Science says picky eaters aren’t a thing—parents everywhere scoff

A new book says picky eating is a learned behaviour—and that it's all your fault.

Jen often makes separate meals for her picky eaters. Photo: Jen Pinarski
Jen usually makes separate meals for her picky eaters. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

When our first kid was born nine years ago, my husband and I followed the baby-feeding guidelines to the letter. After breastfeeding my son, Isaac, exclusively for six months straight, we sat him in his high chair and tried to feed him a spoonful of plain rice cereal. He gagged, spat out the food, threw the spoon across the room and started crying. This scene was recreated each time we tried to feed him any of the tasteless mushes recommended for infants, such as oats, barley, wheat, carrots and bananas.

Finally, when he was nine months old, we found success with a surprising finger food: curried chickpeas with ginger and cumin. I figured I had hit the picky-eater jackpot and smugly bragged to anyone who listened (and many who couldn’t have cared less) that my son ate spicy food but gagged on oven fries. I was that mom everyone loves to hate.

And so it continued: My son happily ate everything—until one day, when he didn’t anymore. Shortly after his third birthday, any food that wasn’t a highly processed shade of beige was snubbed. The crunchy fruits and vegetables and spicy curries were suddenly a thing of the past. And each time I dumped overcooked plain noodles with butter onto his plate, I mourned my toddler with the adventurous taste buds and resented this new picky eater who painstakingly separated the kernels of canned corn with his fork—because if the pasta touched the corn, the whole meal had to be thrown into the garbage.

If you’re one to blindly believe research, my son’s picky-eating jag could be blamed on me and what I ate during pregnancy. That’s probably why, over on the Today’s Parent Facebook page, so many of you called out British food writer Bee Wilson for her views on picky eaters—particularly her hypothesis that the blame should be placed solely on parents. Last week, Maclean’s published an interview with Wilson called “A Naturally Picky Eater? There’s No Such Thing” that drew sharp criticism from parents who have tried everything to encourage their kids to try new foods. If you’re the parent of a picky eater or a kid with sensory processing disorder, you know that no matter how many times you put something other than white bread and a pouch of applesauce into her lunch box, she won’t touch it—ever. However, in her new book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Wilson argues that our tastes aren’t fixed; instead, they’re almost entirely learned.

Vancouver mom Cindy MacDougall says she found the argument appalling, specifically because it assumes picky eating is a manipulative trick that kids pull on their parents. With four kids between the ages of five and 13, MacDougall says she refuses to make alternative meals for her sons Alex and Eddie, both of whom are picky eaters.

“For my two picky eaters, their palates narrowed around age three,” she says. “Alex, my oldest, had issues with certain flavours and vegetables. He hated most sauces—he said they were too sloppy. Eddie, my youngest, hates almost all fruits and veggies. He will only eat apples, watermelon and broccoli. It’s frustrating.”

But the sophisticated palate of MacDougall’s daughter, Naomi, belies all the research that Wilson offers up in the Maclean’s article. Because MacDougall suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum during her pregnancy, she barely ate anything. According to research, her now-nine-year-old girl should be a picky eater. But MacDougall says that isn’t the case at all. “Naomi loves food and has always eaten a wide variety, from the moment we introduced solids,” she says. “When I was pregnant with her, the only thing that stayed in me was a Big Mac meal once a week. Other than that, I survived on IV fluids.”

Jessica Brett, a mom from Burnaby, BC, says her three-year-old son, Tanner, didn’t always have food aversions. But shortly after his second birthday, Tanner started rejecting Brett’s home-cooked meals of quinoa, lentils and vegetables.

“We always put everything we’re eating on his plate and get him to try it, which he sometimes does, but he ends up gagging most times and then we feel bad for trying to get him to try it,” she says, noting that Tanner’s diet consists mainly of meat, yogurt, cheese, bread, spaghetti and apples, plus a liquid vitamin supplement.

Brett says she has sought help from an occupational therapist and Tanner’s paediatrician. Currently, they’re going through the process of diagnosing Tanner with sensory processing disorder. It’s because of Tanner’s sensory issues that Brett refuses to take the Maclean’s interview with Wilson seriously. “Honestly, it seemed like a silly article to write,” she says. “Not enough research was done, and it didn’t take families who have children with sensory issues into consideration.”

Here’s the thing: No one is going to give you an award for having a kid who chooses kale over Kraft Dinner, just as there should be no shame in serving the same three foods to your toddler three times a day if, overall, his diet is balanced and your kid is healthy. Getting through mealtime without a kid gagging, crying or flipping her plate Bautista-style? Now that’s something that should make parents proud.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences of giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her@JenPinarski.

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Don’t hate me because my daughter isn’t a picky eater>

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