Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders
Growth Curve

If your kid hates broccoli, try, try again

Repeated exposure to foods may be the antidote to picky eating

DO NOT WANT  Food pickiness tends to peak in kids between ages 2 and 6. Studies suggest that overcoming an aversion to a particular food takes six to 14 tries — more than many parents are willing to try.

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Baby V really likes to eat. A lot. Ever since she got her first taste of avocado at around 4 months old, the girl has not turned a single snack down. Sardines. Pickles. Plain Greek yogurt. Luckily for me, she eats it all with gusto.

Until this week. For some mysterious reason, Baby V started to refuse her scrambled eggs. She simply won’t touch them. (OK, that’s not exactly true: She loves touching scrambled eggs, which is how they end up in an impossibly fine eggy mist that coats everything within a three-foot radius of her seat.)

This new egg intolerance might just be a blip, or it may be a harbinger of Baby V’s emerging pickiness, which is thought to peak in kids between ages 2 and 6. And peak it does: One study found that up to half of 2 year olds were picky eaters. Food choosiness isn’t just a way for a kid to drive a parent mad (though I’m sure that’s a large part of it). Pickiness actually makes sense: When kids are bombarded with new and unusual foods, sticking with safe, familiar choices is a good way to avoid eating something dangerous.

Taste preferences start in the womb. Fetuses slurp up amniotic fluid, seasoned with whatever mom just ate. (You’re welcome for the seasoned amniotic fluid imagery.) These flavors, such as carrots or garlic, tap into the fetus’s taste system, which begins to form in the first trimester. The more exposure to a certain taste, the more a baby is to eventually like it. Babies whose mothers drank a lot of carrot juice while pregnant and breastfeeding preferred carrot-flavored cereal, for instance.

Familiarity breeds yum, in this case. And I was amazed when I saw just what familiarity means to young kids. Some recent work suggests that to get kids used to a certain flavor, that food should be offered and tasted anywhere from six to 14 times. That’s a whole lot of tasting. And lots of parents don’t have that kind of patience. Most parents reported giving their kids a new food three to five times before giving up. Only 6 to 9 percent of parents kept offering a new food six to 10 times.

This kind of intense exposure can transform a reviled food into a familiar one, making the kid more likely to eat it. One study had parents give their child a tiny taste of one of six raw vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, green peppers or red peppers) every day for 14 days. After this intense tasting exposure, kids were more likely to eat the veggie, the researchers found.

So it seems that stamina might be the most important factor in getting new foods into your kids. My friend told me about her family’s mandatory “no thank you” portions — just a tiny taste, but a taste nonetheless. That’s a great way to get a little hit of flavor onto young taste buds.

I’m not sure where that leaves us with scrambled eggs, which aren’t a new, crazy food for Baby V. Maybe next week her capricious taste buds will suddenly decide to like them again. Or maybe not.

Follow me on Twitter: @lssciencenews

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