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Are you a picky eater?

Swallow at the Hollow macaroni & cheese, credit: Jenny Turknett

Swallow at the Hollow macaroni & cheese, credit: Jenny Turknett

Is your child a picky eater? Are you?

My parents might say I was a picky eater as a child. There were foods that I would not eat.

I didn’t eat bread other than biscuits — not even pizza — until I was in my late teens. (Now, bread is a major weakness for me.) I also have memories of sitting at the table on “hash night” staring at my plate long after everyone else had abandoned the table. Hash was out.

My husband was a picky eater as a child, as well. An often-told story in his family is about how he first ate chicken when the power went out and he couldn’t see what he had been served for dinner.

The product? Our child is a picky eater. I’m not joking when I tell you that the foods she eats can be counted on your fingers. And some of those items come from very specific places. For example, she loves macaroni and cheese… but ONLY from Swallow at the Hollow. And only after the “toppings” are removed — you know, that delicious baked-cheese crust that tops homemade macaroni.

A few months ago, I wrote a story detailing my horror when she professed a love of fish sticks at age three. But honestly, now I would be thrilled if she were adventuresome enough to try something as “exotic” as fish sticks. This wasn’t always the case. She used to eat many more foods.

I am comforted by the story of former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl’s son, who only ate white foods — mashed potatoes, turkey, milk, custard — until he was about nine years old.

But according to Jeffrey Steingarten, author of “The Man Who Ate Everything,” there is hope. In the book, he details some of his own food aversions (kimchi, clams, Greek food) and how he conquered those. He says,

Scientists tell us that aversions fade away when we eat moderate doses of the hated foods at moderate intervals, especially if the food is complex and new to us. Exposure works by overcoming our innate neophobia, the omnivore’s fear of new foods that balances the biological urge to explore them… Most babies will accept anything after eight or ten tries.

That makes sense. Haven’t you come to love a food that at one time you were less than fond of? This happened to me with beets. At one point, I wouldn’t dream of touching a beet. Now I enjoy them immensely.

I have been testing this strategy at home with my children and it works. (Although, as an aside, have you tried to get a child to eat a food they didn’t like eight or ten times? Righto.) My daughter now eats pistachio-encrusted chicken, scrambled eggs, and we are close to adding roasted sweet potatoes to the list. Next up: something green…

So, if you have a picky eater or are one yourself, give it a try. Let us know how you do.

Jenny-Turknett-Tagline–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog

– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.

23 comments Add your comment


February 17th, 2011
1:16 pm

I wasnt picky as a child, then got a little picky, and I still am. There are some things that I just don’t like. There aren’t many things I won’t eat, but if I have a choice, then I don’t. Offal is one of those that I won’t eat. I just can’t do it. I am not a fan of fruit, but will eat pretty much any veggie.


February 17th, 2011
1:58 pm

I was also a picky child. I partly blame it on my parents, because they themselves were picky and never tried anything new. I had a terrible period where I ate only hot dogs. Now I get sick just by looking at them or smelling them! The only green vegetable I ever ate until well into my twenties was green beans, and broccoli, but only if covered in Cheez Whiz. I’m now 37, and let me tell you what I had for lunch today – a plate of oven-roasted brussel sprouts! These days, if it’s not moving, I’ll eat it. Keep at it with your daughter, don’t give up hope! :-)


February 17th, 2011
2:08 pm

Ha! This is like reading my life story. It’s taken years but I’ve become quite an adventurous eater. I, too, love beets but it took me a long time to try them again and be able to say that. It, also, took the right chef and restaurant to get me try them again.
Once upon a time, I wouldn’t touch guacamole, I ordered hamburgers in Mexican restaurants (and I grew up in New Mexico for crying out loud!!), and ate cereal when my Mom made homemade tortillas and posole. I mean, really???
And, I think we’re raising the same kid. Except mine will only eat the mac-n-cheese from Figo, grilled corn from Agave, and frites at Leon’s Full Service. I offer everything from my plate but get a stink face and a “no, thanks” in return. The only thing that has worked is: Try 1 new item – fruit, veggie, protein, etc – and you get a star. When you accumulate 5 stars you can pick out a treat at Target (stickers, gum, kids DVD). This has worked with trying about 25 new items with only maybe 3 going on the permanent “I’ll eat” list.

