Are Picky Eaters Doomed For Life?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 3, 2013

A few weeks ago, my family stayed with friends in D.C.   The wife, a great cook, had prepared dinner for us on the night we arrived and as she led us all over to the table she said to me, “I hope it’s OK that I didn’t make any ‘kid food’ — I figured, these are your children [i.e., children of a health-conscious food blogger], so it will be fine!”

Now, if you’re a regular TLT reader, you know all about my struggles with a steadfastly vegetable-avoiding son and how even my “non-picky” daughter can drive me crazy sometimes with her occasional selectivity.  But a lot of people understandably assume that, because I do what I do, my kids must be model eaters.  And when I saw the particular dinner laid out for us (a wild mushroom tart, roasted brussels sprouts, salad and sausage) — and the concerned looks on my kids’ faces — I knew that misconception was about to fly right out the window.

I was about to say something reassuring to my son (though I’m not sure what — “Um, you can just eat the tart’s crust, honey?”), when some better instinct told me to just shut up and mind my own business.  And then I watched as he took the tiniest nibble of the mushroom tart, considered it for a second, and then tucked in happily.  (He’s since announced that he likes mushrooms and has asked me to make the same dish at home.) And my daughter, who always spurns Brussels sprouts at home, ate a plate of them and asked for seconds.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Whether due to peer pressure or timidity or a desire to please, we’ve all seen our kids rise to the occasion in other people’s homes in a way they never would with us.  So this past Sunday I was horrified to see this question submitted to the New York Times‘ Social Q’s advice column:

It was our turn to host Thanksgiving this year. My brother asked if he could bring chili for one of his children, who is a picky eater (and 20 years old). My sister-in-law routinely brings bananas and pizza for her 11-year-old son. Is this crazy, or am I wrong?

(The Social Q’s writer agreed these kids were too old for this coddling but advised the reader to let the parents bring the food anyway.)

Writing The Lunch Tray for almost four years, and being a parent for 13 years, has sensitized me to a lot of issues.  I used to pooh-pooh food allergies and now I totally empathize with the plight of parents of the food-allergic.  I used to think artificial food dyes were no big deal and now I feel we have legitimate reason to worry.  And I used to think picky* eating could only be caused by bad feeding practices and, at any rate, should be quickly outgrown.

My own son has certainly disabused me of the latter two notions.  I’ve also since shared with you stories of adult picky eaters who are crippled by their food selectivity, even actively avoiding social situations where a meal might be served, and I’ve reviewed a book written by a recovered, lifelong picky eater.  It seems clear from these people’s experiences that, at least in some cases, pickiness is hardwired.

In fact, just yesterday, writer Kristin Wartman had an interesting piece in the Times entitled, “Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb.”  While Wartman was focused how poor maternal diet can affect a child’s propensity for obesity and related diseases, the findings she cites have implications for lifelong, deeply ingrained pickiness as well:

Researchers . . . have found that babies born to mothers who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breast-feeding are more open to a wide range of flavors. They’ve also found that babies who follow that diet after weaning carry those preferences into childhood and adulthood. Researchers believe that the taste preferences that develop at crucial periods in infancy have lasting effects for life. In fact, changing food preferences beyond toddlerhood appears to be extremely difficult.

So if you’re a fellow POP (parent of the picky), my heart goes out to you and no stones will ever be thrown from my glass house.  That said, I think members of our select club need to constantly remind ourselves that our kids can and will surprise us — but only if they’re given the opportunity to do so.  Moreover, even the pickiest children have to learn how to sit at someone’s table and get through a meal gracefully and politely.  It goes without saying that neither of those things can happen if you’re toting chili, bananas and pizza to someone’s home.

Last year I shared my best advice, learned over many years, for dealing with pickiness, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

______

* I’ve always disliked the term “picky” - here’s why - but I use it here for the sake of brevity.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Claudia December 3, 2013 at 8:38 am

Good advice about giving your kids the chance to surprise us. But also be aware that “pickiness” can be due to allergies. I used to lick the sauce off of stir-fried veggies as a kid, and not eat the veggies. Only later did I realize I have Oral Allergy Syndrome (a real thing!) that makes me unable to eat many raw vegetables without severe discomfort.

