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Raising a non-picky eater

My son turned 16 almost two weeks ago, and another post on another board got me thinking about his eating habits.The post in question asked for how to raise a kid who isn't a picky eater.

I can give our experience to you in a nutshell: We never "assumed" Ian wouldn't like a given food. As a result, he's always been a person who will try anything twice; as he puts it, "The first time they may not have made it right."

I really think that an awful lot of picky eaters are the result of an upbringing by parents who either eat a fairly limited menu, have food issues of their own, or both. They project their issues onto their children, assuming that the kids won't eat something that they've never even tried, when in reality the kid may love the item in question. As the child grows up, this skittishness about food becomes ingrained. My niece, who lives up the street, is the Poster Child for this sort of thing. She doesn't even like ranch dressing. Who ever heard of a suburban American kid not liking ranch dressing?

We just always assumed Ian might like just about anything. And indeed, he has very few dislikes. He doesn't like raw onions or any food where onion is the primary ingredient (French onion soup, for example). Brussels sprouts are a challenge. He won't touch organ meats, but that's OK because with the exception of chicken liver neither will I. But those are the only major hangups. He's been eating seafood since he could eat solid food, and when he was little senior citizens in the grocery store would do a double-take when he'd ask for broccoli in the produce aisle. Sushi is a passion of his. And when faced by something he's never tried before, his reaction is always the same: "Let's give it a try."

I'm thankful for this, but he has no siblings so I need some other models if I'm to answer in this question: How out of the ordinary is he for his age?

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  1. He's pretty out of the ordinary. But I am 20 years old, and in a similar position. I will eat pretty much anything, most of my friends eat burgers and fries.

    Oh...and I HATED ranch dressing as a kid. Still don't like it much. Haha, tastes fake to me... :)

    6 Replies
    1. re: milkyway4679

      Ha, milkway, you sound like me. I too hated ranch as a kid, and still dislike it. I agree, it takes fake. I am young as well (22) but have had opportunities to eat in many fine dining establishments and can appreciate good, well prepared foods of all different varieties.
      Miraculously, I come from a anti-foodie family.. aka a meat and potatoes family. I was raised on chicken fingers (frozen) and rotiserie chickens. My parents have never tried any sea food, wont touch any meet other than pork, chicken and beef (no, not even lamb) and cheese was banned in my house growing up b/c my mother didnt like the smell.
      While I agree, parents pushing their own food insecurities on their children often does cause children to be picky as well, I'm proof that there is hope for the restricted child. I turned into a foodie, I'll try absolutely anything and I love just about anything. Who knows, maybe its my own way of rebelling.

      1. re: hungryabbey

        a meat and potatoes family that doesnt eat cheese?? now THAT i have to see

        1. re: hungryabbey

          Hungryabbey, I agree with you regarding people who push their food insecurities off on their kids. There were foods that my mom liked and I hated and vice versa, and as an adult and a mother myself I try to impress upon my children that just because someone else doesn't like it (mom, dad, grandma, grandpa..) doesn't mean they can't like it. They have their own unique taste and that's what my goal has always been.

        2. re: milkyway4679

          I suspect that most bottled ranch dressing _is_ mostly fake.
          At the ranch where it comes from, they likely wear lab coats.

          1. re: milkyway4679

            I think you mean you hated buttermilk, mayonnaise, salt, garlic, onion, herbs ?

            1. re: milkyway4679

              I agree that commercial Ranch dressing is disgusting. However, as a foodie, you are now possessed with the knowledge that you can make it at home from scratch! You may still not like it if you're inclined to like vinaigrette over creamy dressings but believe me... homemade scratch ranch is far superior to what they serve "in the valley".

            2. well I have 3 kids, and they have all been raised basically the same way, presented with the same foods, and all 3 are very different in their preferences. Kid #1 is the "pickiest". He dislikes most meat, anything with lots of spice (but loves hot salsa), and prefers vegetables. He also has a freakishly good sense of smell. Kid #2 (only girl) is tiny, and eats almost anything in huge quantities. Kid #3 is one who will ask for broccoli at the store, loves certain foods, and dislikes trying new things.

              The kids know that I cook one meal for dinner, and that is it. There are a few exceptions, for which they can make grilled cheese or soup, etc, but not on a nightly basis. Since all 3 are exposed the same way to food, I find some of it to be personality. Kid #1 wants it plain, will try, but has a lot of dislikes. (again, freakish sense of smell seems to come into play here) . Kid #2 tries it all at least once. Kid #3 does not like to try new things.

