A naturally picky eater? There’s no such thing.

Fussy eating may be almost entirely learned, and kids would eat everything from Brussels sprouts to broccoli—if we just gave them a chance


 
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(Lynn Koenig/Getty Images)

(Lynn Koenig/Getty Images)

It’s almost universally believed in the West that kids are picky and won’t eat vegetables or fruit by choice. There’s an industry founded on the premise: the explosion in food packaged in colourful squeezable tubes, the success of books like Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food, which relies on hiding veggies in food like mac and cheese (with cauliflower) and brownies (with carrots and spinach).

Parents often think it’s a fluke—or possibly genetics—that determines how fussy their child’s eating will be. What if pickiness isn’t fate or heredity, though? Award-winning British food writer Bee Wilson, in her meticulously researched new book First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, has found that our tastes are not fixed and unchangeable—rather, they’re almost entirely learned. We say we like potatoes and we dislike beets, but it is, in fact, our earliest experiences with food—even, according to research Wilson cites, the food our mother ate while we were in utero—that starts the process of determining our food preferences.

French researchers who studied the flavour of anise found that the babies of mothers who’d eaten anise while pregnant showed a preference for it by “sticking their tongues out with a licking gesture” when the smell drifted by. Similarly, biopsychologists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that mothers who drank carrot juice while pregnant ended up with kids who preferred the flavour of carrot when they started eating solids. From there, depending on what foods are available to us as children, we continue to eat what we like, and what we like often comes down to what we know.

Research that Wilson cites found that babies from about four to seven months old experience “a window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavour.” But many parents miss it due to exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding. (In Canada, doctors recommend introducing solids around four to six months, but with the emphasis on nursing, many parents may wait until the tail end of that recommended period.) Simply exposing babies to small tastes of vegetables very early on sets them up to be receptive to a wider variety of flavours over time, and results in them liking more foods. Many parents simply assume their toddlers won’t like spinach or okra, or take to spices like cumin or tarragon. In fact, children are highly sensitive to taste—babies and young children have thousands of taste buds, more than adults. The food writer and historian Margaret Visser has written that the presence of taste buds on the insides of young children’s cheeks may actually help explain why kids seem to enjoy stuffing their mouths with food: they are tasting.

This profusion of taste buds can make kids more sensitive, or even resistant, to strong flavours, but being exposed to those foods over time can make them more receptive. Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize this is a stage, and never offer the offending item again.

There is, of course, a genetic component to taste. In the mid-1990s, researchers out of Yale University found that about 25 per cent of people have more taste buds that are more prone to tasting bitter flavours; they coined those people “supertasters.” The rest are nontasters and medium tasters. The interesting thing here, though, is that supertasters, in a great amount of research, don’t automatically end up disliking bitter foods. “When 525 Irish children (aged 7-13) were asked to record their intake and liking of cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli over a three-day period,” Wilson writes, “there were few significant differences between tasters and nontasters.” Rather, it’s culture and environment that mostly contribute to the experience of taste, at times overriding genetics, the researchers found.

We need to recognize that “our tastes follow us around like a comforting shadow,” Wilson says in an interview, and they’re often tied to our personalities. If children’s food habits go unchecked, those picky kids often end up as picky adults. What’s more, we don’t actually believe that our tastes can change: “We’re hugely fatalistic about our eating habits,” she says. It’s this sense that taste is immutable that often halts our dietary efforts.

But Wilson makes a strong argument that we can “relearn the art of eating.” This process doesn’t necessarily start with nutrition, but with taking pleasure in food. There are a myriad ways to build up what we actually like to eat, as the studies Wilson talks about suggest, from taking “tiny tastes” of disliked flavours over time, to reversing the “sex bias in feeding,” where boys get bigger portions at the family dinner table than girls, to enjoying the sensual pleasures of food—Wilson cites an educational food program embraced by Finnish schools that teaches children to experiment with their food “by exploring ingredients with all their senses: the hard crackle of rye crispbread, the soft fuzz of a peach.” The focus is on flavour and texture, and getting “children to know their own authentic tastes,” rather than on eating something because it’s healthy. This way, it doesn’t matter if a child hates blueberries, say, because they might discover they love cranberries, or raspberries. Presenting all berries as “fruit” to be eaten for vitamins, on the other hand, might mean the kid doesn’t touch any of them.

