Why are kids so picky?

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

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  • 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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420 thoughts on “Why are kids so picky?”

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  1. While there are children with sensory problems of a wide variety, I have also been surprised and dismayed at this trend of “adult/kids food”. My 3 ate what what put in front of them because that was the choice. As a child in the 50’s I was also picky but it ran more to things like I didn’t want the food touching each other and didn’t care for sauces of any kind. Now I eat almost anything, altho I still am not a big fan of cream sauces.

  2. Barbara Shepherd

    I have 3 young grandsons. The middle is 8 and neurodivergent. I put a variety of food out. I once put 4 green beans on his plate. He looked and screamed at them. Just thinking about it cracks me up. He is quite bright, reads and talks fibe. Mainly it’s a food thing. Or doing something different.

  3. I recently saw a children’s menu from the 50s-60s from a local restaurant in my town. The food was the same offered on the adult menu, just smaller portions. A variety of meat, vegetables, and sides were offered. I found it very interesting. It also fascinates me to see school lunch offerings in places like France or Japan. Lots of variety and fresh food.

  4. My opinion is that we cater to the kids because we think they will starve. I remember a story my Mother used to tell us when we were kids. My older brother was picky. He ate bread and the occasional gravy on the bread. My Mom got worried and took him to the doctor. The doctor asked her to write down everything he ate and drank. My Mom wrote things like one bite of this etc. After two weeks, the doctor looked at the list, tore it up, and told my mother, “You’re lucky”. Today, my bother, who is 67 years old, is what I would call a foodie. I never worried about my three. I adopted the policy that sometimes I cook for you and sometimes I cook for your father and me. If they don’t like what is for dinner, they could make themselves a sandwich. Mac n cheese, pizza, chicken nuggets (unless homemade) are very bad for their health.

  5. My son is a picky eater. His dad is a picky eater (but he’s not in the picture). I cook from scratch quite often and he’ll most of the time refuse to try what I make. Even normal kid stuff like cheeseburgers, he won’t try it. ‍♀️ Occasionally I can bribe him.

  6. I think “picky” and unhealthy should not be categorized the same. I have on very picky eater, but he also eats very heathy. He loves salads, roasted veggies, whole grains, and fruit, but we struggle a lot to get him to eat protein. He will eat plain Greek yogurt sweetened with a little maple syrup, and some nut butters. Animal sources of protein and legumes are a challenge. He tends to “snack” all day and we can usually only get a few bites out of protein. So yes, he’s picky, but I wouldn’t say unhealthy. The struggle with a picky eater is humbling and super challenging as a parent.

  7. My philosophy always has been, “He can’t only eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets if I never feed him mac and cheese or chicken nuggets.” It’s worked so far (though we do have mac and cheese from time to time). He’s pickier than he was a few years ago (7 now) but he has salad at dinner every night and is almost always amenable to trying new foods (though he often decides ahead of time that he’s not going to like it, so there’s that). But swiss chard is one of his favorites :)

  8. Cayleen Blackmore

    We have 6 boys, and have noticed that the picky eating seems to hinge on the child, and not just the parents. I have one ‘eat’s everything (but doesn’t really like mushrooms)’ kid, and one ‘small list of foods he might try if there is nothing different about it at all’ kid. And the rest are in between — will eat if encouraged/forced/coerced (the pickiest would rather starve). Always an adventure with kids!

  9. I am not a parent, but I worked at a restaurant. Those kids meals are a waste of money. The children usually only ate 3 bites. For small children, just offer them what the parents are eating. When they are big enough to eat a good amount of a restaurant meal then order from the regular menu.

    There is a study that wealthy children are more adventurous than poor children. Wealthy parents can afford to offer food many times. Poor parents can’t afford to waste food and so will often just buy what they know the child will eat.

  10. This almost seems a non-issue to me. As far as birthday parties and restaurants are concerned, what’s the big deal? Those aren’t the only meals your kids are ever going to eat. So what if a meal doesn’t have complete nutrition once in awhile? Plus, when parents take kids out to restaurants, they are usually more concerned with wasting money on something the kids won’t eat. At home you can tell them, “It’s this or nothing” if you like. Kids will always be picky eaters. You experiment with things and over time you learn what they will or won’t eat. What should be important to you is that they eat something. If it means that for awhile you have to go to a little extra effort making them something they’ll like, well, that’s what being a parent is all about. They will probably outgrow some of their peculiarities. When I was little, I hated kidney beans in my chili. My mother would always put some aside for me without beans. That may not have required much of an effort but she did it for me. Today I love beans in my chili. My own kids have outgrown many of their childhood food dislikes. I say make what they want while trying to make sure they have a good balance and keep trying to get them to try new things.