              I guess my point is that in our (non-scientific) life experiment, each kid brings their own personality to the table & that despite the same exposure, some kids are just pickier than others. I don't fret about it - they won't starve. Husband & I keep making and eating good foods, trying new things, and let them come along for the ride.

              12 Replies
              1. re: elfcook

                I agree. My brother and I were raised the same way in the same house but are about 180 degrees from each other eating wise. We were growing up, and now that we are adults. As a very young (still in diapers) child I, apparently, once threw a fit at the grocery store because my mom wouldn't buy some expensive brussel sprouts, which led to her getting chewed out by an older woman who was watching. I've always loved to eat fruits and vegetables, try new things, and eaten a wide variety of food. My brother, on the other hand, spent a good chunk of his childhood refusing to eat anything other than peanut butter and jelly, coffee yogurt, or bananas, and after moving out on his own lived completely on fast food for a year or two.

                I find the whole nature vs. nuture question very interesting. Obviously, both come into play. Both my brother and I have a healthy love for Thai and Japanese food, and I would imagine that has to do with my father loving them and us going out to eat at Japanese and Thai places frequently while growing up.

                1. re: elfcook

                  I was one of four, and our tastes differed. My problem was that I was the eat-anything kid. This meant I was landed with the gristly bits, the deformed vegetables and the burnt toast.

                  This diet of undesirables has led to point where I eat pretty much anything, from brains to tripe, snails to oysters, chillies to tamarind, squid to raw fish, bok choy to fennel, squirrel to snake.

                  For some odd reason I don't like sprouts.

                  1. re: elfcook

                    I agree. When it comes to this topic, some parents proudly pat themselves on the back, some wring their hands wondering what went wrong, some condemn others for doing the wrong thing but a lot of it comes down to the children. If it were as easy as do xxx and get yyy result with people, all people, society would be perfect.

                    1. re: chowser

                      add another here to agree. My kids have *completely* different tastes and they've grown up eating all sorts of thing in this household.

                      1. re: DGresh

                        i remember a conversation when i was about 12 and my sister was 22; she was asking my mom to write down "what goes with what"; i could hardly believe we had grown up in the same household... my mom served some "normal" combinations, i.e. roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and peas; roast beef with carrots, onions and potatoes; sister once made spaghetti sauce with dill weed(yikes!) and did not know how to make stuffing for t
                        giving when i visited about 7 years later. her answer to me when i tease her is that she raised 4 kids and no one starved! truly she is a much better cook now

                      2. re: chowser

                        Do you really think most Americans *try* to expose their kids to food beyond a vastly bought/prepared supermarket diet and the occasional "ethnic" restaurant? I definitely do not think they do. What's more, I don't think you've can raise a kid with truly broad tastes without more work than most Americans are willing to put in.

                        1. re: Vetter

                          Do you really think *any* parents expose their kids to food outside their own backgrounds? It's not just American parents. I work in an international school and at lunch every day you see the kids eating the same things. Most of the Korean kids are eating Cup Noodle, the American kids are eating sandwiches, the Indian kids are heating up curry in the microwave.

                          1. re: Vetter

                            My comment was that a parent can give their children diverse foods and still end up with a picky child. As many have said in this thread, you can raise different children the same way and end up with different results. That doesn't mean the converse that you can give a child a restricted diet and end up with a child who isn't. I don't think it's about parents not wanting to put in the work. I think parents, as lulubelle said, feed kids the way they know. I don't know any chowhounds who feed their children only mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. I would believe that chowhounds probably have children with more diverse taste but, as evident in this thread, not every CH's child will be adventurous, at least while young.

                            1. re: Vetter

                              I've known many Turks living in Long Island who would only eat Turkish food and occasionally go out for pizza. I've known Israelis who only eat anything Middle Eastern. In fact, one man in particular, when going for korean for his son's b-day, would wait several hours to go for Mamoun's falafel afterwards. Point being, it's unfair to generalize Americans as being picky; people worldwide are capable of being narrow minded when it comes to food.

                              1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                My father-in-law, who is Chinese and from Malaysia, has the most difficult time accepting any food outside of the various Chinese cuisines. This was reinforced by being offered tourist food in the US (he was a travel agent).

                                My mom, who is from Japan, eats Japanese food as well as Chinese. Some Thai will work, but nothing spicy or heavy. Outside of that, it's almost always a no-go.