John Kessler

February 17th, 2011
3:07 pm

I was just commiserating with some parents I met recently on our “white food” kids. Our middle daughter was the one who had to get the buttered noodles in restaurants, and wouldn’t touch them if the kitchen sprinkled a little parsley on top. She’s about to turn 16, and eats pretty much everything. However, she has inherited my weird adult food aversions — she can’t stomach meat before noon, super-sweet desserts or cheesecake….


February 17th, 2011
3:42 pm

It’s truly the one reason I have my “try it before you say you don’t like it” rule – as a kid, I didn’t eat many things because I thought they were gross or smelled odd (cabbage, anyone?). I’d never tasted them, so how did I know, right?

Fast forward to a 40 year old who has eaten everything from chicken feet to a turtles heart to haggis, and who has found exactly two things he hasn’t been able to eat – whole baby ocotopus (from a sushi experience – couldn’t even get them to my mouth), and, mayonnaise. I detest the stuff.

Unless it’s flavored. Or mixed in with something else. But on a sandwich? No way.

The point is, picky eaters as children (in my experience) are not always going to be picky eaters as adults. I wasn’t.

That said, once I determine you’re a picky eater of the adult variety, we no longer dine together. All this “on the side” and “well done” nonsense rides my last nerve.


February 17th, 2011
8:22 pm

I, like many, was dubbed a picky eater as a kid. I had to sit at the table for, at times, hours to force me to eat mushy peas, stringy okra, overcooked steak, etc. Today I love, love, love so many foods and now have a theory that we “picky kids” were the ones who just knew at an early age that only truly good, interesting flavors/textures were worth the tummy space. :)

Richard Alpert

February 17th, 2011
11:32 pm

Will NOT Eat: Onions (no matter how microscopic, I will not consume), Tuna, Mayonaise, Pickles

Will NOW Eat: Asparagus (damn is it good!)


February 18th, 2011
12:38 am

I remain to this day a picky eater. It isn’t for a wont of trying. I resolved that i was going to eat food that I enjoyed getting down. I can do some raw veggies – carrots, spinach, cucumber, lettuce – but the only cooked veggies i do is corn and fried potatos. I wish my palate were more expansive, but it’s not. That does not mean, though, that I don’t enjoy the things I like well-prepared.


February 18th, 2011
4:06 am

I am a very picky eater. When I was 4 yrs old, I “up-chucked” on rice and white milk. Since that day, I’ve been unable to eat them again along with nearly anything white. In addition, I also have an issue with the texture of foods. I do not eat soft bread or nearly soft anything. Bread must be toasted and other foods generally have to have a crisp or crunch to them. I have a limited list of vegetables that I eat as well. No condiments (ie. creamy dressings, ketchup mayo) unless clear and vinegar-based. Over the years I’ve started adding things that I would not eat as a child, but for the most part when I’ve added something to the list of “won’t eat” I’ve deleted something from the list of “will eat”. I cannot explain this phobia that I have and my wife simply shakes her head. We have made a concerted effort to introduce our kids to many different foods, but it’s strange that sometimes they seem to have the same aversions to the texture of foods that I have. There are many more items that I do not have enough time or space to write. Happy Eating…for some!

Smyrna Cook

February 18th, 2011
8:54 am

I find this to be a quite funny post and the comments have me baffled at how as I child, I loved all foods! From butter beans, to brussell sprouts & asparagus to pretty much any meat, including squirrel. Now in my thirties, I definitely wouldn’t touch squirrel, and I can’t do venison or bison. My boyfriend on the other hand…he was a very, very pick eater. But I explained to him that “b/c you didn’t like something as a child, doesn’t mean you won’t like it now”. I explained as we get older our taste buds change. He used to hate coffee w/a passion, then one night, I made a cup of coffee w/some Baileys and he loved it. He kept trying that for a few weeks and voila! I have a full fledged coffee junkie on my hands now! He swore he hated sweet potatoes, but I made him try sweet potato casserole, now he gobbles it up if my mom or aunt make it. Oh…and the big one-Mushrooms, he hated them w/a passion, nothing could be cooked with them or anything…but guess who had a big ol plate of fried mushrooms at a restaurant 3 weeks ago! It amazes me!


