Scientists Try to Figure Out Picky Eating in Kids

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Photo: Lynn Koenig/Getty Images

For some kids, mealtime is a war: It’s them against broccoli, or whatever culinary abomination their parents have chosen to serve for dinner that night. And yet not all picky eaters are picky in exactly the same way, notes Sharon M. Donovan, a nutrition professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who recently published a paper in The Journal of Sensory Studies on the subject. Her theory, as reported by Scientific American, is that if researchers can identify why some kids are such finicky eaters, they can help develop some targeted strategies for parents, bringing some much-needed peace to family dinners.

For two weeks, parents of 170 2- to 4-year-olds observed and recorded their kids’ mealtime battles, and Donovan and her study co-authors noticed that the kids’ behavior tended to fall into one of four categories (though some kids exhibited more than one type). There are sensory-dependent eaters, who are hard sells on foods with unusual textures or smells; preferential eaters, who reject anything unfamiliar; behavioral responders, who freak out when their food isn’t prepared exactly the way they like it; and general perfectionists, who may have a variety of idiosyncratic requirements (they may hate when different foods touch each other, for example). 

Eventually, the researchers aim to come up with strategies for how to talk each type of picky eater into trying new foods, but for now, there are a few things that generally seem to work. “For a child who does not like mixed foods, show him or her the individual ingredients the first time you serve the item,” writes Francine Russo for Scientific American. “Acknowledge that your child has preferences but serve foods that are deemed unacceptable along with favorite foods. Don’t force your child to eat something new but encourage him or her to take a taste.”

And don’t give up easily. “Children may need 10 exposures to a new food before accepting it,” Donovan told Russo. “Parents often give up before then.” All of this, by the way, rings true to this reformed picky eater.