Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Picky eating: Born or made?

by Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist

Your child’s food refusal is not your fault. If you follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) and prepare yourself for the long haul, even your extremely picky child can learn to eat most of the foods that you enjoy. All children are skeptical of unfamiliar food and take time to learn to enjoy it. Some children are especially skeptical, slow to warm up, react negatively to unfamiliar food, take longer to learn, and have more to learn. This is particularly characteristic of children on the autism spectrum. These children may also be sensitive to tastes and textures, have a strong gag reflex, and even throw up easily. They can learn to eat a variety of food, but it takes them longer. Some children near their teens before they make strides with increasing their dietary variety. 

Picky eating is inborn

Parents worry about children’s food acceptance, and are understandably relieved to see research about the genetic basis for food preference.1 Some children are super-tasters; they can detect the bitter taste in foods such as cabbage-family vegetables2 and they may be more tuned in to sweet and other flavors as well. Some children are temperamentally negative with respect to new experiences, including food experiences.3 Some children are diagnosed as having sensory integration disorders,4 seemingly meaning that they have trouble screening out negative stimuli in general and unfamiliar taste and texture in particular. Children on the autism spectrum want sameness and are distressed by unfamiliar food.

Picky eating is also created

Even extremely picky children learn to eat the food their parents eat, provided they have regular and unpressured opportunities to learn.

However, children do not have to be handicapped by their predilections, and that brings us to nurture. Even children who have temperamental or neurological barriers are able to learn to eat the food their parents eat, provided they have regular and unpressured opportunities to learn. That means parents matter-of-factly include the food again and again as part of family meals, parents eat and enjoy it, and parents allow children to pick and choose from what they have made available at the mealtime. Parents do not pressure children in any way to eat: they do not praise, remind, badger, reward, applaud, or withhold dessert until the child eats her vegetables. That is, parents follow sDOR: they do the what, when, and where of feeding, and let children do the how much and whether of eating.

Children are skeptical of unfamiliar food

Today’s children are no more skeptical of unfamiliar food than children of any other generation. Children who are exposed to a wide variety of food have more to learn and take longer to do it. Picky eating is normal; neophobia (fear of unfamiliar food) is not. Most normally developing children refuse new food at first. However, they have their ways of taking the newness off. They watch their parents eat it, look at new food but don’t taste it, taste it but don’t swallow it, eat a food enthusiastically one day (or one meal) and shun it the next, and rarely eat some of everything that is put before them but only 2 or 3 food items. Parents who don’t understand normal child eating behavior make errors:

  • They see these normal child eating behaviors as being abnormal.
  • They limit menus to foods children readily accept, thus depriving them of opportunities to learn
  • They coerce children to eat, thus precipitating resistance that turns into neophobia.

Nothing good comes of tricking children

The books are out there and they are popular: Get your child to eat vegetables by hiding beets in the brownies and carrots in the macaroni and cheese. Don’t do it! Trust is a precious commodity, and tricking children into eating takes away their trust. Children are not stupid, and sooner or later they catch on that they are being tricked. When they catch on, they feel hurt and angry and are set back in their ability to learn and grow. In parenting with food, the goal is not to get certain foods into children, but to trust children to move themselves along in learning to enjoy those foods for a lifetime.

Lighten up and enjoy family meals

It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility, to raise your child to be comfortable with all kinds of food. You do yourself and your child a favor if by lightening up and enjoying family meals. This doesn’t seem like much, but it is a Iot. Rather than being a routine part of caring for self and others, meals in many homes have become an event orchestrated with extreme care and invested with emotional undertones. Whether they are foodies, environmentalists, or health-conscious super-parents, today’s parents are entitled to relax.

  • Follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
  • Learn to do family friendly feeding by being considerate without catering with meal-planning: Pair familiar with unfamiliar food and include one or two side-dish items that the child generally eats. 
  • Give up on having every eater eat every food at every meal.


1. Cooke LJ, Haworth CM, Wardle J. Genetic and environmental influences on children’s food neophobia. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:428-433.

2. Drewnowski A, Henderson SA, Cockroft JE. Genetic Sensitivity to 6-n-Propylthiouracil Has No Influence on Dietary Patterns, Body Mass Indexes, or Plasma Lipid Profiles of Women. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107:1340-8.

3. Pliner P, Loewen ER. Temperament and food neophobia in children and their mothers. Appetite. 1997;28 :239-254.

4. AAP. Sensory integration therapies for children with developmental and behavioral Disorders. Pediatrics. 2012;129:1186-1189.

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