Parents, I come to you not as a fellow mom, but as an ambassador on a mission. I represent the interests of picky eaters everywhere, and I am here to ask you, nay, to beg you not to torture your children through even one more meal.
I’m here in response to the “fail-safe, money-back guaranteed formula for getting kids to eat everything on their plates” published recently by nationally syndicated columnist, John Rosemond. In his editorial, he assured parents that if they would simply force their picky eaters to repeatedly eat the foods they find distasteful, they would soon be eating these same foods in full servings. After all, it worked for him.
But is his method of learning to eat foods he once disliked the recipe for success in dealing with your own picky eaters at home? I’m here to say, don’t count on it.
Every brain is different
The nervous system is incredibly complex, and the way we perceive taste is not uniform across our species. Take, for example, cilantro. Recent research linked the tendency to hate cilantro to a certain gene that makes people sensitive to alkalines in the plant that people without this gene do not taste.
My son appears to have this gene, as does my mom. They cannot help it if they hate cilantro. To them, it tastes bitter and nasty, and not at all like the delicious herb that I happen to love.
Genetic research into this field has only begun, but already we can see that picky eaters may have a very good reason for hating the foods they hate, and forcing them to eat more of those is just torture.
Torture? Yes, it’s really torture.
I remember crying at the kitchen table as a child, begging not to be forced to eat foods I really couldn’t stand. My parents used the same sort of technique Rosemond recommends. They didn’t force me to eat large servings, but the amount didn’t matter to me. Even the tiniest bit of a highly offensive food was too much to bear.
Pickles, for instance, are not food to me. They are vile, disgusting wedges of contamination that ruin everything they touch. I would, literally, rather be punched hard in the arm than have to eat a pickle. Once, on a road trip, I accidentally got one in my mouth because it was hidden under a leaf of lettuce on my hamburger. I nearly drove off the road before I could spit it out because I was involuntarily gagging and heaving so hard.
To make me eat a pickle, even as an adult, would truly be torture. The same goes for a number of other foods for which I have real aversions. It’s not a matter of just disliking a taste. Being forced to eat certain foods is a worse experience than physical pain.
Offer foods, but don’t force them
A much better strategy when dealing with picky eaters is to make them try new things, but after giving new dishes a try, if they insist that they hate certain foods, don’t force them to eat them. You simply cannot know how your child perceives different tastes, and whether your picky eater has a genetic tendency to hate certain foods or a psychological aversion, forcing them to eat the foods they hate isn’t likely to change their mind.
Yes, tastes can change over time, and I would suggest reintroducing even the most hated foods as kids grow up, just to give the taste buds another chance. But if there is a food that your child hates so much they cry, beg, and would rather go hungry than eat, why force it when there are plenty of other healthy options you can offer instead?
A better solution for picky eaters
As a picky eater, I know there is a difference between a real food aversion and simple food preferences. When I speak of torturing picky eaters, I am not talking about refusing to give in to your child who simply prefers macaroni and cheese over the pork chops and potatoes you made for dinner. I’m talking about kids who truly despise certain foods.
When my own kids were little, I gave them a useful tool. I taught them how to talk to me about their food preferences, both good and bad, in ways they could understand. Using a scale that included degrees of like and dislike, such as, “I would eat this all the time,” “It’s okay, but I wouldn’t want to eat it very often,” “I don’t like it, but I can finish it,” and “I hate it so much it almost hurts,” my kids learned to express their preferences clearly.
I won’t claim that this is a fail-safe formula, but in my experience, when kids know that you will take their strongest preferences seriously, and not force them to eat the things they despise the most, they are more likely to willingly try new foods, and finish the dinners that they don’t hate. And I think that’s a big win.
More by Tavia:
Kid-Friendly Switches Made My Lasagna a Hit
Thanksgiving tips for picky eaters
Create Family Memories with Vegetable Soup