Where Do Picky Kids Come From? It May Be in the Genes…Or, Not

I read this article in the New York Times last night, and I thought it was interesting. Apparently, a research team, led by Dr. Lucy Cook, an epidemiologist at University College in London, has determined that most children who are picky eaters come by their neophobia (fear of new foods) honestly: through their genes. Apparently, the team is the first to use a standard scale to determine what portion of neophobia comes from genetics and environment, and their findings indicate that it is 78% genetics, and 22% environmental factors.

Of course, the New York times piece doesn’t go into the methodology that the research team used to come up with these numbers, and I would be interested to hear about them; I know that most journalists would consider such things to be only so much gobbledygook that the average reader cannot fathom, but in truth, one cannot really intelligently evaluate the possible validity of the research without understanding how the data was gathered.

And what, exactly, does the research team mean by “environment?” Do they mean the home environment, including what the parents eat, how they present foods, both new and known, to their children, and what sorts of mealtime rituals are followed? Do they investigate how much television the children watch? What about the parents’ shopping habits? What about their habits in regards to dining out?

Without knowing any of this, I cannot intelligently evaluate how much of the team’s data I am willing to believe is possibly true, much less how much of it is probable.

I do know that the examples given in the Times article sounded much more like cases of environmental issues, than genetics. One set of parents profiled in the article even changed their vacation plans in order to accommodate their eleven year-old child’s eating preferences. Another set of parents allow their five year old kid to eat nothing but noodles, and pizza crust without sauce or cheese.

These cases sound more like kids being spoiled by indulgent parents than cases of a genetic predisposition. That genetic component may well be active in these cases, but the ways in which the genetic predisposition is being dealt with is dysfunctional, and has led, at least in the former case, to a dysfunctional family dynamic.

I know that a typical period of pickiness in children starts after the age of two, and lasts until the kid is four or five; this is a typical pattern which is believed to be evolutionarily advantageous. Neophobia keeps newly independent (meaning not attached to Mom, Grandma, Auntie or Big Sister) kids running about on their own from picking up just any old plant, dead animal, rock or tree bit and putting it into their mouths. This keeps them from eating environmental poisons such as mushrooms, berries, toads and the like, while also helping them to avoid choking hazards. This behavioral phase tends to end when a kid is old enough to know what is safe to eat and what is not.

However, when a fifth grader refuses to eat any meat other than frozen chicken nuggets from the grocery store, there is something other than genetic and evolutionary neophobia going on.

Let’s put it this way–if the kid didn’t know that chicken nuggets existed in the first place, she wouldn’t be eating them, now would she?

In other words, her parents had to have put them in front of her as an acceptable food at some point, or else she would not be eating them. The same goes for any junky, highly processed pre-packaged, fat-laden and nutrient deficient foods–if you don’t let a kid eat them int he first place, then they won’t know that they can obsess over them.

In my experience, picky food behaviors in kids are probably related to control issues within the family.

Children have very little control over their lives. That is a simple fact. They have very little autonomy, and when you have a pre-teen kid whose day is micromanaged to the nth degree with school, sports, after school activities and very little free time as tends to be the norm these days, is it any wonder that the child might want to assert his or her independence and autonomy in the only way they have, and in as disruptive a fashion as is possible? Often, about the only real control a child has over his or her environment is in the clothes they wear and the food they eat.

So, should we be surprised that there are a lot of picky kids out there these days in ages long past the generalized picky phase that most kids go through?

Also, we have to take a look at the American myth of “children’s food,” and how advertising has affected our and our children’s perceptions of food.

If you travel to other countries in the world, or even talk to folks from these countries, you will note that there isn’t as much of a cultural concept of a separate class of food which is made expressly for, and marketed toward kids. (This is changing, by the way…some American marketing techniques which target kids as pre-consumers are spreading across the globe.) In Italy and France, for example, you don’t see children’s menus in most restaurants, with foods like hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and french fries taking the place of the food that Mom and Dad are eating. Instead, kids get food from the regular menu, eat it and like it. In India, kids eat spicy foods, though when they first start out, they eat it diluted with yogurt. Thai kids start out eating the less spicy curries and noodle dishes, but eventually gain a taste for chilies, and at a quite early age, begin eating exactly what their parents eat.

So why are American kids so different?

I think it is because culturally, we have all bought into the myth of a separate class of food made specifically for and marketed towards children as being not only appropriate nutritionally, but desirable. Nursing mothers are warned to avoid eating spicy foods, because they may “upset baby’s tummy.” (This is bull right here–none of what I have ever eaten has bothered either of my kids, and frankly, I have heard from plenty of women from all over the world that they never restricted their diet to avoid spices because they were nursing. They are pretty sure American doctors are full of crap–and I agree with them–when it comes to that piece of advice.) Parents are advised to give their kids rice cereal for their first food–which tastes exactly as wonderful as wallpaper paste. After that, babies are expected to advance to pureed, plain vegetables and fruits, with no seasoning whatsoever.

And after that, kids eat finger foods. Cereals, and often, cut up bits of hot dog, bits of processed cheese.

Look–it is simple–if you don’t want your kid to be a hot-dog eating pickypuss, then don’t give them hot dogs in the first damned place. Then, even if the tyke has a genetic propensity toward being a picky eater, they will eat something other than hot dogs, thank god. Hopefully, something more nutritious.

And while you are at it, limit the amount of commercial television you let your kid watch. And if you do let him or her watch it, then watch it with them. Don’t let the children’s food marketers get to your kids while you have your back turned. It is as simple as that. Oh, and don’t even go down the cereal aisle when you have the kid at the grocery store with you, at least not until you can have a rational discussion with them over why you absolutely will not buy them Fruit Loops or Coco Puffs.

The problem with seeing picky eating in children as the result of genetic factors is that it might make parents feel hopeless, and they may give up. Experts quoted in the article warn against this natural reaction and state, “Biology is not destiny. Keep trying.”

Which is sound advice for every parent, in many circumstances.

I guess that the reason I am so skeptical about the genetic factor to a child’s eating habits is that Dr. Lucy Cook started investigating genetic factors because as she states flatly, “I came from a position of not wanting to blame parents.”

