Why are kids so picky?

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Can someone please explain at what point in history it was decided that children’s menus would only offer the following?

  • Hamburger/Cheeseburger with French Fries (or Chips)
  • Hot Dog/Corn Dog with French Fries (or Chips)
  • Chicken Fingers with French Fries (or Chips)
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Cheese Pizza
  • Plain Pasta

Sure my kids would gladly devour any of these choices, but I often wonder when it was decided that kids need a special, separate meal in the first place? Since when can’t they just eat what the adults are eating? Has it always been this way? Surely not.

It amazes me when we go to birthday parties and the food served to kids consists of pizza and cake. How is that possibly being passed off as a “complete meal” for our next generation? Where are the fruit and vegetables? When was it decided that kids would only eat a handful of simple (and somewhat bland) foods? I understand that pizza is usually a crowd pleaser, but how and when did things get to be so limited?

How did children end up with such a limited palate?

I too used to be guilty of thinking kids had a very limited palate. Not long after embarking upon our “100 Days of Real Food” pledge it dawned on me that I had never before offered my daughters a salad because…they are kids after all! That is honestly the only reason (other than the fact that we didn’t eat salad all the much in the old days), but I just assumed they wouldn’t be interested because “kids don’t like salads”…right? Well you should have seen how shocked I was when I finally offered my children a salad and saw my older daughter actually eating it. And liking it! It took much longer for my younger daughter to come around, but after lots of repeated exposure she eventually became open to the idea of salad (and more importantly began to expect it as a norm at our family dinners). That was definitely a lesson learned for me.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many kids these days will only eat foods if they look a certain way (i.e. familiar). If there is a variation from the norm then the whole meal could be a flop. Why is that? I’ll never forget this one instance (long before our real food days) when my parents were babysitting my 3-year-old niece. They knew she liked and would eat Kraft Macaroni & Cheese so that was the plan for her dinner. But what they didn’t know was since they bought Kraft “Shells” Macaroni & Cheese instead of the traditional variety that all hell would break loose. Has anyone had a similar experience?

Do your kids willingly try new foods?

It’s no secret that food is a big part of my life and one of the things I am interested in is other people’s food choices. I am curious what choices they make and why. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I am preparing food in the kitchen and I offer my children a bite of something, they almost always take me up on it. Usually it’s something I know they love like a piece of parmesan cheese, a bite of pesto, or a roasted cashew, but I admit I occasionally take advantage of the situation and slip a piece of olive in their mouths just to be sure they still don’t like it. They’ll make a face and spit it out, but thankfully it doesn’t stop them from coming back. :)

I’ve also noticed when I offer other kids a little bite of something as well they are almost always very much against the idea of taking the sample (usually before they even know what it is). Maybe it’s because I am not their mom and they’re scared what that “Organic Miss Lisa” might try to make them eat, but their response is dramatically different than what I am used to with my own children. I bring this up because I am curious about other’s experiences when you offer your own children new foods or bites of what you might be eating. Do they act like it is straight-up poison?

Can a picky eater really be converted?

Our younger daughter used to be extremely picky so I totally get it. It was much easier and much less time consuming (and also much less likely that food would be wasted) if I only offered her what I knew she would eat. I recently came across a document I’d typed up – for the same babysitting grandparents mentioned above – that was a complete list of all the foods my younger daughter would eat (she was 3 at the time). Let me tell you that it was a very short list with a mere 31 items on it including Spaghettio’s, Goldfish, Graham Crackers, only 1 dish containing meat (spaghetti sauce), 5 types of fruit, and only 1 vegetable (frozen peas).

Looking back I am amazed at how far this child has come. She was one of those that would spit out her baby food before she knew it was fun to annoy mommy by not liking anything. Her palate was dramatically different than our older daughter’s from day one. But after two years (since taking our pledge) of repeatedly offering her a variety of different foods she thankfully now has a broader palate than most adults. I will be the first to tell you it has not been easy, and many months passed before any of our efforts started to pay off. But since this is one of my only first-hand examples of watching a child’s eating habits change over time, I wonder if I can really attribute the change in her to something we’ve done or if she would have grown out of that picky phase on her own regardless?

What’s your opinion?

