NEW YORK — “No! No eat!” your terrible 2-year-old said, pushing the green beans away. Now, mind you, this is a vegetable that used to be gobbled happily on a regular basis. Peaches, pears and another formerly yummy vegetable soon follow, discarded into the “Are you crazy? I don’t eat this” pile.
What’s going on? And more importantly, what do you, the worried parent, do to make sure your child is getting the nutrients needed to thrive? If you’re like many moms, dads and grandparents, you’ll probably start coaxing, harassing and begging, or even resorting to a bribe — dessert.
Relax! According to a recent study published in the journal Appetite, your toddler is going to grow just fine, even if the picky behavior continues.
“Parental pressure is having no effect, good or bad, on picky eating or weight in this population,” said study author Dr. Julie Lumeng, a Michigan pediatrician who is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development.
Most research on “choosy or selective eating,” as it’s now called, has focused on older children or mixes of ages that were predominately Caucasian, and followed for only short periods of time. Lumeng followed a group of 244 ethnically diverse 2- and 3-year-olds over a year, comparing parental pressure tactics to the child’s healthy growth and reduction of picky eating behavior.
“There’s no evidence, according to this study, that if you pressure your garden variety, picky eater that they’ll actually grow bigger or act better,” said pediatric feeding specialist Melanie Potock, author of “Adventures in Veggieland,” who was not involved in the study.
“It’s not new that parents should not pressure their picky child but they continue to do it,” added Ellyn Satter, author of “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense,” also not involved in this research. “So hopefully studies like this can help hammer the message home.”
Why do parents resort to strong-arm tactics over food? Because what a child eats is so closely wrapped up in a parent’s sense of responsibility and nurturing, said Potock.
“And in my experience, it’s often because they’re scared and worried about their child’s nutritional health,” Potock said. For other parents, she said, it might be about food waste, “especially parents who may be struggling financially.”
“And then some parents pressure kids to eat because that’s just the way they were raised. You know, the empty plate club, right?” Potock added.
The results of parental pushiness, said Los Angeles pediatrician Dr. Tanya Altmann, co-author of “What to Feed Your Baby,” aren’t surprising to those who work with children regularly.
“When parents are too focused on every bite and pressure their children to eat, it usually backfires as toddlers then refuse, similar to potty training,” said Altmann.
It’s also developmentally appropriate for children to change their eating habits as they grow from babyhood, said Satter. During their first year, the newness of sitting at the table and eating adult food keeps them eager and willing, until suddenly “negative magic happens.”
“Something appears to happen cognitively and now familiar food is unfamiliar and they don’t want to eat it,” said Satter. “If the parent can ride it out, when they become preschoolers, they become less skeptical of unfamiliar food.”
Satter created a “division of responsibility” model for childhood feeding issues that focuses on being “considerate without catering.” She recommends parents cook and serve food they themselves enjoy, to model healthy eating, then add one or two items to the menu their child normally eats.
“But don’t cater to them and limit the menu to only things the child readily accepts,” warns Satter. “And don’t force them to eat. Let your child choose what and how much to eat of what you put on the table.”
Los Angeles chef and registered dietitian Beth Saltz, who co-authored “What to Feed Your Baby,” agrees that parents should stop being the “food police.” She suggests making eating fun and low-pressure.
“Sit together as a family, whatever your family may look like,” said Saltz. “Turn off the screens. Cook. I like to encourage positive strategies like these for feeding toddlers, instead of negative strategies like pressuring.”
“Kids do better with eating when they get their parents undivided, positive attention,” said Satter, adding the rule also applies when serving take-out or going to a restaurant. “However you put together a meal, it’s still important to sit down together and pay attention to each other when you eat it.”
Potock also works with special needs children who have intense sensory issues that make eating difficult, and suggests parents check with their pediatrician if they feel there could be a medical issue behind their child’s behavior.
But she tells all her clients to boost their child’s curiosity about new foods.
“I recommend you put one tablespoon of any new foods, especially foods that the rest of the family is eating during the meal time, on the child’s plate,” said Potock. “But don’t force them to eat it. Just having it on the kid’s plate is the first step to making friends with that food.”
She also suggests talking about how the food is grown, such as with green beans and Jack and the Beanstalk. Better yet, said Potock, grow some vegetables at home if possible, and have your child harvest and cook them. Take your child regularly to the farmer’s market to see and touch new temptations. She also suggests playing with food, such as using beans in a tic-tac-toe game.
“But don’t say eat your beans,” warned Potock. “You can make a child eat the beans, but they won’t learn to love beans. They won’t build that curiosity on their own.”
The perfect time to jump start a healthy eater, experts said, is when a baby starts solid food.
“Babies learn taste preferences from a very early age, so offer a variety of tastes, textures, and even temperatures of food,” said Potock.
“Choose a healthy first food such as pureed avocado, organic plain whole yogurt, pureed green veggies,” said Altmann. “Let your infant lean in and open his mouth when he wants to eat. Don’t force feed or play airplane games — that doesn’t help.”
Introducing a wide variety that young, added Potock, will help parents survive the picky eater era and set their child up for later success.
“As the child moves through the natural stage of picky eating and emerges out the other side,” said Potock, “they’ve been exposed and are friends with a lot of different foods and are ready to try them again.”