Why Are Some Kids Picky Eaters? It Could Be Their Parents' Fault

For many families, the holiday season is as much about stuffing your face as it is about stuffing stockings. Goodbye baked chicken breasts; hello pot roast with chestnut-braised green beans and pumpkin pie à la mode. And who wants cornflakes when it’s perfectly acceptable—festive, even—to indulge in eggnog French toast instead?

These same gustatory delights can make the holidays a nightmare, however, for the parents of fussy eaters. Your kids’ untouched dinner plates spark snide, rum-fueled comments from your entire extended family, and the worst part is, some are well-deserved. Good lord, I really have been letting Johnny eat nothing but white bread and macaroni and cheese for the past three months, haven’t I? First—and I’m not just saying this because I was a picky eater, though I was—it’s normal for children to be wary of unfamiliar foods. The technical term for this behavior, which peaks between the ages of 2 and 6, is food neophobia, and it may actually be a relic of an evolutionary survival tactic: Animals old enough to forage for food alone but too inexperienced to know what’s safe are less likely to accidentally poison themselves if they are cautious about trying new foods. (Young chimpanzees and rats behave this way, for instance.) And unless a fussy child’s weight-for-age percentile is quickly dropping, he or she is probably not in any health danger from eating only bagels for a few weeks, says Lucy Cooke, a psychologist and public-health scientist at University College London. Kids can get enough nutrients from just a handful of foods, and hey, there are always vitamin supplements.

Still, when children only eat a small selection of foods despite having tried many, or when they seem unable to get past their neophobia, it can be frustrating, to say the least. After studying the contents of his parents’ pantry one day, the 3-year-old son of a friend of mine decided that he was only going to eat breadcrumbs for the next three weeks. (He followed through.) This kind of fussiness, though not life-threatening, can cause a lot of worry and mealtime strife. So what on earth causes it?

In part, parents do—both biologically and psychologically. In a 2007 study, Cooke and her colleagues compared the eating characteristics of a group of fraternal twins (who share 50 percent of their genes with each other) with that of their parents and then did the same thing with a group of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes) and their parents. She calculated that about 78 percent of the population-wide variation in food neophobia severity is explained by genetic differences—in other words, there may well be neophobia genes. Fussy parents also set bad examples for their kids, avoiding the very foods they want their kids to eat—and multiple studies suggest that children follow their parents’ dietary leads. Mommy won’t eat zucchini? Well then I better not either.

When your kid says of the perfectly delicious pasta you raced home from work to cook for him, But I don’t like the way it tastes, she may not be lying. Differences in taste perception can influence fussiness. Middle-ear infections, which afflict three-quarters of kids by the time they are 3, can damage the nerve that carries taste information from the tongue to the brain. This can potentially make certain foods—such as cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli—taste more bitter to your child than they do to you. A 2012 study reported that preschoolers who had suffered more than six ear infections were significantly less likely to enjoy fruits and vegetables than children who had suffered none. (No one has been able to establish the cause-and-effect here, though: it could be that kids who eat fewer vegetables are simply more likely to get ear infections.) Limited research also suggests that kids who are born with the ability to taste certain bitter compounds—so called "tasters" and “super tasters,” who comprise about 70 percent of the population—are more likely to avoid bitter vegetables like broccoli than are “nontasting” kids.* Finally, in rare cases, sensory and developmental disorders can also cause eating problems.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to combat fussiness, parents sometimes make it much worse. Consider the common practice of pressuring kids to eat their veggies. In a 2006 experiment, Penn State researchers split 27 preschool children into two groups and offered them both squash soup and corn soup every day for 11 weeks. The researchers consistently pressured one group to eat the corn soup but did not pressure them to eat the squash; the other group was pressured to eat the squash but not the corn. In the end, the children regularly consumed more of—and made fewer negative comments about—whichever soup they had not been instructed to eat. Kids!

Part of the problem is that putting pressure on children builds stress, which they then associate with the particular food they’re being told to eat. (Threatening to revoke privileges— if you don’t finish your cauliflower, you can’t have any ice cream—does a similar thing, making children associate cauliflower not with chocolate in a cone but with punishment.) “The bigger deal parents make, the worse I find that the outcome is,” says New York City nutrition counselor Jessica Levinson. “Children become afraid to eat in front of their parents because they’re afraid their parents will be upset.” Likewise, it may not be smart to instruct your kids to “clean their plate”: research suggests that when children are repeatedly told what and how much to eat, they start ignoring natural satiety cues and may stop regulating their food consumption, says Terry Dovey, an eating disorder specialist at Loughborough University in the U.K. and the author of Eating Behaviour.

I know, I’ve been doing it wrong too. So if these popular dinnertime tactics are out the window, what can desperate parents do? First, think back: How many times have your kids have actually tasted their hated foods? After the fifth bowl of broccoli goes on the floor, many frustrated moms simply stop serving it, but studies suggest that children have to taste a new food 15 to 20 times before they can get over their initial resistance and start liking it.

Cooke’s work suggests that offering children small rewards, such as stickers, for trying bites of disliked food can help. Not only does this “game” make kids associate the food with positive outcomes, but it can also ease children past the 20th-time’s-the-charm threshold so that they naturally begin liking that food anyway. Cooke warns against offering food rewards, however—don’t tell them that if they eat some lima beans, they’ll get a cookie—because this can further bolster the idea that lima beans are “bad” and cookies are “good.” (Again, crap.)

The most important thing for parents to do is to make meal time a positive experience. Less eat your spinach! and more isn’t spinach goooood? Serve unfamiliar foods with known, liked foods at first to make things easier, and don’t forget to eat what you want your kids to eat, in front of them, all the time. Your mother-in-law’s traditional Christmas Eve Brussels sprouts may not be particularly tasty—clearly she didn’t get the bacon memo—but for the sake of your children, not to mention your relationship with your in-laws, it’s probably best that you pretend they are. Shovel them in, smile at your kids, and then go back for seconds.

In addition to the sources mentioned, The Kids would like to thank Lucia Kaiser from the University of California-Davis.

Correction, Dec. 19, 2012: This article originally misstated that about 70 percent of the population are “super-tasters.” It’s “super-tasters” and “tasters” combined that make up 70 percent of the population. (Return to the corrected sentence.)