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Picky eaters: born or made? Both!

Posted by on Jul 12, 2012 in Blog Posts | 12 comments

This seems to be a hot topic these days. Are picky eaters born or made? I say both.

The author of a post writes, “Cue the chorus of angels singing. It’s not my fault.”

Well, it’s not your fault. And…

Based on my reading and work with families struggling with picky eaters, even “feeding clinic failures,” I also see many parents unwittingly doing a lot that slows down the process of learning to like new foods. I refer to these as “counterproductive feeding” practices. (I’ve been there with the unwittingly making things worse rather than better with feeding, and I was relieved to learn there was a better way when we were struggling.)

You can’t do much to speed up the pace at which children learn to like new foods, but you can do a whole heckuva lot to slow it down…

Some children certainly are more challenging to feed to begin with, whether it’s temperament, oral-motor delays, a history of pain (reflux) or unsupportive feeding, such as a child in the foster care system or adopted from a “baby home” overseas.

So, the more challenging or cautious child joins the family, and parents are largely not given accurate help and support in how to feed in a way that helps. Here is what many parents do (are told to do) that slows things down.

—”Just make them eat.”
—”Do whatever you have to to get them to eat.”
—Two-bite or no-thank-you bite rules.
—Bribing, praising, rewarding, using TV, punishing, begging, following the child around all day with food, serving only favored foods, sneaking,… just to get something in!

At some point, the broccoli goes beyond broccoli and turns into a green power chip for many families. For some children, the trauma, anxiety and fear of being forced to eat something kills appetite. It’s complicated!

So, no, it’s not your fault, but as a mom I interviewed for my book said, “Knowing what not to do is step one.” Never, ever force your child to eat something. Don’t make them eat something they gagged up onto the plate. If they are crying, upset, fighting your efforts, even if it’s what your feeding therapist told you to do, it’s not helping.

Challenging kids (“born” that way) + lack of information and support + worry about size or nutrition + counterproductive feeding practices (“made” that way) = kids who eat less well, not better

What do you think? Born that way? Throw our hands in the air and give up, just serve plain buttered noodles every day? There is another way to support the selective or challenging eater. HOW? The Trust Model, the Division of Responsibility, family meals, no pressure, structured meals and snacks… Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter is a go-to resource for raising competent eaters…

This is a quick intro to an idea I flesh out (a lot) in my upcoming book, which details the transition to the Trust Models with families I have worked with and interviewed, including picky eaters and “feeding clinic failures.” There is hope!

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  1. cecile

    I have to thank you, Katia ! Chiara is not picky, she is very adventurous and eats, or at least tries, everything. Lucas, however…. is different. He would not eat a vegetable, except tomato, until recently. Certainly not raw, not cooked eitehr, only in soups, fortunately. I started reading your blog (probably when you started writing it, actually !) when he started solid foods, so I was not worried, and let him eat, or not, even with Stefan in the background saying “eat this, etc”. And now, Lucas eats almost everything, without any comment, fruits, vegetables, cooked or raw, and not only soups. So, thanks again !

  2. Maryann

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I was talking to a mom and she was so relieved when her second child was not picky because she realized her first son’s selectiveness wasn’t her fault. So many moms blame themselves but with the right information and support, they can take their individual child into account and make feeding positive. Some kids simply are late bloomers while others are more adventurous — but all can grow up to be competent eaters. There’s also the fact that growth slows around age 2 so appetites change. I think I have done well not making this an issue with my 5 year old. To this day she does not know she was/is picky and is gradually expanding what she eats and has even thanked me for “not bossing her around food!”

  3. X

    You missed one born that way reason. Some of us are supertasters: people with more than the average number of tastebuds, who end up being particularly reluctant to eat strongly flavored foods, particularly bitter ones, because the flavor is just overwhelming.

    Even as an adult there’s a lot of stuff I won’t eat short of starvation or desire to not be blatantly rude to a host. Cooked vegetables, and coffee make me wince just at the smell. My only recommendation is that if your kid hates cooked veg, try them raw. Cooking makes the flavors more intense, and steaming in particular makes that taste permeate your entire mouth. Raw is more tractable, and usually just as healthy.

    • katja

      Great recommendations! I always recommend when you are serving a cooked veg to also serve a small bowl of the raw one too! When M was 2 years old, she preferred raw to cooked brussels sprouts! Go figure! Also, adding a bit of sugar while cooking has been shown to help children like even the bitter veggies. Being responsive to the child, not forcing, offering different foods in lots of different preps, with condiments at hand can help! Thanks so much for writing!

  4. Lindsay

    Hi, I love your blog and find it very interesting! 🙂 I do not have a family of my own yet, but I am wondering if you have any words of advice for adult picky eaters?

    My fiance is EXTREMELY picky. He didn’t have any kind of cooking down for him growing up and so now he mainly eats pizza in many different forms, chicken wings, chips, etc. He doesn’t eat/doesn’t like most kinds of produce, any kind of pasta, any kind of soup, any meat that isn’t fried, etc. and and if I make a dinner or he eats dinner at my parent’s house, he’ll try the food to be polite but won’t eat any substantial portion and he’ll just snack before/after.