February 18th, 2011
9:42 am

Jenny, check out the blog “what’s Cooking with Kids.” she’s been doing a series of post on picky eaters.

Randi/The Muffin Lady

February 18th, 2011
10:39 am

I was and still am one of the fussiest eater of all. As a child I only peas and lettuce, andthing else that was green or orange was not allowedpast my lips. Pizza–ha ha, I used to lift the cheese and wipe off the sauce. I would only eat rice or pasta with butter, and gosh forbid if someone put sour cream on my baked potato or added relish to my mom’s egg salad!
Today I will still pick peppers and tomatoes out of food, and rearrange some restaurant menus to my preference. However, I am a Culinary Author, Recipe Developer and Baker and a confessed fussy eater! Therefore, when I play with food and create something that smells heavenly I use my neighbors as ‘Guinea Pigs’. I may not like a specific food or recipe, yet someone else many love and savor it!


February 18th, 2011
11:48 am

I think I am more picky now than I was as a kid. And it’s not necessarily that I won’t eat certain foods (although I don’t eat meat now), but it depends on how it is prepared. I like eggs, but not mayo, tomatoes, but not ketchup. I won’t eat cooked bell peppers, but I love them raw. I won’t eat processed cheese – even if the only non-meat item on a menu is a grilled cheese with American cheese. I’d rather starve. That being said, I do eat a bigger variety of foods than when I was a child, and I think that’s mainly the fault of my parents. If they didnt’ like something, we never ate it. I didn’t eat fish until I had moved away. Same thing for broccoli, asparagus, and a few other foods. But I am very lucky to have a child who will try just about anything though! And she likes most of it! And I must say – she’s a lot healthier than I was as a kid…. or even as an adult.


February 18th, 2011
12:52 pm

There is nothing worse than dining with a picky eater.

You know the kind; they have to question the waiter about everything that may or may not have touched the plate, they have to tell you about every food phobia they have, they scream like babies if the tomato touches the rice. These kind of people simply need to stay at home and hook themselves to an IV nourishment bag. If you don’t like something as innocuous as chicken or cheese, keep it to yourself or risk looking a fool.

Picky eaters usually have bad table manners as well; wrinkling their nose when others order or grossing out at a dish someone has spent time and effort on just because it has a piece of broccoli on it. Grow up.

When I was young, we had to eat some of everything that was offered at the table no matter what it was. Not a lot, just a spoonful. If we stalled, we were given a set amount of time to finish it, say 2 minutes. If we failed to swallow in 2 minutes…we got more. It worked! And today, I will try almost anything. I may not go back for seconds but I won’t make a fuss about it or disparage anothers dining choice.

Life is too short and there is too much variety to limit yourself by refusing something just to make yourself look special.


February 18th, 2011
1:21 pm

Grasshopper – sounds a bit like sour grapes to me – your parents made you eat food you didn’t like so now you harbor resentment towards those who are picky. Picky eaters are not the only ones who exhibit the behavior you describe, nor are all picky eaters like this. There are also times when someone’s health issues make them want to make informed decisions about what they eat. Why do you care if someone else asks for a “special” meal, as you call it?


February 18th, 2011
1:33 pm

Nothing sour about my grapes 1164. Why would I resent someone who is so silly about their food?

Your words:
‘I think I am more picky now than I was as a kid. And it’s not necessarily that I won’t eat certain foods (although I don’t eat meat now), but it depends on how it is prepared. I like eggs, but not mayo, tomatoes, but not ketchup. I won’t eat cooked bell peppers, but I love them raw. I won’t eat processed cheese – even if the only non-meat item on a menu is a grilled cheese with American cheese. I’d rather starve.’

