Being a Picky Eater Might Have Unexpected Consequences

Last Update: July 20, 2023

Peeled grapes, American cheese on crust-less white bread, only the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—many kids have some kind of compulsion about food, and trading war stories about trying to get kids to eat their vegetables is a popular playground pastime.

Most adults probably remember having their own picky eating habits at one point or another. And most of the time, being a little fussy about food isn’t a big deal. Inconvenient sometimes, but harmless—right?

It turns out, being extremely choosy about food might be indicative of larger issues. A new study discovered that preschoolers who were extraordinarily picky eaters may be more likely to be diagnosed with depression and other mental health problems later in life.

Of course, not all kids who dislike cauliflower or refuse to eat red meat will experience these problems. The study’s authors noted that severely picky eaters—kids who struggle with food neophobia, a fear of new foods—tended to experience more severe issues down the road. It’s also important to note that the study simply shoes a correlation between severe picky eating and mental health issues, and children’s eating habits are not the cause of depression or anxiety, or vice versa.

Experts say parents of children with picky palates shouldn’t freak out. For most kids, being a little choosy about what they eat is just a phase. If your little one really won’t eat anything but plain pasta, there are a few techniques you can try to encourage them to at least taste new foods.

First of all, try not to get angry—after all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. One study discovered that as much as 72 percent of childhood food avoidance can be traced back to genetics.

But DNA is not entirely to blame. The environment a child grows up in also has a lot to do with their food preferences. When kids see their friends eating a variety of different foods, they’re more likely to try new things themselves. The same goes for their teachers. Even mothers who eat a diverse diet during their pregnancy are more likely to have children who are willing to experiment with unusual tastes.

Keep presenting kids with new flavors and foods to try, even if they try to refuse. It can take 12 or more tries before a child will go for a new food. Enforce a “one bite” rule, and don’t let picky eaters leave the table until they’ve at least tasted everything on their plate.

Some kiddos might feel more inclined to experiment with food if they have a chance to get more involved in the kitchen. Making fun shapes out of vegetables, naming a dish after their favorite cartoon character, or even asking little ones to help mix the salad could help them get over their food prejudices.

If all else fails, PB&J (or whatever they’ve deemed acceptable) isn’t so bad. Most often, picky eating is just a phase, and like everything else, kids will grow out of it.

Photo credit: RG&B Images via Stocksy

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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