That is fine, however, in every instance quoted by the New York Times, and in the blog post I linked to, the kids in the examples may have genetic propensities towards neophobia, but these have been exacerbated by the ways in which the parents have chosen to deal with it.

Genetics do not let parents off the hook. They are not an excuse for instilling bad nutritional habits in kids. They are a factor in children’s food preferences which we parents need to know about and understand, but they are not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that abdicates our parental responsibilities.

My favorite part of the article, though, was the link to a blog, gastrokid. kept by Hugh Garvey, one of the editors of Bon Appetit Magazine, which chronicles his family’s food struggles and triumphs with an omnivorous kid and a picky kid.

His most recent post, Free to be You and Me (with anchovies). Or: Don’t Cook Down to Your Children tells us a very relevant story when it comes to the issue of getting kids to try new things: don’t assume your kids won’t like something and not offer it to them, or worse, offer it to them with the qualifier of “you probably won’t like this, but…” (How many of us heard that as kids? How many of us have said that to a kid, whether ours or someone else’s, in our lives? I know I am just as guilty as probably every other adult reading this blog of having said that at one time or another.)

Hugh had been making pizza with three different flavor zones for his family–one with plain cheese for the picky kid, one with onions and sage for the not picky kid and one with anchovies and red pepper flakes for he and his wife. As he was cleaning up, his kids spied the anchovies, and wanted to know what they were. Dad said, “Salty little fish,” and prepared to put them away. To his surprise, his kids not only insisted on tasting them, they liked them. No, they didn’t like them–they loved them.

He said quite eloquently, “Moral of the story: Even if you think they won’t like something, give them a chance. Don’t cook down to your children. If you do, you might be depriving them of their favorite food, the one they haven’t met yet. I know my kids are anchovy freaks now, and I couldn’t have predicted it.”

I can end with no better words than that–don’t ever cook down to your children. (Or, to anyone else, for that matter.)

40 Comments

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  1. Not unnaturally, I thought of you and your wonderfully omniverous baby when I was reading that article!

    Comment by lucette — October 12, 2007 #

  2. Thank you so much for this reassuring assessment of a needlessly scary article! I was so glad to see that you’d read it, and given the stories about your own adventurous eaters, wondered what you thought of the NY Times scare tactics. “Don’t ever cook-down to your children” – I love it! Thank you.

    Comment by Rose — October 12, 2007 #

  3. I too thought to you while reading this article the other day.

    I wonder if there is a third path (the middle way?). I think what a mother eats while the child is in utero matters. I think it “gets in the blood” as it were.

    And please everyone take this with a grain of salt as I am not a parent, but I think parents can indeed just say no to things. When I was about six my Mom discovered health food. Given that this was the early 70′s a lot of the choices were less than tasty. But my mom is nothing if not stubborn. Out went the twinkies, etc, and in came wierd wheat-germy things and lots of vegies. I remember a few weeks of angst, but after that it was eat that or eat nothing. So I ate that. And except for the wheat germ pie crusts (never did get to like that stuff), I got to tolerate it and now I eat everything. But everything. Oxtail, bring it on. Okra. Sprouts. Chilis. Shrimp with heads (heh heh heh). I don’t know that if this is genetic or environmental or combination. But I do know if Mom had cabved to me then, I’d probably be eating less well today.

    Comment by Diane — October 12, 2007 #

  4. I haven’t read the article in question (you need to pay for it unfortunately, and my university library subsription doesn’t cover that journal) but I found the abstract .

    Based on that, it sounds like they gave parents a questionnaire and used some form of the standard ‘twin methodology’ to measure heritability of their estimate of ‘neophilia’ from the survey.

    This works as follows. It is known that identical twins share 100% of thier DNA, therefore if something is entirely genetic, all identical twins will share the trait with thier twin. Non-identical twins share approximately 50% of thier DNA, the same amount as any other siblings. However they will share as many environmental factors in their upbringing as identical twins.

    This allows you, when you look at a large group of twins (through use of various calculations) to work out how much of the variation is due to genes and how much to things that are not genes – lumped in together under the term ‘environment’. Broadly speaking, things that are ‘environmental’ will be shared (or different) between all twins. But things that differ between non-identical twins but not identical twins must be genetic. Environmental factors could be things like upbringing or what food they encounter, but equally things as subtle as what their mother ate while she was pregnant or the temperature when they were born.

    Now… while this is a standard test and has been shown to work very well, it doesn’t actually mean much unless you know what it is you are measuring! So we’d need to know more about how they measured neophilia to get a better idea about how valid thier conclusions are. I suspect that they were looking at a very specific clinical definition of this, and that it can’t really be extended to ‘fussy eaters’ as the New York Times article does.

    By the way, I entirely agree with what you write regarding that, and I get very frustrated by parents who assume they know what their children will like, or give in to thier unreasonable food demands. I wonder if you’ve heard about interesting study with regards to branding and marketing food at children?

    Anyway, I hope you find that interesting and/or helpful!

    Naomi

    Comment by Ladylark — October 12, 2007 #

  5. Oops, apologies for not closing my html tag properly! Is there a way to fix that?

    Naomi

    Comment by Ladylark — October 12, 2007 #

  6. …And of course I meant neophobia not neophila. Argh!

    Naomi

    Comment by Ladylark — October 12, 2007 #

  7. Great great essay – as always. My brother, sister and I were Navy brats, lived in 17 countries on three continents before I graduated from High School and learned to love food from Japan, the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Europe, Trinidad, Mexico, Brazil, and even good old US southern fried chicken from my grandparents. It would never have occurred to us to refuse what was put on our plates. We loved it all – well, except for me because I still can’t stand oysters or liver. On the other hand, my brother’s girls had the worse eating habits you could imagine as my (former) sister-in-law hated to cook and so served them McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and worse. They are now learning better habits after having horrible cholesterol reports at the age of 20+. Their cholesterol levels are higher than mine and I’m 63.
    Viva good food! Down with junk! Banish cheeze wiz, chicken nuggets and other salty greasy pieces of garbage.