                                1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                  This is very very true. I'm open minded when it comes to food, more than my siblings, but we all grew up eating the same thing. I guess I feel fortunate that my culture incorporates a lot of different ingredients and vegetables so I'm used to eating them from a young age, where as I noticed many americans specifically have issues feeding their kids vegetables (I think because they don't prepare them in a delicous manner or one of both parents seem to have issues with a food too so kids pick up on that)

                                  It's good to hear when kids are willing to try new foods and are exposed to different cuisines or at least ingredients, that helps a lot. Great topic by the way JMCKEE, thanks for opening up the discussion!!

                              2. re: chowser

                                Definitely agree. Just looking at most of the families i know, there are often very different food personalities among them. With my own family, we are probably all about the same level when it comes to pickiness, but we all like totally different types of food. I have no idea how that happens when we all grew up under the same roof, but that's how it is.

                            2. I don't think that Ian is out of the ordinary. I fully agree that if you are raised on chicken fingers and mac and cheese that is all you will like. My kids are 11 and 14 and will eat anything at least once, however, they have always been expected to try new things, and are presented with a wide variety of food choices. We like to dine out as a family and skip the kids menu. They eat duck, oysters, all veggies.

                              1. Even the best-intentioned parent can end up with a picky kid, but the good news is that eating habits at age 10 (or even 17) don't necessarily foreshadow what they'll eat as an adult. My mom is a fantastic cook and will eat almost anything herself, but as a kid I stuck to the "beige diet" - pasta, cheese, chicken, carrots, & ketchup, mostly. As late as high school I refused to try Thai food (my mom's favorite). Now, at 24, I made my own larb last night (and set off the smoke alarm making the toasted rice powder for it), and can't wait to try the new Ethiopian restaurant downtown for lunch tomorrow. The OP's method may still leave you with a picky kid, but the good news is they'll likely grow out of it.

                                21 Replies
                                1. re: Emmmily

                                  I was a very picky eater for a while as well. I don't really think it always has anything to do with your upbringing. My parents will eat about anything, but I was just not into it for most of my childhood. I eat a good deal more now than I did 10-15 years ago, so there's no guarantee that a picky kid now means a picky adult.

                                  1. re: queencru

                                    Whatever few foods I disliked as a child (lamb, bulgur, salami, and some dishes) I now crave and absolutely love. I'm obsessed with them and it all just came out of the blue one day.
                                    I feel like I was missing out, but somehow I didn't like them back then, so I believe tastes can change as an adult and mature.

                                    What I do know is that my mother is the type to try anything, and whenever she was she'd grab one of us and say "just try it" so I would. When parents or guardians make an issue out of it like the times I remember my grandma saying "she won't like it" or my aunt saying "nooo, don't try it" because she didn't like it herself then I felt that uneasiness, and it affected my decision to try it a bit. Though I still did most of the time, but I can imagine this sort of thing affecting children.

                                    My significant other is pickey, and I honestly don't want him interfering in any way with how I raise and feed the children (once we have them) :P

                                    1. re: queencru

                                      I agree, queencru and emmmily. We attempted to raise our son to be open-minded about food, but it didn't work. He was a pizza-chicken nugget-hot dog-mac & cheese eating kid. We let him because he was so skinny that I was afraid he'd starve otherwise.

                                      Now at age 21, Indian is his favorite food, anything spicy especially. He voluntarily eats salad. He'll at least try anything I cook now, and likes most of it. He even has a decent beer palate:)

                                      Don't give up hope, jmckee. You could end up with a foodie child yet!

                                    2. re: Emmmily

                                      Your "beige diet" is actually far more adventuresome than my nephew's version of it. I think he survived for five years of early childhood essentially eating plain cooked pasta and graham crackers. Parents cooked everything from scratch save for the occasional takeout Thai food from down the street, offered him everything under the sun, and never tried to limit anything to 'kid's food'.

                                      And he'd essentially hunger strike if he didn't get one of his five acceptable foods at a meal. His pediatrician eventually said to just let him have his pasta and make sure he took vitamin supplements. Nephew is now in high school, and still picky to the point where if he goes out for fast food, he'll only get fries because he doesn't like fast food sandwiches.

                                      Maybe someday he'll grow out of his insane pickiness, maybe he won't, but his limited dietary preferences aren't from a lack of effort on his parents' part.

