Do Food Freaks Have Pickier Kids?

Raising a picky eater can drive a parent crazy, and when that parent happens to be obsessed with food, it can be maddening. Sadly, that's a feeling many moms and dads know all too well. Because for complex reasons, food freaks are actually more likely than other parents to raise picky little eaters. Here's why:

Sensitivity cuts both ways.

One thing many parents say about their picky kids is that they're extraordinarily attuned to even minute differences in flavor. One brand of white rice is acceptable while another is not; an unfamiliar brand of milk tastes funny. The kid may not technically be a supertaster, but still she's highly sensitive to flavors, temperatures, and textures. She's very interested in food, even if that means refusing to eat what she doesn't like.

Then, years after doing battle with Mom over lima beans, she morphs into an adult who's unusually keen about food. "There's a thin line between love and hate," says Stephanie Lucianovic, whose book Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate is due in July. Lucianovic (a former CHOW contributor) points out how many formerly picky eaters learn to cook, since they want to know exactly what's in their food.

So if a lot of foodies were picky eaters as kids, and since research has shown that pickiness, or food "neophobia," is "highly heritable," it stands to reason that food-obsessed adults are more likely than others to give birth to picky kids.

Parents push kids too far.

Let's call this the nurture-versus-nature theory: Food-loving parents are more anxious for their kids to eat a broad range of foods, and thus cause power struggles.

Matthew Amster-Burton, a food writer and author of Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, saw this play out. His young daughter, Iris, began summarily announcing she didn't eat entire categories of food, like soup, or anything with black pepper specks.

"The whole reason I got into food writing is that I like food, and when I eat something, I want to share it with other people," he says. "When you've made food that you love and you want to share it with your family but one member spits it out and says, 'That sucks,' it's hard not to have an emotional reaction."

There is some evidence that pushing a kid to eat is counterproductive in the long run. For example, people who were forced to eat certain foods as kids are less likely to want that food as adults.

Foodie parents have skewed ideas about what "picky" means.

What did your mom serve for dinner? Was it pad Thai, miso soup, chicken tikka masala, and a range of other adventurous and ever-changing dishes from various world cuisines? Or was it a small subset of foods, much like what her mother and grandmother served?

Pickiness is not new. What is new is that parents today expect kids to eat a whole lot of crazy stuff earlier generations didn't have to, and then call them picky when they don't.

Lucianovic illustrates this point by reading off a list of baby foods that Gerber offered in the 1970s: apples and pears, tapioca, chicken and rice. Now it offers pasta primavera and "herbed chicken" baby food. Other companies, like Ella's Kitchen, offer flavors like Four Bean Feast, which includes several beans and vegetables, plus pepper, onions, and basil.

And that's just for babies. As soon as they become toddlers, kids are expected to eat some pretty far-out adult stuff: foie gras? Sardines on toast? To label a kid picky just because he's freaked out by greasy, stinky foods seems a little much, especially from parents who faced nothing freakier as kids than a streak of ketchup down the middle of Mom's meatloaf.

Image source: Photograph of drawing by Flickr member bethany actually under Creative Commons

Former CHOW contributor Joyce Slaton is an editor and writer in San Francisco. She takes her tea with sugar and milk and will sew you an apron if you ask nicely. Follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.