How Do You Get a Picky Kid to Eat Healthy? Research Shows the Way

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 6 years old.
The food 'discretion' of small children has been found to be both genetic and environmental. There are steps you can take to encourage eating those veggies. (iStock)

Have pity on those poor parents desperately trying to coax a protesting toddler to eat something she has pushed away in disgust. While moms and dads may fault themselves for an inability to evoke the magic words that will open-sesame their offspring's mouth, it turns out there's a good chance some of that child's -- er, shall we say "discretion" -- is innate.

Once again, it's in the genes.

A new study concludes that around half of toddlers' fussiness probably is genetically determined. Researchers at University College London looked at 1,932 Welsh and English twin pairs and their families. When the children were 16 months old, the parents were given the 35-item Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire as a gauge of how fussy each child was about food.

To figure out how much of this behavior was genetic, the researchers looked at 626 identical twin pairs to see how often both children scored similarly on the questionnaire. Since identical twins essentially have the same DNA, both children will exhibit a purely genetic trait -- every time.

This is not what the researchers found. While the identical twins often shared the same level of food fussiness, it did not occur 100 percent of the time.


So genetics appears not to be the whole story: It could be the twins’ shared environment accounts for their similar but not identical eating habits.

To test the role of environment in shaping the toddlers' pickiness, the study also looked at 1,306 pairs of fraternal twins, who share the same amount of DNA as any two siblings—around 50 percent on average.

If something is purely environmental, two twins in a fraternal pair should share the same trait as often as two twins in an identical pair. The researchers found that this was not the case. The fraternal twins were actually less likely to share the same eating behavior compared to identical twins.

This study suggests that both genetics and the environment play a role in food fussiness. After crunching the data, the researchers conclude that each accounts for somewhere between 41 and 52 percent of the behavior.

Getting Your Toddler to Eat

But enough with the numbers. The takeaway for parents: Don't give up hope that you can have an influence on what your fussy children are willing to eat. Skillful parenting can make a difference if you start early, and the sooner the better.

For example, a study from 2005 suggested that parents could best affect their children's eating habits by eating well themselves and avoiding conflicts at the dinner table.

These researchers examined the eating habits of 173 girls, once when they were 7 years old and again when they were 9. At both junctures, the parents were interviewed to understand both their eating habits and how they tried to encourage their daughters to eat healthier foods.

The results showed that modeling food behaviors worked far better than trying to force a child to eat better.  In other words: Don't preach broccoli when you're sneaking hot dogs yourself.

Another study from University College London, this one from 2014, suggests an alternative to pitched battles at the dinner table. Try repeatedly exposing  your children to a food they dislike and reward offer a reward when they venture a bite.

This approach can pay off big. The researchers had parents offer a small bite of a "target vegetable" that their three-year-olds didn’t like each day for 14 days. If the children ate it, they were rewarded with a sticker.

After two weeks of repeated exposure and reward, only around 13 percent of these kids still said they disliked the food.

That's a big contrast to the control group, for which no instructions were issued. A whopping 90 percent of these kids still would not unclamp their jaws and eat the yucky food at the end of the trial period.

So a little bit of parental effort and some stickers can go a long way. Genetics plays a big role in kids' fussiness but it isn't the only factor. If parents eat a wide variety of food and patiently keep offering new foods to their kids, these parents may end up with less fussy kids.

Or ... you could do it this way: