The Frontal Cortex

Eating Habits and Birth Order

Let’s say your plate is filled with three different foods: a turkey sandwich, some spears of broccoli and a chocolate chip cookie. Which food do you eat first?

According to Brian Wansick’s new book, Mindless Eating, your birth order helps to shape your eating habits:

When we looked at the food questionnaires, we discovered that people who at the best food first [as opposed to saving the best food for last] shared one of two characteristics: they either grew up as a youngest child or came from large families.

The people most likely to save the best for last, on the other hand, had grown up as an only child or as the oldest. They could afford to save their favorite foods as a reward, knowing it would still be waiting for them at the end of the meal. It’s different for children in big families, particularly if they’re not the oldest. There is competition for food, even when there’s plenty to eat. If you don’t eat your favorite food first, you might lose out altogether. Get it while you can.

Wansick points out that this simple preference for eating favorite foods first can have serious health implications.

If a child becomes conditioned to eat their favorite foods first, they might develop the long-term eating habit of filling up on the high-calorie goodies at the expense of the healthier salads, fruits, and vegetables. That is a recipe for obesity.

While this research makes intuitive sense, it doesn’t actually fit my eating habits. Although I come from a large family, I’m definitely a salad-first kind of guy. This might be explained by the fact that scarcity of sweets was never an issue during my childhood. My father made frequent Costco runs, which ensured we had a steady supply of candy bars and sour licorice in the cupboards. I could always eat my salad content in the knowledge that something better was waiting for me.

Do you eat your favorite foods first?


  1. #1 Paradigm
    May 10, 2007

    Maybe the underlying factor is impulsivity. People with ADHD and psychopathy tend to come from large families. And as you grow older you become less impulsive, som that the youngest child will be the most impulsive (on the average) and therefore remember that he went for the favorite food first.

  2. #2 Katherine Sharpe
    May 10, 2007

    The article gets it right in describing me — I’m an oldest child, and I always used to save my favorite morsels on the plate for last. Not to the point of eating dessert before the meal, though; that seems kind of extreme.

    Now that I’m grown up, I don’t think too much (at all?) about the order in which I eat stuff. But I definitely used to behave as this study suggests I would.

  3. #3 Rugosa
    May 10, 2007

    I’m an exception. I’m the second youngest of five, and I save my favorite for last. Of course, I also like brocolli.

  4. #4 Silmarillion
    May 10, 2007

    Well it doesn’t quite fit me. I would save the best for last, but I am the second oldest of four (not an only child or oldest).

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    May 10, 2007

    Oh, yeah. I’m a Leo so I save my favorites for last.

    Excuse me, but everybody I know starts their meal by passing the food around and filling their plates. Once the food is on your plate, it doesn’t matter what your birth order is, and so I really can’t see how that would affect the order you would eat it in.

    Their explanation makes about as much sense as astrology.

  6. #6 Gazelle
    May 10, 2007

    I am the youngest, the only girl with two older brothers. I am 100% certain that my position in the family contributed to my compulsive eating disorder. I was constantly competing for food, and brothers and father would all steal food off my plate at meals. Now that I don’t live with them anymore, I am more likely to save the treat for last, but get me around my family or any large group of people and I start hoarding like there’s a famine coming.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    May 10, 2007

    That GE “lump of coal” ad reminds me of the movie Fargo.

  8. #8 Daniel
    May 10, 2007

    Ahcuah said, that everyone starts their meal by passing the food around. But that is not true. Alot of people reach and grab. Also, people eat at other times than formal meals. People have snacks, and treats. I remember once my older brother offered me the first bite of his candy bar, and I bit off about three-quarters of it. (Later I felt guilty for returning his generosity with my greed).

    I am the third of four sons. I am not sure if my parents deliberately used psychological techniques on us, or if they were just natually talented at parenting. But they would say things like, “are you going to eat your brussel sprouts, because I would like them if you don’t want them.”

    (So of course, I wanted them).

    I think that when I have a plate of food, I always eat the thing I like best, first.