Overwhelmingly the research shows that learning to eat is environmental—so much so “that the stuff we need to change, we can change,” Wilson says. It also starts early in life. So perhaps couples who read and play Beethoven to their babies in utero should add another trick to their routine: downing kale salads and spinach smoothies and any other foods they’d like their children to one day eat.

Update


 

A naturally picky eater? There’s no such thing.

  1. The author of this article must not have kids on.the autism spectrum. Because all kids like mine on the autism spectrum are picky eaters.

    • Ha, I see everyone beat me to the comment. There are enough people on the autism spectrum (1 in 68!) to render this article kind of moot. I had to show up at school to handle lunchtime all the way through elementary school so my daughter wouldn’t waste away. No, she actually *won’t* eat if she gets hungry enough. She’ll go into hypoglycemia and start crawling around on the floor until she shuts down entirely. This is with mild autism, too, not even severe.

  2. This author has no clue what they are saying. I have a child with a Autism Spectrum Disorder and one of the most common issues they have are sensory issues with food. I remember when he was younger he would gag and actually puked once at the sight of normal every day food. This is not uncommon with kids with a sensory processing disorder and kids on the Autism spectrum. I LOVE vegetables and am overall a lover of all healthy food and wanted my son to be the same way. I am lucky if he even attempts to try food out of the few foods he will eat. Some kids do have medical conditions and issues that will make them picky.

  3. I would like to add my voice to the other comments here. My son has sensory processing challenges and despite work with medical experts, thousands of dollars out of pocket to pay for occupational therapy, and trying daily to get him to taste, lick, bite etc selections from those foods that he doesn’t eat (there are 4 things he eats), we have made precious little progress.

    The headline of this article will leave people with assumptions that will further the stereotype and bias against him and us as parents and prevent help for these kids from being made available through the healthcare system.

    I don’t know if the headlines in the article are also statements in the book, but scientific research is almost never so concrete as to conclude that there are only social/environmental determinants to a human development issue. So I suspect that someone here is overstating the science.

    Please do an article on sensory processing and its relationship to eating to balance this article that states as absolute fact something that is utterly contrary to the reality I see daily.

  4. I wouldn’t eat beets as a toddler. Now I realize: duh. they look like blood. Stupid adults.
    I’ve been told that eating chicken is 3x as bad as eating pigs from the prospective of preventing future pandemics. And that this externality is 80x more important than is worrying about nutrition.
    Prince Charles and Mrs. Obama are for organic gardening. This is good, but what is really needed is fake meat and endorsements. I can’t chose what I eat…I can’t chose what I drink…

  5. Ignoring kids on the autism spectrum, not to be mean, but because the article clearly wasn’t aimed at them. I was a picky eater, but I can eat just about anything. Why? Because I had no choice. If I wanted dessert, I ate my vegetables. I’m amazed by the choices kids have in the family meals nowadays, it’s like going to a restaurant. My friends daughter ate nothing but breakfast cereal for a year, she was seriously overweight at the end. She is fine now, eats normal meals, and laughs about it when I bring it up. “If you could get away with only eating your favorite food, wouldn’t you?” Nuff said.

    • Food choices can become a power struggle. My one child was somewhat picky when she was young but I ignored it because I was raised that way. My parents had one picky eater out of many children and their physician told them to ignore it and let him eat what he wanted…that he wouldn’t starve himself. He also outgrew it and he is a very successful adult. He was quite small as a child but he grew up to be a normal size. If I had a child who only wanted to eat junk, I probably wouldn’t buy the stuff. If it isn’t available, one has to pick something else.

  6. I really liked this article… We started with ‘real’ food right from 6 months (no purees or cereals or anything like that), and it’s worked out great. Now the kids do have preferences (for example they prefer meat and dairy — both of which I don’t eat anymore and have drastically reduced for them as well — but the point about what one eats when pregnant sort of rings true>> I did eat a lot of meat, some but not a lot of dairy..), but they always have to eat what the meal is, whether is chickpeas, lentils, broccoli etc, and if they refuse then they just go to bed hungry, which has probably only happened once or twice.

    The article is about “western” kids, it doesn’t mention or address issues related to children with special needs, so I’m not sure why this is even brought up in the comments.