  11. Tonight with dinner my kids had a side salad – the rejected their whole dinner and opted to only eat the salads sans dressing! It took me a long time to give them salads only to find they love them. I find with eating out I chooses food for them off the adult menu and split it between them. Children’s food should be no different than an adults at a restaurant, just a smaller portion. It’s maddening the kid menu choices.

  12. kellythompson1969@yahoo.com

    I was always a picky eater as a child and now that I am 49 I still am to some extent a picky eater. I seem to have the need for eye appeal and smell before taste. I still have problems eating some vegetables (mostly greens) and love the starchy veggies. I am diabetic and have more control over glucose if I eat (lately) whole foods and non starch anything. I am trying to psych myself up and to try veggies more. Is there some things that are recommended more for picky eaters to try first? I thought about smoothies or omelets but this would be only for breakfast in my mind. Also since I work 12am to 830am 5 days a week I feel I need to get into more whole foods to take to work since I have to eat during my shift (lunch). Side note: I have a bet with my husband that if I can loose 50 of the 80 lbs I need to lose (5′ 0″ and 200 lbs) he would shave off his beard, lob off his long white mop and quit smoking Marijuana. So I am hoping that eating whole foods instead of the overly processed foods that Drs. keep telling me to eat will help in this quest. (Sugar free this, fat free that, etc.). Back to my comment… so if anyone has any suggestions where to start with this semi picky eater would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Kelly Thompson – try roasting your raw vegetables. They are totally different that bland simmered or steamed veggies. Seasonings are the key. Ask your friends/family what tastes good to them.

  13. Our kids eat what we eat. Since they were very small. If we know that they really don’t like it, they only have to eat three small bites, just to make sure that they at least keep trying to taste it. We don’t make a rule of: finish your plate. We do require them to finish their veggies. They are now 11 and 13. The last time they opted for a “children’s menu” at a restaurant must have been at least 3 years ago. They felt grown up when we would ask the restaurant if they could make a smaller portion of a certain dish.
    I have worked in hotels and restaurants for over 20 years. Sometimes I would get young adults who would still only eat fries and chicken nuggets. Sometimes that was even the first question out of the parents’ mouths: can they have the nuggets? I would internally shake my head in sadness. They weren’t even teenagers anymore! It makes me so sad. Because there is a world of flavour and through a meal you can make a journey.
    Of course our kids like sweets, pizza and fries. So do we, once in a while.
    I do count myself lucky that we have the resources to invest, both time and money, in good quality food and to teach the kids that food does not come in a packet from the supermarket, because let’s be honest, real food does take time and crappy, easy food is often cheaper. The amount of money we spend on fruit & veg sometimes amazes me.

  14. I am writing from my own perspective as a reformed picky eater. When I was growing up, I ate the most limited diet. I don’t think I ever ate a vegetable that wasn’t a potato and my mom would even strain the vegetables out of her vegetable soup before I’d eat it. But when I was around 15 years old, a series of experiences led me to turn vegetarian. My mom, imagining an even more limited diet, told me I was on my own and that I could eat what she made or cook for myself. After a rocky few months of frozen pizza and fries, I started to cook for myself. It took a while but I got there. I guess the moral is–it’s never too late!

  15. I think it completely depends on the child. I have one who will try anything, and one who flips out if anything new is put on his plate. Even if I tell him he doesn’t have to eat it, he cannot even stand for it to be on his plate. He is literally terrified of unknown foods. He is very cautious overall, in life, so I think it’s more of a personality thing. There are several green veggies that he will eat so we focus on those and every now and then I’ll try to put something new on his plate. My kids also go to bed hungry if they don’t like dinner – no other options.

  16. Lisa! We would love for you to check out the Award Winning kids menu at Pub Montlake in Seattle, WA! All of the items are whole foods–proteins, vegetables, grains. Kids get to mix and match to make their favorite dinner! The kids love it. The parents can’t believe it! Check it out! Would love to share how this menu was designed, after hearing feedback like yours!

  17. Our 2 year old eats just about everything because we’ve offered her “adult foods” since she came off purées. I’ve deliberately introdiced her to things my family never served growing up so I had to get over my aversions of them later – mushrooms, sardines, sweet potatoes, etc. She’ll eat sauerkraut, wilted spinach, olives, nori rolls, almost anything. One thing I noticed is that when we do have processed foods at home or out and about more than a couple times a week, she starts turning her nose up at real food. So we have to stop serving anything processed for about a week and she’s back to her old self eating like a grown up. Family and friends always tell me they love to watch her eat because shes such a brace little eater. I’m thankful to blogs like this one for getting this kind of information out so I didn’t follow blindly the example of my generation when it came time to start introducing food to our first baby.

