We all have our favorite foods, and some that we avoid at all costs. Thinking back to childhood, it can be easy to see how proclivities for particular foods are formed. Perhaps our parents emphasized having vegetables at every meal, or maybe there were lots of sugary treats in the house. What we consume in early childhood sets the stage for eating habits later in life.
What may be surprising, however, is that so-called “picky eating” is not in and of itself a bad thing. In nature flavors indicate if something is safe to eat, or if it is potentially dangerous. Aversion to certain foods is the body’s natural way of trying to protect itself. The good thing is that children learn to trust the example of parents and older siblings, creating the opportunity to open the gateway and explore many different types of food – even delicious vegetables!
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
Full Episode Transcript
[00:00:00] Agatha: Hi, I'm Agatha Luso, mother of four.
[00:00:08] Dr. Greene: And, I'm Alan Greene, pediatrician.
[00:00:10] Agatha: Welcome to Bambini Fortuna's podcast. Mom’s driven.
[00:00:14] Dr. Greene: Dr. Aligned.
[00:00:15] Agatha: Yes, we're recording. Hi, Dr. Greene!
[00:00:20] Dr. Greene: Hey Agatha! We're going to talk about picky eating.
[00:00:22] Agatha: Yes, and children can become picky eaters for many different reasons. Some children are naturally more sensitive to taste, smell, and textures.
[00:00:30] I think children can also develop picky eating habits by mimicking their parents' bad and fussy eating habits. I know we have to set a good example for our children, and I try to set a good example for our kids. But why is picky eating even a thing?
[00:00:46] Dr. Greene: Yeah, this is going to surprise people, but picky eating is a feature and not a flaw. It's a good thing that kids are picky eaters.
[00:00:54] Agatha: Why is it a good thing?
[00:00:55] Dr. Greene: So, here's the way it works. Early on, we have taste buds that sense different things in the environment. They are there to help us figure out what's safe to eat and what's good to eat; and anything that is sweet and anything that is salty, we're drawn towards naturally because those are likely, if found in nature, good for us. But anything that's bitter might be toxic. So, we're built to be afraid of it early on, and anything that's sour might be spoiled. So, we're built to be afraid of it early on and kids need to learn to like anything that's bitter, like most vegetables or anything that has a sour note, like most fruit. So, it's a good thing.
[00:01:34] Agatha: All right. So then when they make their little fussy faces in the beginning, it doesn't mean that they really don't like it.
[00:01:39] Dr. Greene: Right. And we should do a whole podcast on how to start solids in a way that prevents them from being picky about the wrong stuff. But what happens once kids start to walk is they enter this new phase called neophobia, which means afraid of new foods, afraid of new things, and it's a physical fear.
[00:01:58] They have this fight or flight response to sources of food, textures of food, tastes of food that they're not familiar with already. And again, that's a good thing cause you wouldn't want a kid able to walk to toddle away from parents for the first time and go out in the yard and pick a berry and eat it because it could be horrible for them.
[00:02:16] And you don't want them to pick a leaf and eat it because it could be a really bad, toxic thing. So, they're built to be afraid of stuff that are not already familiar with the taste, the smell, the appearance, the source. They know which trees are okay to eat from.
[00:02:33] Agatha: And it's good that kids have that natural ability to protect themselves. But as a parent it's great news
[00:02:43] Dr. Greene: Right, but...
[00:02:44] Agatha: but there’s hope or your kids, loving vegetables, but then how do you get them to love all the vegetables and fruits.
[00:02:50] Dr. Greene: Right. So that's the key is teaching them to be picky about the right stuff. And this is a really, really common problem by the way, when parents of toddlers were asked if their kid was a picky eater, pickier than most kids, most parents said, yes. Most toddlers are picky eaters during this new phobia phase, but it is possible to teach them, and there's a bunch of different ways you can go about...
[00:03:12] Agatha: And when does the neophobia stage stop?
[00:03:13] Dr. Greene: Well, it actually starts when they start walking. It increases until about two and a half or three years old, and then stays steady until about nine.