    Comment by Nancy — October 12, 2007 #

  8. Ladylark’s explanation is (scientifically) accurate.

    As an answer to Diane’s question about a “middle way” and your uncertainty about what the researchers considered “environment,” when biologists do gene x environment (genetics and environment) studies, they are simply looking at the differences between their subjects and figuring out what portion is genetic, so “environment” is everything that isn’t genetic. This includes things like “uterine environment” (what the mother was eating while pregnant) or “household environment” (do the parents try to coax them to eat new foods). This type of study does not deal with actually identifying factors that are strong influences in the “environment” portion.

    Comment by autumnmist — October 12, 2007 #

  9. Dear Barbara,
    Boy, did you ever touch on a nerve! I couldn’t agree with you more, and I’m not immersed in raising children.
    I’m at a different stage of life than you; I’m older. I’m 48 and I’ve raised 4 kids. They are now 26, 24, 22, and 20. I raised them in the 80’s. I took great care in what we ate. We cooked together. We ate our meals together.
    (Although, I must confess that things went awry when I was raising 4 teens after my divorce and my ex-husband was in arrears. At that time, we did eat a lot of crap food. I was maxed out on stress and totally broke.)
    However, I think the important word is “we.” We had a lot of fun. I’m very proud that (for the most part) my grown children are good eaters today. Foodies. Food Snobs.
    I am disgusted and amazed when I hear my younger co-workers say, “I don’t cook.” They get carry out each night. They tell me it’s because none of them can agree on one meal. What in the world are they teaching these kids? Dinner at home isn’t choosing from a menu. It’s lazy parenting, in my opinion.
    Maybe I was a hard-ass with my kids but, when the meal was served, that was what you got. If you didn’t want it, then go make yourself a pbj. NOTHING but a pbj. One of my younger co-workers asked, “What if they chose NOT to eat?” Well, then, that child chose not to eat the rest of the night. No snacks, period. One night of zero food does wonders.
    The interesting thing here is that 1 out of 4 of my kids is still picky today. It’s perplexing. I think it might be because you raise each child differently. You gain knowledge and confidence with each child. And gosh darn-it, I did try my best. This particular child was 3 out of 4; so maybe the knowledge and confidence wasn’t the issue. I think you are spot on: it was control.
    Hey, I have a question about making tortillas. I would be most grateful if you would email me. I tried your email, but I must have messed up.
    All the best to you,
    Sue in Kansas

    Comment by Sue — October 12, 2007 #

  10. I agree that it’s possible to have a genetic predisposition to be wary of new foods, but I can’t see there being any genetic predisposition to only eating hot dogs. I don’t think hot dogs have been around long enough for our genes to evolve like that. :-)

    I do think there’s got to be something to how folks present food to their kids. Like… why aren’t there picky kids who refuse to eat anything but broccoli?

    When I was a kid I loved my veggies, by the way, and still do. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I found out veggies were a thing most parents had to beg, bargain, and coerce their kids into eating. Weird.

    Comment by Neohippie — October 12, 2007 #

  11. When my children were little, I used to make a zucchini quiche that my husband and I loved. It had some pretty strong flavours and I didn’t want to turn my children off things like onions. So when I made it, I made Alphagetti (I should be ashamed now) for them and told them that the quiche was for big people. Soon they saw us enjoying it so much that they begged to have some. To this day, all 3 still love the zucchini quiche.

    Comment by Grace — October 12, 2007 #

  12. A huge and hearty AMEN to that is what I say.
    In fact, I teach kids cooking three days a week at a cooking school devoted to just kids.
    You can’t possibly imagine all the quirks, food dislikes, misperceptions, and parental influence these kids come in with.
    The first thing I do is tell them that the rule in my kitchen is everyone must take at least one bite of what they prepare in class. NO EXCEPTIONS.

    A typical menu for my 9-11 year olds over the last few weeks was Piperade, baked cod and potatoes, turkey polpettes with golden raisins and pignoli nuts, lamb with apricots and dates. For the 11-13 year olds chicken with cardamom and cinnamon, carrot pachadi and rice pilau, rigatoni wiht olive lamb ragu and roasted fruits in a cinnamon wine glaze, sauteed chicken with figs and pear clafouti.
    Week after week parents come in amazed that their child would eat these things. Amazed that the child requests to eat it again. In fact I now have parents who call on the day of class to find out what is for dinner that night.
    I always tell them that I refuse to cook down for kids. I follow your same argument that a kid in Japan doesn’t eat sugary cereal for breakfast, in fact they might even have fish for breakfast or that a child in India isn’t afraid of spices.
    I’ve even had some parents come in and say, we don’t eat peppers and onions in our house, could you please omit them from the recipes? Unless there is an allergy or a religious reason to avoid a food I will use it. Guess what, the onion pepper family now eats everything we send home, without a complaint.
    Maybe we can even retrain some adult palettes along the way.
    I refuse to make nuggets, French fries, chocolate chip cookies and pizza – they get enough of that at home or in school – I try hard to challenge their food perceptions every week – it’s an uphill battle, but I feel like I’m winning just a little bit every time i hear them rave about eating some new and different thing.

    Comment by jo — October 13, 2007 #

  13. We had friends come to visit with their children ages 5 and 7 a few years ago. Mom called to make sure that they’d be able to get PBJ’s at all the restaurants (she was pretty sure she would be able to – just wanted to check) When I told her no she almost cancelled the trip, certain her picky children would starve. Amazingly (to her) they had no problem, happily ate what the adults ate and even drank the long-life milk without complaint. The children were, actually, much better than the parents…

    Comment by Katie — October 13, 2007 #

  14. Hmm. I agree that in a lot of cases, the pickiness is exacerbated by the parents. But I’m curious as to what my sister would have to say about the article. She has always been an extremely picky eater, starting from when she was first given solid foods as an infant (my mom, who’d been used to the first two of us who’d eat anything, was very surprised).

    Though she’ll eat more things now than she did as a kid, a lot of foods really do taste bad to her. I think my parents struck the right balance with her. They made her try things, but they wouldn’t force her to eat a whole serving. They wouldn’t fix a special meal for her, but she was allowed to pick and choose from what they’d fixed, and if she absolutely didn’t want anything that the family was having, she was responsible for fixing her own meal, and she still had to eat it with the family. It worked for us.

