5 surprising ways you’re enabling picky eating

Kids are picky. Some are really, really picky. Others are a little bit picky. Most are in between. 

I recently met a woman who complained about her son who was a picky eater. She was curious about why her twin boys were totally opposite in their eating. One boy would eat everything, and the other was very picky. The kids came from the same family, the same eating environment, and received the same food offerings (or so she said).

What many people don’t realize is that there is a genetic component to picky eating. Translated: you can inherit the tendency to be picky. A recent study out of the University of North Carolina looked at twins aged 4 and 7 years, and found that genes accounted for 72 percent of pickiness, while the rest was explained by environmental influences. Other past studies have shown similar results, with 78 percent of 8 to 11 year olds’ and 69 percent of adults’ pickiness coming from a genetic influence.

The good news is although your child may have a genetic predisposition to pickiness, it’s not the only thing supporting picky eating. As mentioned, the environment has an influence too.

1. Whether or not your baby is breastfed

Breast milk has a flavor profile like no other first food. Unlike infant formula, which offers a repetitive stagnant flavor profile, the flavors within breast milk are always changing, depending on the mother’s diet. Garlic, carrots, vegetables, onions, spices, and more are flavors transferred through mother’s milk.

One study in Obesity showed that babies who were breastfed were 81 percent less likely as preschoolers to reject food, 78 percent less likely to develop a preference for specific food-preparation methods, and 75 percent less likely to develop picky eating.

Early exposure to different flavors and experiences seems to train the palate to enjoy more food diversity.

2. Serving the same old food

If you don’t pursue variety in your family’s diet, you may be enabling picky eating. Here’s the scenario: you serve chicken nuggets, and your child eats them. Next, you serve hamburger, and your child won’t touch it. You figure if you want your child to eat a good dinner, you’d better serve up a nugget or two as an insurance policy at the next meal. Child eats the nuggets and shuns all other entrée options. And so it begins. You gravitate to the sure thing — chicken nuggets — and the diet variety gets narrower, and your child becomes more limited in what he will eat.

If you find yourself in this trap, you are encouraging picky eating (and probably don’t know it!).

3. Missing the exposure opportunity

If you didn’t breastfeed your child, you might think you are at a disadvantage for encouraging new flavors and healthy eating. You can still tip the scales to encourage liking those hard-to-like foods, such as vegetables, through what researchers call repeated exposure.

One study has shown that repeatedly offering sweet red pepper to children (eight times per day in the study design) increased children’s liking and willingness to eat red pepper, more than rewarding children with a sticker for eating red pepper.

Another study of 1 to 3-year-old preschoolers used sensory activities, or hands-on activities, where they could touch, smell, listen, and look at fruits and vegetables, and saw a greater willingness to try them in a taste test compared to the control group, which didn’t have the same sensory opportunities.

4. Your feeding style is in the way

How you approach feeding your toddler may be getting in the way, especially if you use a permissive feeding style (lax structure and few rules around food) or an authoritarian feeding style (rules about food without sensitivity to child’s preferences). Instead, a ‘love with limits’ feeding style — also known as the authoritative feeding style — may be the ticket to creating your adventurous eater. The authoritative feeding style has been associated with a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables than the other feeding styles and a healthier body weight.

5. The food you offer

What you offer your child matters as well, as I mentioned above. If your child has a lot of sweets in his or her diet, this increases the liking and possibly cravings for these foods. Some children are triggered by sweets — they gravitate toward them and focus on them. To manage this aspect, some parents find it helpful to offer sweets along with the meal in very petite portions, as it may desensitize the child to sweet foods.

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About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.


  1. Great tips Jill! One thing I noticed is when my son sees something on TV, he wants it – so monitoring what your kids see (commercials, etc) I am sure play a role. Thankfully my son loves the show Daniel Tiger where they really focus on healthy foods, and because of that show he wanted to try broccoli one time and another make fruit skewers. I couldn’t get him in the kitchen fast enough!


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