The Science of Picky Eating…It’s Not What You Think

I was a terribly picky eater. I refused to eat anything new, would freak out if my potatoes touched my chicken and needed hours to mentally prepare myself before dinner. One fascinating study actually researched how, why and where kids tend to be picky eaters. In this study, researchers found that kids are picky eaters either at home or at school. They watched kids eat at home and then watched them eat in the cafeteria or with friends. 92% of picky eaters were only picky in one of these locations, not both! Only 8% of kids were picky eaters everywhere.


What does this tell us? First, it tells us that like most people, it is in our human nature to have different ‘modes.’ It is very common for kids to act completely differently at school or with friends than at home. I actually call this ‘culture.’


For example, a teen’s ‘school culture,’ is how their values, personality, and even likes and dislikes change at school. Many parents are horrified when I tell them that most likely—I would say at least 95% of teens act differently, or have a different school or friend culture. This is not always a bad thing. For instance, think of how different you can be with your girl friends or buddies from college in comparison to having dinner at your parent’s house. Of course, you are a bit different!


The key is to teach teens that it is ok to have a different school, home, online, Facebook, friend or soccer practice culture, where their attitude and even personality is a little different, as long as it is genuine. I get very upset when teens have a Facebook culture that is not genuine. For example, one girl I worked with had a very flirty profile with kissing pictures, favorite kinds of lingerie listed and coquettish quotes. I asked her if this culture, or alter-persona was real or just what she wished she could be. She said  that she hoped to be more like this version of herself and that is why she created a page.


I encourage parents to talk to their kids about the occasional necessity of different cultures (personality at school should be a bit different than their personality at wrestling camp), but also talk about how important it is to be genuine in all interactions. For those of you with picky eaters, I encourage you to talk to your selective foodie about why and where they do not like certain foods. If you can figure out the root of their picky eating and tie it to where they do not mind having a more adventurous palette you can often merge the two.


This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.



Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. New York: Free, 2009

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One Response to “The Science of Picky Eating…It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Adrian
    March 22, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Sometimes there is a physical reason behind picky eating. Years ago my dentist told me I have a “geographic tongue”. I have more bumps and crevices in my tongue than the typical person and so does my son. That means flavors are more intense for us than most people. It physically HURTS me to eat something with strong flavors or heavy spices and sometimes I dread going over to someone else’s house for a meal because I’m afriad I’ll be seen as rude, but it’s just the way I am, so I understand when my son feels the same way and doesn’t want to eat certain foods.

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