Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault)

Parents of Picky Eaters, It’s Not Your Fault!  Or so said one mother, writer, and former picky eater in a New York Times Motherlode blog this summer.  I’ve been stewing over it ever since.  Steaphanie V.W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, boldly stands up to the judgy mothers club–but she misses a few really critical points.  I speak for all the “Mommy McJudgersons” out there when I say, parents of picky eaters–it is all your fault.  Or at least it mostly is.

I came to this realization at Montessori preschool orientation night.  The director began discussing lunches and I settled in, ready to hear the typical harangue about packing natural, nutritious, environmentally friendly lunches in containers the kids could open themselves.  Instead he says, “Just pack what they’ll eat.  Don’t try to impress us with your lunches–just pack something that won’t end up in the trash.”  Then he went on to relate how one kid ate a vegetarian hotdog every day the whole year.  And if that’s what it takes, we should do the same.

What?  Is this what it’s come to?

Of course, I am guilty of the other extreme–I remember sending elaborate bento lunches to preschool with our first son.  I was so excited and I wanted to impress his teacher.  Well, he couldn’t open the containers and he didn’t know what to do with the little onigiri triangles and edamame pods.  Only his teachers wouldn’t put it in the trash.  He’d bring home a box of warm, greasy garbage every day.  I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t impressing anybody.  I get that you should pack something the kid can eat.  But a vegetarian hot dog every day?  That’s going too far.

Our generation has just thrown up our hands and given up trying to eat normally.  We’ve also given up a huge responsibility we owe to our children.  It’s our job to teach them how to appreciate a wide variety of healthy, well-prepared, delicious food.  If we  act like we can’t do a damn thing about what they eat, then where are we?  I’ll tell you where we are–we’re in the midst of a nation-wide obesity epidemic affecting a generation of children who are on their way to enjoying a shorter life expectancy than their parents.  Nope. We can’t just sit back and let them eat vegetarian hot dogs.

Or white bread.  Or cheese pizza.  Ask yourself who’s in charge of your kids’ meals.  If it’s not you, then you have a problem.  Blaming bad eating habits on “picky eating” is a cop out.

Sure, many toddlers (some studies say around 20%) go through a picky eating stage.  And nearly all young children avoid bitter tasting foods.  This is most likely evolution’s way of making sure we didn’t poison ourselves to extinction.  A picky eating stage may be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s no longer beneficial.  Picky eating usually means kids aren’t eating vegetables and can even mean kids are malnourished, so it’s something parents need to address.

Letting your kid eat Pop Tarts for breakfast or chicken nuggets every night (or, God help you, vegetarian hot dogs), will just make matters worse.  Read the ingredients list on the back of the packages you’re buying.  If there’s more than three or four ingredients, your children probably shouldn’t be eating it–even if it has a day’s worth of vitamins inside.  Take Pediasure, many well-meaning parents’ go to solution to picky eating:

Pediasure Kickstart Strawberry Flavor Ingredients:


I want to hear the justification for feeding this to your kid instead of food.  What did parents with picky eaters do before KickStarts?  Obviously, the human race didn’t starve to death.  I bet not even one little kid starved to death because he was a fussy eater.  Parents of generations past simply put food on the table and expected the kids to eat it.  If they didn’t, parents assumed the kid would eat more at the next meal.  What they didn’t do is hand them a high fructose corn syrup laden nutrition bar and call it a meal.

My mother is a biologist and my father is a psychologist, so for me everything is a dichotomy between nature and nurture.  This is no different.  Food preference is certainly heritable–according to one study, over 75% of food preference can be attributed to genetics.  But lots of things are genetic and not necessarily desirable.  Bad teeth are genetic.  So are you going to let your kid walk around with a snaggletooth for the rest of his life?  No.  You get him braces.  Genetics isn’t destiny–if you come from a bad food gene pool, do something about it.

