You’ll never find the right food to solve a picky-eating problem.

That’s because picky eating isn’t really about food.  It is about control, a reluctance to try new things, sensory sensitivity, a chewing and/or swallowing problem, or some other issue.

Still, parents are always hopeful to find a list of foods that a picky eater is likely to eat.

giant needle in a haystackBut searching for just the right dish is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Actually, it’s worse. It’s like looking for a needle in a stack of almost identical needles.

Unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find the elusive foods that your picky eater will embrace and even if you did, discovering it today is no guarantee that you’ll do so tomorrow. Kids can be fickle that way.

The truth is that kids don’t always know what they like and don’t like.

It’s hard to believe this if you’ve got children who are loud and clear about which morsels will pass their lips and which ones won’t, but young kids don’t have what researchers call stable taste preferences.

Research shows that young kids don’t really know what they like or don’t like…They’re still exploring.

For instance, in one recent investigation, kids were asked to taste and rate the same 5 flavors of ice cream on two consecutive days. The researchers found that 3-4 year olds typically rated the ice cream flavors differently on each of the two days. Kids 5 and up, however, were more consistent about what they liked.

In other words, if your kids are younger than 5, don’t take what they say in regard to food preferences as gospel.

Kids don’t even know which foods they’ll try.

What do you think would happen if you presented a selection of fruits and vegetables to a group of 5-14 year old kids, asked them which items they were willing to try, and then two days later served them everything, even the offensive items?

If you are like every normal parent on the face of the planet you would expect the kids to eat the foods they had said they were willing to try, and to avoid the foods they had said they weren’t willing to try.  Surprisingly, you would be wrong.

A recent study tried this procedure and the researchers found some interesting results: not only were the kids willing to try the fruits and vegetables they had said they would try, but even the children who said they wouldn’t eat the fruits and vegetables ate them. Not only that, on average, they ate more than half the amount they were served.

In other words, when kids predict what they will and will not try, don’t believe them.

(Of course, in this study, teachers and not parents were introducing the new foods – and we all know that kids always perform better for teachers — but still, the kids did say they wouldn’t try the foods and they did try them.)

As parents we can often make poor predictions about what our kids will eat or like.caricature of a young child with head in hands and question mark over their head looking at an empty plate

Research shows that parents make accurate predictions about half of the time. That’s a pretty good average considering how flaky our kids can be in this area.

But if you can’t predict what your kids will like or eat, then you shouldn’t …

1) Go searching for the perfect food.

2) Limit mealtime selections to foods that conform to your ideas about what your kids will eat.

In both cases, you’re just as likely to be wrong as to be right.  So you might as well serve what you want.

The only solution to a picky-eating problem is to provide a variety of foods. To stay the course and resist the urge to cave in.

Giving in to your child’s demands, particularly with sweet, salty and fat-filled “child-friendly” foods, only narrow’s a picky-eater’s developing palate.  Instead, continuing to provide a wide range of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, will eventually (and I stress eventually) expand your child’s palate.

I realize that providing foods to a kid who won’t eat them is stressful (you worry that they’ll go hungry or become nutrient deficient) and irritating (you did spend some time preparing the meal after all and you don’t like to waste food), but making a short-term compromise at the expense of your child’s long-term healthy eating habits, is a form of Dealin’ with the Devil and means nobody wins.

To understanding more about building the foundations for trying new foods read House Building 101.

And for further reading around picky eating we also encourage you to read the following:

It’s Gross and You Can’t Make Me Eat It!

For extreme fruit and vegetable avoiders

My child only eats Cheerios and Puffs: When to seek medical help.

~Discover your families own path to healthy eating happiness~

Sources:

Busick, D. B., J. Brooks, S. Pernecky, R. Dawson, and J. Petzoldt. 2008. “Parent Food Purchases as a Measure of Exposure and Preschool-Aged Children’s Willingness to Identify and Taste Fruit and Vegetables.” Appetite 51: 468-73.

Coulthard, H. and J. Blissett. 2009. “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Children and Their Mothers. Moderating Effects of Child Sensory Sensitivity.” Appetite 52: 410-15.

Dovey, T. M., P. A. Staples, G. E. Leigh, and J. C. G. Halford. 2008. “Food Neophobia and ‘Picky/Fussy’ Eating in Children: a Review.” Appetite 50: 181-93.

Liem, D. G., L. Zandstra, and A. Thomas. 2010. “Prediction of Children’s Flavour Preferences. Effect of Age and Stability in Reported Preferences.” Appetite 55: 69-75.