    (She has two kids now who will eat anything; indeed, she feeds them foods that she doesn’t like herself, and they wolf them down.)

    Comment by Castiron — October 13, 2007 #

  15. Personally, I was kind of relieved to read that enduring pickiness might be largely genetic. I mean, it makes me feel a little better about myself. I wasn’t anti-vegetable growing up nor was I plied with junk– we ate out MAYBE once a month– but I didn’t enjoy food at all. I approached it with trepidation and ate as little of it as possible until I was about 25. I didn’t even like macaroni and cheese! As far as I can tell in retrospect, my mom did everything right, which doesn’t give me much hope should my own children turn out to be as food-averse as I was. Still, at least I’ll know better than to blame my cooking.

    Comment by mdvlist — October 13, 2007 #

  16. quite interesting article. barbara, your articles are really informative,especially on the sociological trends in the western world.

    i’d been quite intrigued by the referance to ‘children’s food,’ and ‘kids’ menu,’ in the western culture, while browsing. sure, baby food do exist in india too. but that’s ‘baby food.’ not children’s menu.

    in kerala, the babies start their solid food generally after six months. for the hindus, solid diet starts only after a ritual ‘choroonu,’ which, translated, literally means ‘having rice,’ conducted usually at some temple when the baby is at first introduced to all the different tastes. its a funny ocasion, to watch the baby’s expression on the first introduction to salt, sweet, sour and others. most of them roar their heads off, but some, like my nephew, gobbles up everything placed on the tongue ! the preferances a baby shows on this ritual is said to point at her future tastes. afterwards, the baby is started on a diet of ‘kurukku,’ which is something like a porridge, mainly of the powder of a variety of sun-dried banana, usually made at homes. then, the baby progresses to ragi porridge, a kind of millet popular in india. ragi is slowly replaced by rice, which is fed generally after mashing up with curd / buttermilk or ghee for lunch. ghee is never fed during nights. slowly, all types of vegetables and dals will start to get mixed in the mashed rice.

    feeding spicy food to small children is not generally encouraged, as ayurveda takes a strong stand against the spicy food. but, if a child develops a taste, it is just seen ok. anyhow, kids are not allowed to have the real hot pickles ! all types of breakfast items like idly, dosa, puttu, appam – everything is given to children, of course, not with the spicy accompaniments. a dash of sugar (mind you, not heaps !) is the most preferred for most kids. but some do move fast and start tasting the spicy curries.

    my five-year-old nephew has an aversion to anything spicy and he just refuses to eat anything that looks chilly-hot ! but, just assure him that the curry has no chillies and he’d happily slurp it away ! he eats idlies, dosa-s, puttu, appam and all other normal breakfast foods. for lunch he eats either rice or chapatis from his lunch box at school. often he gets moong dal curry from the noon-feeding programme at his school. for dinner also, he eats either a little rice, or dosa-s, or a banana or whatever is given to him. though his father’s family are staunch non-vegetarians, he is turning out to be a staunch vegetarian, refusing to eat fish, meat or even egg. he doesn’t yet know what fast food is !

    i’m so happy that his parents have not migrated to the usa and that he’s growing up in kerala !

    Comment by renu — October 14, 2007 #

  17. quite interesting article. barbara, your articles are really informative,especially on the sociological trends in the western world.

    i’d been quite intrigued by the referance to ‘children’s food,’ and ‘kids’ menu,’ in the western culture, while browsing. sure, baby food do exist in india too. but that’s ‘baby food.’ not children’s menu.

    in kerala, the babies start their solid food generally after six months. for the hindus, solid diet starts only after a ritual ‘choroonu,’ which, translated, literally means ‘having rice,’ conducted usually at some temple when the baby is at first introduced to all the different tastes. its a funny ocasion, to watch the baby’s expression on the first introduction to salt, sweet, sour and others. most of them roar their heads off, but some, like my nephew, gobbles up everything placed on the tongue ! the preferances a baby shows on this ritual is said to point at her future tastes. afterwards, the baby is started on a diet of ‘kurukku,’ which is something like a porridge, mainly of the powder of a variety of sun-dried banana, usually made at homes. then, the baby progresses to ragi porridge, a kind of millet popular in india. ragi is slowly replaced by rice, which is fed generally after mashing up with curd / buttermilk or ghee for lunch. ghee is never fed during nights. slowly, all types of vegetables and dals will start to get mixed in the mashed rice.

    feeding spicy food to small children is not generally encouraged, as ayurveda takes a strong stand against the spicy food. but, if a child develops a taste, it is just seen ok. anyhow, kids are not allowed to have the real hot pickles ! all types of breakfast items like idly, dosa, puttu, appam – everything is given to children, of course, not with the spicy accompaniments. a dash of sugar (mind you, not heaps !) is the most preferred for most kids. but some do move fast and start tasting the spicy curries.

    my five-year-old nephew has an aversion to anything spicy and he just refuses to eat anything that looks chilly-hot ! but, just assure him that the curry has no chillies and he’d happily slurp it away ! he eats idlies, dosa-s, puttu, appam and all other normal breakfast foods. for lunch he eats either rice or chapatis from his lunch box at school. often he gets moong dal curry from the noon-feeding programme at his school. for dinner also, he eats either a little rice, or dosa-s, or a banana or whatever is given to him. though his father’s family are staunch non-vegetarians, he is turning out to be a staunch vegetarian, refusing to eat fish, meat or even egg. he doesn’t yet know what fast food is !

    i’m so happy that his parents have not migrated to the usa and that he’s growing up in kerala !

    Comment by renu — October 14, 2007 #

  18. I can’t see there being any genetic predisposition to only eating hot dogs. I don’t think hot dogs have been around long enough for our genes to evolve like that…Like… why aren’t there picky kids who refuse to eat anything but broccoli?

    It makes sense that there could be a genetic predisposition to preferring foods that are full of fat, salt and sugar. Don’t forget that Homo sapiens evolved when these essential nutrients were scarce and hard to get, so there would have been an evolutionary advantage to developing a taste for them.

