celery, tomato, red capsicum, green capsicum or cucumber, depending on the child's tastes). The vegetable was served raw and the child could eat as much or as little as she liked. A parent might say, "You don't have to eat it, just taste it" or "I've (tried) it, can you do it too?"

At the end of the 14 days, the children were consuming more of their target vegetables, and reporting that they liked them more.

Not all kids are willing to even try a disliked vegetable, Cooke acknowledges, but she says a small non-food incentive can tip the balance.

The Chicago Tribune

Did this tip work for you? Do you have your own advice on dealing with fussy eaters? Comment below.