                                      1. re: beachmouse

                                        I definitely survived a few summers at sleepaway camp as a kid on nothing but bread & butter or cream-cheese sandwiches (pb&j was a no-go - and still is actually; I still don't like peanuts). For me the real game-changer was that most of my close friends in college were Asian - peer pressure can be much more persuasive than parental pressure. I certainly didn't want to look stupid in front of my new friends by refusing to go out for Thai or insult my roommate's mother by not at least trying her saag paneer. When your nephew gets to that stage in life, he'll have a leg up over a lot of people in that while he may not have tried other foods before, at least he's seen them and seen other people enjoying them, so they're not totally foreign and scary. Now pardon me while I go cook up that bok choy for dinner :-)

                                        1. re: beachmouse

                                          So I'm the parent who would first find out if he was using food as something he could control, if he felt repressed in too many other areas of his life, and if THAT weren't the case, then I'd tell him suck it up and he can eat what I serve or he can just drink water.

                                          I don't have kids yet - but I do have 3 poorly raised niece and nephews who do better under my husband and I than under their own parents. : /

                                          1. re: JReichert

                                            All kids do better "under" someone other than their parents. Think back to your own childhood.

                                            1. re: JReichert

                                              Good luck with that, JReichert. I was already underweight as a child despite eating until I was full consistently and being watched like a hawk by my pediatrician. I would have gotten really sick if my parents had done that. I don't think it's too much to ask for parents to let people put sauce on their own pasta at the table or leave some plain rice, put gravy in a container so people can serve themselves, leave some of the vegetables raw, whatever. It's no extra work.

                                              1. re: JReichert

                                                This reminds me of the comic strip when the mom says, "Yeah, i was a much better parent before I actually became a parent."

                                                1. re: chowser

                                                  That is very funny and true! My sister has a son (now age 9) who has always been (and still is) about as skinny as a toothpick and a very picky eater. It is painful to sit at a meal with him because you just want to see him eat something. Before I had kids I was at the top of the list of people who had advice for my sister on how to get him to eat. Then I had kids.

                                                  I have a daughter, age 7, and a son, age 5. My daughter always ate anything and everything and still eats everything. She may not love everything, but she will try anything and likes most everything. My son, on the other hand, started off as one of those that would eat anything. Then he turned 2 and the whole story changed. He became one of those picky eaters that I swore I would never have. The good news is that he likes to eat, the bad news is that he has a limited repertoire.

                                                  I do not give up, however. I am always cooking new things and I make him at least try something before he declares that "this is gross". I do not make new things every night because it is so frustrating to cook something and hear those words, even from a 5 year old, but I try to mix in new things at least once during week and sometimes I find a new dish that my whole family enjoys. I don't cook my son separate meals, per se, but for example tonight we will have fajitas with steak. He will eat the meat and the rice that I make to go with it but no peppers or even the tortillas or cheese. So be it.

                                                  I never force my son to eat anything. My husband grew up in a house where he was forced to eat things that his father deemed healthy (tuna fish, various vegetables, etc.). Now, at 42, my husband would die before he would eat tuna fish or most vegetables and fruit. So that tactic clearly backfired.

                                                  And I no longer give unsolicited advice on people feeding their kids. I refuse to give my kids chicken nuggets every night and I work hard to get my son over this picky phase (which is now in it's 3rd year!) but I keep at it and keep my mouth shut where other people's kids are concerned.

                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                    That's no comic strip, that's my brother-in-law. He was full of advice for other people before he and his wife had kids, but their kids are among the brattiest I've ever known.

                                                  2. re: JReichert

                                                    I had similar thoughts to that effect since my nephew was so picky. But becoming a Mom 3 years ago - wow, did I get an education in picky children! (And I'm a complete omnivore! Apparently, this trait didn't pass down to my son yet!)

                                                2. re: Emmmily

                                                  I was one of those picky little buggers too. Oh, I had my love of spice and garlic, but really I was annoyingly picky, though my mom tried. Somebody mentioned a freakish sense of smell (and taste, any hint of bitter just bites at my tongue), and that was an issue for me too. I still get pissed at my tastebuds for rejecting many foods I really really WANT to like. For instance, I am fascinated with and love to cook eggs, and reportedly have a knack for it. But for the life of me I can't stand the taste! How weird is it to want to cook something for somebody else that you can't stand to eat? I have several things like that, foods I love to cook, but don't actually like the taste of.

                                                  1. re: Popkin

                                                    I imagine would find that very difficult to do. I need to taste the food as it is prepped / cooked so I can imagine changes it may need, or opportunities for variation. Luckily I eat almost anything.

                                                    I have one of those freakish senses of smell. And I dislike most perfumes.

                                                    1. re: Paulustrious

                                                      "I have one of those freakish senses of smell. And I dislike most perfumes."

                                                      Me too!

