Mealtime Wars: Fighting with a Picky Eater

Published on Psychology Today

With Thanksgiving around the corner, many of us have food on the mind. And I love food. I love going out for food, I love staying in for food, I love breakfast foods, I love lunch foods, I love dinner foods, and I especially love dessert. Mealtimes have always been a relaxing time where I can unwind, talk about my day, and eat some good food. That is, until I had two kids. Nowadays, approaching mealtimes is like walking onto a battlefield, where you don’t know whether you’ll be facing a little friendly fire, or a bloody brawl. On some days, my kids will eat anything I put in front of them—broccoli, salmon, sushi, or Pad Thai. But on others, they refuse absolutely everything, including the chicken nuggets, spaghetti, or hot dogs that they’ve happily scarfed down a million times before. And I consider myself lucky; I have friends whose kids will only eat carbs like crackers and pasta, reject all fruits and vegetables, or will only accept peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches (on white bread or a mini bagel) for all three meals.

To some extent, picky eating is just a normal part of growing up, even though it drives parents crazy (Gaylord, 2004). But although there aren’t necessarily long-term consequences of picky eating, picky eaters do tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and have fewer vitamins, minerals, and fiber in their diets than do other kids (Taylor et al., 2015). In fact, according to a recent survey of over 2600 children, the number of fruits and vegetables that toddlers typically eat in the United States is less than the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of at least one serving per meal. In fact, more than 20% of 1- and 2-years-olds don’t eat a single fruit or vegetable on a given day (Roess et al., 2018).

What is the parent of a picky eater to do (besides lose their mind)?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (and again, and again)

It’s easy to get frustrated when you spend lots of time and energy making something new and delicious for your kids, and after one look, their reaction is “yuck, I’m not eating that.” But while trying new things might be exciting for adults, children tend to prefer the familiar, especially when it comes to food. In fact, one study showed that kids between the ages of 2 and 5 need to try a new food 8 to 10 times before they decide that they like it. In the study, researchers gave children a new food 20, 15, 10, 5, or 2 times during a 26-day period. The researchers found that the more times children were exposed to the food, the more likely they were to eat it when given a choice (Birch & Marlin, 1982). This suggests that kids might need to try a new food over and over again before deciding that they like it.

Repetition with food also makes kids more likely to accept similar foods more quickly. For example, after giving babies a variety of fruits between meals, researchers found that they were more likely to accept a new fruit (in this case pears) on the very first try. The same was true for vegetables—after exposing babies to a variety of vegetables over the course of several days, babies were more likely to accept new ones, including green beans, carrots, and spinach (Mennella et al., 2008).

Why does repetition work? Researchers think that over time, children will associate a particular food with feeling full and satisfied, and slowly learn to like it (Mennella et al., 2020). According to this logic, researchers have also found that teaching kids to associate a new food with something they already like makes children more likely to eat the new food. For example, researchers gave one group of infants green beans over the course of several days, and a second group of infants green beans and peaches (which most infants really like). Thy found that while all infants were more likely to eat the green beans after repeated exposures, the ones who were fed green beans followed by peaches seemed to enjoy the green beans more, making fewer facial expressions of distaste during feeding (Forestell & Mennella, 2007).

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t give up after our kids reject a new food. Trying a new food over and over again might be the key to get kids to finally developing a taste for it, and might even make them more accepting of other new foods as well.

Variety is the spice of life

Besides repetition, offering children a variety of food makes them more likely to accept new ones. One group of researchers, for example, fed one group of infants carrots, a second group of infants potatoes, and a third group of infants a variety of vegetables, all for 12 days. At the end of the 12-day period, the infants were offered both carrots and chicken (which was a brand-new food). Infants who were given a variety of vegetables ate more of the chicken at the end of the study and ate just many carrots as the infants who were fed only carrots repeatedly (Gerrish & Mennella 2001).