[00:03:22] Agatha: Oh wow.
[00:03:22] Dr. Greene: And then starts to go away.
[00:03:23] Agatha: That's a long time for 3 ½...
[00:03:24] Dr. Greene: For all of us. If there's a food that we're really not familiar with, like a fermented food from another culture, then we might freak out and not want to do it.
[00:03:33] Agatha: Yeah, right.
[00:03:33] Dr. Greene: Same thing.
[00:03:34] Agatha: Right. I get that. So could children like having control.
[00:03:39] Dr. Greene: Right.
[00:03:40] Agatha: And as a parent, we want to control everything, but in reality, we only have control over when they eat, what they eat and where they eat. But children themselves, they choose if they're going to eat it and how much they're going to eat it.
[00:03:56] And you know, it feels like a constant battle with little kids sometimes. And I know that having that battle over food is not a good thing because you want a positive reaction over mealtime and rich foods.
[00:04:07] Dr. Greene: Right, yeah.
[00:04:08] Agatha: So how did we overcome the fear?
[00:04:11] Dr. Greene: So that will make it worse. It makes the fear even higher.
[00:04:12] Agatha: So, yeah, it increases the fear. So how do we not battle with our kids and how do we encourage great...
[00:04:17] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:04:17] Agatha: ...eating habits.
[00:04:18] Dr. Greene: So what's going on in their brain is that they're afraid of this new food. But the way they experience it is that it tastes bad or they're suspicious. They believe it's going to taste bad. So, what we have to do is decrease the fear somehow and increase the familiarity; make this seem like something that is safe, and then it will taste good to them.
[00:04:37] Agatha: So exposing the kids multiple times to that food...
[00:04:40] Dr. Greene: So multiple times is one way to do it.
[00:04:41] Agatha: And then also as a parent eating them and showing them that it's okay to eat the food.
[00:04:45] Dr. Greene: Exactly. So, in terms of multiple times, it's a lot of times. Before neophobia sets in, it's not so much. That's why it's great to start early with a lot of textures and flavors, but once they hit neophobia, it's around 89 tries of a food before they start to like it.
[00:05:01] Agatha: 89?
[00:05:02] Dr. Greene: 89! It's crazy. Right? But...
[00:05:04] Agatha: That's huge!
[00:05:05] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:05:05] Agatha: I thought it was about like 15 times.
[00:05:07] Dr. Greene: No, no, no. That's earlier. But once the neophobia hits, it's like 89. It can be faster.
[00:05:12] Agatha: So, starting around 13 months old, it's about 89 times.
[00:05:16] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:05:17] Agatha: All right. So parents, if you want your kids to eat something, you have to expose them to it before...
[00:05:22] Dr. Greene: Although you can do it later on. So I actually went back and picked the foods during childhood that I hated and still hate it as an adult. And I wanted to learn to like, like I wanted to learn to like cabbage because that's a really cool, healthy thing. But I absolutely hated cabbage. So, I had just had a bite often, and now I love cabbage and we'll order it on a meal.
[00:05:41] It actually tastes good to me. And before it's terrible, I think...
[00:05:45] Agatha: So you ate it about 90 times
[00:05:46] Dr. Greene: ...over several years.
[00:05:47] Agatha: But do you have to eat the food or can you start liking it just being exposed to it and smelling it.
[00:05:52] Dr. Greene: Yeah. The smell will do it to a certain extent. The sight of it will do it to a certain extent. You were talking about seeing your parents eat it can actually help some too. The trust goes a little bit higher but tasting it and actually swallowing it is the strongest way to build familiarity.
[00:06:07] Agatha: Yeah. I remember you once telling me about a study of children seeing a lineup of foods.
[00:06:14] Dr. Greene: Yes.
[00:06:15] Agatha: At four months old.
[00:06:16] Dr. Greene: Yeah. That was the study of... it was actually cans of drink that they did and they mocked up these cans. They were all fake cans, and then they had the parents go in and pick up one and drink from it. And then the kids didn't see those cans again for a year, but when they were toddlers went through and picked up the one that they saw their parent drink from a year ago. So they're paying attention and the familiarity thing was there for that one can.
