As a baby, Harrison’s first food was unsweetened rhubarb. He happily ate curries. But when he was 3, something changed. Vegetables became enemy No. 1, says his mother, Dara Squires. It seems to be all about texture: He will eat them if they’re puréed into soups or sauces.
Recently, the list of green-light foods that Harrison, now 6, will eat has shrunk further. Sandwich meats are out. Even chicken nuggets – both the commercial kind and Ms. Squires’s healthy homemade version – are off the table. Bread and pasta are still okay. And he will eat hot dogs and pepperoni – but Ms. Squires says they’re not on the family menu.
The boy is anything but obnoxious about his proclivities.
“He’s apologized for being so picky. He’s actually said, ‘It’s okay, mom. I’ll make a jam sandwich,’ when I’ve made dinner,” says the Corner Brook, Nfld., mother of three. “But it would be wonderful if what he could do would be eat the food. I hope it’s not going to be a lifelong issue.”
If his habits continue into adulthood, there may be a new label waiting for him there. “Selective eating disorder” is being considered for inclusion alongside others in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is due in 2013.
Preliminary results from a Duke University survey of 7,500 adult picky eaters adds credibility to the idea that picky eating may be a disorder of its own, with different characteristics than bulimia and anorexia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Parents of picky eaters wonder if there’s something to that theory. “I sometimes feel that way, that he has an eating disorder,” says Ms. Squires. She suspects that early food insensitivities may have turned him off eating. He will say he’s “allergic” to a food he doesn’t want to eat.
Negative associations with food in childhood can play a role, eating researcher Nancy Zucker of Duke told a reporter for news service LifeScience, referring to issues such as severe acid reflux, or behaviour learned at the table.
A recent study of 405 children ages 7 to 9 done by the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London teased out one such dinner-table behaviour. Children who had more “avoidant” eating behaviours, such as fussy or slow eating, had mothers who used more pressure, study author and doctoral student Laura Webber said in an e-mail interview.
The study adds to research suggesting picky eating can emerge despite parents’ best intentions. “It is widely presumed that parents have a policy and impose it on their child,” said Ms. Webber. “More likely, they have goals and do their best to achieve them, but if there is friction in response to these goals then parents may give up and children get their own way.”
Ms. Squires has sought help. She’s bought books, followed experts and tried various programs – and blogged about it at her site, Readily A Parent. But she finds some advice tiresome – especially the well-worn tip that a child can try something 10, 15 or 20 times before they accept it. “Every nutritionist and dietitian will tell you this,” she says. “He has been getting carrots for four years. Almost every single day. He’s taken maybe five bites.”
Ottawa mother Annie Urban has two children, each with their own eating issues. Her son, 6, will only eat vegetables in purée form. Her daughter, 3, loves raw cut-up vegetables. She refuses meat, however, although she might nibble on bacon in a Caesar salad.
“It makes it really difficult to cook a meal for everybody in the family,” Ms. Urban says. She chooses meals she can deconstruct. Raw veggies can be set aside before cooking for her daughter, for instance. Meat can be separated out after it has been cooked for her son. She’s been known to post photographs of the very different plates on her blog, PhD in Parenting.
And while she says she has always suppressed the urge to push them or insist that they clean their plates, she does wonder how much “nurture” has to do with it. For instance, her son was fed purées as a baby and her daughter was given small pieces of food from the start. “If you’d done things differently, would it have turned out differently?”
Toronto food writer Emma Waverman says she and her friend, recipe tester Eshun Mott, were commiserating about their kids – Ms. Waverman’s three-year-old was eating “the all-white diet” of plain pasta and chicken fingers at the time – and decided to co-author Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them, published in 2007.
“As we studied and talked about it and looked around, we realized we were sort of the source of the problem,” Ms. Waverman says.
Looking back, she says, her situation was common to many parents today: a love of gourmet food, an obsession with health, and pressure to be a perfect parent. No wonder dinner isn’t just dinner any more. Whining and Dining is heavy on recipes and advice, including breaking down the distinction between adult food and kid food, and refusing to be a short-order cook. The tactics have worked well, although there have been a few “hiccups,” as she puts it.
“Kids are trying to say, ‘You can’t control me,’” says the mother of three. “It’s so easy to do that with food.... And we put so much focus on certain foods, like vegetables. It becomes a power struggle the same way sleeping or toilet training can become a struggle.”
Ms. Waverman suspects only a fraction of picky eaters truly have a disorder. “For some kids, it’s a huge barrier,” she says. “But I think for a majority of picky eaters it’s not.”
Her now-10-year-old son still has a few things he doesn’t enjoy, the unlikeliest being pizza. But now he plans ahead if he’s going to an event – such as most birthday parties – where pizza is served. “He’ll just grab a sandwich before he goes.”