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Author Karen Le Billon gets children from yuck to yum by taste training

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TORONTO - Karen Le Billon has had her share of trials and tribulations with two young daughters who were picky eaters. The university professor, who documented her experiences of reinventing her family's eating habits in "French Kids Eat Everything," has followed up with a book of tips and tricks to coach parents on how to cure the yuck factor when it comes to food.

In "Getting to Yum: The 7 Secrets of Raising Eager Eaters" (HarperCollins Canada), Le Billon provides strategies, games and recipes for making "taste training" fun.

"For parents with young kids it's preventing picky eating and for older kids it's curing it. I call it food rehab," she said during a visit to Toronto to promote the book. "You get them snacking less, you wean them off kids' food, you get them taste training, you get them participating in the kitchen learning how to cook and it works."

Her research ranged from neurobiology, nutrition, dietetics and medicine all the way through to social psychology, comparative anthropologies and sociology, but the book is anything but dry.

She worked with about two dozen families testing her methods, games and recipes and they had some "pretty amazing breakthroughs."

"I wrote the book as the book I wish I had had as a new mom because all the recipes are fast. They're easy. Except for the spices the ingredients are widely available. I'm not talking about high-grade first-pressed olive oil. It's like a carrot and an onion. The recipes are all designed to be really delicious for parents as well as babies, toddlers, preschoolers, teens. One family, one meal.

"In theory it should save you time because you're only making one dish for everybody because the classic thing is short-order cooking — 'OK, she doesn't like fish so I have to make something for her.' I don't have time for that. I'm busy, I work full time, I don't have help at home. It's like, 'I'm making this, we're eating it, thank you.'"

When North American parents stopped offering flavourful food to babies a culture of picky eaters evolved, said the University of British Columbia professor, who maintains that kids can eat anything.

"If you go to Bangladesh they're starting to eat mild curry spice before they're a year old and they're basically eating the same dishes as their parents by the time they're two or three. Hot sauce in Mexico, the same. Japan, it's fish.

"In Italy it's brodo, the first broth they make for babies. They put in zucchini, potato and a little garlic, they strain it and that's what they mix with rice cereal with a little drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan. In France the first foods that they recommend are things like white leek soup and zucchini, so it's no wonder that 90 per cent of French eight-year-olds report loving lettuce. They have been eating vegetables since the get-go."

Neurobiologists say you have to taste a new food about a dozen times before you learn to like it. In those cultures they're exposing the child to the same food over and over again and they learn to like it, Le Billon said.

"The advice that I got when I was a new mom — 'very careful, space it out by four or five days, watch for allergic reactions, only bland food' — that's gone," said Le Billon.

"The American and Canadian associations of pediatricians basically say introduce pretty much any food you want pretty much as early as you want unless there's a family history of allergies. It's maximum flavour. I like to say 'maximum flavour leads to minimum fussiness later on.'"

In the book she teams carrot with cumin and cauliflower with turmeric. The spices are not hot, yet they're interesting and colourful.

Neurobiologists and social psychologists also point out the majority of kids develop picky eating around age two.

"It's associated with the 'no' phase. It's associated with them realizing their own autonomy as individuals and one of the most powerful ways you can say no, and primal ways, is to shut your mouth and not put the food in it because it's one of the things they can really control.

"Just like we wouldn't expect a toddler to stay in the 'no' phase until their 20s, we shouldn't expect a picky eater to display persistent picky eating for very long. It might last a month or two or a year, but not five to 10 years. ...

"Somewhere parents have not been taught the simple insight that if you politely persist in offering foods in a fun and low-pressure environment the vast majority of kids, unless there's an underlying medical issue, will learn to eat and love them."

In one of the test families, three-year-old Lucas wouldn't eat a single fruit or vegetable. They tried the sour fruit game, which involves parents puckering up the face while tasting something like grapefruit.

"Kids think this is really funny. They do it and you go back and forth. They don't realize that they've tasted the grapefruit a dozen times. You do it again tomorrow. Within two days, Lucas was eating grapefruit, fruit salad.

"That's a great example of a simple game that gets kids enjoying citrus and that's the spirit of the book. It's positive, it's fun, it's not about force and pressure. It's not about nutritional anxiety because anxiety, kids pick it up. It opens up the family dynamic for a lot of power games and if you put that aside and it's fun games and a family food adventure it really works."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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