    Comment by Fernmonkey — October 15, 2007 #

  19. It would be interesting to get more info on the study. For instance, are they screening kids for IBS, lactose intolerance, food allergies, etc.? These have a genetic factor, and have a big impact on how willing kids are to try more foods. As anecdotal evidence, as a child my SO was labeled ‘picky’ because she wouldn’t eat certain foods, and would only try small amounts of new foods. Her mother was puzzled, because she was otherwise adventurous and liked the idea of new foods. With some coaxing, she admitted that certain foods were making her feel sick. Eventually, she was diagnosed with IBS.

    Now she makes ME order new things, and nibbles off my plate. :)

    Comment by Miome — October 15, 2007 #

  20. “Let’s put it this way–if the kid didn’t know that chicken nuggets existed in the first place, she wouldn’t be eating them, now would she?”

    Hear hear. We try to avoid feeding our toddler junk on the same theory. Eventually our try-anything toddler will become a preschooler and will likely eat only five things for the next two years. We want those five things to be healthy.

    Comment by Harry — October 15, 2007 #

  21. Barbara, thanks again for the thoughtful and inspiring piece. Far too often, I get impatient with our two year old for refusing to try new foods – or even foods that he hasn’t eaten in a while. This, of course, turns the problem into a power struggle, which is never a good thing. I guess I need to remember all the good things he ate when he was a baby and trust that he’ll come back to it one day if I can just play it cool long enough. And at least I can congratulate myself that most of the foods he will eat are healthy – carrots and cucumbers and pasta and cheese. It could be so much worse!

    (That said, I’m inspired by your stories about Kat and am going to try out curries on his brother before he hits the age of two!!)

    Comment by Meg — October 15, 2007 #

  22. I have a question for the all the parents – how paranoid should I be about my kid being exposed to “bad” food outside the home? I worry that I’m setting a certain example at home, but what if he ends up liking the garbage he gets at a friend’s house better?

    Comment by Rose — October 15, 2007 #

  23. Rose, I would try to be as relaxed as possible. When I mentioned on my blog that our two year old was given cola at the nursery when it was the birthday of one of the children I got a lot of outraged comments and people surprised that I didn’t go ballistic with the assistants. But you know he has never asked for it again.

    What your child eats at home and sees you eating will ultimately make much more of an impression on him than what he gets occasionally outside the home. We have friends here in France who told us that whenever they visit the UK (dad is English) the kids refuse to eat the children’s meals there. Because they were not brought up on a diet of fish fingers, chips and chicken nuggets, they think they are disgusting! I echo Barbara (echoing the author): don’t cook down to your kids and they will surprise you!

    One other thought: a wise friend of mine once told me that she always tells her kids that there are different rules for home and other people’s houses. It’s not a bad thing for kids to understand this idea – both in terms of food and behaviour.

    Comment by Meg — October 16, 2007 #

  24. Great article, and a reasonable response to a suspect study. This is an issue that has been on my mind recently, as I am pregnant and do not want to go down the road of fixing multiple meals every night to please a picky eater. My mother-in-law is one of the pickiest eaters I have ever met — she won’t even eat potatoes — and she claims it was because she was force-fed those foods as a child. So she cooked mutliple meals, very limited, but my husband has become a fairly open-minded eater. On the other hand, my father was an amateur gourmet cook and we always had a lot of variety, and I have a very broad palate. So I guess some balance has to be struck between not forcing kids to eat foods they’re not ready to try but also not limiting their choices artificially.

    You gave me a lot of “food for thought,” ha ha.

    Comment by Shannon — October 16, 2007 #

  25. First of all, I want to thank reader Matthiew, who sent me a link to the full text of the study, which of course, gives the methodology used to determine the percentage of genetic component and environmental component in picky eating behaviors.

    The scientists used identical twins–who have the exact same genetic make-up–to help them determine the genetic components to neophobia. If I had thought hard about it when I read the article, I would have realized that must be how they did it–twins studies is how most gene studies are done on humans.

    Ladylark pointed this out in her excellent comment–thank you, Naomi. I know that there are some studies ongoing on the issue of food marketing to children, and there have been some done, but I cannot put my hand to them right now. But there is some research out there on that subject.

    I also want to thank autumnmist, who pointed out that when scientists study genes vs. environment–they don’t define environment as anything else other than “not genetic.” In other words, what cannot be explained by genetic factors (ie–one twin exhibits neophobic behavior and the other does not) is explained as being caused by environmental factors.

    That said, I think that what threw me for a loop was that while the article was supposedly about the genetic component to neophobia, all of the examples given in the article, and in the blog post on the CBS News website involved kids families who exhibited dysfunctional food dynamics in action.

    This makes for a somewhat contradictory, confusing article to parse, even for a fairly educated reader. That is the fault of the journalist, not the reader or the scientists.

    I think that the study is interesting, but what I find even more interesting is this–if most of neophilic behavior can be put down to genes, how do you work with that genetic tendency in a way such that the environment works against that tendency? In other words, how do you avoid a perfect storm?

    Maybe I should write another post about this, huh? Because I am rather going on about it here….

    Anyway, I have some specific comments to all of the folks who had lots of great things to say here…so here goes!

    Diane–I am certain that what a mother eats while pregnant–and while breastfeeding, if she does that–matters immensely. This is my gut feeling, now–but it is also based on my experiences and the experiences of other women and their kids.

    As you know, I did not restrict my food intake at all when pregnant, except to avoid really dangerous foods like mercury laden fish and raw meat and the like. I did have trouble eating meat, which is weird–so I made up for it by eating lots of beans, peanut butter, nuts, cheese, yogurt and milk. And I avoided bitter melon, because it causes uterine contractions. But other than that, I ate Sichuan, Hunan, Northern and Southern Indian foods, Mexican foods and Louisiana delta foods–all of them spicy and fiery in the extreme.

    I did this when I was pregnant with Morganna, too. And when I breastfed both of them, I ate what I eat–including bitter melon, and let me tell you–Kat took to it like a duck to water. Loves the taste of bitter melon. Morganna as a child adored garlic. She could eat it raw, and used to run around sniffing a head of it, because she liked the smell so much.

    You are right–that is an environmental factor which is understudied.

