our site once published a post by Denise Cortes, "Picky eaters? I wish...", a brag about what wonderful eaters her kids are. I will admit that I rolled my eyes as I read about the wondrous foods her kids adore (ceviche, salmon, miso soup), and those which they abhor (fries and chicken nuggets). But amongst all eye rolling, the sentence that really stuck in my craw was Denise's analysis of who to blame for picky kids: "Personally, I think it has everything to do with the parent."
Yeah. We know. Speaking for every mom on the receiving end of a withering look or upraised eyebrow from some judgmental beeyotch at another table, we know you do. And it says more about you than about us.
It's a classic parental blind spot: Anything good my kid does is due to my good parenting. It feels great to be all puffed up with righteous pride, but the problem with that logic is that if your kid is a good eater due to your good parenting, my child is a poor eater due to my poor parenting. And I'm here to tell you, it's not necessarily so. Parents of picky eaters do the exact same things you do to get your kids to eat. It just doesn't work for us.
But the parents who got lucky are so high on their own parental effectiveness they spew their judgment everywhere. And since the issue hooks into that peculiarly American anxiety about food and weight, the conversation gets rancorous fast. That's when I hear things like:
Picky kids are spoiled.
Actually, what they may be is unable to help themselves. Research into picky eating shows that picky eating is more related to emotional characteristics like shyness, and that amongst kids known as "food neophobic," about three-quarters of their fear of new foods could be attributed to genetics. Or in other words, Kai is picky as a child cause Mommy was. Not because she fed him nuggets and puffs as a toddler.
His nose may be another problem, since much of what we experience as "taste" is actually smell (plug your nose sometime while you eat, you'll see!). The genes that code for the body's ability to smell are notoriously variable. Some people can smell less: those who think cilantro tastes soapy are probably unable to smell the compounds that give it a fresh, grassy smell to some. Other people smell more: those who complain about beets, catfish, and tilapia tasting muddy or earth are reacting to the smell of geosmin.
Evidence also exists that many picky eaters may actually be physiologically predisposed to the condition, literally tasting and smelling things that others can't. In one relevant study, researchers gave kids aged 5-10 a series of drinks that were various levels of bitter or sweet. The researchers found that the children’s preferences were related to their genotypes at the TAS2R38 locus, a region that controls an individual’s sensitivity to several different bitter-tasting compounds. Kids with at least one copy of the bitter-sensitive allele (part of a gene) were more likely to detect bitterness at low concentrations and preferred sweeter drinks and cereals.
And, here's a real pisser: Kids with the bitter-sensitive genotypes were rated as “more emotional” by their mothers if their mothers possessed only bitter-insensitive alleles. So, that little whiner who drives you crazy with his drama? Might actually have a physiological reason for it.
He's just spoiled, part 2: After all, there are no picky eaters in third wold countries.
Oh, you go home to have dinner with many sub-Saharan Africans, do you? Well, if you did, you'd notice that the meals of poor families in developing countries take the following form: a few starches, a few vegetables, a few sources of protein, all cooked simply and in unvarying, traditional ways.
Kids in Haiti eat millet and yams. Kids in Liberia eat potatoes and rice. Hey, my kid would do great in Liberia!
Finally, the unwillingness of kids to try and enjoy new foods is hardly unique to America, but instead is known across many cultures. It makes good sense from a historical standpoint: for centuries most humans ate only the vegetables, grains, and meat found in their local area. Eating congee for breakfast, tom yum for lunch, and goulash for dinner is an entirely new concept. Evolutionary, one might say, and an evolution that's occurred too quickly for our slow, poky bodies to keep up.
Parents of picky kids are lazy and have given up.
Any parent who's spent 25 minutes convincing a 4-year-old to take a "no thank you" bite would disagree. "Besides," as my friend Gina snarks, "I have to make two meals, one for my picky kid, one for the rest of my family. You only want to make one meal? Who's lazy now?"
All kidding aside, these parents may actually be smart. There's evidence that cajoling young children to eat is actually counterproductive. In general, over the long run, people like a food less (and eat less of it) if they are forced to eat it. Kids who are pressured to eat healthy food actually end up eating more unhealthy snacks. College students who are forced to eat a food as a kid are less likely to eat that food as an adult.
Over time, parental leaning to eat may even convince the kid to protest more. In one 2006 study, researchers gave bowls of soup to preschoolers, and pressured some of them to finish the bowls. Kids who weren't pressured ate more soup and made fewer negative comments. And get this: kids who were regularly compelled to eat more at home were more likely to resist the soup in the first place.
Finally, it's worth noting that you don't know what someone does at home by watching them in a restaurant or when you're visiting for dinner. In public, most parents of picky kids let them go ahead and eat their favorite foods to avoid public fits (and public censure). Don't assume that a kid eating nuggets at the restaurant doesn't get a plate piled high with broccoli when he's home. Just like your kids.
A child will eat if he's hungry enough.
Sure, maybe. And in the meantime, as his blood sugar dips and pressure mounts at the table, he'll be nearly impossible to deal with. You like having battles every single night at the dinner table with a hunger-maddened child? Really? Good on you.
Many picky kids, instead of giving in and eating the hated dinner, get used to waiting for breakfast, with its easy-to-consume bagels and French toast. Some particularly determined (to use a euphemism) parents foil this strategy by forcing kids to sit for hours at the dinner table until they've cleaned their plates, or by putting the dinner plate back in the refrigerator and then presenting it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner until it's consumed.
Paging Mommie Dearest.
You worry too much. They'll grow out of it.
This last one's at least charitable. Many picky eaters do "grow out of it," though researchers believe that the change in tastes between childhood and adulthood is due to natural genetic shifts over time.
Still, many people never outgrow their pickiness. In 2010, Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh launched the first-ever study of adults who suffer from what is now known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). They thought it might be a rare but problematic issue for some adults. But researchers were astonished and overwhelmed when over 40,000 people took the study's online questionnaire.
Duke now includes ARFID in the list of eating disorders it treats, along with more well-known issues like anorexia and bulimia. ARFID, which used to be called "selective eating disorder" or "adult picky eating," was also added to the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. And adults who suffer from ARFID, when they are able to come out to the people they know, or just anonymously online, tell harrowing tales of lifelong exclusion and shame. Sure would be great to stop doing that to people.
So the next time you look over and see some child at a restaurant happily chowing down on pasta with butter without a spinach leaf in sight, give it another thought before you shoot the parents your best holier-than-thou glare. Could be that those parents and that child, are doing the best they can. Your kids eat ceviche and cauliflower? How lucky for you! Congratulate yourself, brag to Grandma, enjoy your dinners – and keep your big advice-giving judgmental mouth otherwise shut.
Related: Raising my own picky eater
Originally published August 24, 2010
Images by Flickr member Leonid Mamchenkov under Creative Commons, iStock
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.