At least once or twice a week at dinnertime, our family has what we call a “harmony meal.” Jim and Nora are good eaters with broad tastes, but they both (along with me and Greta) also have some foods they don’t like. A harmony meal is a meal where everyone in the family likes every dish we serve. These aren’t necessarily the healthiest meals (spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread is a favorite), but it’s nice to have a meal where everyone’s happy about what’s being served.
When we’re not having a harmony meal, we all still manage to find something we’ll eat — and our kids understand that if they don’t want to eat dinner, then they’ll just have to wait until breakfast. But everyone knows horror stories of kids that simply won’t eat anything except for McDonalds’ French fries, or Dad’s macaroni and cheese, or Grandma’s cookies, when their parents would really prefer chicken piccata with couscous and asparagus. Were these kids just raised badly? Or do they literally have different tastes than their parents?
It turns out that researching the relationship of parents’ tastes with those of their kids is a difficult proposition. Some researchers have tried presenting families with lists of foods and asking them to rate how much they like and dislike each food. The parent’s tastes might correlate with those of their kids (and they did, in several studies), but does that reflect parental influence on the child, or the larger influence of society on the entire family? And isn’t any list of food by definition limited?
Margherita Guidetti and Nicoletta Cavazza tried a different approach: they asked 282 kids and their parents to list (separately) the three foods they prefer, as well as three foods they don’t like and want to avoid. This diagram shows how these preference can be mapped out:
The four areas of overlap were measured by assigning a score of 2 points for each identical food item (both parent and child prefer hamburgers), and 1 point for each food item that falls in the same category (parent avoids brussels sprouts and child avoids cabbage). Then each parent was also compared to a random child from the group. Here are the results:
The parent-own child pairs scored significantly higher in every area of overlap except the last one (parent avoids what child prefers). So parents’ tastes are more similar to their own children than to other children in the population. Also, since the kids in the study group ranged in age from 10 to 20, the researchers were also able to establish that older kids were less likely to avoid foods that their parents preferred.
The study has some limitations, which the authors acknowledge. They only surveyed one parent (the cook, regardless of gender) from each family. The number of food preferences the respondents listed was quite small. Finally, the population they surveyed, scouts in northern Italy, might not match the country as a whole — or the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, this work certainly suggests that kids tastes really do match their parents — and they match even more for older kids. It’s quite possible that kids tastes are adaptable — that kids really can learn to eat foods that they once avoided. Maybe 10 years from now, every meal will be a harmony meal.
Guidetti, M., Cavazza, N. (2008). Structure of the relationship between parents’ and children’s food preferences and avoidances: An explorative study. Appetite, 50(1), 83-90. DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.06.001