[00:06:39] Agatha: All right. So, if we want our children to be eating foods, we have to eat them as well.
[00:06:43] Dr. Greene: Yeah, that's really huge.
[00:06:45] Agatha: Yeah, and we also have to set a good example and habits for our children and not be fussy eaters in front of them.
[00:06:51] Dr. Greene: Right. Well, let me tell you an example story that one of the ones that really blew me away. This study was done on extraordinarily picky eaters. I mean, so picky they wouldn't eat a single vegetable, would need any fruit at all. There were cats. Cats are like really finicky and they don't eat fruit. They don't eat vegetables. And s this was done on a cat, and the way they did it is they implanted electrodes in the brain and shocked them. Now,
[00:07:17] Agatha: Wow!
[00:07:17] Dr. Greene: I'm not...
[00:07:18] Agatha: That sounds, uh...
[00:07:19] Dr. Greene: …barbaric. I'm not saying this was a great thing to do. I'm just, I learned from it when I read it. I came across the study right. At least the shocks were shocks of pleasure, uh, not shocks of pain.
[00:07:32] Agatha: Okay, good.
[00:07:32] Dr. Greene: Yeah. So, they would have over like orgasmic kind of pleasure with when, when they, uh,
[00:07:38] Agatha: Okay. That sounds better.
[00:07:39] Dr. Greene: It's better, right?
[00:07:39] Agatha: Yeah.
[00:07:40] Dr. Greene: So what they did is they set the cats up in a room where they picked cat's least favorite food, and they'd had tested this before to find what they rejected the most. And it turned out that in general, fruits were the worst. And the worst fruit for cats is bananas. Cats do not like bananas.
[00:07:54] So they decided to try to teach them to like bananas and the way they did it is they did this shock. Every time they got closer to the bananas, they would get some kind of reward in their brain, and eventually it didn't take that long. They would start eating the bananas just to get the reward, and before long they would keep eating the bananas, even if they didn't get the reward, they learned to actually like the bananas.
[00:08:16] Now the thing about this study that was so cool is these were mother cats. And the baby cats never had, the baby kittens, never had the electrodes and never had the shocks of pleasure, but they just watched their mom and those baby cats would walk right past cat food and milk and things that cats would normally eat and they became banana eating kittens just from watching mom.
[00:08:42] Agatha: Yeah. That's fascinating because it shows that the cats, the baby kittens, had confidence in eating the bananas because they see their moms eating it and that it's okay.
[00:08:52] Dr. Greene: Yeah. Which is really cool. So, what we eat in front of kids really does matter. And also what slightly older kids eat matters because they're their heroes. So, they're looking up to them.
[00:09:02] Agatha: Yeah.
[00:09:02] Dr. Greene: They want to mimic...
[00:09:03] Agatha: The older kids. But you mentioned something interesting in the studies' rewards.
[00:09:07] Dr. Greene: Yes.
[00:09:07] Agatha: So I mean, I know that I've probably... I don't know if it's a good thing. I think it's not, that it's such a great thing of bribing and rewarding your kids with food, but I've fell for it a few times. What do you think about bribing your kids with food or rewarding them?
[00:09:20] Dr. Greene: Well, that's a really interesting question cause I, um, this is one where I changed my mind totally. My feeling had been in this, and it made sense to me, that if you give kids a reward for eating a vegetable, that you're basically telling them this vegetable is bad, and that you have to get a reward to get it and that you're, you're making it seem worse than it already did.
[00:09:42] Agatha: Right. That's how I feel.
[00:09:43] Dr. Greene: Right. And how I felt, but some researchers decided to actually look at that question. And so they did a bunch of kids where they had them just take a bite of it and try it. And the others they did, but gave them a reward. And the ones that got the reward ate more vegetables, which is not that surprising. But then months later, after the rewards were all gone, they still ate more vegetables. It worked. They enjoyed the food more and like the taste of it better and longer. So a reward is not necessarily a bad idea.
