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Picky Eaters

It was a special Saturday night: my husband and I and our 3 1/2- year-old, Melissa, had invited her 3-year-old friend and her parents for dinner. I'd spent two hours preparing a new dish, lemon chicken. I spooned out vegetables, rice, and meat, and then we all sat down to enjoy our food.

But the girls weren't enjoying. "What's this?" demanded my daughter, poking at her piece of chicken.

I'd been afraid of this. "Sauce," I said brightly. "It's really yummy. Just try it and you'll see. Here, let me cut a piece for you...."

"Sauce!" Melissa thrust my hand away, her eyes widening in horror.

"Mommy," moaned her friend, who was pushing her chicken back and forth on the plate. "What is this? It looks funny."

"Just try it," said her mother. "You might like it." Both children looked at us skeptically. Then, as if on cue, they both cried, "Eewww! It's yucky!"

It was not always thus. At 4 months, my daughter took to food like a born gourmand. Rice cereal was ambrosia: She polished off her first bowl, then demanded seconds. It was the same with strained sweet potatoes, pureed carrots, mashed banana, yogurt  -- she crammed it all into her mouth, smeared it onto her face in infant ecstasy. And she always wanted to try whatever my husband and I were eating, her eyes following our forks like a hungry dog's.

Carol Lynn Mithers is the author of Therapy Gone Mad.

THE TASTE-TESTERS

Now we live with a child for whom "different" is "disgusting." Nearly every parent witnesses a similar transformation: At some point between the first and second year, our sweet, chubby offspring, who once happily ate anything we offered, are transformed into wiry, willful little beasts who can apparently survive on little more than air  -- and would forgo even that if it required tasting something new.

"When he was really little, my son, Jay, was a good eater," remembers Faro Davis-Nail, of Mission Viejo, CA. "He liked mashed potatoes, muffins, all kinds of finger food. Then, when he was 3, he stopped eating all but bologna sandwiches and soft tacos with no lettuce or cheese. We'd ask him to try other foods, but he wouldn't even take a bite."

What turns once-enthusiastic eaters into kids who'd rather die than let a drop of a new food pass their lips? When they're infants, they can't yet differentiate between something familiar and something new, so they unquestioningly taste whatever's put before them. But toddlers are at a developmental stage that allows them to see that difference, says Susan Levine, a Santa Monica therapist specializing in child and family issues. And it's a crucial part of growth. "It's like the stage kids go through at 9 months, when they suddenly become afraid of strangers," she says. "They're learning discrimination, a way of refining their skills, which is something we want to encourage."

While toddlers know when a food is new, they haven't yet developed the capacity to accept a parent's reassurance that it's good. "At age 2 or 3, kids aren't at the stage of development where they can understand the concept of 'Trust me, you'll like this,'" says Levine. "It's too abstract. They rely on the concrete. They take in the world by seeing it, touching it, tasting it." As a result, a toddler's instinctual response to being offered new food is suspicion and caution. "Since he was about 3, my oldest son has had to look at new food, smell it, touch it, practically do a nine-point inspection before he'd decide whether or not to go ahead and eat it," says Carla Schattle, of Plano, TX, a mother of four. Usually, she adds, the result has been not.

A toddler's rejection of a new food may also be one of those attempts at independence and autonomy that are common and healthy at this age. "This is a time," says Levine, "when children want to be in control of their own choices." And toddlers can also be profoundly conservative in ways that go way beyond eating. Week after week, they may want to wear the same clothes, hear the same stories, watch the same videos. They generally don't like anything new. "Routine and predictability gives them a strong sense of security," says Levine.

Of course, experts note, individual temperament also plays a role in how willing a child is to try new food. If he has a hard time adjusting to new experiences in general, he'll probably be especially slow to accept changes at the dinner table. And kids have food likes and dislikes, just as adults do, and some have much more finicky palates than others. While my daughter embraces the ideal of Bland Is Better, the boy next door, by age 3, was happily eating scallions, herring, and sardines in mustard sauce.

