I am certain that I was not the only parent last week who suddenly stopped what I was doing and glued my eyes to the morning news when I heard that we can now shift the blame for our children’s eating habits on their genes. Anxious to hear more evidence that supports my theory that there is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume provided they have enough milk, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the news story was about toddlers. A study widely publicised by the media and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry of more than 1,900 families with twin toddlers, found that the children’s genes influenced fussy eating and a refusal to try new foods. In fact, they found that picky genes played a role in 46% of fussy eating and in 58% of the rejection of new foods. In other words, the study demonstrated to parents that all those hours they spent with tears of frustration, tearing their hair out, cajoling, bribing and doing anything they could to just get their children to eat a little bit of veg was a massive waste of time because the genes weren’t having it.
Almost immediately, the media was flooded with an influx of competing interviews with parents attached to toddler-sized fussy eaters who were absolute nightmares, as television hosts nodded on, reassuringly. After all, how can parents be expected to do anything with a picky eater if it’s genetic? As the headline of the study was repeated throughout the week, the heavy burden of trying to feed a fussy eater was lifted from the shoulders of parents, with a collective sigh of relief, and was placed firmly into the arms of the picky genes.
However, what many people did not pick up from the study was that they did not pinpoint one particular gene responsible for all that pickiness that could put the parents of fussy eaters in the clear. The authors of the study believe that the genetic influence was likely to be the result of several different genes that, for example, could affect how sensitive individuals are to the differing tastes, textures and appearance of foods. Moreover, the study confirmed that environmental factors still play a larger role in eating behaviour than genetics. In other words, the environment in which the children lived and experienced at meal times made a much larger difference as to whether the children were fussy eaters or not and even influenced whether they rejected new foods.
Unfortunately for parents, what this suggests is that we cannot simply blame our children’s fussy eating on their genes. The role parents play in creating a positive environment is still key to their children’s eating behaviour and genetics aside, there is a lot we can do to encourage them to be less picky. So rather telling parents to throw in the towel, this study is actually saying that they can still help their children overcome picky eating with the right environment, even if their child is genetically prone to being a little fussy. Which brings me to some suggestions of how exactly to create an environment that helps to overcome picky eating.
- Keep calm and carry on – It can feel as if you are at war with your toddler at mealtimes but it pays to stay calm and consistent and use meals to set a routine. Set rules such as everyone sitting at the table until everyone is finished eating or no tv at mealtimes. Give lots of praise and encouragement when your child is eating and try not to overreact to a refusal of food. Introduce new foods one at a time and try to get them to try at least one bite (and give lots of praise for doing it). Even if they don’t like the food, don’t stop offering it on another day.
- Don’t ask, don’t tell – Don’t offer your child a menu, give them the same food as the rest of the family, as much as you can. Increase the variety you offer over time and keep serving whatever the family is eating even if it was refused on a previous occasion. You know that almost mythical number of times a child has to try a new food before they like it? Double it! Whatever happens, don’t tell them they can have something different to eat, instead. If you let them go off-menu, they are more likely to interpret it as a reward for refusing to eat the family meal.
- It’s all in the details – Do not serve too much food on their plate at a time as it can be overwhelming. Don’t worry too much about messiness and let them touch their food if they wish to. Just keep praising them if they (or others) are eating and try to ignore bad behaviour. Limit mealtimes to a set amount of time and remove the dishes when the meal is finished rather than waiting for hours for them to finish everything. Do not insist that they finish their entire plate of food or use pudding as a reward for eating well. Use a sticker chart instead.
- Every little ‘helps’ – Try to involve your picky eater with the food shopping and cooking, if possible. This is not easy and is messy but if they can ‘help’ by ticking off their own shopping list, for example, or by doing some simple tasks such as stirring or placing food in a bowl or bread in a bread basket, they are more apt to become more interested in eating.
- 1st World problems – Try not to make up for lost meals by giving your child too many snacks between meals or they will not be motivated by hunger. Unsurprisingly, you will not find many picky eaters in countries where there isn’t an abundance of food.
It goes without saying that these suggestions are no magic bullet but at least they should help to override the picky genes. Let’s face it, children—and particularly when they are picky eaters—are a lot of hard work and feeding them requires an endless supply of patience, time and determination. But no matter what, most children will grow out of being fussy or stop by succumbing to peer pressure in school canteens and suddenly you will realise that they are pretty much eating normally. Until they become teenagers and they discover food combinations only dreamt of by pregnant women, such as one of my children’s favourite sandwich fillings at the moment: peanut butter and lemon curd. Which brings me back to my theory, that there really is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume, in any combination, provided they have enough milk.
And now for another recipe involving peanut butter but in the classic combination of pb & banana. These healthy muffins make a great breakfast, afternoon snack or a nice addition to a packed lunch. Of course, Peanut butter and banana muffins go down best with a glass of milk.