Picky Eaters

Why It's Normal for Children to Be Picky Eaters

Boy eating with a fork and making a face
Boy eating with a fork and making a face. Eric Audras / Getty Images

Coping with a picky eater?

Sure, you could sneak vegetables into your kids' food through stealth tactics.

You could make vegetable animals out of your kids’ food. Or you could bribe or punish them.

All of those are viable strategies that can work. For some kids. Some of the time.

The problem with all of these helpful hints is that none of them addresses the real reason why kids are picky eaters.

The good news is that once you understand the science behind the picky eater syndrome, you can cure it.


Don't Miss: Fruits and Vegetables Quiz for Picky Eaters

Picky Eaters Are Born

The secret is to nurture a child’s developing palate in the same way we nurture their physical, mental and emotional development.

We don’t move a baby from the crib to the top of a bunk bed overnight. And we don’t give a preschooler a ten-speed when he’s just learning how to ride a bike.

The Right Way to Develop a Child's Palate

Why should the development of the palate be any different?

All kids are born with a taste for sweet. That’s probably why breast milk is naturally sweet. But it may take years for kids to develop a taste for sour and bitter foods, like vegetables.

The Deck Is Stacked Against Vegetables for Kids

What’s more, studies show that it is natural for children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, to be wary of new foods in general.

There are very good developmental and biological reasons for this.

For starters, toddlers are just beginning to learn what food is and what it isn’t:

“Oh gee, that plastic telephone I’ve been munching on since I was six months old isn’t food?”

Moreover, they are just learning which foods are safe:

“Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to eat those berries off that bush because the last guy who did that dropped dead of a heart attack.”

Obviously, in today’s western societies, kids aren’t likely to see people keeling over and dying from eating berries off the tree. But they did centuries ago. And apparently, that fear of new foods (scientists call it "food neophobia") is part of our biological makeup.

Why Adults Aren't Picky Eaters: The Solution That Works for Everyone

So how come the majority of adults aren’t still eating only chicken fingers and mac ‘n cheese?

Because we grew to accept new foods, just as we grew to learn how to sleep in big beds and ride ten-speed bikes.

We did it by being repeatedly exposed to new foods.

And we did it by modeling what those around us ate.

Finally, we did it by developing positive associations with new foods. For example, we tried sushi with a group of our best friends at a really fun restaurant and had a blast.

It is my belief that we have to go through one or more of these “growth experiences” for every new food in our diet, before we accept it.

How Long Will It Take?

The number of what I call “growth experiences” differs for each person. But my theory is that every food you now eat as an adult you had to acquire a taste for, through one or more of these methods, before you came to accept it.

On the flip side, when we don’t go through these growth experiences, we don’t acquire a taste for that food.

That means it is your job to guide your picky eater through these growth experiences in much the same way you guide her through learning to walk, read and swim.

Tips for Broadening Your Picky Eaters' Palates

  1. Put broccoli on the table every night for a month.
  2. Don’t force him to eat it. Don’t even suggest he eat it. And whatever you do, don’t judge his reaction when he tastes it (or spits it out, as the case may be).
  3. Just have it there. Let him see you eating it and enjoying it. (If you don’t enjoy it, choose a vegetable you do like. You can’t fake good modeling.)
  4. And finally, make sure the atmosphere at the dinner table is pleasant, light-hearted and calm.

    Don’t expect your five-year-old (or even your 15-year-old) to gobble up that broccoli the first night. But over time, if you keep offering it, avoid forcing him to eat it, and enjoy it yourself, he will come to accept it.

    And who knows? He may even enjoy it.

    For more advice, sign up for my Fruits and Vegetables for Picky Eaters Email Class. You'll discover new strategies for coping with picky eaters, plus dozens of recipes.