    I know that he is the boss of his own body and what he eats and that obviously an adult-adult relationship is different than an adult-child one. However, I’m afraid that when we have kids they will pick up on his picky eating habits even if I try to make a variety of different food for them. I’ve talked to him about it and he says he agrees he would like to be better about it, but that doesn’t translate him to doing any differently (and being an adult, I don’t know how possible it is to get him to change his tastes anyway).

    Do you have any advice on this specific issue? Thanks so much!

    • katja

      I wrote a little about adult picky eating… Be sure to read the comments. Adult picky eaters tell me that Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (the first third of the book is about adults and eating) has been a blueprint for eating.
      Try not to pressure. It’s a great time before there are kids for him to be curious and kind with himself with the process. Readers talk about prepping veggies and fruits at every meal, and giving themselves permission not to eat them, but step one is getting used to the foods.
      There are lots of other great ideas out there. I have worked with and really enjoy working with adult picky eaters. Permission, not pressuring, using bridging foods like sauces etc are important. If he likes fried food, maybe he can branch out first with other fried foods. Buffets are a great place to try a few things with little risk. Or not. Try not to pressure or encourage, but just be there, enjoy foods together. He missed out on important early exposures to a variety of foods, he may have been pressured to eat certain foods over the years, maybe not. It can change, but it takes lots of time and patience. And if he doesn’t want to change, that’s OK too. You can still raise kids who feel good about food, but it can be harder. another post…
      hope that helps! has some great stuff in her articles and newsletters about adults and eating, worth poking around…

      • Lindsay

        Thank you so much for your response and for the great resources!

        The post you wrote about adult picky eating in relation to EDs is really interesting. I’m sure every situation is different but I don’t really consider K as having an eating disorder at all – He doesn’t struggle with weight or over or under eating and the pickiness is really only a mild annoyance to him, say, if we’re out somewhere and he has to wait to eat later because he didn’t like/eat much of anything that was served.

        I also think you’re right about it being a good time to explore meals before we have kids. I admit I have lost my patience at times because I don’t understand it and I just want him to eat what I took the time to cook, and I need to get better about that. But he seems willing to work at it and we have plenty of time before kids will be in the picture, so I’m hopeful.

        Thanks so much again!

    • maggiemunkee

      i have to suggest The Fat Nutritionist ( while her primary focus is recovering dieters, she does a lot to make ellyn satter’s work accessible and relevant. she is a fantastic resource.

      • katja

        Oh Yes, and she’s a good friend and a kindred spirit. How I forgot to mention her is beyond me, thanks for rectifying!! She’s a great resource for adults and picky eating.

    • Twistie

      I know that when I married Mr. Twistie he was an incredibly picky eater. He’s still picky, but after a lot of effort on my part and a willingness on his part to meet me halfway at some surprising moments, he’s a lot more fun to feed these days.

      One thing that helped me help him enjoy a broader range of foods was asking him what it was he didn’t like about something he disliked or said he wasn’t willing to try. Sometimes knowing that there’s a texture issue or that someone had a bad experience with the food once makes a big difference in figuring out how to reintroduce it.

      The other thing I do a lot is I’ll make something I like to eat, but there will be something else on the table that’s closer to what he’s used to. Sometimes just knowing he’s got something familiar to fall back on will give him the permission to try something new. In the meantime, I’m not as frustrated because I can still have cauliflower even if he hasn’t been ready to try it again yet.

      At mealtimes I try not to comment on whether or not he takes something until he mentions it. Then I tell him it’s fine to make his own decision. If he tries something new and tells me he enjoyed it, then I’ll be happy to talk about it, but I let him lead the food conversation.

      Funnily enough, I think it’s helped him that I watch cooking shows and read cookbooks like novels. I don’t think this would make it easier for everyone, because I can see how it would add pressure for a lot of people. In our case, though, I think he gets the fact that I know what I’m talking about and what I’m doing in the kitchen, so he trusts me to feed him well. He also knows that while I’m by leaps and bounds the more adventurous eater, I will never, ever, EVER lie to him about what’s in a dish. He knows I won’t try to sneak in something he isn’t ready for.

      I definitely want to add my name to the chorus for small steps and a talk with (or just reading the blog of) The Fat Nutritionist. I would also say stay tuned here. Sometimes Katja has some amazing advice for feeding kids that turns on my mental lightbulbs about what’s going on with my husband’s food issues.

      Best of luck to you and your fiance, Lindsay. I can say from experience that if he’s willing to work with you and you can keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, it’s more than possible to broaden his horizons. It’s not a swift path, but it will work eventually. And when it does? It’s really exciting.

      • Lindsay

        Thank you so much for sharing your story with me Twistie! It’s always nice to know I’m not the only one, and I’m so glad to hear that things have gradually improved for you! 🙂

        K I think too has texture issues – I learned just a few months ago that the reason he won’t pasta is because he just doesn’t like the long, thin spaghetti type noodles (well, that’s easy enough to work with). I also like the suggestion of putting something familiar on the table so he has that to fall back on.

        Thanks again…I know it will be slow but I am hopeful for progress 🙂


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