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Parents Corner

Why Kids are Picky Eaters

By Alison Krieg -- ABCNEWS.com

Zachary just sat down for a cheeseburger with ketchup. It's the same thing he's had for dinner - and lunch - almost every day for the past year. It's the only thing this 4-year-old will eat. Psychologists say that most children are not like "Mikey," the kid featured in a 1971 Life ad who liked a new brand of cereal after just one bite. Instead, kids shun new and unknown foods, and can be downright nasty in their refusal to try them.

So, if like Zachary, someone yells "no" daily at your dinner table, you're not alone. "It's normal," says Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. "Most children will go through picky eating phases where they're very wary of trying things that are new."

That reluctance has a name - "neophobia," the fear of trying anything new and unknown, including food. New Food Fears "Kids are pretty neophobic," says Dr. Leann L. Birch, author of I Don't Like It; I Never Tried It. "Putting something in your stomach is pretty risky business so kids take safety measures and proceed cautiously."

As children become more aware of the world around them, they become pickier eaters. "Generally, we'll have parents who say, 'When my child was a baby she would eat anything,'" says Pam Estes, a public health nutritionist for the Marion County Health Department in Indiana.

That agreeable nature usually doesn't last. "By age 2, children have a routine of familiar, safe foods," says Dr. Elizabeth Capaldi, editor of Why We Eat What We Eat and a psychologist at the University of Florida. "Once you have a familiar routine, you don't want to try anything new or different."

What 'Good Taste' Really Means Some food psychology is pure common sense. "Psychologists took a long time to figure out one of the basic things - that we eat what tastes good," Capaldi says. However, what kids like also has a lot to do with science. Scientists figure that it takes about 200 to 500 milliseconds for us to realize that something is on our tongue - the same amount of time it takes for our taste buds to determine whether we like it.

Our sense of taste tells our brains which the four basic tastes - sweet, salt, sour and bitter - we're trying and if we are programmed to like them. "People have a genetic preference for sweet and salty," Capaldi says, "and a genetic dislike for bitter and sour." Children, she says, often list sweet foods like ice cream as one of their favorite foods, and, as you would probably guess, place bitter foods, including brussel sprouts and spinach, at the bottom. Psychologists say a dislike of bitter foods may also be a survival measure. Most naturally occurring poisons taste bitter and initiate a gag reflex.

That initial "bitter food banishment" does change, psychologists say, after kids are exposed to those foods over a period of time (see sidebar story). The Other Senses However, she adds, "very little food taste is actually taste. It's actually smell, sight, touch and texture." Those senses contribute to children accepting certain foods.

Flavor is a combination of smell and taste, with smell often being the most important factor. Capaldi says kids like spaghetti because it has both salty and sweet components, garnished with an intoxicating odor.

Sight, or whether something looks good or "gross" in a child's eyes, greatly contributes to flavor. That's why a child might immediately like a pretty food found in an advertisement or menu.Touch and texture round out the flavor senses. Spicy foods taste "hot" and trigger pain fibers in the mouth, which makes most kids cringe.

And, according to Dr. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, fatty foods such as ice cream have a smooth texture that children like because it feels good on their tongues. Young Rebels Recent studies, including those conducted by Birch and her Penn State colleagues, show that environmental and social influences also play a large part in a child's food preferences. "For kids, a lot of food rejections don't have anything to do with food," she says. "Instead, it's a sign of exerting independence and imposing control."

"Most food fights come from oppositional behavior," says Marcia Levin Pelchat, an experimental psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, "similar to potty training and bedtime troubles."

A major influence on a child's eating habits is peer pressure. In her studies, Birch places a child who does not like peas but eats corn next to one who eats peas but not corn for a series of lunches. By the end of one week, the two are eating and enjoying both foods equally. Birch has found that "while it relects peer pressure initially, the preference for that new food does appear to stay." "Children have very strong peer influences," Pelchat says. "Kids tend to eat like other kids." However, there are some foods even the strongest of children's stomachs cannot grow to like - those that they associate with making them sick. "A child goes to the amusement park," Pelchat says, "and eats cotton candy. Then he or she goes on the roller coaster and gets sick from the ride. "Even if the child realizes the cotton candy didn't cause the sickness," she continues, "he or she will most likely develop an aversion to cotton candy." But, as Birch acknowledges, the child will never know either way unless he or she tries it first.

Other useful resources

Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting With Dignity program. Bledsoe says of his success "my parents helped me the most to be what I am today" and his goal is to help other parents give their children the best possible start. For more information, see http://www.drewbledsoe.com/.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013