What health issues do you have that make you such a joy to dine with? Like I said…nothing worse than eating with a picky eater and listening to all of their nonsense.


February 18th, 2011
3:24 pm

To this day I can’t eat salmon because of my grandmother’s croquettes. If I smelled them walking down the street I would eat elsewhere. The smell lingered for days.


February 18th, 2011
5:26 pm

When I was young I was quite picky but my parents’ rule was at least three bites (regular sized bites) of whatever was on your plate. I eventually learned to be a VERY adventurous eater and now there are very few things that I won’t at least try. My big three are no bugs, no brains (not because of anything except the possible prion diseases) and no balut. I also still think that liver and rutabagas are biological weapons, but I would try them again just to see if I still feel that way!


February 18th, 2011
8:25 pm

I have 1 very picky son who will go hungry if there is nothing he wants. He is mostly a brown food kid. Won’t touch fruits or vegetables in any form. But he has been this way since graduating to feeding himself, and it is not for lack of trying on my part. He will say that whatever is cooking smells great, but will freak out if you ask him to actually try it. So for now, I have given up. It is not worth distressing him or fighting over food. Trying to force the issue will only make him less likely to try new things in the future. His dad is pretty picky too, although my son takes it to new heights.

My other son, like me will try just about anything once.


February 19th, 2011
11:26 am

I like reading all these comments. I have 3 little boys. One eats everything that doesn’t eat him, one eats most things, and one is crazy picky. I’ve treated them all similarly (they are only 2 years apart). The comments give me hope that he’ll grow into a better eater.

It’s foreign to both me and my husband, as we have always been the type to eat anything, save for one or two dislikes. And, even then, if there aren’t any other options or if refusing would be rude, we’ll eat the offending food.


February 21st, 2011
2:07 pm

Most children are picky eaters, it’s totally normal. Their tastebuds aren’t highly developed and in many cases, it’s a texture issue. Pediatricians know this and think the best way to counter it is not force a child to eat anything but continue to offer a variety at the table. You can also leave a few crunchy veggies out while dinner is cooking and they may get so hungry they reach for them. Also try putting nuts and dried fruit in their pockets. They get hungry during the day and will probably down them at some point out of necessity.


February 22nd, 2011
2:49 pm

I’ve recently read an article that children, especially toddlers, will self regulate their caloric and nutritional intake if left to their own devices. The more that parents push, the more resistant kids can get. The research was done by Ellyn Satter and is pretty interesting.

For me personally, I wasn’t exposed to many foods outside of the basic Southern meat & 3 dinners (which hold a special place in my heart). As an adult I try everything and seek out new and different culinary experiences…the more unusual & foreign to me the better!


February 23rd, 2011
5:40 pm

My wife is extremely picky, but less than she used to be. She almost wasn’t my wife when I cooked a Turkish meal for her on our first date. I didn’t know that the only foods she ate at the time was salads and hamburger. Fortunately for me, half of my Turkish dishes were some form of hamburger (kofte & cigara borek). Our second date was for some pho, and I almost lost her there. Since then, she has become more adventurous and eats tex-mex and will eat whole grain bread instead of just white bread.

I have come to learn there are two basic reasons for her pickyness: She has an acute sense of smell, smelling a lot of things I can’t. I have known other folks with a hyper sensitive sense of smell and they wouldn’t eat “smelly” foods like fish or cantaloupe. I understand since a good portion of our sense of taste is really our sense of smell.

The other thing is strange textures. She won’t eat Asian food because she says they are gooey or slimy. Same with yogurt or pudding. I can’t explain why this is a problem, but she says it is because she was raised in rural Arkansas where there wasn’t much variety in meals. It drives me nuts because I’m a military brat with two overseas tours as a kid. I’ll eat almost anything that doesn’t try to eat me first. Every once in a while I have to sneak out to Buford Highway to find some good “home cookin’”!