  18. Since my oldest son was about 18 months old, we have always had family dinners, and the kids always eat what we eat. They like some meals more than others, but I never make them an alternate meal (other than when we have fish because they truly don’t like that and that’s ok). This has always worked out well. However, my almost six year old recently has become picky! He told me he only likes 4 dinners: hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and burritos. All foods we rarely have. So while I think a lot of it has to do with what you give them and get them used to- I think kids just naturally love those foods.

  19. My daughter eats everything, more or less. She loves broccoli and cauliflower for example and gladly eats things that many adults don’t eat such as liver. We have always served her food with the expectation that she will eat it from when she started eating. Occasionally she does not like the food, in that case I offer something to improve it such as spices or ketchup or I suggest she eats the things she likes on the plate and if she truly hates it (I have only seen that happen with pumpkin) she gets a sandwich.

    My son is still a baby but so far he is doing OK with food. He seems a little more picky than his sister so far but not superpicky.

    I think that pickiness depends on many factors but one part is offering a wide range of food and giving the child at least a chance to like more things. Some are genetically more picky and some are sadly made picky by a poor selection and a bit too much adjustment from the parents. There is a number of kids who won’t eat regardless of what you do but many will if they are given a chance to find out what they actually like.

  20. Maybe we’re just lucky, but our soon to be 2 year old eats anything everything…fruits, veggies, fish, meat, etc. It’s great because she eats the same dinner as us almost every night. When she doesn’t, it’s usually because we’re having something like pizza and we make something healthier for her.

    1. Hopefully that will continue. Our daughter loved all kinds of “unconventional” food such as teriyaki tofu, refried beans and guacamole, hummus etc and at the store she would eat a mushroom while we shopped. This lasted till she was about 5 and her tastes narrowed. She has to eat whatever is for dinner but there is a lot less variety for her breakfast and lunch which I want to change.

  21. Almost out of a lack of time and energy, I never made additional kid-friendly meals for my two little ones. If we ate fish, broccoli and yams for dinner, that was the only option. I use this site a lot for meal inspirations (thanks!!). My doctor said that (most) kids will not starve themselves and if they are hungry enough, they’ll eat. We don’t force the kids to eat, so they have gone to bed hungry. The next morning, though, they’re chowing down on oatmeal!! I’ve made a few flops but because we didn’t set the expectation of another option, the kids do eat most everything. It can be tough but I encourage any new family to do your best to expose kids to a variety of food when they’re little! It’ll pay off and (hopefully) save you time and energy not making extra meals!

  22. We have 3 very picky eaters. One is diagnosed with an eating disorder so that is on a totally different spectrum. My youngest eats a decent variety but I tend to stick with traditional kid foods. My middle is SUPER picky and only eats very few things. I tend to cater to him and cook/purchase only the things I know he will eat. I do this as a way to ensure he actually gets some nutrition. But, I am starting to see it get worse and I truly believe it is my fault for continuing to “feed” his preferences. I’m curious if during your journey if you ever caved in and offered favorites alongside new food to ensure some food intake? My youngest screams if anything is even close to his plate – much less on it – that is not his favorite foods. Interested in your method or approach on shifting the kids to a greater variety of foods during mealtimes.

  23. With your youngest did you make her try a bite of everything you cooked or did you just put it on her plate? My 3 year old used to eat everything including fish and salad but not she’s leery of anything that looks different. Thank you for sharing.

  24. My husband and 3 boys are all at least a little picky (and I’m SO not picky). Unfortunately, they all dislike different things, so pleasing everyone at any given meal is near impossible. We have a solid you-win-some, you-lose-some philosophy here. I’m not a short order cook, so some dinners will be your favorite meal ever and others, notsomuch. Sorry about your luck.

    The biggest obstacle with my children seems to be the power of suggestion. My oldest is probably the pickiest and his brothers constantly emulate him. This is not helpful. I’ve begged him to use his powers for good, but as hard as he tries to play along, he can still be pretty transparent with his disdain.

    I have always found that when my kids play an active role in the selection, harvest or purchase, and/or preparation of the food, they are much, much more inclined to eat it…even things they normally “don’t like.” One of their favorite meals is my “salad bar.” I put all sorts of veggies, fruits, nuts, & cheeses out on the middle of the table and let them have at it. While it’s a bit of a pain to prep, watching them eat giant bowls of good food (happily!) makes me suck it up and do the work once every week or two. Plus, the leftovers always make a great pre-made salad for lunch the next day!

    My overall approach to the food battle is this: As I said, I am not a short-order cook, so there will be no special “side” meals at our table (nope, not even for guests). However, I offer plenty of options at each meal so there should be something for everyone. I refuse to buy into the I’ll-only-eat-dino-chicken mindset, but I do have a tolerance for a REASONABLE amount of food aversions. I love all but about 4 foods on the planet, but yes, I still have foods I would refuse to put in my mouth. So I can’t expect a child to be any different. All I ask of my diners is that they try it before they deny it…and then retry it down the road every so often, just in case. I’ve trained my kids to expect that their tastes will change throughout their lives.