So I’d love to open this up for discussion….what is everyone else’s experience/input on children’s eating habits these days? Why are so many kids so incredibly picky and is it possible to change their preferences? I wonder what it was like a hundred years ago (or even now in other countries)…have kids always been catered to with a limited variety of special, separate meals?? Do we only give kids pizza and hot dogs because that’s all they’ll eat or do they only eat pizza and hot dogs because that’s all we give them? How can we break this cycle?

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337 comments to Why are kids so picky?

  • edyta

    When our son doesn’t like something we tell him to try it at least. We say: “try it you may like it, you can’t say you don’t like it if you never tasted it.” Very often turns that he likes it. Kids need to be also tricked sometimes. Our son didn’t want to eat spinach, but we made up some game and eating spinach turned to be fun. other time he didn’t want to eat spinach again so I told him about the cartoon about Popeye and how strong he was. He immediately started eating it cause he wants to be a strong boy. Sometimes he is very picky though.

  • Mel

    I have found that it is about the parent giving in to the children – something I don’t usually do, but when it comes to food, they got me. My older son (now 7) went from eating everything to beyond picky at 13 months (like only eating rice and crackers.) In my inexperience, I gave in, because I was afraid he would starve. It’s been a very slow process of building up from there, but his food repertoire has expanded a bit. My younger son (now 5) is less picky – he would grab handfuls of food of my plate as a 6 month old and was gumming steak – we just skipped the purees with him. However, he still has his weird quirks. Unfortunately, the likes and dislikes don’t really overlap very much, which makes it difficult to prepare dinner. After short order cooking for a time, I decided enough was enough – HOWEVER, I don’t always have the energy to deal with backlash from child A or child B regarding a food I am serving or a component of food I am serving. I’ve found myself cooking things I know we will ALL eat to save money, energy, and sanity. That’s not the perfect way at all, I became so bored. So now I’m mixing it up again, with uneven results. Last night’s soup went over beautifully with child B (who will eat anything in soup form) but child A had to have leftover pasta because he won’t touch soup with a 10 foot pole. Sigh. So tired….

  • Nancy

    I live in France with my husband (who is French) and it is quite different over here. Children have a natural tendency to start avoiding new flavors or foods when they start walking…it is one of our genetic “living in the forest” protections so that they would not eat something poisonous. They also tend to gravitate toward sweet things, as sweet things were typically not poisonous. That being said, here in France, every parent knows that a child must try something 7 times before saying they don’t like it. At school for our daughter who is 2.5 years old, it is required that she tries everything on her plate. They can not have more servings of meat, but can ask for more servings of fruit and vegetables. The school will not serve sugary sweets/desserts more than 1x a week on the menu. Alas, the entire culture here in France supports “food education” and thus your efforts at home are not thwarted by your child going to school or to play at another child’s home. Additionally, French children are only allowed one snack a day at 4pm in the afternoon…far different than American kids who walk around with plastic baggies filled with crackers all day long. Because children can’t snack, they eat what is on their plate for meals. All that being said, we still have to have patience with our daughter at meal times and constantly teach her to eat all kinds of food. It is work! But just like teaching our children to read, it is something that is essential for their health and future!

  • I know this is an older post – but I just recently came across an article that does suggest the bland baby food we feed to infants can cause them to be picky eaters in the future.


    So interesting!

  • Erika

    My son is 11. He is a very picky eater! And sad to say he will chose not to eat over eating something he thinks he does’t like. I am the mother of 4 children. He is the only picky eater we have. I am just now beginning to change our eating habits as a family, and trying to go more natural and unprocessed. One small step at a time. I am willing to listen to any advice I can get about this. The last time I made him eat what I prepared and not offer him “what he liked” He lost 6 lbs that month:( He was 6 years old. He is one of the smallest children in his 6th grade class.

