It’s Not Your Fault! Parents Aren’t (Always) to Blame for Picky Eaters

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Morgan Schemel)

Hang around with parents long enough and you’ll hear plenty of stories about picky eating. A father who was determined to serve nothing at home but organic, in-season produce is now watching for signs of scurvy in an otherwise healthy toddler and hoping the “orange” in goldfish crackers has vitamin C. (So sorry, it doesn’t.)

A mother who’s an award-winning vegan chef by day struggles with a 3-year-old at home who can’t be convinced that there are acceptable foods other than one very specific brand of non-organic chicken fingers, and whose only current source of vegetables is ketchup, on the side. And if that ketchup touches the chicken finger before the 3-year-old is ready? The entire meal is ruined.

If you don’t have a picky eater, maybe you’ve judged. (Just a little, and only in your head.) You silently suspected the parent of the picky eater had a secret fast-food habit themselves, or that the vegan chef was over-rated, no matter how many James Beard nominations her last three cookbooks got (she hasn’t won one, now has she?). And you might be right.

But a new study into the chemosensory genes of picky eaters might prove you wrong. In turns out those reluctant short-order cooks at the mercy of tiny tyrants might be doing the best they can. University of Illinois researches recently identified two genes associated with picky eating in pre-schoolers. One of them (TAS2R38) was associated with limited dietary variety, while the other (CA6) was tied to mealtime struggles for control. Who hasn’t been there with a toddler?

Both genes have to do with bitter taste perception, meaning these kids may be more sensitive to tastes we adults have learned to love. That sensitivity may manifest in different ways; some kids will refuse to eat certain foods, while others will turn the family table into a battlefield. Here’s the part that really isn’t fair: Parenting that’s too lenient and parenting that’s too controlling may or may not set them off, and there’s no way to know which one will or won’t work for your child. So what’s a parent of a picky eater to do? Well, just your best.

I happen to think “do your best” is all any parent can do about anything, to be honest.

The good news about picky eating is that most children outgrow it. My sister used to eat nothing but Cheerios, yogurt, and bananas. I can attest to the fact that she now eats pretty much all foods, and she’s mature enough to give the ones she thinks she hates a fair shot. This has been going on since her 20s, so you might not have to wait too much longer! She even eats mushrooms now! (But not olives, and that’s okay.)

If your child never grows out of picky eating, they’ll outgrow the tantrums soon enough. And before you know it, they’ll be cooking for themselves and buying their own multi-vitamins.