                                                  2. re: Emmmily

                                                    Your post reminded me of my first pediatrician in Monterey CA. He assured this scared new mother, far from family and my own mother's advice, that my child was at least as smart as my dog. "No animal" he said "will voluntarily starve to death in the face of food. This is not a hill to die on."

                                                    1. re: Sherri

                                                      That wouldn't be Dr. Wooley, would it?

                                                      Put healthy food in front of the kids, and more often than not they'll eat it. If my kids don't like what's served, they can always make themselves peanut butter and jelly. But not until **after** they've sat through dinner and participated in family conversation. It's amazing what they're willing to try when everybody else is enjoying it and they don't have other options at the moment.

                                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                                        Talcott Bates, MD. The commonsense guru for the centuries. He absolutely advocated putting various foods out for the children to sample and let them make up their own minds; no pressure, no histronics. "This is dinner and you may leave the table when we are all finished eating".

                                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                                          Hi Alan, I was thinking about Dr. Wooley. He was a partner with Dr. Lusignan who was my doctor while I was growing up. My father, Joe Turner was a GP in Monterey. Lusignan married the widow of Al Capp, the cartoonist. I think I vaguely remember that. I don't think I ever saw Dr. Wooley; just knew the name. Dr. Talcott Bates was very well known on the Peninsula. His son was president of the senior class when I was at Monterey High. I moved back to California after being gone a long time; being back brings back memories.

                                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                                            "But not until **after** they've sat through dinner and participated in family conversation."

                                                            That's a very good ploy. When in Rome . . . .

                                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                                              I took to making my own food very quickly for this reason. I eventually started making my own food while my parents cooked and then sit down and eat it with the family. Mostly because my family took forever to eat dinner and I wasn't going to wait until I felt sick to make myself something to eat if I had tried and couldn't stand what was for dinner.

                                                        2. My sons are older than your 16 year old boy. I really don't know if I was blessed with a pair of non-picky eaters, was a superbly brilliant parent or what happened but we did not have the "pickies" at our home. Dinner was dinner. Everyone was allowed a couple of "No, thank you" food choices but other than these, we did not entertain daily menu selections, especially for children (chicken fingers and the like) nor did we have mealtimes as battlegrounds ("oh please honey, just take a taste and you can have your favorite dessert . You'll make mommy so happy ......."). I figure that mommie's happiness is her own business and not dependent on whether or not Jr. tries his eggplant.

                                                          Our philosophy has always been that meals are a pleasant time for families to come together; to share their day's triumphs as well as the bruisings and revel in the unconditional love of your closest relatives. It is best shared around a table without benefit of TV or phone interruptions. I do not buy the "I'm too busy" argument because it makes no sense to be too busy to nuture those you love in all the best ways possible. This nuturing does not include the backseat of the family SUV watching a video after getting your paper-wrapped whatsis from the drive-thru window while mom drives you to some pseudo-important scheduled event.

                                                          I live in the Phoenix AZ area and today's newspaper carries an article about a restaurant with an unlikely/upbeat children's menu. Instead of hot dogs and fries, children are offered "real food" such as ziti baked with tomatoes, mozzarella topped greens or corn & tomato pizza, chopped salad, teriyaki chicken with vegetables and brown rice, etc. When children are treated with respect, they respond in kind. There is no need to pander to whims based on advertizing schemes. Besides, chickens don't have fingers! Get the children involved in the growing and preparation of their meals and the "pickies" become history.

                                                          What a wonderful young man you are rearing to respond to life's challenges with the upbeat "Let's give it a try" attitude. This is a priceless gift for the rest of his life. You are to be congratulated.
                                                          P.S. be prepared for his slack-jawed amazement when he encounters the extreme "pickies" in college from some of his fellow students.

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: Sherri

                                                            He is very involved with an outstanding a capella chorus at school, and some of his friends are terribly picky. It amazes him and makes socializing with some of them a bit of a culinary crapshoot.

                                                            One of his closest friends is a girl who will not eat beef, but at least she has a fairly understandable aversion. In sixth grade, she did a huge report on cows, including having a hoof, a skull, and a bone or two. She lived with them in her room for about three months, and now she says that it freaked her out and gave her what looks like a permanent refusal to eat beef.

                                                            1. re: Sherri

                                                              Getting children involved in the prep of meals can help...unless you're still forcing kids to make food they find disgusting. I'm an adult now, and I can make a lot of things I'd never eat (which I think is really important when you don't live alone), but I still won't eat them. I just have my boyfriend stand by as taster or rely on my sense of smell (which seems to do a freakishly good job).