Do Parents Create Picky Eaters?

Researchers wanted to know if pressuring a child to eat everything would affect a child's weight and eating preferences. asiandelight/Shutterstock

When I was really young, my grandmother came over from Italy to help my parents, who were working a slew of jobs and dealing with four little kids. Although in theory my twin brothers were the troublemakers, I was the true problem child because I didn't have a hearty appetite, which no doubt inspired many rosaries. I remember my nonna whipping up a raw egg concoction in a cappuccino cup which she forced me to down every morning. I pinched my nose and gagged my way through the drink. She was always yelling "Mangia!" and piling my plate with food that I was never going to eat.

Many years later, I'm an incredibly picky eater. I order everything plain, and there's a very limited menu of items that will make it onto my plate. I'm sure my grandmother is watching from above, thinking she failed me.

But science says she never had a chance. A new study by University of Michigan researchers finds that pressuring kids to eat food doesn't change their picky eating habits.

Researchers followed a group of 244 ethnically diverse 2- and 3-year-olds over a year, comparing parental pressure tactics at mealtime to the children's growth and how picky eating behavior changed during that period.

Published in the journal Appetite, the study set out to answer these questions:

  • Should parents pressure kids to eat, and what are the consequences for kids' weight and picky eating?
  • Will the child learn she must eat everything, resulting in obesity, or will learning to eat veggies and other healthy foods help her avoid weight gain?

Although both scenarios are logical, the study found that neither occurs, said lead author Julie Lumeng, director of the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development.

"In a nutshell, we found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not," Lumeng said in a statement. "The kids' picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not."

Part of your child's personality

So, basically parents (or grandparents) don't turn kids into picky eaters, but by pressuring them into eating, they don't turn them into "good" eaters either. If a human is destined to be picky, it just happens because some tastes are just hardwired and difficult to change, according to the researchers.

What can happen by using coercion at the dinner table, however, is damage to the relationship, the study found.

“The takeaway here is that pressuring children to eat needs to be done with caution, and we don’t have much evidence that it helps with much,” Lumeng said. “As a parent, if you pressure, you need to make sure you're doing it in a way that's good for the relationship with your child.”

To make sure the study results weren't an anomaly, the team compared its results to other picky eating studies done over the past 10 to 15 years and discovered similar findings.

Lumeng points out that although picky eating is rarely unhealthy eating, it can be frustrating and inconvenient for parents.

"Dealing with picky eating falls into the category of how can you do little things that might make meals better for everyone, but not squelch something that may be part of your child's personality," she said.