This suggests that mixing it up can be a good thing, and while your kids might reject the new things you offer them at first, after a while, the variety might teach them to be flexible and more adventurous with their eating.

The early bird eats the worm

The earliest experiences children have with food shape their taste preferences over time, so the sooner you can introduce them to a variety of foods, the better. In fact, by the seventh month of pregnancy, a fetus can smell and taste flavors from its mother’s food in the amniotic fluid surrounding it, and develops preferences for the tastes and smells that are most common. For example, newborns of mothers who are fed foods that have the distinct taste of black licorice prefer the smell of black licorice to other smells after they are born. Not surprisingly, other infants whose mothers didn’t eat black licorice were more likely to turn away from this strong scent after they were born (Schaal, Marlier, & Soussignan, 2000). Similarly, infants of mothers who drink carrot juice while breastfeeding develop a preference for carrot-flavored cereal, which other infants tend to reject (Mennella, Jagnow, & Beauchamp, 2001).

This suggests that both fetuses and infants that are nursing can taste what their mothers eat and learn to prefer those familiar tastes rather quickly. And while 2- to 5-year-olds might need 8-10 exposures to decide that they like a new food (as we discussed above), infants need far fewer exposures to accept something new. In fact, they may only need a single tasting to significantly increase their willingness to eat a new food (Birch et al., 1998). So, start introducing your children to a variety of foods as early as possible, when they are more likely to accept them, which might set the stage for the development of a more flexible palette.

Model good habits

It’s important to remember that as children get older, feeding morphs into eating, and meals become a social experience. At this point, children will often look to others to help them decide which foods they should accept and which ones they should reject. In fact, children are most likely to accept new foods that they see their loved ones eating (Mennella et al., 2020). On top of that, children who watch their parents display picky eating habits are most likely to develop picky eating habits themselves (Hafstad, Abebe, Torgersen, & von Soest, 2013). In this way, what you eat can play an important role in what your child will and won’t eat. On top of that, the types of foods parents have at home and make available to their children tend to be the types of foods that children prefer (Ventura & Worobey, 2013). This means that modeling good eating habits and having healthy foods readily available at home is important.

Don’t force it

Children with eating problems oftentimes have parents who try to force them to eat (Sanders, Patel, LeGrice, & Shepherd, 1993), and strict parental control over mealtimes can lead to negative behaviors like overeating (Gaylord, 2004). Further, children who are forced to eat may not learn to use their own hunger signals to adjust their portion size, which could eventually lead to problems like obesity (Birch & Fisher, 1998).

So, as much as you might want to, don’t force it. By 4 months of age, infants start to regulate how much they’re eating. This means that they can take signals from their own bodies about when they are hungry and when they are full, and they aren’t going to starve themselves.

Relax and try to have fun

Finally, mealtimes should be a fun time for families to get together to enjoy each other’s company. So, try not to stress, or play the role of a short-order cook; it’s fine to just offer your child a few foods at dinnertime, some new, some old, and eat together in a relaxed friendly environment (Satter, 2000). If you child doesn’t eat that much in one sitting, there isn’t necessarily a reason to worry; children (especially toddlers) have small stomachs and it’s not unusual for them to eat small amounts of food at any one time. And again, don’t get too frustrated if they don’t like that new meatloaf recipe right away either: it could take repeated tastings for them to decide that they like it.

In my house, we took some useful advice from a friend, and require our kids to take one “adventure bite” of all of the foods at our table; after that one adventure bite, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat any more. Sometimes it is one and done, but this rule gets them to try new things, sometimes over and over again, and eventually, they do tend to like most of what we give them. It's also important to remember that the incidence of picky eating behaviors decreases dramatically over time, so although dealing with a picky eater is frustrating, it is usually something most kids will grow out of. Soon enough, they’ll be eating all of their dinner and some of yours, and you’ll be missing the days when your grocery bill was lower, and when you could enjoy a full plate a food all on your own.

Photo by Nate/Flickr


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