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Do you always feel as if you've gone nine rounds with Junior at mealtime, just because you want him to eat his veggies? Experts offer some tricks on getting kids to eat right, so every dinner won't turn into a . . . : Food Fight!

August 31, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | Special to The Times

When evening falls and Mother, Father and Child gather around the dinner table, they form a tranquil portrait of family harmony.

Plates are passed and dishes are served. Everyone inhales the savory aromas and waits expectantly for the meal to begin.

Then the child notices some small objects on her plate. They're round, wrinkled and green. They're peas!

What happens next is not pretty.

The parents try threats, guilt and cajolery to make the child eat. They may even humiliate themselves, eating the peas with exaggerated, lip-smacking gusto to show how yummy they are. In the end, someone usually is in tears--and it's not necessarily the child.

When it comes to peas and other vegetables, it's safe to say, dinner time often degenerates into domestic Sturm und Drang.

What is it about kids and vegetables, anyway? Why do they spurn broccoli and crave cookies? Is there anything parents can do to get them to eat the right thing?

These are questions that have haunted parents for generations. As long ago as the 1930s, Chicago pediatrician Clara Davis was experimenting with various feeding regimens to learn more about kids' eating habits. These concerns take on added urgency with the awareness that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Researchers now agree that the roots of the problem lie in our biological inheritance.

"Kids, like the rest of us, and other omnivorous species, are pretty neophobic--kids don't like to try new things," says Leann Birch, a professor of human development and nutritional sciences at Penn State University.

So kids, especially toddlers, are wary of unfamiliar flavors and textures in their food and may refuse a new vegetable. "Lots of times, parents interpret that initial rejection as a fixed, immutable dislike," Birch says.

But research shows, "With increased exposure, a lot of things that are initially rejected will be accepted," Birch says. "The bad news is, it takes 10 or 15 exposures."

If a parent can last that long.

Birch, who studies how children develop food preferences, says many attempts at getting kids to eat vegetables fail because parents don't address the reason for the rejection.

"Kids' food-acceptance patterns are incredibly malleable," she asserts. "If you work hard enough, you can get them to eat anything."

Elisabeth Schafer, professor of human nutrition at Iowa State University, cites flavor as an obvious reason why kids and veggies don't mix.

"Most vegetables tend to have a fairly strong flavor that tastes even stronger to children than it does to adults," she says. That's because kids' sense of taste is more acute than adults'.

Sociology is a factor, too. "Interactions within the family are a very powerful determinant of food aversions," she says. "The children watch what their parents eat. They pick up both verbal and nonverbal cues at mealtimes."

The result: If parents don't eat vegetables, it's unlikely the kids will.

"We need to make vegetables glamorous and interesting, and we need to have them available," says Schafer, who's writing a book on desserts made with vegetables.

*

Rick and Anne McGuire, free-lance medical writers living in Mission Hills, have a miracle child. Their 3-year-old son, Aaron, loves vegetables--even mushrooms and beets.

Aaron, like his parents, is a lacto-ovo vegetarian (they eat eggs and dairy products). Because he's been offered good food all his life, Aaron doesn't crave junk.

"It's a somewhat surreal experience to be in the grocery store and the things he is grabbing are not Ding-Dongs and Hostess Twinkies, but apples," Rick McGuire marvels.

"He doesn't seem to have a major sweet tooth," he adds. "If you say 'cake,' his face will light up like a Christmas tree, but he only takes one or two bites and he's finished."

McGuire and his wife have always been careful about what food they have in the house. A box of cookies is about as dangerous as it gets.

"I have to wonder if parents accidentally undermine their own goals by giving the kids access to junk food," he muses. After all, "If you don't expose them to it, they don't know it's a choice."

The couple have avoided dinner-time hassles with Aaron by not making a big deal over what he eats.

"We don't sit down and say, 'You must eat everything on your plate,' " McGuire says. "Some days he eats very little, and a few days later it's growth-spurt time and he eats everything."

*

The McGuires' easygoing approach is endorsed by Ellyn Satter, a Madison, Wis., family therapist who specializes in eating problems. Trained as both a registered dietitian and clinical social worker, Satter wrote the 1987 book "How to Get Your Kids to Eat."

She recommends resolving food conflicts by defining zones of responsibility.

"The parent's responsibility is for what, when and where," Satter says. "The child's responsibility is for what and how much."

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