Reply

C baker December 4, 2013 at 7:40 am

Similarly, my mother was severely congested as a child most of the time (and probably suffered from undiagnosed asthma as well). She limited what she ate to foods she knew could chew and swallow quickly, because if she didn’t, she couldn’t breathe! But she didn’t realize this was what she was doing until she was nearly grown.

Reply

Charles Kuffner December 3, 2013 at 8:50 am

Heh. It’s a good thing I wasn’t invited to that dinner, because I don’t like mushrooms, and I don’t like brussels sprouts. For what it’s worth, neither of my parents are picky eaters, and while I eat a much broader array of foods now than I did as a kid, there are still some foods I just don’t like. I probably would have eaten a few bits of the tart, and concentrated on the salad and sausage.

As for the bananas and pizza thing, that’s…wow. I don’t want to be critical when I don’t know all the facts, but that is not something I would do for my own picky eaters.

Reply

Maryann December 3, 2013 at 11:02 am

Bettina,

This is a great post I could very much relate to. Even though I blog about raising healthy eaters I do have (somewhat) picky eaters myself. My oldest will try more things but she goes through her stages. Yet my kids do pretty well and eat enough variety to meet their nutrition needs. And they enjoy eating. They do okay with strange food even if they don’t eat much of it. It’s all a work in progress and even though research shows there are things you can do to help a kid be less picky (and research also shows there’s genetic component to it all) nothing replaces the work of exposing kids in a pleasant atmosphere over the years. When your kids are adults having you over for awesome meals they made, you will laugh about it all ; )

Reply

Gillian Fein December 3, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Great post, Bettina.
My kids, like so many others, go through phases with adventuresome eating. I read that NYT article yesterday about eating while pregnant and had mixed emotions about it all. I ate a wide variety of (mostly very healthy) food while pregnant – I have three kids, and each pregnancy was pretty much the same after week 13. I have one kid who could basically live on cheese and toast, one kid who could live on yogurt and fruit and hates all things cheese and most things meat and one kid who eats anything you put in front of her (with the exception of dairy, which she cannot eat). I’m allergic to nuts and fish so those aren’t even options for my family. I struggle with it all because in addition to the rigors of raising kids and having a job and a husband and a life and hopefully a hobby or interest, finding common ground in the food department with three kids like that is hard. My saving grace is that today we have robust communities to discuss these things without judgment (okay, sometimes with judgment but I try to ignore it) and voices like yours who can speak out for positive changes.
I have to believe that by consistently offering a healthy variety of foods and setting a good example that I am setting the stage for some kind of healthy life habits for my kids.

Reply

Kristy LoSapio December 4, 2013 at 8:12 am

I’m a health coach, so people assume the same thing about my kids that they do about yours. I try SOOO hard, but my son is as picky as they come. He’s never surprised me as you describe, not even once.

On Thanksgiving this year, I didn’t bring anything for him (not that I usually do). He did not eat one bite of food. The entire day. ZERO. So when you have a picky eater who also has a very stubborn personality, you have a recipe for total frustration.

He doesn’t eat a single vegetable. Not one. And the only fruits he eats are watermelon and cantaloupe, pretty much the least nutritious ones out there. Pears, apples, and bananas make their way into his diet on occasion, but they are just as equally rejected as they are accepted.

I did all the right things when I was pregnant, fed him a wide variety as a baby, but as the years went by he just kept cutting things out.

I try not to be too hard on myself, though, even though I’ve been on the verge of tears so many times. My husband still barely eats any vegetables, and when I see his mother picking at her food, I realize how much of it is genetics.

Another good genetics example — my sister has five kids. As you can imagine, no special accommodations go on in her house. Most of her kids eat well, but one rejects nearly everything. He’s been exposed in all the same ways as the others, but he’s still super picky, and he’s a senior in high school at this point.