    And yes–sometimes I think that parents cave in too easily these days on issues of food. My Mom was stubborn, and it never broke my will as some parents worry–I just learned to eat what is on my plate, if not because I liked it, then to be polite to the cook.

    Nancy–I am pretty sure that there is a difference in child rearing culture these days than there was when you and I and plenty of other middle-aged folks were kids. Most middle to upper class parents and many working class parents are less authoritarian than they used to be–which in some ways is quite good. In the case of food–I think–not so good.

    Sue–I agree that with many kids, a night or two of being hungry does wonders for an incipient case of “I don’t want to eat that!” It doesn’t work with all kids, but with many, it does. It worked on my cousins, that is for certain.

    I will admit that my Mom, with some dishes, would make me a variant as an alternative. She and Dad used to eat hamburger gravy–it is like sausage gravy with milk, but nearly tasteless, because of course, sausage has flavor–over mashed potatoes. The lumpy meat in the tasteless gravy over smooth mashed potatoes would make me gag every time. To the point that I would actually vomit–and I am not a vomiting sort. So, when they wanted that for dinner, she would take out a bit of hamburger and fry a separate patty for me, and I would have mine beside the mashed potatoes, with ketchup, and we were all happy.

    Some flexibility in parenting is necessary, but the idea of making separate meals is taking the idea of flexibility way too far.

    Neohippie–or a genetic predisposition to only eating white foods. Or brown foods. Or foods with ketchup on them. Or whatever. That sort of completely arbitrary and irrational demand seems more akin to a power-struggle and a bid for autonomy and control by the kid than anything else. My way of dealing with that would be to figure out how to give the kid more control in a healthy fashion than to allow him or her to become food controlling–a habit which can lead to serious eating disorders later on in life.

    Grace–your comment embodies the admonition to never cook down to your children. Good for you.

    Jo–bless you! Your experiences echo the experiences that the Edible Schoolyard teachers and cooks in Oakland and Berkley have had. Kids say they don’t like something, but when they have grown and harvested and then cooked something, they are more likely to try it and like it.

    There is also the issue that what a kid will not eat for a parent, they will eat for another adult, not only willingly, but gladly. This case is the sort where it is obvious that what is happening is a bad dynamic between the parent and child and the child is trying to assert control.

    My Gram, and Grandma both could get kids to eat just about anything that they asked. And most of us liked whatever it was. Parents were amazed–and it worked not only on grandkids, but other kids–neighbors, and kids they babysat for.

    Gram always said you had to present it the right way and be cleverer than the kid in question. She’d get kids to eat something by eating it herself and making a big deal over how good it was. It always made the kid want her to share. And at first, Gram would act reluctant–play hard to get, as it were–and it would make the kid near about demand to eat it. Then, she’d give them a taste and boom–she’d have them hooked and all that was needed was to reel them in.

    It helped that both of them were great cooks.

    Katie–the children acting better than the parents–this happens quite often in restaurants, for certain. Having waited tables years ago for years–I saw a lot of that. I could get kids to taste stuff their parents swore they would never eat, probably just because I was dressed like an authority figure, and I wasn’t engaged in a power struggle with the kid like the parents were.

    What your experience points to is that often a kid’s food issues are more of a case of family dynamics than anything else.

    Castiron–in cases like that–a genuine dislike, rather than a power struggle–I think your parents did the right thing. I think that if they had been more forceful with her, your sister may have become anorexic or just had such a bad relationship with food that she would not have raised her kids to eat as well as they do. I think that the middle path your parents took was the right one.

    Some kids and adults just genuinely don’t like certain foods. (I don’t much care for brussels sprouts myself, though I will eat them out of politeness.) And they should not be forced to eat large amounts of what makes them physically uncomfortable.

    mdvlist–My husband was much the same as you. He used to barely eat anything. In his growing up years, he basically subsisted on pb&j and sugar cereal with milk. It kept him from starving, though it is a wonder that he didn’t have some sort of nutritional deficiency. He did eat a handful of vegetables by the time I met him, and he always liked beef and some versions of chicken, but hated ham–because he had never had real ham, and most vegetables and seafood.

    He is better now. I cured him, though I think lots of his issue was not just food dislike, but it was a control issue between he and his parents.

    renu–thank you so much for posting–it is good to hear about how things are done elsewhere than in the US. I think it is great that kids in your part of India, are raised to see food in a healthy light and to eat varied things from an early age. Much healthier, I think!

    Fernmonkey–yes, high fat, high sugar foods are ones we are genetically predisposed to prefer–they being lifesavers back in the day when we were hunter-gatherers. But, I think that the point that she was making was that while it may be natural to prefer these types of food, to fixate only on processed versions of them is not likely a genetic but environmental predisposition.

    Otherwise, I agree with you.

    Miome-I think that we should always have our kids checked out when they show such physical aversions. I think you have good communication between your daughter and yourself and that helped you get her the help she needed.

    I am glad it all worked out. But again–it points to the importance of not making a big power struggle out of the food issue, while still not caving in to the kids demands all the time. If you had done that–you may never have found out that your daughter was being made sick by some foods, and she would still be suffering.

    Good job!

    Harry–yep–try and get those five things to be good things!

    Meg–just be chill with the Boy and he will get over the picky phase. Most kids do. They really do. I know that the NY Times article made it seem like most kids don’t, but they do.

    And yes–do try the Baby on curries–and everything else. Kat is amazing. Eats everything so far. I hope she keeps it up, but she may go through her own picky phase. Morganna certainly did, but grew out of it. Now, Morganna emulates her hero Anthony Bourdain and eats everything.

    Rose–I like Meg’s answer. I also think that if you model good food habits, and eat well in the home, the outside influence will be mediated pretty well. I think that if you go out of your way to limit the food advertising your son is subjected to, it will also help. That seems to be what gets a lot of kids today–and I think that if you can avoid as much of that as possible, it will help.

    And here is the thing–once a kid is a bit older, you should let them have a bit of junk. Yes, I think you should–otherwise–it may become forbidden fruit and be even more desired because it is not allowed! Allowing some junk sometimes will also model the good behavior of “everything in moderation.”