[00:10:12] Agatha: But can it create a bad habit for the kids are then saying, well, I won't eat it unless I get a reward. And how many times is it okay to reward children? Before you created it, a bad habit and a ritual, because you want to have ritual of food being a great bonding moment with your kids and a happy, positive experience.
[00:10:32] Dr. Greene: Yeah, and 100%. So, I wouldn't... You don't want to get into any big food drama. You want it to be relaxed and natural as you possibly can. I love ending a meal with a bowl of berries or something like that that's naturally sweet as a regular thing and saying that you get your berries because you had whatever it was that you went in there to do, I think is a fine thing to do.
[00:10:51] Agatha: Okay. So, rewarding your children sometimes is a good thing and it's okay to do.
[00:10:56] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:10:57]Agatha: It makes me feel better because I like to reward my children.
[00:11:00] Dr. Greene: So we talked about older kids. We talked about parents especially early on, but the other thing, heroes make a big difference. And when there was a president who said that he didn't like broccoli, broccoli sales across the country went down. People just didn't do it because the president didn't like it and vice versa. If the president does eat something, then the sales of that tend to go up. And that's been true way back in human history, whenever a great warrior would come in and eat something, everybody in the tribe would want to eat it because they were emulating the hero.
And the Sesame workshop decided to see if Elmo could get kids to eat. And so what they did is they did a study with kids where they had a free choice. Would you rather have chocolate or broccoli? And it turns out...
[00:11:42] Agatha: Elmo wanted broccoli.
[00:11:43] Dr. Greene: Though the kids wanted chocolate, but then they did it again. Elmo does have a broccoli song, but these kids hadn't heard that yet. In this study that had just put an Elmo sticker on the broccoli and gave them the choice and 50% of them pick broccoli over chocolate cause there was an Elmo sticker on it.
[00:12:01] Agatha: Wow.
[00:12:01] Dr. Greene: The broccoli.
[00:12:02] Agatha: That's pretty amazing. So, we should probably have celebrities do a food challenge with their favorite vegetables and start a whole movement.
[00:12:12] Dr. Greene: That would be great! I love that idea.
[00:12:15] Agatha: And have everyone eating some veggies and starting a whole movement.
[00:12:19] Dr. Greene: Yeah. And one of the reasons that the cartoon characters on cereal boxes is so bad because it gets kids attracted to them and...
[00:12:26] Agatha: Yeah. Too much sugar.
[00:12:27] Dr. Greene: ... and commercials and way too much sugar.
[00:12:28] Agatha: And what are your thoughts on like, you know, okay, we just talked about rewarding with dessert and everything. In our family, we have a rule where, you know, we give dessert twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a scoop of ice cream.
[00:12:42] Dr. Greene: I love that. I think treats are a good thing. And dessert is a good thing. The problem is kids today are getting dessert at every meal. They're not aware of it that they have yogurt that's filled with lots of extra sugar and ketchup is filled with lots of extra sugar and, and just so many things where you wouldn't even expect it have huge amounts of sugar in there.
[00:13:00] Agatha: Yeah.
[00:13:00] Dr. Greene: So it does actually help, if you decrease added sugars in the diet, then everything else starts to taste a little bit better. It's like during the day, there is many stars out during the day as there are at night, but we just don't see them because the sun is up there and it's so bright that it blinds everything else.
[00:13:19] And it's like that with sugar. If you get a lot of sugar at every meal, it drowns out the good notes in vegetables and fruit.
[00:13:25] Agatha: But we should also limit the amount of juices we give to children in between meals, because that can also ruin their appetite for eating the healthier meals and being hungry at mealtime.
[00:13:36] Dr. Greene: Yeah, that's a very important one as well.
[00:13:39] Agatha: Yeah.
[00:13:39] Dr. Greene: But there's one other whole area we should talk about in helping kids become... and this is probably... I mean repetition is great, but I mean, seriously 89 times. And getting them to turn down sugar is great, but that's hard too. It does really help. Setting a good example is great, but not always both parents are excited about that. But there's one thing that works for pretty much everyone, and it may be the easiest way to do it, and that is getting kids involved in food prep.