There are kids who fall outside of the norm, where conventional wisdom doesn’t apply. Mine is one of them.

Reply

Susan L. January 19, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Isn’t watermelon the single best source of lycopene?

Reply

Michele Hays December 5, 2013 at 10:04 am

One thing all parents need to remember: all kids go through phases of selectivity, and that’s totally normal. I realized with my own son that the constant loss and regrowth of teeth had a major impact on his ability to eat, and if I didn’t allow him space to manage that himself, I’d be fighting a losing battle.

Interestingly, I was a HIGHLY selective eater as a child (now I’m a high-scorer on all those FB food challenges) – another sometimes-forgotten factor: some kids’ selectivity has nothing to do with food or eating and everything to do with keeping things predictable. I ate the same lunch every day for probably 7-year-stretches (in high school, it was french fries and a Slim Jim. I did survive.) I eventually learned to expand my horizons when meals weren’t such a highly-socially-charged experience like they were in school – I just wasn’t able to tolerate one more variable.

Reply

Bettina Elias Siegel December 17, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Michele: Your comment is a good reminder for me — I’m a very adventurous eater (and was as a kid, too, if my mom is to be believed) but I, too, loved total predictability in my lunches as a kid. I think I had the same sandwich every day for a year at a time! You make a good point that a lot of this may have to do with control and comfort as much as anything. Thanks, as always, for commenting here.

Reply

DE December 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm

For me and probably for my son, being a picky eater has to do with textures more than taste. Its not the taste..its the texture of the vegetables etc…a sensory thing. I dont have a problem with mushroom soup..cant eat a mushroom…Trying more smoothies with good ingredients.

Reply

Bettina Elias Siegel December 17, 2013 at 4:45 pm

DE: A lot of people have told me that texture is an issue for them or for their kids. I think this is one reason why relatively fibrous foods like green beans are really hard for my son. Thank you for sharing your experience here on TLT.

Reply

coolernearlake December 10, 2013 at 4:49 pm

I thought my daughter was picky until we went to a science demo at a nearby university and discovered that she could actually taste bitter (especially in vegetables like broccoli) that the rest of us could not taste. The presenter handed out little blotter paper strips with that flavor on it. Husband and I could not taste a thing–she practically bolted for the ladies room to retch. Only a few people in the large audience were sensitive. So pickiness is not equal to stubbornness in all cases.

Reply

Bettina Elias Siegel December 17, 2013 at 4:42 pm

coolernearlake: I had the exact same experience with my “picky” son! As detailed in this post, he, too, is a “super-taster” (as such people are called) and you’ll see a link there which discusses how super-tasting may be linked to food selectivity. Thanks for sharing this info with us!

Reply

veggiemama December 11, 2013 at 10:50 am

It’s nice to know even a healthy food blogger sometimes has to deal with picky kids :)

My own daughter (6) has always been an adventurous eater. She eats things neither my husband or myself will eat. She doesn’t like bread much and she will not eat a salad if it comes into contact with croutons.

Recently, she is not a huge fan of any meat. We just kind of go with it, and every now and then she will try something we’ve made that contains meat and declare she likes it again. There are no alternatives at meals, and certainly not at others homes. She finds something she will eat in what is presented or she can wait till next meal (rarely does she do this). At her cousins birthday party last week, she became the talk of the day by choosing to skip the roast beef and meatballs and make a plate of macaroni salad, potato salad, and her favorite- coleslaw. The ped says she’s healthy, so food is not a fight we are interested in having :)

Reply

Bettina Elias Siegel December 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Veggiemama: It sounds like you’re handling your daughter’s food preferences really well – not offering substitutes and not making a big deal about it, either. And it’s interesting to hear that she’s willing to eat things that are not being modeled for her by you and your husband. Along those lines you might be interested in this post from It’s Not About Nutrition which puts the whole modeling idea into question. Thanks for commenting here!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: