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'Yuck! I hate that!'

Parents have long fought dinner-table battles with choosy children who have picky palates

Myrddin Wiltshire, 6, left, digs into his dinner, while his sister Rinoa, 5, looks more reluctant. Myrddin is usually the picky eater, sometimes to the point of tears at the table.


Myrddin Wiltshire, 6, left, digs into his dinner, while his sister Rinoa, 5, looks more reluctant. Myrddin is usually the picky eater, sometimes to the point of tears at the table.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/10/2014 (1964 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lately, yellow foods can make Myrddin Wiltshire, 6, burst into tears.

"Not too long ago we had a chicken-flavoured rice cooked in a chicken broth," says his mother, Margaret Wiltshire, a Winnipeg office manager. "He sat at the table and cried."

Myrddin isn't alone with his picky eating habits.

William McNaughton, 6, can no longer stand grapes; they're too sour for his developing palate.

And watermelon? William finds its green-and-white rind off-putting.

"When I was about four years old, I liked it. But now I don't like it," says William, whose brother, James, 8, isn't as fussy about what he eats. "(Watermelon has) the skins and the white part. I don't like those."

Meanwhile, Kieran Worden, 5, won't touch most vegetables other than the tomatoes in his spaghetti sauce, says his mother, Lidia Worden, a Winnipeg social worker. His sister, Mackenzie, is less choosy about food — for now.

Researchers say picky eating is common in children. Survey results published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggest that up to 50 per cent of parents and caregivers consider their kids picky eaters by age two.

Victoria, B.C.-based registered dietitian Kristen Yarker, who specializes in kids' picky eating habits, says parents tend to seek her help when their children start eating solid food. Yarker attributes toddlers' "food wariness" stage to both biology and psychology.

"When kids are younger, their tastebuds are different than adult tastebuds and so an honestly narrower range of foods tastes good to them," says Yarker, who often counsels parents around the country via Skype. She says it's also natural for kids to assert their independence by saying no to foods just because they can.

The problem is frustrating for parents, whose dinner tables turn into quasi-war zones when they ask kids to taste a particular vegetable, meat or fish.

"(William) will stamp his feet and he will make little fists at his thighs and (say), 'I'm not!" says Amanda McNaughton, a deputy director with Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, who just moved to Calgary from Winnipeg with her husband and kids.

Her latest counter-tactic when deciding whether to prepare an after-school snack for William? Checking his lunch box when he gets home from school to see if he's eaten his veggies and fruit. "If he has not eaten them, those are his choices. He either eats the vegetable or fruit that he has in his lunch or he's not having anything until dinnertime."

Worden has tried various methods to get her kids to eat more vegetables. Now she sometimes resorts to making two sets of meals at dinner — one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. She admits she occasionally feels other parents judge her by her kids' eating habits.

"I don't appreciate that," says Worden, who has stopped losing sleep over her kids' health since they rarely get sick and get glowing checkups from their pediatrician.

Television chef Michael Smith, a father of three and host of several shows on Food Network Canada, says parents shouldn't feel like their kids are defective just because they are leery about certain foods.

"We want to be careful that we're not demonizing that child — and not saying that they're wrong or bad or something's broken or needs fixing, because it's not that at all," says Smith, author of Family Meals, which came out in August.

"It's just perfectly normal for some kids to not be adventuresome eaters."

Smith's young son, Gabe, wasn't afraid to try anything on his dad's show Chef at Home, which still airs in reruns.

On the program, viewers can watch little Gabe devour culinary delights such as pork belly and strawberry sorbet spiked with salt and hot sauce. Gabe, now 12, was only between ages three and eight at the time.

"The one rule we have in the house... is you've got to try everything. If I have cooked it and taken the time to prepare it and put it on your plate and put it in front of you, these kids know gosh darn well they're going to at least try it," says the P.E.I.-based Smith, who doesn't keep junk food in the house.

Sakina Vohra, 2, and Tatum Groves, 2, learn how to dip vegetables in ranch dressing during a cooking class.


Sakina Vohra, 2, and Tatum Groves, 2, learn how to dip vegetables in ranch dressing during a cooking class.

But he says even his kids can be finicky, depending on the day.

"I might put broccoli on the table today and it's perfectly well-received. But tomorrow, it might not be so well-received. So there's nothing you can do about that other than stay persistent," says Smith.

"Just stick to your guns. And you know, maybe you have to suck up a little short-term pain for the long-term gain. But you'll get there."

Hate cooking? Are you a picky eater yourself? Don't let your kids catch on, says Smith.

"Fake it until you make it, if you have to. But don't let that attitude become pervasive in your family," he says.

A 2012 University of Illinois study of 129 mothers found that babies fed exclusively breast milk for their first six months tended to develop into less picky eaters. The theory: the taste of mothers' breast milk changes daily, depending on what she eats, so breast-fed babies are used to an influx of new flavours.

The idea makes sense to Smith.

"I love trying to new things and I love bringing new ingredients home. All of those things inform how I approach the kitchen. And I know that clearly has an effect on my kids. They're just used to a constant barrage of new things."

"But at the end of the day, it's a function of the individual first. And then secondly, a function of their environment," says Smith.

Winnipeg registered dietitian Gina Sunderland agrees.

From the time each of her kids were babies, she made sure to feed them a variety of homemade foods, starting with less sweet items such as puréed vegetables. (She also breast-fed both her kids).

While her son, Joel, ate just about everything, her older son, Reid, was picky from the start.

"I couldn't even get him to sit in the high chair if he didn't like the smell of something," says Sunderland, who admits she took her son's aversion to food hard.

"There were moments when I was brought to tears because as a parent, I know how important it is that kids eat healthy and all the things that they need."

Over the years, Sunderland has kept working with Reid to expand his tastes. She also taught him how to cook so he could make homemade meals he liked for the whole family, rather than turning to over-processed, packaged foods.

"That's just opened up a whole sort of world of different foods for a picky eater. He and his friends will scan the Internet. They'll find something interesting and they'll make it," says Sunderland.

At age 17, Reid is still picky, even though he wishes he weren't. "When I see other people just trying different foods, I kind of feel jealous, almost," says Reid. "They can just do whatever they want and eat it and not have any sort of reservations about what it will taste like."

Nevertheless, the teen understands the importance of getting the nutrients he needs to keep up with school and his hectic schedule of extra-curricular activities.

"I just sort of decided sometime that maybe I'll force my palate to try something. And then usually when I do, I feel a lot better and I have so much more energy. And it just helps me get through my day a lot better."

Smith says while parents shouldn't feel guilty or ashamed of their kids' picky eating, they shouldn't underestimate the importance food will have in their lives.

"As parents... there are a few basic things that we have to get right: food is one of them," he says. "If they're not well fed, then they're not well armed for life."


Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.


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Updated on Monday, October 6, 2014 at 7:41 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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