Why are kids such picky eaters, indeed. If you’ve ever sat at the dinner table asking yourself what in the sweet name of Ina Garten is going on with this child, you are not alone. Eating is one of my favorite things! You’d think I’d asked these mutinous littles to clean the bathroom with their own Disney princess toothbrushes instead of enjoying a freshly cooked meal.

Uh, sorry? 

But scratch the surface and picky eating is pretty straightforward. Some of it’s science and some of it’s social. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco suggest a couple of key issues at play: 

  • Some kids are simply born more sensitive to taste, smell and texture. 
  • Others pick up picky eating habits from their parents.

Let’s unpack the second one first since it stings a little. How can this be on me? I don’t love all foods but isn’t that NORMAL? What kind of crazy person “just likes everything”? Take my own no-go list: I don’t eat lamb and veal for reasons of cuteness. Preferences are still allowed, right?


But here’s the hitch: Many families have a whole culture of eating based around the parents’ likes and dislikes whether we realize it or not. If your dad didn’t like tomatoes when you were growing up, chances are you didn’t eat a lot of them either. Ditto for spinach, broccoli, and possibly every ethnic food. That was the case for me! I finally broke the family mold in my twenties and discovered that bell peppers are not, in fact, spicy. They’re crunchy and full of flavor. But guess what? I still can’t get my mom or brother to eat a bell pepper.

That’s culture.

Pressure doesn’t actually help with picky eating

At least as common as culture is the strategy of applying pressure to picky eaters. This usually works right? Kids are begging to watch a movie so I tell them to clean their rooms first. Want to hit the pool? Do your homework, then we can go. Negotiating is a very effective tool!

Except at the table. 

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that “forcing children to eat food they don’t enjoy could spark tension at mealtimes and damage the parent-child relationship.” Healthy foods aren’t actually more important than your relationship (or their relationship with food). And the kicker is, picky eating didn’t seem to affect the kids’ health anyway. Dr. Julie Lumeng, director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development and a physician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, explained: “We found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not.” 

This finding seems to be near universal: Picky eating does not seem to affect kids’ growth. Researchers at Cambridge university also saw that: “There is little evidence (for) a consistent effect of being a picky eater on growth trajectories. There may be a small subgroup of children in whom picky eating does not resolve who might be at risk of thinness during adolescence, or of developing an eating disorder or adult picky eating: these children need to be identified at an early age to enable support, monitoring and advice to be offered to parents.”

The last nail in the high pressure coffin is this note, again from Dr. Mott. “The kids’ picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not.”

So, you COULD turn up the heat for your picky eaters. Bribing, threatening, forcing them to watch that insane clip from “Perfect” where John Travolta hip thrusts his way into their tiny brains forever. True punishment comes in creative forms after all. But it turns out that you’ll just wreck your evening. And maybe your relationship, at least for a while. And for what? Kids’ weight will likely stay the same AND the picky eating certainly won’t change. 

Is biology working against us?

How did we get here anyway? If you have more than one child, chances are they eat differently. My firstborn filled me with hope and promise, allowing me to think, no to really BELIEVE that “I’m great at this! Look at all the foods this child eats.” That’s when my second daughter entered the picture. To smash that bubble. Into tiny, smooshy bits. Really, mash it into the ground. 

That’s because just as some kids have black hair while others have blonde, kids’ perceptions of taste, smell and texture vary. The more sensitive their systems, the more picky they may be. They’re born that way. 

In fact, twenty five percent of the population are actually “supertasters”, people who literally have more taste buds and therefore taste everything much more intensely than the average person. For them, many veggies are simply overwhelming, licorice (or anise flavor) tastes too bitter and cilantro is out of the question. 

Science experiment! Want to find out if you’ve got a super taster in your family? Count the number of fungiform papillae on your family’s tongues. Find some 3-hole punch paper. Use food coloring to dye the tips of your tongues. Lay the punched paper over a solid piece and press your tongue down to see how many bumps fit inside the hole. Average tasters have 15 to 30 fungiform papillae and super tasters have more than 30.

Don’t forget that eating isn’t only about taste. The first time I suggested that our kids pick up barbecued chicken with their hands, they thought I’d lost my mind. “With my hands?” What kind of savage operation was I running here. They hated having sticky fingers and faces. Sometimes food is too hot to the touch, or too cold. It just feels uncomfortable. And of course eating starts with our eyes. Is it colorful? That could be exciting, or terrifying. Will it be crunchy or smooth? Textures are a deal breaker for lots of kids, and they can tell just by looking at their plates.

So why isn’t dessert ever a problem for picky eaters?

Kids are also hardwired to want sugar and fat. We all are! Some scientists note that breast milk contains high levels of both and perhaps that connection is made early on in our brains. But there’s definitely a pleasure pathway for our whole lives: when we eat sugar and fat, it tastes good AND our brain releases serotonin, the same pleasure chemical you get when someone hugs you. 

Sweet foods are linked to the reward pathways in the brain. No wonder a cookie tastes so good after a hard day! Plus, stress makes your body crank out more cortisol, and guess what this hormone does? It makes you feel hungry.

Our bodies are made the way they are, even when they’re three feet high. The reasons kids eat the way they do are multifaceted: 

  • Family food culture sets the tone
  • Pressure to eat typically backfires
  • Kids are born with sensitive taste buds and may even be supertasters
  • We eat with our eyes and nose first: color, texture and presentation count
  • Sugar and fat are biological superstars, sending pleasure messages from the brain

But the best news is that picky eaters don’t face health consequences down the line. At worst, picky eating is a present-day pain. 

Want help? Here is my best advice at keeping the peace AND helping kids experience a range of delicious foods as a family:

  • 10 ways to introduce veggies to veggie-phobes
  • Tired of kids complaining about dinner? Try these 4 game changers
  • 10 tips for helping picky kids enjoy healthy foods

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