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Your kid is a better eater than you give him credit for

Are picky eaters made or born? This has become a heavy-hitting parenting debate, right up there with whether breast is best and if you really should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I remember being petrified when I started my first son on solids. First, there were the limitless choking hazards. Then there were the possible reactions and food allergies (of which my son had many). And finally, there were the articles on every reputable parenting site about how to deal with a picky eater and trick them into eating their vegetables.

So, I expected my kids to be picky. I anticipated a dinnertime battle over every piece of broccoli I served. But over time, I learned that kids are kind of funny. They are unpredictable, and they love to keep you on your toes. On those days when I just couldn’t take it anymore and slapped a handful of broccoli on my kids’ plates, to my surprise, they gobbled it down and asked for more.

This got me to thinking: Is the picky toddler reputation really true? Are we making our kids into picky eaters by catering to the stereotype? I consulted a few parenting and nutrition experts who backed my theory. In the vast majority of cases, we create our own picky eater problems at home.

Picky palates start early

When I was breastfeeding, I was most concerned about the nutritional content of what I ate, not necessarily diversity of flavor. According to Michelle Pfennighaus, C.H.C., nutrition and health coach, this common mommy misstep could start your child on the picky-eating path at an early age, “Babies taste flavors in their mother’s amniotic fluid and breast milk. A mother who exposes her child to many different flavors from the get-go may have a less picky child later on.”

Dena Roché of The Travel Diet shares her experience: “As a young child, I ate meat. My mom claims I even loved liver. At age 8, I saw the ‘where meat comes from’ video in school and quickly became a vegetarian. I don’t eat red meat today. There was nothing in my nature that made me a picky eater. It was all choices — whether from a grossed-out perspective or for a health reason.”

Picky eaters need guidance

I hate to state the obvious here, but if you’re sick of your child eating chicken nuggets at every meal, then why are you still buying them at the grocery store? No, I’m not playing the mommy blame game because I do it too. Stacy Goldberg, M.P.H., R.N., B.S.N., C.E.O. and founder of Savorfull, believes that your shopping habits can directly impact your child’s eating habits.

Goldberg says, “In my clinical experience, I have seen a wide spectrum of picky eaters. In many instances, I believe the reason for children having limited food choices is a result of the number of foods they are exposed to in their environments. For example, if a family only purchases certain foods that the parents enjoy eating or fit into their dietary lifestyles, children will not be exposed to other foods that they may enjoy and need nutritionally.”

Isaura González, Psy. D., licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified coach, confirms, “Eating habits are learned behaviors. Not only do we reinforce such behaviors through the use of rewards and punishment, but we model the behavior for our children. We are the consumers of the products that we give our children. When they are young, they do not have the power to choose or buy, we do.”

Picky eating is cultural

After reading Bringing Up Bebe, I was smitten with the progressive French parenting style where moms parent the way they want and maintain their separate identities. And as the French are known for their delicious cuisine and enjoyment of all things in moderation, it only makes sense that this laid-back attitude would spill over into the realm of picky eating.

Maia Neumann of the Kids Food Adventure app, a New York mom who moved to Paris with a 4-year-old picky eater, says, “I was a bit nervous about her going hungry during the day, as she ate at school. I looked at the school lunch menu and only saw ‘adult foods’ listed, like chicken in mushroom sauce, beet salad, blue cheese, etc. However, after several weeks I noticed significant improvement in her ability to try new foods, and she would actually ask me to buy certain things at the supermarket that made me stop in shock (turns out she likes blue cheese!). It was then that I realized that I was part of the problem.”

As Neumann points out, the first step is admitting you have a problem. If you have fallen into the picky-eating trap, where you serve your child macaroni and toast at almost every meal, it’s not too late to change your ways. Give your child options. Prepare vegetables and fruits in a number of different, delicious ways that the whole family can enjoy. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t underestimate your picky eater: You’ll never know if your child likes sushi until you try.

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