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Deconstructing The Picky Eater

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by Adam Spangler
December 08, 2011

Tell a kid they can’t have it, and they want it even more. Force something on them, and they’ll reject it. Is this an old wives tale, or something that best describes ornery preschoolers? Ask any parent who has ever tried to get a toddler to eat vegetables, and they will testify that the myth is indeed a fact.

Parents must make sure their kids eat enough but not too much, and ensure the foods their children eat satisfy the recommended daily allowances displayed on the new national standard, MyPlate. But kids typically eat what they want, when they want, with little regard for accepted norms, be it three square meals a day, the clean plate club, or arugula salad with candied pecans and shaved parmesan cheese. The omnivore child who will eat anything and everything is a rarity.

For some children, the picky periods are short-lived, while others survive for months or years on one or two go-to foods. Where does the picky eating tendency come from? Will all kids eventually eat a variety of healthy foods?

Nature versus nurture
In 2007, scientists found that an expectant mother’s diet during pregnancy and while breastfeeding can affect her baby’s taste preferences. Flavors in a mother’s diet pass to her unborn baby via the amniotic fluid and later through breast milk, in essence creating preferences for certain types of food.

That same year, researchers examined 5,390 sets of twins and discovered a genetic link between eating habits and taste preferences, suggesting that parents may have little control over taste preferences. Researchers concluded that 78 percent of a child’s aversion to new foods is genetically determined, while only 22 percent is affected by the environment.

Still, that 22 percent is what prompts parents to beg and plead, hide vegetables in cookies, cakes, or macaroni and cheese, and ultimately resort to bartering or threats (“No TV for a week!”) in an effort to get their children to eat healthy foods (or any food for that matter).

More recently, a study published in the December 2011 issue of Appetite, examined 104 U.K. mothers with children ages 3–6 years and recorded mealtime behaviors including fussiness, slowness in eating, under-eating in response to emotional state, and how quickly children said they felt full.

Results showed that mothers with fussy children applied more pressure on their children to eat, which in the end resulted in the children eating less not more. Gentle encouragement won the day, with undue pressure a distant second.

Study author, Claire Farrow, a senior psychology lecturer at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, told MyHealthNewsDaily, “These findings support other research which has shown that if parents or caregivers override their children’s signals of hunger and fullness—as in pressuring the child to eat when not hungry—then often children struggle to regulate their appetite appropriately in the future.”

In short, know your child’s feeding behavior, hunger habits, eating tendencies, and meal timings, and use them to your advantage. It’s okay to allow kids to not eat when they say they’re not hungry and to create their own eating habits and schedules. On the other hand, giving your child junk food, just so that they will eat something, is rarely justified.

“The more you force your child to eat, the less likely your child will be to eat,” says Ellyn Satter, author of two popular books on parent-child feeding relationships and the focus of an NPR report that basically says “back off.”

There is no silver bullet; no simple solution. Every child is different, but there are some things every parent can do and plenty of places to learn more.

The USDA suggests the following:

  • Introduce new foods slowly over time.
  • Offer one new food at a time.
  • Keep foods simple and separate.
  • Offer new foods first at mealtime and in small portions.
  • Always eat what you offer your child.

The American Heart Association has more tips related to snacks, mealtimes, and sweets:

  • Establish set times for meals and snacks and stick to it. Kids like routines.
  • Keep healthy, finger foods available. Toddlers are often eager to feed themselves.
  • Serve sweets in moderation, but don’t eliminate them altogether. Children who get a piece of candy or a small scoop of ice cream now and then are less likely to overeat when sweets are offered.

The Mayo Clinic focuses on the shared experience of eating between a parent and child and urges parents to take a longer view. Most kids may get plenty of nutrients over the course of a week even though two days are devoted to chicken nuggets and one day is a food strike. Some tips:

  • Children are more likely to eat foods they have chosen and prepared. At the grocery store, encourage your child to select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Toddlers can rinse and stir while you are cutting and chopping.
  • Make mealtime fun by cutting foods into various shapes and serving brightly colored foods.
  • Encourage exploration. Tasting, touching, and talking about the color, shape, texture, and smell of new foods can make them more appealing to younger children.

Ultimately, if your child refuses to eat, don’t force him to. (And don’t bribe him either.) Respect his appetite. When he comes looking for food, be prepared to dish up some healthy options.

An old idiom claims that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But what if that horse is thirsty? You better believe he’ll drink, eventually; it just might not be exactly when you want him to drink. Kids are pretty much the same. With a variety of methods to choose from, feeding children is largely trial and error. Like breastfeeding, healthy eating habits develop over time, and often require patience, practice, and persistence. But their importance can’t be overstated.

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