Picky eaters may be born, but let’s pause a minute before we say they’re not made.  We begin to shape our children’s eating behaviors in infancy (and even in utero).  What a mother eats during breastfeeding (and wether she breastfeeds), how and when parents introduce new foods, the variety of foods introduced before age four and maternal feeding practices can all affect a child’s food preferences.  Studies show that mothers’ eating habits and attitudes about food shape their children’s habits and attitudes.  If you’re always on a diet, your kids take notice and if you won’t eat anything green, neither will your kids.   Children are more likely to try new things if they see their parents and siblings trying new things.  The reverse is also true.  If you’re weird about food, your kid’s going to have issues, too.  For example, mothers who are emotional eaters may be more likely to have picky children. Parents who are overly controlling can negatively affect children’s eating behavior and possibly increase their risk of obesity.  Parents can exert a great deal of positive influence by simply modeling healthy eating behaviors.  Clearly, what we do as parents makes a critical difference in how our children eat.

Developmental stages, evolution and genetics are beyond our control.  But even if we assume we can do nothing to change our child’s genetic destiny, we can still agree that the 25% of food preference that isn’t heritable might be under our control.  Let’s be conservative–say we can influence 20% or our kids’ food preferences (keeping in mind that this a ridiculously low percentage).  Well, then let’s have at it!  Let’s do everything we can to teach them how to eat good food.  Let’s work as hard on food appreciation as we do times tables or reading.

We can’t just chalk our kids’ bad eating habits up to “picky eating.”  We need to take some responsibility.  Our kids’ lousy eating habits are more likely the product our lax (or over-controlling) parenting and our own bad eating habits.

Okay, I’m judging, but I’m not excluding myself from the judgment.  I’m just as guilty as the next over-worked, over-scheduled, exhausted mother of three fussy, hungry kids who need to eat all the damn time.  We just want them to eat something.  I fed my kids macaroni and cheese (but it was organic!) and steamed broccoli every other day when I was working full time.  I don’t know how it happened–I certainly didn’t plan it that way.  It happens to all of us.  But at some point, we have to make it a priority to feed our children well.  We are missing a good opportunity to enrich our children’s lives when we don’t prioritize teaching them how to eat well.  As a society and as families, we need to decide that what our kids eat is just as important as what they learn in school or what they watch on TV.

We’ve forgotten how to eat.  It’s not just our fault for accepting the status quo, it’s the fault of the status quo itself.  Americans don’t eat normally.  French fries are the most common vegetable eaten in the United States.  Our school lunch rooms sell Cheetos.  We eat 20 percent of our meals in the car (and you can’t drive a mile without passing a fast food restaurant).  Our grocery stores are lined with aisle upon aisle of packaged food and we are so busy and tired, we justify buying it to save time.  It’s almost impossible not to make these kinds of desperate choices as parents.  And it’s hard to change habits when you’re exhausted and stretched thin as it is.  It feels like all you can do to get the chicken nuggets on the table.

But this isn’t something that we can’t fix if we acknowledge that our food culture is damaged and we’re partly to blame.We can examine our own attitudes about food and eating.  We can reject the food system American industry (with the help of American government) has created and embrace real American food culture.  There’s a bounty of fresh produce at your farmers’ market.  There’s a world of ethnic cuisine to sample.  There’s a spot in your back yard waiting for a garden.  And there’s time to cook and eat dinner together (almost) every night.  We just have to make it important enough.


10 Comments on “Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault)”

  1. df says:

    Fantastic food for thought here. My younger son is a tough nut in many ways, including food habits, and was ‘babied’ for the first four years of his life as he went through multiple cardiac/pulmonary surgeries and procedures. I’ve been trying to resolve his relationship to food for some time but feel more energized about it after reading your posts on picky eating.

    • That’s fascinating–it makes me wonder if that’s why our middle son has had trouble w/picky eating. As a baby, he ate literally everything. He was diagnosed with asthma and was hospitalized several time. We had some terrifying close calls. This was right before the age when kids are most likely to be picky and I know we babied him about eating. We just wanted to make sure he was eating, so we gave him whatever he wanted. Your son’s health issues were far more serious, but it does make me wonder about the relationship between the health crises and eating habits. I hope the cardiac issues have been resolved–I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. Your son probably gets his toughness from you–thank God. K.

