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Kerri Scholman has tried just about everything to get her three-year-old daughter, Emerson, to eat more than Tater Tots, French fries, strawberries, chocolate and chips.

She has offered rewards. She has tried, “If I take a bite, will you take a bite?” She once even got the family dog involved, asking Emerson, if the dog ate some, would she? She served Emerson pureed meals on the advice of a dietitian. Nothing has worked.

Mealtime is still a battle of wills that Ms. Scholman lost so many times that she recently gave up.

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“She’d yell, she’d scream, she’d push it away, she’d throw a temper tantrum. It’s so frustrating,” says Ms. Scholman, a personal support worker who lives in Niagara Falls, Ont.

It’s a frustration many parents are familiar with. According to the Canadian Paediatrics Society, 25 to 35 per cent of toddler and preschoolers are described by their parents as picky eaters. In children with autism, that number doubles.

Researchers at Brock University are currently conducting a study that may help parents of picky eaters. The researchers are testing two methods of getting picky eaters to try foods they don’t like. In one, a child is given three spoons that each have a small amount of a preferred food. After eating all three, they are then presented with a food they don’t normally eat, such as broccoli. In the second method, the child is given three empty spoons to “eat” (putting the spoons in their mouth reinforces compliance, the researchers say) and then a food they don’t usually eat. By finding out which method is most effective, the study could help parents and clinicians understand how to get picky eaters to eat a wider variety of foods.

“They’ve both been studied, but never directly beside each other, so we know that they can be effective but we don’t know which one is more effective,” says Laura Tardi, the master’s student who is conducting the research with her supervisor, associate professor of applied disability studies Kimberley Zonneveld.

When Ms. Scholman learned of the study, she eagerly contacted Ms. Tardi to have Emerson participate in it.

Finding out which method works best will help alleviate the stress felt by parents such as Ms. Scholman, who struggle with picky eaters.

“It’s upsetting for parents when kids are crying and hitting and whatnot at meal time, so if we can kind of beat that that would be great,” Ms. Tardi says.

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If the research finds the second method works better, that will also benefit children, Dr. Zonneveld says.

“Most kids’ most preferred foods are things like chocolate or donuts. If we find that the empty spoon condition is equally or more effective than the high preferred food condition, then that would overall be better for the kids because they’d be getting less of that junk food,” she says.

Vitamin deficiencies can result in stunted growth, among other problems, Ms. Tardi says.

Emily Mardell, an Edmonton-based Registered Dietitian, worries that the study may not be easy for parents to replicate at home, whichever method comes out on top.

“As a mom of three, I don’t know if I’d have time to give three empty spoons and then the food at the end,” she says.

Ms. Mardell tells parents of picky eaters to rethink what makes a meal successful. That could mean simply sitting at the table and not acting out. It could mean a child just tasting a new food.

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“It really has to be small wins and learning to celebrate the small wins. That’s what keeps you sane as a parent,” she says.

The study under way at Brock has certainly taken the “small wins” approach.

The researchers began by getting Emerson to eat just two grains of rice, Ms. Scholman says. They are now working up to bite-sized amounts.

It’s small progress, but it is giving Ms. Scholman hope that mealtime will eventually no longer be a frustrating battle of wills. It’s a complicated process towards a simple goal.

“If I cook a meal I want her to eat it, and I want her to have a healthy diet,” she says.

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