Kids who won't eat: Is there any hope for changing their preferences?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAt 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

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By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

Don't discount culture. Like French parents, we raised our kids to eat what we ate. The answer to "What is it?" is "Food. Eat it, it's good." Our boys used to fight over the broccoli stalks because they're sweeter than the florets. Never did they refuse broccoli. Our grandson, however, is allowed to eat only what he knows and likes and is therefore a picky eater.

yeah im not sure how much is learning how much is just change.
Dad liked beer as a child (my younger siblings also like its taste)
drank it only to get drunk as an adolescent (and i hate how beer tastes)
and now likes it.
Why would he stop liking it if it was learned?

Children must be introduced to foods multiple times before they will accept them. Parents who don't like a food won't present it to their children, and their children will therefore never learn to like it.

The short version of this study is: kids learn to like the foods that are in their own kitchen.

An interesting follow up would be to repeat the same study, but with adult children and their parents. As a kid, my culinary experience was limited to whatever my parents prepared, and my folks just were a lot more concerned with saving money than broadening my palate (lots and LOTS of pizza and spaghetti). Now that we're all adults, it's been fun going out for Indian with my dad or sushi with my mom - tastes we didn't even know we had in common.

Humans are omnivores, and social creatures. It is logical that we survive by a combination of exposure, social cues, and personal temperament. That flexibility allows us to adapt to changes in food supply, to get along with others, and to develop unique preferences.

We live in an age of such variety in available foods that each person seems to have to conceive a personal food culture - small wonder that many people feel untethered and have difficulty choosing.

To get closer to identifying the factors contributing to the data pattern (likely a combination of genetics and social learning), I think a developmental perspective would be very important here. Namely, it would seem more informative if the data were broken down by age (e.g., What does the data for each of the four categories look like if grouped by the ages 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20?). If there's a significant linear increase in the difference between parent-child and own-child for each category, that would suggest that there's a developmental trend associated with age. However, it would still be difficult to tell whether this is genetic (i.e., do changes in the body over time cause the trend?), or environmental (i.e., are social changes over time responsible for the trend?). Then again, there's one developmental construct (genetic-environmental correlations), that suggests that if a linear age trend is found, the explanation is likely to be genetic because people usually have greater capacity to make their own decisions with age, and, such decisions are often compatible with biological inclinations.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 16 Jan 2008 #permalink

There are a lot of foods my parents love that I hated as a child but love as an adult. However some just never grew on me. My mother always tells the story of when I was in 3rd grade and was asked to fill in my own ending for several well-known sayings. It's now a family legend that "Half a loaf is better than asparagus." Most definitely.

However I think developmental stages also play an enormous role in what a child will or won't eat. My own son is 3 and spent the first year of life diving into *everything* we ate, the second year of life avoiding anything mommy cooked, and the third wanting nothing but chicken nuggets, blueberries, and chocolate, no matter what else we might be eating that's yummy. He actually does love pizza, but refuses to touch it. I don't doubt in a couple of years we'll hear nothing but begging for delivery night after night.

I agree it would be nice to see some research on childrens' preference changes over time relative to their parents, but maybe also include alternative reasons for why they like or dislike the food (like being forced to eat 'no thank you' servings.)

Maybe it's quite easy that children avoid foods. Generally it seems that the more they grow the more foods they learn to "like" (or at least they learn to eat them without screaming and thowing it). Some foods tipically disliked by children but very appreciated by adults could be fish, coffee, any kind of vegetables. May be that some foods are more difficult than others (I think that very few people dislike a slice of chocolate cake!). Moreover some foods begin appreciated with some kind of "food-training" for strange-mix course like cheese with honey.

By Marco Tatta (not verified) on 16 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think the finding that older kids are less likely to avoid the foods their parents prefer is because the older kids use their reason a little more... they probably realize it's not very smart to eat nuggets and chocolate cake everyday, while it is probably smart to eat fruits and vegetables (try tellin that to a 4-year old). As you grow older, you learn to look at food more as sustenance than you would as a child.

I'd like to voice a minority, but occasionally real, set of circumstances.

