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Parent Lab: The Tricky Science of Picky Eating

Parent Lab: The Tricky Science of Picky Eating

Childhood mealtimes: where grilled cheese and chicken fingers are their own food group, the only vegetables consumed are the ones hiding in other foods, and too many colors on the plate can be a deal-breaker. Kids and picky eating can go hand-in-hand. While it can be reassuring to know that most finicky eating is perfectly normal—and backed by science!—some parents are just trying to get through the day without the dinner table turning into a debate stage (again…).

Clean Plate Snub

While picky eating (sometimes called “fussy eating”) can be hard to measure, it’s typically thought of as the rejection of all but a small set of foods, resulting in the consumption of an inadequate variety. Sometimes it can also include individuals who don’t eat enough food, despite variety. Kids may object to the taste, smell, or texture of foods, or they might be unwilling to try new ones. Fruits, vegetables, and those with strong textures (soft and mushy or hard and crunchy, depending on the eater) are among the most commonly avoided foods.

Below the surface,picky eating is sometimes genetic—for instance, “supertasters” are those who have more cell receptors on their tongues, and are therefore much more sensitive to the bitterness of certain vegetables or the pain of spicy foods. Since an abundance of cell receptors can be inherited, supertasters can pass on their sensitivity to their kids. On the other hand, it can also just be a child exerting independence and control over their own body. Picky eating is often seen in toddlers and peaks around age 3, but some parents see it persist through early childhood.

New Food, No Way!

One aspect of picky eating can befood neophobia— the reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of new foods. This fear response is actually a normal part of a child's development (normally peaks around 2 years of age) and the majority of children go through this phase. Your child will show this by trying to avoid unfamiliar foods that may have a different color, shape, or texture they are unfamiliar with.

Kids’ brains develop a template based on foods they know they like and will use it to decide—before ever putting a single bite in their mouths—whether or not they should try a new food. If it looks similar to something they like, they’ll probably try it. But if it’s something too unfamiliar, or that looks like something they know they don’t like? That’s likely to be a no-go…at first.

What can you do?

The good news is, positive experiences with the food can begin to gradually change a child’s perspective.

Take your time!
Repeated exposures to new foods—even without tasting them—allows them to be added to the child’s schema of acceptable things to eat. Keep in mind, though, a child might require up to 15 positive exposures to deem a food acceptable, and negative experiences add up too. Even an initial fear of a novel dish can set up a negative association that can take much more exposure to overcome.

Offer foods in different forms
Think about the way in which the food is being offered. Can you prepare it differently that will make the food more appealing?

Problems at the Plate

Picky eating does usually begin to improve after age 6, but that is not always the case.Most picky eating is the result of preference—children and adults alike tend to eat only the specific foods they enjoy while avoiding others.

Here are a few tips of how to make food more approachable for your picky eater!

  1. Explore New Foods Together
    • If your child is around others who eat a variety of foods, such as parents, siblings, and peers, they may be less hesitant to try those foods themselves.
  2. Take the Kitchen Back
    • Bring your kids in to help make their meals. Cooking can help to create a sense of accomplishment and understanding of where their food is coming from. Cooking not only provides positive experiences, but it gets them experiencing food before tasting.
    • Our adventure series, offers a variety of recipes from different cultures and time periods. This is a great way to tap into your child's interests outside of food such as history, reading, science or story telling to help motivate them to experiencefood.
  3. Know Your Digestion
    • Understanding what is happening around digestion is a great way to help curb picky eating habits. Consider teaching your child about their body to better help understand digestion. Having a familiarity with the body can help our minds understand that food is fuel!

Remember: Always ask your family doctor or pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s eating habits. Most of all, remember that problematic eating isn’t the result of problematic parenting. Mealtimes can be a place for sparkling conversation…rather than heated debates.


To learn more about your digestive system, join the Loops Crew in Adventure 5: The Digestive System as they travel through Ancient Japan in the Adventure Series: 12 Systems of the Body!

The Circulatory System: Adventure 3

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