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Tips To Take Back The Dinner Table From Picky Eaters


You may have one in your household; perhaps you're one yourself. We're talking about picky eaters, people who just won't try new foods. For the past month, cookbook author Sally Sampson has been investigating what's behind fussy eating habits, and blogging about her findings on The New York Times website.

Sampson is the founder of Chop Chop Kids. That's an organization that promotes cooking within families. And she joins us from Boston along with her partner in this project, Dr. David Ludwig. His focus is on obesity prevention, at Boston Children's Hospital, and he's author of the book "Ending the Food Fight." Welcome to you both.

SALLY SAMPSON: Thanks for having us.

DAVID LUDWIG: Nice to be with you.

BLOCK: And why tackle picky eaters, Sally? How big a problem is this, really?

SAMPSON: I think it's a huge problem. Pretty much anywhere I go, people ask me, how do they get their kids to eat vegetables, eat fruits, expand their diets.

LUDWIG: You know, we live in an environment that makes junk food, hyper-sweetened foods the norm. And by comparison, an apple doesn't taste sweet and a vegetable seems completely inedible.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about your blog post this week, which is titled "12 Ideas To Take Back The Dinner Table." And let me just tick through a couple of them. One, don't force kids to eat anything. This is the whole, you know, just-take-one-bite school of thought. You say that backfires. Why?

SAMPSON: Well, I think it's - a lot of people don't agree with me, but I think it's negative messaging. If you say to somebody, just take one bite, I think the implication is that they shouldn't take a second bite. So I think if you say, wow, this is fantastic, that's just a better message.

BLOCK: You're also a big proponent, Sally, of shopping and cooking together with kids, getting them really involved in the process so they have some ownership of it, really.

SAMPSON: Exactly. I mean, what we saw with the family that we worked with was that it was really transformational. One of the 4-year-old twins really wouldn't eat anything.

BLOCK: This is a family that you involved in your project, to sort of do a test case over six weeks, right?

SAMPSON: Yes, exactly. And once he started shopping - where the parents were saying, choose a vegetable, choose a fruit, they then brought it home; and he helped cut it up, and he helped cook it. And he now seems almost radically the other way.

BLOCK: It does indicate that control must be part of this equation, Dr. Ludwig. Is there evidence about that; that if kids feel like they are in control of what they're eating that they make better choices?

LUDWIG: Well, the worst thing that a parent can do to a picky eater is force them to eat something because that pairs that particular taste with the stress response. The body begins to release stress hormones - like cortisol - when forced to do something that it doesn't want to do, at the moment. That's a good way of actually training a child to experience that food is aversive, for life. Instead, offer the food. Show the child that it's a fine thing to eat, by modeling. And allow time to do its work.

BLOCK: Well, yeah, because - I mean, what does strike me is that this does make meal preparation more time-consuming. I mean, if you're going to involve a kid, especially a young kid, at the store or in the kitchen, things are going to take longer.

SAMPSON: They do take longer but at Chop Chop, we like to say, if you teach your kids to cook now, they'll be making you dinner later.


BLOCK: So there's a bonus down the road.

SAMPSON: Exactly.

LUDWIG: You know, there's a natural developmental cycle here at work. Children are born with a fear of unfamiliar foods, which protects them from eating something toxic. But they're also programmed to develop an increasingly broad set of taste preferences. If not, children would die of starvation after weaning.

The problem is our modern junk food, hyper-sweetened diet tends to keep taste buds in an infantilized state. This is a modern phenomenon based on an unnatural and unhealthful food supply. You know, we're not going to be able to change that external environment in the United States overnight, although we can all do our share. But we can control one environment absolutely, and that's the home. Simply say, no junk food in the home.

BLOCK: You know, we've been using the term "picky eater" throughout this conversation. But one of your pieces of advice, Sally, in your blog is: Don't refer to anyone as a picky eater, or make a big deal out of their, quote-unquote, "picky eating." Why not?

SAMPSON: Because I think it defines them, and then it becomes much harder to change. I think you kind of have to use the word when you're talking about it - but not talking to the child. It's like any other kind of definition of your child. It's better not to talk about who they are. It's better to talk about their behavior.

BLOCK: Well, thanks to you both for talking about this. You've given us a lot to chew on - pardon the metaphor.


SAMPSON: Thanks for having us.

LUDWIG: A pleasure.

BLOCK: Sally Sampson is the publisher of Chop Chop magazine. Her picky eater project blog is on The New York Times website. Dr. David Ludwig runs the Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital. And his book is "Ending the Food Fight." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.