I was a 'picky eater' growing up, and I've been a 'picky eater' as an adult. It's caused me a lot of difficulty and it's not something I can just override. In my late 20's I did some research and I realized that our family history of dylexia / aspergers etc had come with another legacy: sensory processing disorders. It turned out my 'picky eating' is largely the result of my being not only a very sensitive taster, but also from having a very sensitive mouth and gums, which explains why I tend to gravitate towards certain textures.

I have been pretty much the same my whole life, and no amount of discipline or forcing would have changed anything except to make me more miserable. Also, attempts to forcibly override this as an adult just lead to my getting sick to my stomach. I've learned to not eat rather than attempt something questionable. Eating is a battle and I have always tended towards underweight as an adult. That being said, what foods I do enjoy, I like very much and overall I can enjoy a wide range of tastes. But especially in stressful times I default to bland, starchy foods of particular textures.

My point being, yes, socialization and also family exposure has a lot to do with it, but there is a (very small) percentage of us for whom this is basically a physical issue. I also have to be very careful with the condition of my teeth and fillings. When you are built like I am, it's not about choice, it's about working with a physical limitation. Now that I've realized what causes this and how to approach it, I've been a more successful eater, but it's still difficult. I have not, nor will I ever, 'grow out of it'. So those of you with kids with persistent problems, consider physical issues before getting too hard on your kid.

By anonymouseater (not verified) on 13 Feb 2008 #permalink

I'll second what anonymouseater said, and I'm glad to hear there are at least two of us. There are certain foods I never liked as a kid and don't like now, such as cold, rare beef, fish, and especially green peppers. I would never eat my mother's meatloaf because she put green pepper in it, so she would make a hamburger for me. One supper when the rest were having meatloaf, I took one bit of my hamburger, then put it down in horror, thinking I was going crazy. Somebody asked me what was wrong, and I said, "This hamburger tastes of green pepper!" My mother then admitted she had put "a tiny bit" of green pepper in my hamburger to prove to me that it was all in my head.

I am kind of like anonymouseater, too. I was the only little kid you ever met who would refuse ice cream. I went off anything but skimmed milk at a year old -- I would simply refuse to drink it. When I got older, I found out I am not just lactose intolerant, but allergic to milk protein.

As far as I know, I've never liked peanut butter, and my parents both love it.

Now, as an adult, I have almost no food preferences in common with my parents, who tend to eat the sort of "meat and two veg" kind of meals one associates with the older generation in this area of the world, and I gravitate towards Asian, Indian, Italian, and Middle Eastern cuisine, and lots of ingredients I was never even exposed to until after I'd left home.

I also did figure out why I've become largely unable to eat certain foods -- the texture freaks me out. I dislike broccoli florets (although I love the stems) because I find eating them to be like chewing on a washcloth; ditto cauliflower, which I will eat and enjoy if it's cut up fine or mashed.

I also seem not to be able to eat eggs (heartburn), or quinoa, rare beef, or veal (stomach cramps) these days. I don't know what that's about, but I avoid those foods even if I do like them and I used to be able to eat them.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 14 Feb 2008 #permalink

My mother then admitted she had put "a tiny bit" of green pepper in my hamburger to prove to me that it was all in my head.

Ah yeah. I know this behavior. <grrr> I hated finding peas in my soup, for example. Fortunately my mother gave up trying after a few years. I still don't eat peas.

I was the only little kid you ever met who would refuse ice cream.

I started eating it very late, but that was a matter of technical skill -- certain parts of my incisors are temperature-sensitive, and others aren't. Nowadays I could live off peppermint ice with chocolate chips.

I don't like certain combinations of textures. That said, I've never before come across the idea of eating broccoli just so -- I only know it cooked and then microscopically shredded to make a soup. That soup is good...

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 14 Feb 2008 #permalink

I had a crazy obsession with raw, leafy vegetables as a kid. I would often eat them and imagine I was some dinosaur or farm animal. I'd even put whatever it was on the ground and eat it on all fours. I ate a whole purple cabbage once and nearly died from the stomach cramps. I was having too much fun pretending to be a brontosaurus to stop. I even went through a dog food phase, and my barking went unparalleled. Now I particularly like to eat raw salmon. I feel like a grizzly.

