Family meals can be particularly stressful for parents with picky eaters.
According to my mother, I ate everything as a kid. From homemade purees to cookies dished out by other mothers at the playground, I loved food and still do to this day.
Perhaps you can understand my surprise and subsequent frustration when I was faced with my own child's rejection of my first attempts at food. The lovingly prepared avocado slices, ripened to perfection, and the steamed and pureed apple were rejected outright; nothing was going to pass this kid's lips.
What does my personal predicament have to do with you? If you are a parent, or expectant parent, this story may well resonate with you at some stage of your life. Alternatively, you might be faced with a fussy eater in your wider circle during the holidays.
A new study, published in the December edition of the Journal of Child Health Care, reveals how parents feel about their picky toddler and discusses which strategies work and which don't.
So, what can research tell us about the perils of parents with fussy eaters, and strategies for coping with family meals?
Life with a picky eater
Fast forward 2 years, and my culinary life is still on shaky ground. When other children are happily snacking on berries, olives, and chickpeas, I'm dishing out apple and breadsticks — again.
While I'm enjoying a homemade Thai curry, my toddler is feasting on rice with steamed vegetables: broccoli, carrots, and asparagus, to be precise. These are her current favorites and her repertoire is not much bigger.
I know that my experience in this area isn't unique and I was particularly interested to get my hands on the study, which was led by Bérengère Rubio, Ph.D., at the Department of Psychology at the IFSTTAR Institute in Versailles, France.
In the article, she explains that the statistics vary when it comes to picky eaters. Some studies say that 50 percent of 2-year-olds fall into this category, while others cite a more modest 17 percent by the age of 3.
Most of the time, the items banished to the "no" list are fruit, vegetables, and any type of new food, somewhat limiting the child's food repertoire.
Working with 38 parents, Rubio collated their experiences and attitudes toward eating behavior. The results revealed that the overwhelming feeling expressed by parents was one of guilt and failure.
'Family meetings problematic'
Most parents found themselves faced with a picky eater practically overnight and noticed this sudden change at around the age of 2. This seems to be the turning point for many children.
From sorting food into "yes" and "no" categories, to crying when faced with food or throwing the entire meal on the floor, toddlers were making their opinion perfectly clear, particularly to their parents.
It was not uncommon for children to be more open to eating or trying food in the company of others, such as grandparents or at day-care, but not at home.
Many parents were concerned about their child's health, worrying that they weren't getting enough nutrients or that their limited food intake was putting them at risk of getting sick more often. Yet, previous research has failed to find a consensus about the effect of picking eating habits on children's weight.
Some parents felt that they were being judged by others and failing to meet social expectations.
"Family meetings are problematic, we have to justify to everyone why she doesn't want to eat," was one of the statements parents agree to in the study, Rubio writes. As was "mealtimes are not a nice time."
So, what are parents doing to cope with their picky eaters?
Most parents found themselves coaxing their kids to eat, or to at least try the food on their plate. Others used modeling, which means showing their child that something is tasty by eating it themselves, or involving the toddler in the process of preparing meals.
Both of these strategies are known to reduce food pickiness, according to Rubio.
There were two other methods that the parents found improved their chances of having their lovingly prepared meal met with greater acceptance: making food look more interesting, for instance, by making it look like a face, and mixing in other foods that their kids like, such as cheese.
On the other hand, some parents used reward or punishment to encourage their children to eat, either by offering them something else as a treat if they ate the food, or by telling them that they wouldn't get a treat if they didn't eat a certain amount of something else, such as vegetables.
Some parents had adjusted all meals to the toddler's taste and accepted that only the favorite food of the moment would pass the child's lips.
But Rubio says that these last two strategies are counterproductive as they "[...] encourage short-term tasting of the food but are associated over the long-term with pickiness and a restricted diet."
The fussy eater during the holidays
What President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 to be "a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dweller in the Heavens" is today a big, traditional celebration weekend, often involving family and friends.
Kicking off the holiday season, we can now look forward to 5 more weeks of festive fun. Of course, few celebrations are complete without food. It's likely that you'll find yourself enjoying a range of culinary delights over the coming weeks.
So, how does the fussy eater fit into this?
In an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, dietitian Kathryn Walton — from the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada — and colleagues suggest that it's time to rethink the concept of picky eating and allow children greater input into food decisions.
Rather than thinking of the picky eater as displaying noncompliant or deviant behavior, work with your child to make sense of mealtimes together, Walton suggests.
"[...] feeding is not just about nutrition, it is about relationships."
The bottom line is that mealtimes with toddlers can be a stressful time, especially at gatherings with family and friends.
Patience and a little bit of understanding for all parties involved can go a long way to get you all through the experience. As a bystander, you may be just the right person for a toddler to emulate, and empty plates may leave parents wide-eyed in surprise.
If in doubt, a smiley face drawn with gravy next to an exploding volcano of turkey and sweet potato, finished off with a hedgehog — pumpkin pie with some raisins sticking out — and your holiday meal may be more fun than you expected.