    Moderation is what a lot of Americans seem to have problems with.

    Shannon–the mother-in-law probably was forced in a bad way to eat foods she didn’t like. However, when this pickiness persists into adulthood based on issues of control between often now-dead parents and adult kids, I cannot help but think that therapy might not be a bad thing, especially if the issue of food makes her unhappy in any way, or makes her engage in behaviors which are problematic to others. (Some adult picky eaters are the souls of politeness and do not use their pickiness as a weapon to needle others and turn attention on to themselves, while others—well, they do the opposite.)

    Glad to give you food for thought.

    Comment by Barbara — October 16, 2007 #

  26. Thank you to both Meg and Barbara – it helps to hear reassuring stories. I worry that like Shannon’s mother-in-law, if I insist that he finishes everything on his plate, he’ll just wait until he’s 18 to start eating garbage! I know it’s irrational – I was a picky eater, and while I wasn’t forced to starve, I don’t remember my mother making completely different meals for me. If I was hungry, I would eat. Now I love so many things I wouldn’t have touched as a child. Anyhow… sorry for the rambling. Thank you again. :)

    Comment by Rose — October 17, 2007 #

  27. [...] Posted by Shannon on October 17th, 2007 Recently, a study came out that is making a lot of news, which supposedly shows that picky eating in children (and presumably some adults) is genetically inherited and there’s not much parents can do about it, so they might as well give in and make chicken fingers and mac ‘n’ cheese for the little tyrants. This refutation over at Tigers & Strawberries is worthwhile reading because it a) picks apart the study’s logic, b) points out that this is a uniquely American problem, with our cultural tendency to separate “adult” food from “kids’ food”, and c) wonders why children are genetically disposed to prefer frozen, processed chicken fingers over, say, broccoli. Could it be because that’s what they’re being fed? Hmmm. [...]

    Pingback by Picky Eater Discussion « Simply Cooking — October 18, 2007 #

  28. I love this! I was a picky kid when I was growing up…or so I thought. I hated fish. I hated vegetables. I hated chicken. And so on. When my family moved to be closer to my father’s work, and my mom started teaching in a school 45 minutes away instead of doing home day care, my dad started doing the cooking. Wonder of wonders, all kinds of foods became good! Fish was no longer just scrod microwave-steamed with breadcrumbs and diet margarine, it was salmon with a yogurt-dill sauce! Vegetables weren’t just overcooked frozen mixed veggies, there was steamed broccoli with melted cheese, and the peas were tender and sweet instead of mushy and starchy. Chicken wasn’t just baked with paprika, parsley, garlic, and salt, it was stir fried with vegetables and peanuts. My mom’s not a bad cook, but she’s not an inspired one, and didn’t try very hard back then. But my father made me realize that I wasn’t as picky as I thought, because he livened up the dinner table.

    My kids, when I have them, are going to try everything. I hope they’ll like it as much as my man and I do.

    Comment by Laura — October 18, 2007 #

  29. Relevant story (and btw, Barbara, I LOVED your post–my husband and I argued over that article because he thought I was too quick to be suspicious of it–I am going to show him your post): we just moved and switched pediatricians. My 12 mos old just had her 1 yr visit with the new doctor. They asked what stage of food she was on. I said what do you mean? They said you know, which jarred baby food stage? I just stared blankly and said she hasn’t touched that stuff in months, she eats what we eat!

    No wonder we have problems in this country with kids eating healthily and without pickiness!

    Comment by Laura — October 24, 2007 #

  30. [...] I read an interesting post a while ago (Oct 12?! good grief) on Tigers & Strawberries. Barbara wrote about the phenomona of “picky eaters” when it comes to kids. A recent study out of University College in London claims that genetics plays a role in creating picky eaters. Barbara disputes that, arguing that picky eaters are made, not born. [...]

    Pingback by Don’t Cook Down to Yourself « Winnipeg Eats — October 25, 2007 #

  31. Yeah, Laura–I am lucky in that Kat’s pediatrician is thrilled that we are feeding her regular table food, and in fact said that she is pretty sure that Kat has a more varied diet than she herself does!

    But I do think that if you restrict flavors and foods in infancy, and give wee kids only bland foods, that is what they will grow to expect. That is why I love the idea of never cooking down to your kids–something I never did with Morganna and I hope will never happen with Kat.

    It worked well with Morganna–and so far, so good with Kat.

    Comment by Barbara — October 25, 2007 #

  32. Ah yes, the forbidden fruit.

    I’ve heard this many times with friends of mine who are authoritarian in their mealtime practices and absolutely under no circumstances allow certain “treat” or junk foods. Quite a few of them have then had kids who went haywire when let loose in public or at friends’ houses, one child even hoarding candy bars in her room. Control and food can be a dangerous combination. It took me quite a few years to get over my own control issues, but now I’ll eat just about anything.

    A thought I had had in regard to American kids and food issues and the hows and whys….

    In most other countries, the noontime meal is the largest meal, and other meals – in my experience – were more take it or leave it. There was more grazing and less emphasis on three squares with a carb, veggie, and protein. This type of eating seems to extend more naturally from what babies and toddlers do, anyway. Just the fact of trying to get a kid to sit down three times a day for a formal eating session seems like a recipe (pardon the pun) for disaster. Chances are that at one of those times a few times a week, the child will not be hungry – but moms (especially, I think, because of breastfeeding and be a nurturer in avery literal way) are hardwired to get kids to eat, eat, eat. And now is the time to eat, where as there had been feeding on demand before and following natural cues, and so sets up the struggle.

    Just my thoughts, anyway. I have picky eaters, but not the chicken nugget/hot dog variety. One child eats from a limited menu, but it’s a healthy one.

    I don’t quite personally agree with – or rather, in our situation with our kids and personalities – the “eat or go hungry” tactic as it seems to do more harm than good and hasn’t worked to get them to expand. Yet. I have no problem with them eating whole wheat toast or rice or just carrot sticks for dinner. Any small controls I try to put on them and what they put in their body, and they balk, so I’m more hands’ off.