  7. oh yes there is a thing as a naturally picky eater! I have 3 boys and one a picky eater. The other 2 are excellent eaters, one a vegetarian from birth. So it’s NOT my parenting skills this author seeks to point out. My picky eater vomits with textures, and colours are a challenge, he would opt to starve. Sensory processing disorder is very real but this child also has multiple life-threatening allergies. “Stroking the fuzziness of a peach” brought on flamming rashes and swollen lips as a baby. In my view, this sort of ‘pickiness’ is an intelligent natural defence mechanism learned from very negative food experiences. Our GI health is deteriorating from the overuse of antibiotics and our food supply is horrendously tampered with. I am a health worker and also ended up studying nutrition on the side to learn more about food, nutrition. Believe me, i am doing everything i can to raise healthy eaters, improve my own health. Letting my 6mos old mouth raw broccoli too, breastfed…. So tell me how there’s no such thing as a naturally picky eater?

    • I wouldn’t call being a vegetarian an “excellent eater”, they’re missing out on nutrients they need. Growing kids need more protein, what else are they going to make body tissues out of? If they’re vegan that’s even worse.

      • My son who is almost 7 is a vegetarian since birth and his paediatrician considers his diet the healthiest she’s seen and wishes she could direct other parents/kids to his diet. He eats only raw veg and fruit, cereals, rice, smoothies and some legumes. He will eat ice cream but will not eat any meat or junk including pizza, lasagna, hamburgers, fries, etc…While its nice to have my doctor congratulating us on his healthy diet I can honestly say, we had nothing to do with it. Further, I think when claims of picky eater are made we need to realize picky does not necessarily mean bad it just means, won’t eat what is offered.

  8. It isn’t actually a big deal in terms of that “receptive to flavor” period if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. Just eat the foods you want your kiddo to eat later. They’ll pick up flavors in the milk. This is yet one more area where breastfeeding outshines formula-feeding, because formula always tastes the same no matter what Mom’s eating.

    As for all the parents of children with autism chiming in, this may come as a surprise to you, but other kids can have issues growing up too. You can be picky and not have autism. My personal feeling on this, when it comes to kids who don’t have autism, is that they’re being picky about unfamiliar tastes, as this article implies, and their instincts are kicking in. The reason they’re more likely to be picky about vegetables is that veggies will tend to have bitter flavor notes, and bitter = toxins in the wild. This can be overcome, but it will take work.

  9. I love how everyone thinks this article is bogus because their kid is a medical exception to the rule- ya, no Sh!t sherlock! Apparently rules are not valid if an exception can be found for it… Mind blown!

    (Meanwhile in the real world)
    …Yes, there are always exceptions to every rule- but news flash! rules exist because most of the time, with most people- they are applicable, regardless of the exceptions. Exceptions do not negate the rule unless of course so many exceptions are found to actually create a new rule. So yes, unless your child has a diagnostic reason to be picky, (and yes, those exceptions are in the extreme minority- lest they’d be classified as the rule) their pickiness has more to do with their environment than genetics- so suck it up. you may not like it, but it is reality.

    No need to beat yourself up or someone else up because you, or they are an exception. And pointing out the rule is in no way singling out those the rule doesn’t apply to- it is just simply stating what is…And there is no need to make an exhaustive list of every exception every time a rule is explained… And there is certainly no need to get all butt hurt when a rule is explained, and you find yourself outside of it. Because that’s just ridiculous.

    So, now that I’ve explained some of the rules of being a cognitive adult- please, can we all do a better job of adulting?

  10. This article is completely devoid of science, but is trying desperately to masquerade as science.

    • Caroline I call both of these articles rubbish. Why was the one about parenting so focused on forcing kids to eat? There is more to parenting to what is put on the table.

  11. This author is absolutely wrong. Sensory issues do come in to play. This would explain how my middle child is the “picky” one, and the others, whom have been raised in the absolutely same environment will eat salads and kale, heck one even eats sushi. Articles like this do damage, it promotes ignorance and causes narrow minded thinking.

  12. My twins prove this guy wrong. They have been fed the same things since day one (obviously), but one has a healthy appetite and tries new things and the other is super picky-and stubborn enough to starve rather than eat if she doesn’t want it.

  13. So…. Autism…. Sensory Processing Disorders are basically making the article condescending and the Author there of look uninformed.

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