The Science Behind Why Your Picky Eater Refuses to Eat Vegetables
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I am in the kitchen looking up recipes on Pinterest for “easy kid-friendly dinners” and I come across a healthy version of McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Score! I have all the ingredients and the time so, I whip up a batch of golden, baked (not fried) nuggets that I used ninja cookie cutters to shape. This will win over my kids, I tell myself. But when I serve dinner only one of my three kids is happy. The other two? They are whining about how gross dinner is and why can’t we go to the real McDonalds?
I have two picky eaters and it’s a huge, colossal, pain in the derriere. Nothing — and I mean nothing — I do can convince these two to try new, healthy foods. All they want are starchy, sweet, or flavorless foods like endless crackers, cereals, Nutella, and maybe an apple once in a while. But vegetables? Hahahaha. Nope. The only way I can convince them to get enough fiber and protein is to woo them with milkshakes. They think it’s ice cream but it's actually strawberries, bananas, milk, and protein powder with added fiber.
My oldest child? He’ll eat anything I put in front of him. Venison burgers, lima beans, baked zucchini fries, calamari, he’s an adventurous eater. For Christmas this past year, we gifted him an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook for kids and he’s already cooked his way through it several times. This kid knows good food and isn’t afraid to eat it.
So, what’s up with my two youngest kids?
It turns out, there are a few things happening and it is entirely the fault of me and my husband. But before I let you think that there is a silver bullet answer to picky eating, just know that there is not. Or rather, there is no method in which I can tell you to convince your child to change their preferences overnight. However, if you are willing to change your approach to food and meet your child halfway, then you will likely be able to get your kids to eat healthier even if they still won’t try cauliflower.
Let me explain.
It all starts with mom and dad.
I’ll get into the genetics of picky eating in a moment. For now, let's start at the heart of the picky eating problem. Parents. We try our best to provide our kids with a safe and healthy upbringing and that often means preparing what we think of as healthy foods. And when kids reject our ideas of what healthy eating is, the interaction is quite often seen as a child resisting authority.
Kids will always want to push the buttons of adults around them; it’s what they do. But when it comes to food choices, it turns out that there is a lot happening beneath the surface, and when we slow down and peel back the complicated layers of why our kids prefer one food over another it becomes clear as day that it has nothing to do with our kids giving us an attitude problem and everything to do with exactly how they are from their genes on up.
America moralizes food.
Americans love to tell everybody what to do. It's something we excel at for good or bad. But when it comes to teaching our kids how to eat right we get it totally wrong.
In a fascinating interview with NPR’s The Salt, co-host Jeremy Hobson sat down with Jane Kauer, a renowned anthropologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and Monell Chemical Science Center. She had a lot to say about how the quintessential American attitude to use the concept of right and wrong is at the heart of why our kids are picky eaters. She told Hobson,
“We somehow have this public comfort with insisting what’s right and wrong about food, what’s healthy and who should eat what, and who should lose weight. There’s a lot going on around moralization in food and eating. And that comes up with picky eating a lot.”
Kauer explains that one aspect of picky eating that parents so often don’t see is how the language they use to tell their child what is right and what is wrong can be understood by the child as a form of shame.
She says that babies are not born with a clean slate as some people believe. Yes, flavor preference is rooted in cultural practices, but babies are hardwired to prefer sweet and show an aversion to bitter. This is likely to keep them alive; sweet foods have sugar, which helps feed the brain and provide robust calories. Bitter could be a warning sign that something is poisonous.
“We have a slight preference for slightly salty things, but not much of a preference, and a slight preference for moderate to low sour things. But the sweet and the bitter, we all come in with that, so we’re not a total blank slate,” Kauer explained.
DNA has a big influence too.
Some people have a genetic predisposition to something called neophobia, which is a fear of anything new. Yes, humans have a tendency to dislike change and to show skepticism of new things, but for kids who are genuinely picky eaters, meaning they have a restricted range of foods they will eat, neophobia is a genetic cue that tells them how to interact with foods.
Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., who is a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia told SELF magazine that she believes that neophobia combined with a family culture is a huge driver in how kids navigate picky eating.
“If you have parents who don’t really like to try anything new, you will also be exposed to fewer new foods.” Pelchat told SELF.
