On a scale of one to ten, how much pleasure do you get from planning, cooking and eating meals? Do you sometimes 'forget' to eat, or is that idea preposterous to you? Have you ever wondered why people approach food so differently?
Marissa has. She has two daughters on opposite ends of the foodie spectrum. Sarah, her first, nursed happily and quickly and by five months was grabbing at her parents' loaded forks and the food on their plates. Her sister Lilly, two years younger, was slow at the breast and was not particularly interested in the food when her high chair was pulled up to the table.
Marissa shares that even as her girls enter grade-school, their differences around food continue, "Sarah likes to help cook, she browses recipes online, and when something tastes good, she closes her eyes and moans. I'm baffled by Lilly, though. She's super picky, and has to be reminded to eat! I've struggled to get Lilly to eat more and healthier foods."
Marissa loves cooking, looks forward to meals and seeks out new foods, while Dad, Dan often skips lunch and isn't particularly adventurous. Marissa is tired of celebrity chefs scolding parents of picky eaters, and wants to understand how a foodie like herself who did "all the right things" has a child who seems oblivious to the pleasures of food.
Why might Marissa and Sarah gravitate to all things foodie, while Dan and Lilly don't? There is a popular theory that picky eating is largely due to the phenomenon known as being a 'supertaster,' or more able to sense bitter tastes and certain flavors intensely. Super-tasting is genetically linked and occurs in about 25% of the population (Bartoshuk, Duffy, and Miller 1994).
This could help explain Dan and Lilly's relative lack of interest in food. Yet many selective eaters are not supertasters, and many supertasters enjoy a wide variety of foods. What is less discussed in picky eating circles is that, according to Bartoshuk's team, about a quarter of the population may be nontasters, with fewer taste buds and less sensitivity to flavors.
Could a dulled sense of taste and a lack of pleasure from eating also play an underappreciated role in picky eating and low intake? What if Lilly and her father are nontasters, deriving less of a pleasurable boost from the reward systems in their brains when they eat? Could a portion of the population experience intense pleasure while eating (planning vacations around restaurants, for example), while those on the other end of the pleasure-scale eat because they have to? Between Team 'Meh' and Team 'Yum', is one necessarily better than the other? (And, if a person is happy and meeting nutritional needs, can't we all just get along?)
Figuring out why Lilly and her Dad (and others like them) don't relate to food the same way as Marissa and Sally gets even more complicated; research has uncovered genes and receptors for different flavor compounds, finding that differing levels of amylase in saliva alter the breakdown of starch in the mouth, changing texture and taste. Different sensory experiences impact appetite, comfort, and curiosity around food, as do personality traits like being a risk-taker vs. preferring the familiar. Understandably, a history of pain or discomfort with eating or digesting, or food allergies can also negatively impact how a person relates to food.
And we can't ignore the importance of how Marissa and Dan have approached mealtimes. Marissa admits to trying pressure, threats, negotiating, bribes, and rewards-- all of which can worsen picky eating.
But parents can support a child's nutrition and enjoyment of food. Even if you never pin down why you have a picky eater, if you think you have a nontaster, a child who doesn't find pleasure in food, or a sensory-seeker, these tips can help:
• Include high-flavor options like hot sauce, cinnamon, wasabi paste, garlic powder, or lemon and vinegar. Other sauces can help, like ketchup or A-1 sauce, or try cooking dishes with herbs and bold flavors.
• Add interest with crunch or texture with fresh or freeze-dried veggies and fruit, crumbled pretzels or crackers, or crispy wonton noodles.
• Offer drinks with intense flavor or carbonation to wake up their senses, like water with lemon, or cranberry juice mixed with soda water.
• Keep it pleasant at the table and never force or pressure your child to eat. Stress, conflict, and pressure shut down appetite and make picky eating worse.
• Establish a routine of meals and snacks with no grazing in between. Having time to be a little hungry before it's time to eat improves appetite. For younger kids, offer balanced and tasty foods every 2-3 hours, and beyond kindergarten about every 3-4 hours.
Once Marissa better understood the factors that contribute to eating behaviors (and laid off the pressure), they all enjoyed meals more. "I realized the girls were born with different approaches to and experiences around food. Everything I was doing to get Lilly to eat wasn't helping. I don't micromanage their eating anymore, and Lilly's branching out a little-- mostly via spicy sauces, which was a surprise! I enjoy cooking with Sarah, and Lilly and I are finding things to do together that we both enjoy. I'm not a failure--or a success-- because of what or how much my children eat."
*Be sure to rule out medical or other challenges that can contribute to low appetite and picky eating. For more information, and how to support a child with feeding challenges, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders.
Katja Rowell, MD
with Jenny McGlothlin, MS, CCC-SLP