I understand picky eaters. I am one of them. I wasn’t raised to be a picky eater; I was just born that way. Growing up, my whims were almost never indulged. My mother was very severe, and everything had a very strict schedule, including mealtime. If we didn’t eat when we were supposed to eat, we weren’t allowed to eat anything later, outside of the set lunch or dinner hour. To snack, we had to ask for permission. Junk food and sodas weren’t allowed. And when food was served, we had to clean our plates, like it or not, hungry or not.
I’ve since come to learn that my picky eating was and is part of my nature, part of who I am. I have an extreme sense of smell and taste. Smells can seduce me, give me a bad headache, or even make me puke. The same goes for food and flavors.
That’s why I recommend you don’t push your picky eater to eat. What few frustrated parents realize is that picky eating has both a scientific and psychological explanation.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND PICKY EATERS
Taste and smell, along with the trigeminal nerve—responsible for face stimulation and motor functions like biting, chewing, and swallowing—create the whole experience of flavors and other sensory impressions of food and drinks including their temperature.
Taste buds are located on the back and front of the tongue, as well as on the roof, sides and back of the mouth, and in the throat. The tongue is divided into five basic tastes “zones”: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty and Savory. Kids’ cravings for sweets are due to their to identifying sweets with energy-rich foods, while they interpret bitterness as a warning sign of a harmful substance.
Though taste buds are already functioning by the time a baby is four months old, they aren’t yet fully developed. Plus, taste buds change every seven years and as they develop and change, so do our preferences for different flavors and textures. When kids reject certain foods and are very selective with others, they can come across as picky eaters. But it might just be a matter of taste buds and time.
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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PICKY EATERS
There are also emotional and psychological reasons why we shouldn’t force picky eaters to eat. Speaking from my very own experience and understanding, when freedom and self-expression in kids is repressed or suppressed, their curiosity and creativity are stifled. The result or response will be some sort of addictive behavior. And when food is associated with lack of freedom or control, eating disorders are most likely to develop as a consequence.
There were certain foods that as a child, and even today, I can’t eat or smell (cauliflower, goat cheese, lamb, mung beans, among others). My mom had this Northern Italian dish she would make often: creamed cauliflower au gratin. Even the smell of it, as it was being prepared, would make me sick. I wasn’t acting out. I was never that kind of child. I just couldn’t smell it or eat it. But dinner was served and my mother would stand next to me until I finished the whole thing. (No water was allowed to help me swallow it either!) And the worst was yet to come. Since I couldn’t eat it I would throw up.
How did I handle those situations as a child and as a teenager?
- I learned to lie saying I liked the food. Then I gulped the food down with water instead of chewing it.
- I learned to eat and hold it in, only to throw up later.
- I learned to lie even more, saying that I had eaten it all when I hadn’t, so I wouldn’t have to answer any questions or deal with punishment related to not cleaning my plate.
- I learned to control food because I didn’t know how to deal with people being upset with me, my repressed feelings and eventually, life in general.
NO TWO KIDS ARE ALIKE
As the youngest child and the only girl, I wasn’t your average kid. I was sometimes called weird or abnormal. I was the sensitive one, the introspected child with an unconfined yet complex inner life that led me to feel I carried the world on my shoulders.
I know many kids like that too; sensitive and creative, introverted and wise beyond their years. I wish my parents had respected that about me. Instead, I was a problem child and my picky eating was just one aspect of my parents’ exasperation with me.
My nephew is eight years old. He’s a super picky eater. His sister, my niece, is 13 years old. She eats everything and anything, whenever it is offered. But my nephew, aside from being a picky eater, knows what he wants and why. He doesn’t like anything too seasoned, with complex flavors or strong smells. He just doesn’t tolerate them. He likes his rice or quinoa with nothing on it and plain bread. The same goes for yogurt, fish, chicken or lentils—he likes it all plain and unadorned.
His mother, a trained social worker, understands that his sensitivity doesn’t mean he is spoiled or cranky. She is patient and empathetic. She doesn’t force him to eat what he doesn’t like. She communicates with her child in a way that makes him feel secure, and she meets his needs without over indulging him.
HOW TO HANDLE A PICKY EATER
- Communicate with your picky eater instead of forcing him to eat something he doesn’t like.
- Plan and announce menus ahead of time: surprises at the dinner table can lead to arguments which in the long run might create tension around food.
- Make eating a pleasant and sensory experience. Start by taking the kids to the market with you, and have them smell the fruits, feel their textures, and connect freshness and quality with colors.
- Ask your child to help plan a menu or meal he will enjoy.
- Respect his choices, which is different than indulging them. Learn to distinguish between a whim and a need.
- If he refuses to eat something, ask why he doesn’t like the food, and what he would like instead. Interact and communicate. Kids are usually very good at expressing their likes and dislikes.
Paying attention to your kids’ needs and differences can help you understand what they otherwise might not be able to communicate. It will also help you to grow a stronger relationship, and allow them to build a strong, confident and healthy foundation for their future.