Pelchat points to the phenomenon of how much some people cannot stand cilantro. For some, there is a genetic trait turned on that creates a sensitivity to a chemical component in the herb that makes it taste intensely soapy. But for others who lack this genetic trait, cilantro can be the magical secret ingredient that turns a dish from bland to culinary perfection. In this case, picky eaters aren’t likely to ever like cilantro.
But for other foods where there is no genetic predisposition for chemical sensitivity, Pelchat thinks there may be room to teach a picky eater to dislike certain foods less (note that I didn’t say learn to like certain foods.)
But there is another genetic trait that might influence whether or not a person will become a picky eater.
“There is a thrill-seeking personality trait,’” Pelchat told SELF. “It’s been shown, especially with spicy food, that there is some correlation with trying new foods and thrill-seeking.”
Some personality traits will favor neophobia and others will favor thrill-seeking and the differences between the two may help us to better understand why some kids will flip a plate of broccoli tots over in protest.
Buckle up, because your kid isn’t outgrowing this anytime soon.
If science says that some picky eater traits are genetic but that cultural forces can help steer picky eaters toward an appreciation (if not a love of) vegetables and other healthy foods, then why do some kids never grow out of this phase?
“Picky eating is common during childhood, and parents often hear that their children will eventually ‘grow out of it.’ But that’s not always the case,” Megan Pesch, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital told the Michigan University’s Michigan Medicine blog.
Pesch and her team conducted a study that looked to see if a mother’s controlling approach to food could influence a picky eater to grow out of their fussy food aversions. It turns out that kids really didn’t change over time.
The study included 317 moms with picky eaters from low-income families. Researchers tracked these families over the course of four years and recorded children’s eating habits as well as how moms approached feeding. Researchers watched these kids from age four until age nine and what they found is pretty darn interesting.
Kids don’t grow out of picky eating. But moms who restrict and try to force their kids to eat what they perceive as healthy might actually be making the picky eating tendency much worse.
“We found that children who were pickier had mothers who reported more restriction of unhealthy foods and sweets,” Pesch told Michigan Medicine. “These mothers of picky eaters may be trying to shape their children’s preferences for more palatable and selective diets to be more healthful. But it may not always have the desired effect.”
But before you cringe while reading that (I know I just did, because I’m guilty of this), there was some good and perhaps unexpected news in the study as well.
Children who are picky eaters tend to have a lower mass body index than non-picky eaters, and they also tend to maintain a healthy weight through childhood and into adulthood. These kids don’t seem to become likely to be overweight or develop issues with obesity.
Pesch pointed out to Michigan Medicine that it is still important for parents to teach their kids healthy eating habits and to introduce as many healthy foods as possible but to not overdo it and stress kids out. She also highlighted the need for more research to help better understand how the habits of picky eaters affect health and weight gain throughout childhood and adulthood.
Try giving picky eaters more control over food.
So, what’s the happy medium, then? If DNA is telling my kids to be picky eaters, and my attitude to limit junk food and push healthy food onto my kids is ricocheting in the wrong direction, then what should I do?
For my kids, the answer is a constant moving target. I have no perfect solution for how to get my kids to become better, healthier eaters who will stop begging me for cereal three times a day. But I have adopted a few habits over the years that seem to help.
Here are a few things that we do with varying degrees of success:
- I get my kids to participate in gardening so they’ll have an invested interest in eating at least some of the vegetables we grow.
- My kids help meal plan for the week, and they are each asked to design one meal that includes one starch, one protein, and at least one vegetable.
- I take my kids shopping and let them pick out a new fruit or vegetable they’ve never tried before; this makes it feel like a special treat.
- We keep a list of kid-approved foods on hand, and they challenge me to include them in every meal that I prepare.
- We give our kids lots of opportunities to get involved in cooking.
- We say yes to desserts and junk food. Of course, not all of the time, but enough of the time that they know we won’t restrict their favorite foods from their diet.
- I adopted an attitude that it’s not my job to police what they eat; it’s only my job to prepare their food. Suppose my kids choose not to eat, then don’t. If they are hungry but hate the meal I cooked, they can make themselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but they get no dessert.
- We talk about foods all the time. Some foods are for holidays, some are for comfort, some are for fun, and some are for keeping us nourished.
There is no silver bullet to dealing with picky eaters. God, I wish there was one because some days it can be the most challenging aspect of parenting. But with lots of love, compassion, understanding, and flexibility, having a picky eater doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world.