Some believe that parenting choices can prevent picky eating. Does research bear it out?
Not really. Picky eating and neophobia (fear of new or unfamiliar foods) are highly heritable by which we mean that to a great extent we will take after our parents in our reactions to food.
However, there are also strong environmental factors operating so parents can do a good deal to minimize the effect of picky eating. For example, eating a varied diet in pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding may help children to accept a greater range of foods later. This is because some of the flavors from a mothers diet are transmitted and tasted by the infant though amniotic fluid in utero and through breast milk.
Giving lots of variety of foods during the weaning stage also seems to help develop acceptance of a wider variety of foods in later childhood. There is growing evidence that offering lots of vegetables as first foods at this time may increase liking for vegetables later. We all know that vegetables are most children's least liked foods so this may be an important finding. The most important thing is to keep offering new foods and to realize that it may take up to 15 tastings of a new food for a child to grow to like and accept it as part of their daily diet and this should be continued throughout the early years.
Baby Led Weaning is very popular these days, which promotes giving babies small pieces of the food the family is eating, not purees or other baby foods. It originated in the UK. What's your opinion on it?
Baby led weaning is very popular in the UK but only with high income families on the whole. Of course babies are not able to pick up food and bring it to their mouths much before 6 months of age and less than 5% of British mothers wait until 6 months to introduce solid food so baby led weaning is never likely to be anything but a minority choice. I know of mothers who have tried it and have had to have their child completely naked whilst eating because of the terrible mess it makes. Another mum told me that she was glad she had a dog because it would eat up all the food that dropped on the floor!
Personally, I think giving a combination of pureed foods with some family foods to pick up and chew is probably the sensible way to go for most families.
Do you have any advice for parents of picky eaters?
Yes, be persistent. Keep offering tiny amounts of disliked food and ask the child to taste it in exchange for some sort of non-food reward. Do this with the same food for up to 15 days and the child will probably have grown to like it. There is ample research to bear this out.
I would also advise against getting too anxious about children consuming the perfect healthy diet. Stressful mealtimes are almost guaranteed to exacerbate any poor eating habits as the whole atmosphere around food becomes toxic. If a child accepts one or two vegetables or fruits, it's not the end of the world. Vitamin supplements are a good idea if a child's diet is less than optimal.
Picky eating is a normal developmental stage - most children get more wary of new foods from their second year of life.
What surprised you the most about parenthood?
Everything surprised me! Nothing prepares you for the strength of feelings that you have for your children. Feeding them was an amazingly emotional experience. If they had eaten well (healthily) I was happy, but when they ate badly it was much more upsetting than I could possibly have imagined. I truly understand how mums can get so desperate about their children's poor eating habits.