  9. #9 rev_matt_y
    May 10, 2007

    Interesting research. I think that only is part of the equation, however. Family dynamics have to account for part of it at least. I grew up as the youngest of six, all spaced about 3 years apart so there was plenty of rivalry for everything. But with no particular effort on our parents part I at least developed the habit of eating meals ‘properly’ as it was understood in our familty: salad, starch, vegetable, meat, dessert.

    As an adult I’ve rebelled against that a bit, choosing a variety approach eating where I eat some salad, then some something else, then some of another thing, then some more salad, etc. I rarely eat dessert now, though.

  10. #10 Yttrai
    May 10, 2007

    Oldest of two here, and i still eat my meals in a set order. It has evolved from when i was a small child into vegetables followed by meat, then starch. The reason for that is two-fold: Fill up on fiber first, get the meat (my favourite) in second, and if i’m still a little hungry have the mostly empty calories of the carbs last. If i leave anything behind, ever, it’s the rice.

    And the more important reason: School lunches. Since we were always required to eat every last morsel on the tray, if you erred and left the horrible boiled, flavourless green beans for last, there was no way you could cram them in. But if you ate them first and worked your way up from boiled vegetables to the starch to the meat last, you could almost always choke down the meat, since it was generally the least mangled of the tray contents.

  11. #11 Ellen
    May 10, 2007

    Oldest of two. Just don’t let any one of those items touch any of the others.

    But the eldest is usually the one who follows the rules and eats the veggies first. My youngest-born husband doesn’t even know that rules exist. He’s the one who tears open packages the minute they arrive, and I’m the one who may not wear a new clothing item for weeks or months.

    Anyway, best does not mean favorite. Broccoli is best, but my favorite is cheesecake.

    What your parents drilled into you, 3 meals a day, 365 days a year, for a good 12-15 years between the time you could feed yourself and they gave up on you, has a powerful hold. Even though we don’t have kids, and don’t have to set an example for anyone, we still eat the broccoli first.

  12. #12 Alexandra Lynch
    May 10, 2007

    Hm. I tend to eat last whatever I want to have lingering in my mouth, crossed with the fact that eating something high in carbs and/or simple sugar first will make me nauseous.

    So I eat the turkey sandwich alternated with the broccoli and then eat half the cookie.

    But growing up I ate the cookie first. That way no one would say, ‘Oh, Sandra hasn’t eaten her cookie yet. You don’t mind if Little Sister has it, do you? You like to share.” Well, not my cookies I don’t. But I also didn’t like confrontation. Eat it first and hoard it and that way it’s yours when you want it. Yes, I am overweight now.

  13. #13 pkiwi
    May 10, 2007

    All my three children tend to leave their favourite to last so no pattern there. I am a youngest and I think my pattern would be random, salad first/last/during/whatever.

    Also disagree with Wansick’s suggestions that eating favourite foods first may lead to an obesity problem. That is way too simplistic. Obesity is fundamentally eating too much. I see too many parents stuffing huge amounts of food generally into their kids, but hey it was ok because they also stuffed in masses of fruit and veges. The most at-risk kids in our area are the ones with the widest appetite and tolerance for greens.

  14. #14 Luna_the_cat
    May 11, 2007

    Youngest of five, and I always save the sweet until last; the order in which I eat everything else varies from day to day, according to what I feel like doing at the time, with no set preference. Go figure.

    I think Daniel and rev matt have it right, and Gazelle is an excellent demonstration — a lot of how people treat food is going to be down to family dynamics, not birth order. Just about every family I’ve ever come into contact with has its own way of dealing with food, its own “rituals” for group meals, which can lead everyone to being very secure about what their portion will be, or else some feeling under attack and defensive. And then, of course, there’s an issue of what foods are likely to have been given to people regularly and which are rare treats, what “discipline” has been enforced and/or internalised about what order types of food should be eaten in, and what each individual’s preferences are, since to some people the sweet is the “best”, and to some people the meat is.

    This study is kind of an interesting idea, but waaaay too simple to account for much.

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