Why do kids become picky eaters?
One second, they are putting anything and everything into their mouths. The next, they are turning their noses up at even their most previously cherished snacks. Where did this pint-sized food snob come from?
Starting at around 4 to 6 months old, children become very open to new experiences and will try most any food, said Lucy Cooke of the University College London, who specializes in the development of childhood eating habits.
Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense, the British researcher said. "In theory, everything being offered (an immobile baby) is being offered by their mum or other caregiver and should be safe."
But the baby who loved mushrooms may suddenly hate them (and most other vegetables) once he can get around well. "It is an in-built safety mechanism," Cooke told LiveScience, which likely kept many cave-toddlers alive as they stumbled across potentially poisonous items solo.
A normal part of development, picky eating, if handled well, gradually starts to disappear after the age of 5 for most children, Cooke said. "And there is a lot parents can do to help the process along."
Studies, in both laboratories and natural settings, have shown that the more children are exposed to a food, the more likely they are to like it. For kids, critiquing food is simple: Familiar equals delicious.
Cooke recommends using the window between 4 months and 2 years old to expose children to as many different foods as possible. That way, when the pickiness of toddlerhood sets in, they are retracting from a larger repertoire.
Another trick Cooke refers to as the "magic 10." Many parents give up on a food, assuming their kid hates, say, peas after offering it only two or three times, she said, "but nothing happens to the child's acceptance until they've tried it at least 10 times."
"Children will take an interest in food when their parents do," said Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician, a family therapist and author of "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family" (Kelcy Press, 2008). Making food-related activities a family affair – including cooking, grocery shopping, or visiting a farm or orchard together – can help kids learn to appreciate, and maybe even try, new foods.
Some common "feeding errors" can exacerbate a child's natural pickiness, Satter told LiveScience.
The big no-no is pressuring a child to eat. If a child makes a face or turns her head away from a new food, don't force it. Don't even comment on it, Satter said. Just try again another day.
"If the parents make a fuss, she'll become more finicky," she said.
Offering food rewards, such as "you can have some ice cream if you finish your broccoli," is also a bad idea. Not only does it further raise the status of dessert-like foods (something most kids have no trouble gobbling up), bribes also imply that the food they are being begged to eat must be really bad, Cooke said.
Perhaps instead promise them broccoli if, and only if, they finish their ice cream, Cooke joked.
Tricking a child into eating a hated vegetable by hiding it in a sauce or, worse, a dessert – yes, people make spinach brownies – may not be harmful, but it does little good. "While it gets the vegetable down the child's neck, it is not ideal in teaching a child to enjoy new things," Cooke said.
Becoming a short-order cook, catering to the whims of a child's appetite, is another trap to avoid. "Handing over too much control to a child is not helping her," Cooke said, explaining kids need guidance on how to eat.
In particular, a child should not be taught she needs special kid food. Instead, Satter said, "the child is invited to join in on the parent's meal," where the work of being a family – checking in on one another, helping each other – is carried out over shared food.
If a youngster has trouble staying up until his parent's dinnertime, Satter advises extending, or instituting, an afternoon nap. Cooke, suggesting this is impossible for some, says everyone should at least be eating the same food, if not at the same time. By 2 years old, a child can eat everything an adult can eat, Cooke said.
Divide the responsibility
Many young children eat erratically: all carbs one day, proteins the next, and fruit on day three. When left alone, this tends to naturally work out to a balanced diet overall, scientists have found.
Kids also have an innate ability to judge their own satiety level. Consistently asking a child to clear his plate may override this ability and instead teach him to always eat everything in front of him – something that can be dangerous in today's dining world where portion sizes have become gargantuan, Cooke said.
So how can a parent teach life-long eating skills without interfering with healthy instincts?
"There is a division of responsibility in feeding children," Satter told LiveScience. "The parent does the what, when and where, and the child is responsible for how much and whether."
Satter recommends offering three meals a day, at a table (not on the go), plus sit-down snacks. The child should come to the table hungry enough to be interested in food, but not starving.
At meal times, there should be a selection of foods without it becoming a smorgasbord or buffet situation, she said, describing dinner as one main dish, bread, another starchy food, a fruit and a vegetable. The child then is exposed to everything at the table. Even if he only eats five pieces of bread one night, he has become more familiar with pork chops and carrots.
Being taught proper table behavior is also the parent's responsibility. For example, a child, especially a picky eater, should be taught to say "No, thank you," rather than "Yuck," when offered something they don't like, Satter explained.
She also suggests teaching picky eaters to use a napkin to spit something into if they don't like it, as having a socially acceptable escape route can make it feel safer to try new things.
When to worry
Unless a kid's diet consists entirely of starches, it's probably okay, said Cooke. Many of the vitamins in vegetables can be obtained from fruit, for example. In general, "children will not starve themselves," Cooke said, although it can happen in extreme cases.
"I am far more interested in the child's behavior (at the dinner table), than what he or she eats," Satter said.
If meal times are unpleasant or a child seems truly frightened of new food, these can be indicators that feeding is not going well. In these cases, Satter recommends that parents pay extra attention to the "division of responsibility," agonize less over what the child eats (or does not), and focus on their own eating behavior.
You can't expect your kid to like vegetables, if you don't like vegetables, Cooke concurred. "Setting an example is a massively powerful thing."
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.