Why Pressuring Picky Eaters Just Doesn’t Work
New research shows you’ve got to meet your tablemates where they are (and take it easy on yourself, too).
There was one night when food was thrown, and not by a child. We have survived the showdowns over seasoning, endured the face-offs when something green touches something not green. We have served the chicken fingers we now regret.
Like so many parents, my wife and I sometimes sweat the recalcitrance of our nightly dining companions, currently aged 11 and five. They’re—selective; the eldest, our boy, especially so. And no doubt, we find any sign of picky eating vexing in part because we’ve both worked, in various ways and times, as food journalists. It’s ironic, but not in a fun way.
We also run in culinary-conscious circles, which doesn’t help. It’s become almost too handy for some of us to think of being a “good eater” as a proxy for being a good future global citizen. We’ve all met that kid who “eats everything,” much to his parents’ self-satisfaction, and all worried we’re just not French enough. It can feel like we somehow did it wrong, alone in a world of pint-sized kimchi fans.
But as it turns out, recent research into “picky” eating has something to say to the likes of me. Basically, chill: Ease off the pressure, both for your own sake and the sake of your kids’ evolving relationship with food.
At the University of Michigan, researcher Megan Pesch investigates the long-term trajectories of choosy kids and scrutinizes whether those maddening “picky” behaviors really mean much over time. A recent chat with Pesch proved reassuring. As a practicing pediatrician and mother—at one point during our conversation, she toggled to “the minivan phone” receiver—she’s seen and lived the struggle. In her research work, she and her colleagues have observed that picky eating doesn’t tend to scar kids in ways we might fear.
“There can be a perception that picky eating is a prelude to an eating disorder or a negative relationship with food,” she says. “It’s not.” Nor are picky eaters generally underweight or malnourished—in fact, in some comparisons between picky and more accepting eaters, the picky seem less prone to obesity. “It’s kind of an interesting finding,” Pesch says. “Picky eating could be somewhat protective, in a time when there are so many risk factors.”
Pesch’s work generally tracks cohorts of kids from toddler age (three or four) into their early school years (eight or nine). One finding: once kids develop picky habits, they usually stick by them, evolving strictly at their own pace. Dinnertime battles, in other words, may represent misallocated energy. (Theoretically, I guess, you could be having a warm, bond-building conversation.) In fact, Pesch reports a finding other researchers back up: Nagging, especially at early ages, can backfire.
“Pressuring kids to eat, out of frustration and good intentions, seemed to correlate to kids becoming pickier,” she notes.
That’s exactly the point of a recent report from Great Britain, where the University of Bristol’s medical school tracks a huge cohort of people born in the 1990s, examining many facets of development. One study compared some of that group’s picky-eating kids with their non-picky peers in the study. Among other conclusions, according to Bristol researcher Caroline Taylor, “It’s probably part of a normal phase of establishing independence and autonomy.” Most kids, she adds, will grow out of it—which seems almost too reasonable and logical.
As in studies by Pesch and her Michigan colleagues, the Bristol research found pressure almost comically counterproductive. “It’s likely there is a complex, ongoing interaction between the parent and child around power,” Taylor says, “with food being used as the focus of the tussle.” Just to put a fine point on it, in the Bristol study, less pressure = less picky eating. When it comes to autonomy, kids don’t have much. Choosing what they will or won’t eat provides one of few opportunities to assert identity and act on their own sensibilities.
So, okay! But what do we do? As Megan Pesch puts it, “Knowing all this is one thing. But we have to acknowledge that in the moment, it can be very frustrating.” Both researchers, as it happens, recommend similar approaches—low-key, practical, and commonsensical.
Keep giving kids opportunities to try foods, without pressure. (Repetition seems to be the single best tactic for winning over young palettes.) Provide fruits and vegetables—enough of those pretty much check the health and nutrition boxes. Try to avoid cooking special, “short-order” meals (or what Pesch calls “the battle of the yummiest”). But consider always putting one thing you know they’ll eat on the table. Don’t get hung up on any single dish or ingredient, and don’t get ideologically attached to any specific vision of your kids’ relationship to food.
Relax (as much as possible). This is a long game.
“There’s no one food—broccoli, brussels sprouts—that is essential for life,” Taylor says. “It’s more about diet over a week or a month, and about eating a range of foods in moderation.”
“What does it mean to be a ‘good eater’?” Pesch asks. “The truth is, it depends.”
At our place, there may be a certain amount of damage done. We’ll never get do-overs on those specially defrosted chicken fingers; we can’t unpour all that ranch dressing. But we can take our love and concern and channel it elsewhere. We can encourage our kids in the kitchen, where they’re both starting to develop some chops and some go-to dishes. (The five-year-old’s PB&Js tend to produce a clean-up disaster, but we’ll live.)
And we can concentrate on making the table a welcoming, fun place to be. Sitting down to dinner together, after all, is only partially about nutrition. It’s really about nourishment, in a broader sense—the kind that happens best when the pressure is off.
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