THE MEANING OF A MEAL

Understanding why a toddler says no to new food and living with that behavior are two different things. A child's rejection of food can carry an emotional wallop that a demand for the same old ratty pajamas and the thousandth reading of The Runaway Bunny never could. Offering food is providing nourishment; offering specially prepared food is providing love. And when our offers are rebuffed, we may feel hurt and angry. We may feel we aren't taking good enough care of our kids. We may fearfully imagine them growing up to be 30-year-olds who still won't eat anything but macaroni. And so, with begging, pleas, demands, choo-choo-train forks, and sometimes breathtaking creativity, we contrive to get new dishes into their mouths.

Occasionally, we succeed. Deb Amster, of St. Paul, got her 5-year-old, Ben, to taste the food in an Ethiopian restaurant by rolling his portion of meat and bread into the familiar shape of a burrito. Another mom I spoke to went even further in preparing her 5- and 3-year-olds for tasting a new recipe for chicken casserole. "A few days before I made it, I served chicken with store gravy," she recalls. "The kids love anything they call 'dip'  -- ketchup is dip, syrup is dip  -- so I told them the gravy was a new kind of dip. They loved it. And then when I made the casserole, I told them it was chicken that had dip on it already. It worked. They ate it."

But usually, says Ellyn Satter, author of How to Get Your Kid to Eat...But Not Too Much, even the most ingenious efforts fail. "Toddlers are very consistent about responding negatively to pressure," she says. And parental pressure includes not only saying "Eat this or else," but also resorting to bribes.

KNOWING WHAT THEY NEED

Letting toddlers approach food in their own way makes psychological sense, says Levine, because it teaches them to listen to their body's cues. "Children are wonderful in terms of knowing what they need nutritionally," she says. "And if we can let them trust their own hunger as a guideline, we're doing them a big favor. Getting into a battle over food sets up a lot of issues that become hard to eliminate as kids get older. One is a parent-child power struggle. Another is that they may learn to eat to self-soothe or out of anger, not desirable outcomes by any means."

If your child has refused to try something new, don't simply stop serving it to her, since "never bringing it out again gives the message that you don't expect her to eat it," says Satter. Instead, she says, "toddlers need to be exposed to foods again and again in a neutral setting, like the family table, with parents eating and enjoying themselves. Put out a variety of foods, like a main dish, bread, rice or noodles or potatoes, a vegetable or fruit or both, and some milk, so there's something your toddler will want to eat. Then let her pick and choose."

Just don't expect results overnight. According to Satter, it takes the typical toddler multiple exposures to a new food before she'll risk tasting it, and 10 to 20 tastes before she actually likes it. And since a family may eat any given dish once a week or less, this may mean several months before you see a change.

Time helps in other ways, though. Children's aversion to newness usually peaks by age 3, then starts to ease off. (Although, Satter says, you shouldn't expect kids to eat a bit of everything that's put before them until as late as high school.)

Schattle says that her oldest son, now 10, still hesitates to try a new food, but he's clearly better than he used to be. "I've seen a real willingness to consider trying new dishes," she says. Peer pressure and increasing awareness of the connection between food and health are part of the change too, she notes. "Since he's in school, he's heard someone besides Mom and Dad say that well-rounded meals are important," she says. "He's heard that a good diet will give him more energy to play sports, which he loves. And he's seen his friends eating different things. I really believe in the long run he'll come around."

I have faith in my daughter too. And since abandoning my old mealtime mode  -- which I'm not proud to say leaned toward the "Try one bite or no dessert" cliche  -- for a more relaxed approach, I'm starting to see results. The other night, I served a new stew dish for dinner. I made sure there were plenty of other things to eat, then simply placed the food before Melissa without comment. She spit out the carrots with a grimace, refused the potato, demanded that the onion be removed from her plate immediately. I made no comment, removed the offending onion, and the meal continued. When I looked at my daughter next, the meat was disappearing into her mouth as fast as she could get it there. It was, she said, between mouthfuls, and sounding very surprised, "delicious."

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