Do you think American pioneer teenagers in the 1800’s ever sat down at the dinner table, folded their arms across their chests and announced, “I REFUSE to eat this disgusting salt pork!!”?  Did their younger siblings push the freshly picked-and-prepared peas to the far edges of their plates? I’ve been wondering that lately as I ponder my kids’ food aversions, and remember my own childhood dislikes.  Something tells me kids have always had strong opinions on food.  I’ve looked for clues in the Little House on the Prairie series, which Emmie and I have been reading together this summer, but haven’t found anything.  So far, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of early America is pretty upbeat– heck, for one memorable meal, they happily pour maple syrup over just about everything, including snow, and eat it– no food complainers in that family!  But in doing a bunch of Internet research today on the subject, it looks like my hunch is correct– that being a picky eater is not just a malady of modern, comfortable children, or a byproduct of listening to parents who fret about their own food– it’s the result of genes (ah, don’t things always boil down to that?) and a naturally built-in defense mechanism that goes back to cave days.

All those foods your kid refuses to try? That could be his inner cave kid kicking in– I read that if kids weren’t picky and had eaten everything they could get their hands on back in the B.C. days, they would have died. Doesn’t quite explain how today’s toddlers desire to put pennies, Legos, and Barbie doll shoes into their mouths, but it was an interesting theory…even more interesting was this:  according to a study done by researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a gene called TAS2R38 may be responsible for children’s aversion to bitter tastes, which includes vegetables and certain meats.  Each of us carries two of these genes, and there are two versions of it, one being more sensitive to bitter than the other.  If one or both of a person’s TAS2R38’s are the “bitter” kind, he/she may be a picky eater.  (People often “grow out” of their aversion to bitter foods as adults, in part because taste buds die as we age.) And if the study holds true, almost 80% of kids have at least one of the “bitter” genes. But, just when I thought that meant I could now happily give my picky eater nothing but buttered noodles and fruit every day without feeling guilty– I also read that in order to combat so many of the health problems that beseige us later in life, like cancer and heart disease, we’re supposed to help all of our kids eat a lot more fruits and vegetables every day.  Yes, even the “genetically challenged” kids.

And what a challenge it is.  The things I’ve done over the years to get my youngest child to eat vegetables… I was hiding pureed carrots and squash (bought from the baby food aisle) in her mac ‘n cheese long before Jessica Seinfeld made money off of that trick (yes, Jerry’s wife, author of the 2007 cookbook, Deceptively Delicious, which I just purchased at Half Price Books). My “secret cheese sauce” actually worked.  Not much else has. Wanna V8? No. Sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows on top? Gross. Sweet potato fries? No way. Veggie chips? Yuck. Green beans? Canned, yes, steamed fresh, no. How about some Thanksgiving green bean casserole? Not on your life.  How about the latest thing– fried green beans? Get real.  Broccoli? Only the teensiest of “trees”, and then only a couple.  Creamed spinach from Boston Market? No, are you kidding?! Ok, how about carrots? Maybe raw, but only with the right kind of ranch dressing. Peas? Fuh-getta-boud-it.  Beets? Never. Ummmm…pickles? Nope.  Thank goodness she adores spaghetti sauce.  At least I feel good when I serve that, giving her all those tomatoes that go into making it.  But my teenager insists that tomatoes are fruits, so maybe I don’t score one for veggies with that, either.  Really, the only veggies Emmie currently eats with gusto are corn on the cob and canned baby corn (is that even a real vegetable?). 

At least she tries every food once…

Allison, my teenager, actually likes a lot of vegetables, although the giant bottle of tomato juice she bought and put in our fridge recently has been for rinsing her hair, not for consuming.  But lately she has had the annoying habit of announcing she doesn’t like something without even trying it.  Or suddenly not liking something she always used to like.  In addition to the “cave kid defense mechanism” mentioned earlier, my Internet research attributed “refusing to try new things or eat usual favorites” to:  a.) having parents who refuse to try new things (not me) or b.) a kid’s way to be in control (that’s her!).  “What are you fixing for dinner?” is a question she has usually asked before noon each day this summer (if she’s awake by then).  I used to hold my breath after I’d tell her the menu, waiting for the royal pronouncement…er, I mean, her answer, but I’ve given up–it’s usually always the same these days.  “I DON’T LIKE THAT!” she proclaims, to which I answer, “You used to– what happened?”  And then she says, “Well, I don’t anymore!!” to which I say, “Well, that’s your problem.  Have fun fixing your own dinner.”  And she does… sans veggies.   I guess I’m lucky if she eats the same items as the rest of us on one night each week.  

This summer she’s decided she hates all things beef (ever since a May bout with stomach trouble after eating a steak quesadilla at a restaurant); turkey tacos and Mexican chicken casserole, two long-time family favorites (she says that the steak quesadillas have turned her off of  ALL Mexican food); spaghetti (she doesn’t like the kind of noodles I buy); Chinese stir fry (doesn’t like the sauce or the brown rice I fix);  tortilla-encrusted tilapia (remember, no more Mexican) and on and on.  I really think the pickiness is as much about forging a “unique identity” at this age as it is pure control (amazing similarities to the change-filled toddler years, don’t you think?!).  I think she likes being able to say, “I hate beef” or “I hate the ocean” (along with the accompanying stories of why) as much as she likes to say “I love scary movies and giant roller coasters”.  Those hates and loves are based on unique experiences and are different from the rest of the family– well, for sure, different than me, and it’s probably pretty healthy that she’s defining who she is in this way.

Oh, there’s that word again…healthy.  It reminds me that in spite of my kids’ likes and dislikes, the quest for ways to get them to eat more vegetables continues.  Does anyone have any good ideas?  I have a friend whose boys have to eat their veggies first or they can’t have the rest of their dinner… might have been good for us to try a long time ago, but I can’t see that being successful now…I know several people who would say compressed fruit and vegetable supplement tablets are the answer, but I’m too much of a skeptic to go that route.  I think I’m going to try something from the Jessica Seinfeld cookbook.  I see a recipe for brownies that looks pretty good, with hidden spinach and carrot puree, and another for “Pink Pancakes” featuring pureed beets.  Bet those might be good with maple syrup…  or rather,  lots and lots of syrup, just like in the Little House days.