[00:14:07] Agatha: Oh my goodness. My kids love being involved in food prep, and usually when they end up cooking their own meals, they eat everything. They crushed the whole entire meal.
[00:14:15] Dr. Greene: Yeah, it's dramatic, right?
[00:14:17] Agatha: Yes.
[00:14:17] Dr. Greene: Food literally tastes better...
[00:14:19]Agatha: Yeah, they love it.
[00:14:20] Dr. Greene: ... in that way.
[00:14:20] Agatha: They love cooking and being involved.
[00:14:22] Dr. Greene: So most American kids don't like the taste of a fresh tomato, and it's the texture that bothers them, and it's because they never had something that texture before they started walking generally. But, if you hand a kid a knife carefully and have them cut the tomato, just once, cut it in half, they are twice as likely to enjoy the tomato just from that one motion...
[00:14:44] Agatha: Wow!
[00:14:44] Dr. Greene: ...which is still, most kids don't like tomatoes. But if they pick a tomato and then cut it, they're twice as likely. Again, still most kids don't like tomatoes.
[00:14:54] Agatha: Right.
[00:14:55] Dr. Greene: But, if they plant a tomato and water it and take care of it and pick it and bring it in, most kids will really enjoy the tomato just from being a box familiar.
[00:15:05] Agatha: That's why our kids love tomatoes cause we always grow little cherry tomatoes and the kids are involved in the whole process and picking them and they'll just stand there by the cherry bush and you know, eat all the cherry tomatoes.
[00:15:16] Dr. Greene: So...
[00:15:16] Agatha: They love it.
[00:15:16] Dr. Greene: Every way you can get them involved. And for a toddler, it may just be holding an avocado while you cook. Or for an older kid that may be going to the farmer's market with you or the store. It may be just helping with the shopping list. Which vegetables should we have?
[00:15:30] Agatha: So in getting them involved in all aspects from food shopping, farmer's market, involved in cooking and eating, is great.
[00:15:37] Dr. Greene: I love cooking classes for kids. It's one of the coolest things. I wish those would be the most common birthday parties.
[00:15:43] Agatha: Oh yeah. They're the best. There's so much fun. We had a pasta birthday party for our daughter once, and it was a lot of fun. So, I also want to just talk about mealtime and getting your kids to try food. So a common rule that my husband and I try to practice at home with our children is to be polite about food when it's served to them, and to have respect for the person that cooked it for them and for even my time spending, cooking it.
[00:16:09] Dr. Greene: That's so important.
[00:16:10] Agatha: And so I try to teach them to try at least everything on their plate. And if they don't feel like eating that night, something, they don't have to, but at least they tried and they could say, you know, I'm not in the mood for this tonight. And I tried to avoid having them say words like, I don't like it because maybe they just are not in the mood.
[00:16:30] Dr. Greene: Or yuck!
[00:16:30] Agatha: Yeah or yuck. Or I don't like this. And because maybe they'll like it next week. And I know that you have... that you do something with your children.
[00:16:39] Dr. Greene: Very similar to that. We have something called the “no thank you bite” that you try everything and then you don't have to finish it, but just say no thank you. And that's one of the 89 times. So, they're on their way. And maybe today's a day you'll like it. But it's also gratitude for who prepared it. One of the things that we do as a family tradition our kids went on a field trip where they lived, stayed with a Japanese family, and came back and brought a phrase into our home called Itadakimasu .
[00:17:05] And what that means is respectful thanks to everyone and everything involved in bringing this food, preparing this food. So, it's for the person. who cooked it...
[00:17:14] Agatha: That's a beautiful tradition.
[00:17:15] Dr. Greene: We do that at every meal. And we think about the farmers and we think about the truck drivers, and we think about the person who cooked it and the whole chain. And it just makes you grateful.
[00:17:26] Agatha: Yeah. I like that tradition. I'm going to have to start applying that to our mealtimes.