  • Jen

    I’m open to any and all advice. My son ate EVERYTHING up until 9-12 months. Salmon, shrimp, asparagus, I have pictures of him sucking on a mussel shell. It was my biggest accomplishment. Right around a year, he became extremely picky…. only bland, boring, beige foods. Lots of noodles and carbs and fruit and yogurt. Dinner was very frustrating because he refused most of what we offered him and often I resulted in giving him a pouch or yogurt so I had piece of mind he wasn’t going to bed hungry and I didn’t run the risk of him waking up in the middle of the night. We are SLOWLY coming around. He is offered what we eat. Some days are better than others. Some days he surprises us, as salmon is still a hit most days. But I’d like to introduce the “no thank you bite rule”, and at 2.3 months old, I don’t know how you can make a toddler take a bite of anything he doesn’t want to. So many times I’m CONVINCED he would like something if he would only TRY it and he refuses. I don’t want the dinner table to become a battle ground. So I offer it and strongly encourage it, but don’t have the tools or skills to MAKE him do anything. Last night he had a peanut butter & jelly sandwich right before bed because he barely ate any dinner. I want a good, well rounded eater. And if he doesn’t like something after he tries it, well, that’s one thing.

  • Tracey H.

    I don’t think there is just one answer to that question. I think a combination of things created today’s picky eaters (many of whom are also obese). Parenting styles changed drastically during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Kids were no longer asked to obey, they were given choices. I personally think there is a happy medium with that somewhere but I know a lot of parents don’t. Processed foods became more readily available and marketing to kids became more profitable. More families had two parents working outside of the home and ready-made foods because quicker and easier. Parents started enrolling their kids in EVERYTHING, thereby were not home for dinner and drive-thru fast food became routine. Somewhere in all of that, parents started making separate dinners at home for kids. If mom and dad had chicken breasts, the kids were still fed mac and cheese (it’s “kid food” after all). I was absolutely guilty of this with my first child. I even fed him earlier than my husband and I ate. He had his “kid food” an hour or more before we sat down and enjoyed a real meal. Looking back, I can’t even explain that. Now we have 4 children, ages 7,9,9,12. I cook a healthy meal every night and eating it is not optional. I don’t do family style at the table, I plate their food in the kitchen. We get some push back occasionally about certain vegetables but they would much rather try it and gag then go hungry the rest of the evening. We have one “picky eater”, two kids who will try anything and are polite about things they don’t enjoy, and one child who is overweight and will eat absolutely anything you put in front of her (a whole other kind of struggle). My advice for the parents of picky eaters: limiting snacks has worked well for us. Yes, they are starving after school, but if you are very selective about what they have, they WILL eat what you prepare for dinner. I avoid giving them carbs or processed food for after school snacks and that has really helped our picky one. I guess that was a very long winded way of saying that I think kids are picky because we as parents allow them to be.

  • When my youngest was a toddler, she went through a phase where she wouldn’t sit at the table and eat during meal time. She’d take a few bites and want down. Luckily it was a short lived phase. During that time she would be hungry between meals and I wouldn’t want to her to fill up on junk food, so I made up what I called a “snack plate” I put bite size pieces of meat, cheese, veggies, and fruits on a plate and would leave it sitting on the edge of the table. As she was busy running around and playing, she was able to grab bites of food on the run. As she got older, she LOVED snack plates and learned to sit at the table with the rest of us and eat them. Now she’s 7 and still loves snack plates. I make them for her on a regular basis. I always try to add a few bites of new foods regularly, sometimes she will eat them and sometimes not.
    If we go to restraunts that have salad bar, she will opt for a plate at the salad bar over most anything else that’s on the menu. I just have to be sure to place the food on it in “snack plate” form which means individual plies of veggies, cheese, fruit and meat, or what ever foods are offered at the salad bar. She can be very picky when it comes to eating a lot of cooked foods, like casseroles and etc, but I’m not complaining because she’s always willing to eat a “snack plate” full of fresh veggies, fruits, meat and cheese.

  • helo

    I don’t have kids but I have always wondered this question of why kids only eat these junk foods. I think I have come up with the hypothesis that could be the reason. Kids at a very young age have very sensitive taste buds that are being developed. In America we don’t think twice to start giving our kids foods that are high in sugar and salt at a young age. So their taste buds change really quickly to want this flavor profile only. The amount of dopamine surges in their little brains and this becomes their palate early on. If you give your kid only fruit as their sugar source and then one day give them a candy bar instead, their developing taste buds will change and say to hell with fruit I want that. Normal food to them will become to taste bland and gross compared to the sugar and sodium filled foods most kids are eating. Even most commercial baby food is laced with high amounts of sodium and sugar. I’m not sure of this is the reason why most kids in America eat like crap and are “picky eaters” but to me this makes the most sense. Your thoughts?

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