I grew up in an Italian household with possibly the best food made by people from the old country. I loved it all. My brother, however, was a strict meat and potatoes kid. No "ungions", no mushuums", no mush (polenta), no fish. It was only when he went to Italy in his teens that he discovered and loved what he missed as a child.

There are also genetic factors in the sensation of taste. Some people can't taste Substance A; others find it bitter. Some people find Substance B sweet; others can't taste it. Not surprisingly, the people who can taste the sweet but not the bitter like more unprocessed foods, e.g. vegetables, than those that taste the bitter but not the sweet.

anonymouseater . Thank you I have a young daughter who from a baby on wards has been a tricky eater , tried all the control parent ways and lost with a sickly under fed kid , then I found some pretty small Nana like bowls and tiny plates opp shopping and now I fill several plates but never mixing the food , banquet style , for her each nite with some yummy and healthy favorites ,eg grapes, Cherry's , sliced apple , watermelon , home made tiny size chicken nuggets , and pasta with small amount of grated cheese , she rejoices by eating most up then I pleasure in listening to a 8 year old singing in the shower with a full tummy . Some kids the texture , foods touching each other on the plate really upset them , she even mentioned she would not eat anything with a bum . I worry about the scary parents who try to control the dinner table .

Hey, it's interesting to see so many follow up comments to what I posted.

Like Interrobang, I've also found that strangely I have gravitated as well towards 'strong' flavours like Indian or Middle Eastern. I think it has to do with being such a sensitive taster, because the flavors of those foods are very complex and interesting, and for me it's like how others view fine wines. As Monado also mentioned, there are some classic 'taste tests' with a bitter compound and people seem to have varying degrees to be able to taste that. Similar to JimV there have also been certain foods I have had a lifelong aversion to and where I would swear I can taste them at part-per-billion levels. ;)

Something I wanted to mention, I've heard that on babies and small children there is an approach they've tried successfully where they rub the inside of their mouths first with a special glove to densensitize them before eating. Like others with sensory processing problems I've found that in addition to my mouth, my feet are also very hypersensitive. I am also incredibly sensitive to smells and noise, especially under stress. Anyone who thinks they are unusually 'sensitive' might want to try Googling 'sensory processing disorder' or 'sensory integration disorder'. It's also one of the larger problems facing autistic kids and it seems to be neurologically rooted.

I've met one other person besides myself, in addition to my father. We have certain eating patterns in common:

- we prefer food to be separated on our plate
- we often prefer sugary or starchy foods
- we have an appreciation for 'strong','ethnic', or complex flavors
- we like crunchy foods
- we are often vegetarian
- we prefer bland foods especially in times of stress, like pasta, chicken, tofu, potatoes, bread
- we tend to either really like, or really dislike, alcohol
- we often prefer a variety of small servings of different foods
- we will find something we can eat, eat it very regularly for several months, then go off it completely. we cycle with certain foods/dishes like that over periods of years.

Curious if others feel similarly.

By anonymouseater (not verified) on 16 Feb 2008 #permalink

Something else I want to mention:

I ended up with malnutrition related health problems in my 30's and I wish dearly now that I had taken nutrition more seriously, given my problems. Anyone who thinks they are like me, should not only be supplementing vitamins / minerals / iron, but also protein. Try the bodybuilder protein bars for occasional supplements. I really, really recommend this, and I sure wish I had known about this and done this starting young.

Another thing, try using 'sensitive' toothpaste with sodium nitrate as the active ingredient, and be very careful about your teeth. Sensitive teeth, cracks, old fillings, all of these can make your mouth even more hypersensitive and it really exacerbates the problems.

By anonymouseater (not verified) on 16 Feb 2008 #permalink

My oldest son is 6yrs old, he also does not eat only accept for things like crackers,slices of cheese,bread,tortillas, and milk he loves milk and of course junk food. Lots and lots of junk food. I have had so many people tell me give him choices at dinner I have 2 other children I do not see how delagating to my oldest is the way it should be. If he cant eat what i make well im not going to let him get away with it either, Us parents need to stick together and fix this problem with in our homes.

By Jenna Miranda (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink