Ethan Useloff of Westfield, N.J., rejects a cheeseburger. His sister, Samara, does not. Their mother, Jennifer, was a picky eater as a child.
By KIM SEVERSON
A WEEK’S worth of dinners for young Fiona Jacobson looks like this: Noodles. Noodles. Noodles. Noodles. French fries. Noodles. On the seventh day, the 5-year-old from Forest Hills, Queens, might indulge in a piece of pizza crust, with no sauce or cheese.
Over in New Jersey, the Bakers changed their November family vacation to accommodate Sasha, an 11-year-old so averse to fruits and vegetables that the smell of orange juice once made him faint. Instead of flying to Prague, Sasha’s parents decided to go to Barcelona, where they hope the food will be more to his liking.
And at the Useloff household, young Ethan’s tastes are so narrow that their home in Westfield, N.J., works something like a diner.
“I do the terrible mommy thing and make everyone separate dinners,” Jennifer Useloff said.
All three families share a common problem. Their children are not only picky eaters, prone to reject foods they once seemed to love, but they are also neophobic, which means they fear new food.
But for parents who worry that their children will never eat anything but chocolate milk, Gummi vitamins and the occasional grape, a new study offers some relief. Researchers examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between 8 and 11 years old and found children’s aversions to trying new foods are mostly inherited.
The message to parents: It’s not your cooking, it’s your genes.
The study, led by Dr. Lucy Cooke of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August. Dr. Cooke and others in the field believe it is the first to use a standard scale to investigate the contribution of genetics and environment to childhood neophobia.
According to the report, 78 percent is genetic and the other 22 percent environmental.
“People have really dismissed this as an idea because they have been looking at the social associations between parents and their children,” Dr. Cooke said. “I came from a position of not wanting to blame parents.”
Nutritionists, pediatricians and academic researchers have recently shifted focus to children who eat too much instead of those who eat too little. But cases of obesity are less frequent than bouts of pickiness.
In some families, communal meals become brutal battlegrounds, if they haven’t been altogether abandoned. Cooks break under the weight of devising a thousand variations on macaroni and cheese. Strolls through the farmers’ markets are replaced with trudges through the frozen food aisle.
For parents who know that sharing the fruits of the kitchen with family is one of the deep pleasures of cooking, having a child who rejects most food is a unique sort of heartbreak.
Hugh Garvey, an editor at Bon Appétit magazine, knows the heartbreak firsthand. He shares his experience on gastrokid.com, a blog he created with a British pal that details the gastronomic life of families. His daughter, 6, is an omnivore’s dream child. But his son, 3, will eat only brown food.
“The way I comfort myself is the way any quasi-sane parent comforts himself,” Mr. Garvey said. “It’s like potty training. Eventually, they’re going to graduate from diapers. In the end, he’ll eat something green.”
Most children eat a wide variety of foods until they are around 2, when they suddenly stop. The phase can last until the child is 4 or 5. It’s an evolutionary response, researchers believe. Toddlers’ taste buds shut down at about the time they start walking, giving them more control over what they eat. “If we just went running out of the cave as little cave babies and stuck anything in our mouths, that would have been potentially very dangerous,” Dr. Cooke said.
A natural skepticism of new foods is a healthy part of a child’s development, said Ellyn Satter, a child nutrition expert whose books, including “Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense” (Bull Publishing, 2000), have developed a cult following among parents of picky eaters.
Each child has a unique set of likes and dislikes that Ms. Satter believes are genetically determined. The only way children discover what they are is by putting food in their mouths and taking it out over and over again, she said.
“Of course, it’s hard when children are just so blasé about food or refuse it, especially for parents who spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing it,” she said.
The genetic link makes sense to Jennifer Useloff, whose son enjoys only variations on the same theme: bread and cheese, with some fruit and the occasional chicken nugget. His younger sister, Samara, isn’t as picky but sometimes follows her brother’s lead.
Mrs. Useloff, 36, was once a picky eater herself. Although she drank gallons of milk, she couldn’t abide raw fruits or vegetables. New foods with strange textures literally frightened her.
The aversion lasted until her 20s, when she worked to overcome her fears. Even today, she refuses to buy cucumbers.
“I feel guilty,” she said. “I worry that I’ve done this to them.”
Even though food neophobia appears to be genetic, doctors say parents of picky eaters can’t just surrender and boil another pot of pasta.
“We have to understand that biology is not destiny,” said Patricia Pliner, a social psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “This doesn’t necessarily mean there is nothing we can do about the environment.”
People who study children prone to flinging themselves on the floor at the mere mention of broccoli agree that calm, repeated exposure to new foods every day for between five days to two weeks is an effective way to overcome a child’s fears. (Other strategies for getting children to eat are included in an accompanying article.)
Of course, attempting to introduce the same food week after week can be a Sisyphean task. Some parents just give up. That is more or less what Jessica Seinfeld did.
Mrs. Seinfeld, the wife of the actor Jerry Seinfeld and the mother of three young children, became fed up with trying to get her children to eat fruits and vegetables. The oldest, Sascha, who is 6, is so picky she used to dictate what the rest of the family ate.
“It made cooking in my house impossible,” Mrs. Seinfeld said. “I was so miserable every night. I felt like a failure as a cook and a failure as a mother.”
So Mrs. Seinfeld took an end run around the problem and developed a method of feeding her children that is, essentially, based on lying.
Her new book, “Deceptively Delicious” (Harper Collins), outlines a series of recipes based on fruit and vegetable purées that are blended into food in a way that she says children won’t notice. Half a cup of butternut squash disappears into pasta coated with milk and margarine. Pancakes turn pink with beets. Avocado hides in chocolate pudding and spinach in brownies.
“My theory, and my husband will back me up on it, is that all of this food tastes better,” she said.
And even though she admits to leaving a box of macaroni and cheese on the counter when she’s making the stealth vegetable version, she doesn’t think her children will mind when they discover that mom’s pulled a fast one.
“My kids now are really starting to get that this is a special way my mom knows how to cook,” she said.
Some experts don’t buy the method.
“It doesn’t strike me as the best strategy,” Dr. Pliner said.
There is the issue of being found out, at which point a child might not trust new foods the parents present. And hiding foods doesn’t help a child learn to appreciate new tastes, she said.
“What we want children to do is like a lot of different foods,” she said. “If squash is perfectly disguised, children are not learning anything. Well, they are learning something, but it’s not to like squash.”
If neither repeated introduction nor hiding the vegetables works, and as long as a pediatrician is keeping an eye on the child’s health, the experts suggest nothing more than patience.
“Unless it becomes a huge issue, it tends to be a little more fleeting than parents think,” said Harriet Worobey, director of the Nutritional Sciences Preschool at Rutgers University. “I know a year can seem like five to parents, but these food jags are normal.”