  25. Exposure at a young age? I gave both of my kids safe versions of adult food from day one (avocados, tofu, salmon, cheese, veggie burgers, etc) in addition to the standard kiddo foods. Both went through stages of being more or less adventurous, but overall both will try new foods easily. They definitely aren’t picky. Finicky (like it today but not tomorrow!), but not picky. One is more adventurous (she just tried raw sushi this week) but she’s also older. I also found that foods come in and out of favor, like avocados which are currently back in style at our house. The 10 day food challenge from this site was really helpful last year when things were off track. They chose all the foods they would include that fit the challenge, they made a chart, checked off each day they succeeded, and earned a prize at the end IF they made 7 days in a row. They were into it and now have a taste for whole wheat cookies and pancakes, healthy snacks like hummus and homemade pita chips, and get that processed food is ok in moderation. Of course they will always choose mac n cheese over anything, but they will eat salmon, swordfish, and other healthy options if that’s what’s available. And the 8 year old actually begs for salmon. She has to get at least a 1/2 pound for herself or no one else gets any.

  26. We recently ate at a restaurant that offered adult meals in kid size portions. I really think that all restaurants should do this. My kids are 6,5,&3 and prefer to eat real food when we are out. Most kids meal choices are what I offer them for lunches everyday, not dinner.

  27. I am trying to get my son to be open to new foods. He is five and has been dx with failer to thrive with high cholesteral. He’s not overweight at all. It’s hard to find things he likes other then chicken nugets. I like Denny’s kids meal they can get salad grapes goldfish and lots of other sides besides fries. I really wish they would offer grilled chicken options like chickflia at other places. When your childs on special diet there are limited options.

  28. What a great post! Also love some of the comments. I have read it takes kids 15+ times of being exposed to a food to try it sometimes. Yes I said 15 or even more. So keep trying. If you give them what you eat (or even a deconstructed version) than its less work for you and eventually hopefully you will see some progress. Also let them play w their food. It’s a first step to trying it. And we instituted “bite club” at our house. When it’s a new food and people are reluctant to try it we will pull out bite club rules. Everyone needs to at least try a bite. Make sure you allow them to spit it out! And no seconds of anything else until they try it. We try to make it fun and we all partake. Part of raising health eaters is bringing them w on your journey! We are a work in progress w my 3 yr old. My 2 yr old is in. She’ll eat it all. Let’s hope we can keep that momentum going!!

  29. I have one picky eater since he started eating table food as a baby. He is 7 years old now and still won’t eat what the rest of us will, we offer and try to get him to try a bite but he won’t. He loves all the food that isn’t great for you. He mainly eats meat, PB, cereal, and my casseroles. He will eat some veggies like corn and absolutely will not touch any fruit what so ever. I can’t even get him to sample smoothies or yogurt. He won’t eat cheese unless melted on a pizza. We eat healthy and healthier now and it’s getting harder for him as he seems to be hungry as I have removed processed foods and snacks from the house over the last 3 years. We offer more fresh fruits and veggies vs the goldfish and cheeze-its type foods. I have a 2 year old who enjoys food and wants to eat what I am eating….so I am like wow! All my kids, except the youngest were picky eaters and I fell into some bad habits with 2nd child since he was so picky, but have started realizing we can’t keep catering to him. I have a 4 year old who will pick up some bad eating habits from the 7 year old, especially if it’s a new food. I know he would love the food if he would just try one bite. I have two semi picky eaters, one extremely picky eater, and 1 good eater. My 9 year old use to be picky about some foods, but she loves a good salad, fruits and veggies, but she also loves processed foods. We have been teaching her about what is good and what foods are bad so she knows and can make those educated choices as she grows. My 7 year old still doesn’t get it, he would rather go to McDonalds and eat….which we no longer eat fast food on road trips. I have a list of places we can stop for food now or we pack our own.

  30. I never did offer my daughter a “kid’s menu” from day one, so she didn’t ever develop that palate. We’re foodies so we just couldn’t offer her junk while we eat fabulously. My kid was the only one ordering tomato basil mozzarella open face sandwiches while the others ate chicken tenders. In my experience, you can’t make a big deal of these things, just be nonchalant about ordering real food.

  31. I am equally frustrated by kids menus! But I try to steer them towards thugs that are also on the adult menu – and they are just getting a smaller portion for cheap.

    I offer my kids salad all the time – we eat salad almost every night. They ignore it – every time. It’s been several months – even years. I’m amazed that your daughter tried it after a couple months! So, you’re doing something else right that I am unable to do!