      • df says:

        You son’s asthma scares sound like a big contributing factor to him going off of various foods at a tender age. So glad that you seem to have got the asthma under control, it can be very serious. Our son still has more ahead of him, unfortunately, and the medical nature of his early years has definitely affected him, but I have to think that adversity is good for character! (His, if not mine!) I know I took comfort in his preference for what I considered to be super healthy foods – blueberries, yogurt, whole grains – but it hasn’t helped him in the long term to have such a restricted diet. It’s this year’s challenge to help him develop a more rounded palate and a healthier diet as a result. I feel apprehensive about the chances of success, but know I have to try. Really glad to have found your blog.

  2. Yes! Loved this.

    I’m still a relatively new mum (my son is nearly 18 months old) and this has already become a hot-button issue for me. Our son is an adventurous eater 90% of the time. He eats whatever we eat – whether that be sushi or curry or fish or whole wheat bread . . . whatever.

    I’ve been shocked by people’s reactions to his eating habits. The sight of a toddler eating a plate of sole or broccoli shouldn’t inspire shock and awe, nor should the fact that he poops regularly. I find the whole “oh my kid wouldn’t like that” attitude really sad. We enjoy our food, and I want our son to as well.

    I breastfed to 12 months, and gave him whatever we were eating once we introduced solid foods. We eat at the dinner table and he uses a glass, a napkin and cutlery (messily). It has been messy, sometimes incredibly aggravating and there have been times when he completely refused veggies for a week at a time. We have mac and cheese days, and I don’t feel guilty about it. We do our best

    I don’t know if he will continue to eat well and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but to just resign yourself to feeding your kid two foods and give them enemas on a regular basis (this is happening in our family right now) – that’s just not ok. It’s not fair to our kids.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Hey–I love your blog. Thanks for the comment. Just the fact that you’ve breastfed and introduced many foods during the window of time when kids aren’t picky will go a long way to helping him eat well in the future. My kids have all gone through a picky stage, but we’ve got through it every time–and they didn’t starve. One thing I learned recently (with my middle son–a picky eater) is that trying to coerce them to eat only makes it worse. That French kids book (Picky Eating Part 1 post) really did change our lives. We stopped obsessing about it and that made family meals way mellower. The kid eats almost everything now. I don’t think it’s coincidence. Now I need to work on not being such a control freak in other areas of my life–ha ha. Congratulations on being a new mom–it sounds like you’re enjoying the ride. : )

  3. Great post! Our daughter ate everything as a toddler, but now is a bit more picky (a developmentally appropriate stage at the age of 4, I have learned). None the less, she eats a lot of veggies and other whole foods. My son, on the other hand, is much pickier than she was. At 18 months old, though, we are already sticking to our house rule: you eat what is made. No substitutes. Children won’t starve themselves. 🙂 But, just as you said, if parents don’t have good eating habits, neither will their children.

  4. […] Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault) (phoenixfoodfighters.com) […]

  5. […] Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault) […]

  6. Jen says:

    I’m sorry but you’re overstating your opinion, and it is just an opinion. That it worked for your kids doesn’t make it fact. I am an RD, my husband and I eat a variety or healthful foods, I cook daily and I did every single thing on your chart. But still my son will not eat a variety of healthful foods and he is starving, in fact, he was at the 1% for weight and a pediatric gastroenterologist was suggesting a feeding tube before I made the decision to relax a bit on the “a healthy child won’t starve” and decided to regularly provide foods he would actually eat. I don’t feed him complete garbage but I also can’t just say, oh well, he’ll eat at the next meal and keep giving him just what I’d like him to eat. And no, providing the foods in a relaxed setting 20, 30 or more times has not resulted in him eating fruits or vegetables with any regularity. I appreciate that you feel that some parents don’t try hard enough but you’ve overstated it in a way that is extremely judgmental and cruel. You generally don’t reach people by criticizing them, it works much better to be encouraging. All you’ll get here is people who are similarly judgmental all patting yourselves on the back for your awesome parenting. It just doesn’t always work the way you say it does.

    • I thought I provided ample facts based on solid research and that said facts were informative and useful. Yes, I was a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s a stretch to say that I’m cruel. I don’t really want your son to starve to death. It sounds like you’re doing a great job dealing with the problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s