    One note about kids from other countries and being exposed to more flavors, etc. Friends of ours from the Phillipines were over the other night with their kids, and we went out for Mexican food. The kids wouldn’t eat anything off the menu. All they chose to eat was plain rice. So, yes, perhaps more varied in their own diet at home, but I suppose that pickiness can be culturally relative, lol. Also, the pickiest eaters I ever met were a group of Irish exchange students. More meat and potatoes and bread than most Americans I know.

    Comment by jozet — October 26, 2007 #

  33. I had to laugh when I read this post and the comments; I was a ‘picky eater’ but not in the usual way. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s with hippie-wannabe parents, there was rarely candy, soda or junk food in the house and, for a number of years, there was no white bread at all (this is the only ‘junk food’ I really missed). I loved all fruits and most vegetables all through childhood, especially spinach and okra. This frustrated my grandmother during our extended summer visits, since I wouldn’t happily eat much of what she expected (though I developed a long-standing taste for pop-tarts with butter at her house!) – but she adapted. I also confused many waitresses at Chinese restaurants (a favorite) by ordering ‘adult’ dishes; sometimes they’d even ask my mother if I really wanted that, which we both found insulting! In my case, if food preferences were primarily genetic – considering my extended family – I’d prefer bland meat-and-potatoes dishes with the occasional homegrown tomato and fresh corn-on-the-cob.

    Comment by thesoundgirl — December 1, 2007 #

  34. I have a question for Barbara and any other parents out there. When did you feed your child spiced foods? It seems like the books I have read seem to say 1 year or so, but that seems too late? I have no children yet but it has been in the back of my mind for a while now.

    Comment by milgwimper — December 3, 2007 #

  35. Heather–none of your story is surprising in the least.

    Funny, but not surprising. I don’t think it is all genetic, all environment or all individual personality–it is a combination of all three factors that lead to a child’s willingness to try new foods.

    Milgwimper–Morganna started eating regular table food around the age of ten months, but only when her grandparents and father were not around. They had weird ideas about what babies shouldn’t eat.

    Kat, on the other hand, started eating seasoned food pretty much as soon as she started eating solids, because she rejected bland food. Hated it. But whatever I was eating smelled appetizing, so she wanted that.

    So, I started making her pureed versions of regular foods at about the age of six months.

    Lots of people say one year, but I think that is too conservative.

    Comment by Barbara — December 3, 2007 #

  36. Barbara, I just discovered your website so I hope I’m not too late in sounding in on this subject (the fact that the last reply was December 3 makes me think perhaps not).

    I don’t find it difficult to believe that “pickiness” in children is genetic. My two older children (25 and 21) will eat anything and everything, especially my daughter. Then again, neither I nor their father are picky eaters. My youngest son (13), however, has ALWAYS been a picky eater – and so is his father. From the time I started to feed him solid food (and I NEVER gave my kids “baby cereal” – library paste is a more correct description – or other jarred baby foods) he would gag and fuss; it practically took an act of congress to get him to try anything new once he DID take a liking to something. For awhile, I had visions of him as a 32-year-old man who would eat nothing but scrambled eggs, peanut butter and bread (no jelly for this kid for years), cubes of cheddar cheese, hamburger patties, spaghetti (with butter and a little garlic only, thank you) and the occasional banana.

    Needless to say, it’s somewhat better now, although he went through a phase at about 10 years old where he wanted to drown everything in barbecue sauce, which is one of the few condiments he’ll eat – he wouldn’t even eat ketchup until he tried it at a friend’s house (and still in very small amounts). He is expected to try whatever is put in front of him, and if he doesn’t like it, he can fend for himself or not eat at all. As a result, he’ll eat things like Vietnamese pho and pad thai, if he’s allowed to pick the garnishments for them.

    We’ve had one experience, though, that makes me think that there’s an element of the “power struggle” in it all, though. We took him to a Japanese restaurant recently (he’s in to all thinks Japanese these days) and sat at one of the hibachi tables with the knife wielding chef, who tossed vegetable after vegetable on his plate – and he wolfed them down. This is the same kid who, when confronted with a stir-fried or grilled vegetable from Mom, sighs and picks listlessly at it in an attempt to fulfill the “at least try it” rule. When we confronted him with this, he looked me dead in the eye and said “Well, I don’t want to insult the chef.”

    Is he lucky he’s still alive? Oh, yeah…

    Comment by Texpatriate — December 29, 2007 #

  37. That is a great story, Texpatriate. It is amazing how clueless kids can be–and at least in this case it is funny. Just think–some day you can tell the story to his fiance and embarrass him!

    Comment by Barbara — December 30, 2007 #

  38. Just read the newer posts as a result of listing this as part of your year in review.

    My 18 mo old toddler eats a pleasingly wide variety of foods, although it’s hard to tell what she’ll want on any given day. We give her a bit of whatever we’re eating and let her decide if she likes it. It’s our first step to enforcing the Three Rules of Eating In Harry’s House:
    1. You don’t have to like it.
    2. How do you know if you haven’t tried it? (Exceptions granted for, say, known dislike of spicy.)
    3. Feel free to jazz it up; spices on the counter, hot sauces in the fridge.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it works. As a kid I was *really* picky and didn’t eat a great deal either. I remember when I was about 5, sitting in a Chinese restaurant, watching my parents dunk beef in water because I didn’t like the icky sauce. I wonder what I’ll do when confronted by that? Probably make sure my kid tries it and if it’s not a hit, order zir something ze does like. But what if all ze’ll eat is white rice?

    So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we manage a good middle ground between food variety and control issues.

    Comment by Harry — January 9, 2008 #

  39. While I don’t think children should be eating chicken nuggets at every meal, I also don’t agree with everything said. Sometimes people in general, not just kids prefer some foods over others, and don’t particularly like some. I think children are entitled to have opinions about what they eat so long as they are given healthy choices. Children after all do have a more sensitive palatte than adults do and may be turned off by some foods like, broccoli, garlic or onions.

    Comment by kathy — January 23, 2008 #

  40. A very interesting read, thanks, Barbara. I’m just starting to think of solid foods for my 5-month-old, and it’s heartening to read about a common-sense approach to feeding kids, rather than a purely marketing-driven one!

    Comment by kate — April 7, 2008 #

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