[00:17:30] Dr. Greene: One other thing with a way to help with picky eating is to use foods that they already like that are sort of strong flavor profiles. So, like if they love a great red pasta sauce, you could probably put into it different vegetables and they'd be more likely to accept it. And they don't have to know they're tasting it those 89 times necessarily.
[00:17:49] Agatha: Yeah. Our kids love mac and cheese, but one of their favorite things is when I fill it up with spinach inside.
[00:17:54] Dr. Greene: There you go. Exactly.
[00:17:55] Agatha: And they'll, like, eat up all the spinach and crush the whole entire meal. They love it.
[00:18:02] Dr. Greene: And yeah, fix something they love and pair it with something that is a new adventure.
[00:18:06] Agatha: Yeah. So, I like to hide some vegetables in my children's food just to be able to get the nutrition into them and to get them used to eating those foods and mix them maybe with other different flavors. Is that bad to hide veggies in their food?
[00:18:21] Dr. Greene: Fabulous question and really important one. There's a whole cookbook that's devoted to how to hide vegetables in food. There's lots of recipes online for doing it. I'm not a fan of relying on that as the only way because we want to teach our kids to, I call it “nutritional intelligence”, which is the ability to recognize and enjoy healthy amounts of good food. And a lot of our kids haven't developed their nutritional intelligence yet, and that's one of our big goals, as parents during the childhood years, is to teach him to see it and like it. So, if we just do that bad idea, but I'm a huge fan of doing it as one way to teach them to like new food.
[00:18:57] Agatha: I'll do it like in my turkey Bolognese sauce, there'll be tons of carrots and veggies in it.
[00:19:03] Dr. Greene: That sounds delicious. That's a great thing to do and I encourage people to use those recipes all the time. Again, it's one of the 89 tries. They don't have to even know it's there.
[00:19:11] Agatha: Okay. So then even if it's hidden or they're eating it, they're still getting exposure to the vegetable.
[00:19:16] Dr. Greene: I'm a huge fan of doing it. Just not stopping there. By itself, I don't think it's helpful for them.
[00:19:22] Agatha: All right, perfect. So, children learn by example, and it is important to make every meal time a positive example for them and a great bonding moment with your child and a happy ritual of eating and involving kids in your meal preps and cooking is another great, great way to helping...
[00:19:42] Dr. Greene: Yeah. 100%.
[00:19:43] Agatha: ...preventing picky eaters.
[00:19:44] Dr. Greene: And remember, pickiness is a feature, not a flaw of childhood, but we want to help them be picky about the right thing to choose real foods instead of overly processed stuff. And we do that. Our biggest levers are decreasing fear and increasing familiarity.
[00:20:00] Agatha: Perfect. So, what do you think are three takeaways are for preventing picky eaters Dr. Greene?
[00:20:07] Dr. Greene: I think our three takeaways are that pickiness is a feature, not a flaw in childhood that...
[00:20:14] Agatha: I love that that's just such a positive way to look at it.
[00:20:17] Dr. Greene: And we help them...
[00:20:18] Agatha: to embrace it.
[00:20:18] Dr. Greene: To pick out the right thing, right?
[00:20:20] Agatha: Right.
[00:20:20] Dr. Greene: So that they want to eat great food. They're not going to settle for overly processed stuff that's not good for their bodies, and we do that, our biggest levers are fear and familiarity. We want to decrease fear, whatever it takes to decrease the fear, the natural inborn fear, and increase familiarity, enjoy in the foods that they eat.
[00:20:37] Agatha: I love this conversation today because it's really bringing me hope on a lot of foods that I want my children to love to eat, and I bet for other parents as well. This has just been so enlightening for them.
[00:20:50] Dr. Greene: And parents can decrease their own pickiness.
[00:20:52] Agatha: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
[00:20:53] Dr. Greene: Right.
[00:20:54] Agatha: And to embrace everything and all the little flaws in our children that are not flaws, but they are good things.
[00:21:00] Dr. Greene: Bon Appetit.
[00:21:01] Agatha: Bon Appetit. Thank you so much for joining us today on Bambini Fortuna. Mom's driven. Dr. Aligned.