Study Finds Kids Choose Food Based on What They Don’t Like Instead of Food They Do Like

Do you have a picky eater at home?

By: Amanda Mushro

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Mixed race girl eating bagel in cafe

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Mixed race girl eating bagel in cafe

Photo by: Inti St Clair

Inti St Clair

If you have a picky eater at home and it feels like all they want are chicken nuggets and cheese sticks, you aren’t alone. Mealtime battles can be exhausting and sometimes — or maybe most of the time — parents have to get creative to get their little ones to eat something besides a nugget. However, a new study may help you understand some of the reasons behind your picky eaters' food choices.

According to a study from Penn State University, researchers wanted to understand children’s motivation when they choose which foods they would and wouldn’t eat. What they found was kids will reach for the foods they like, but when it comes to what they actually eat, they are actually more motivated by the foods they don’t like. So kids are filling their tiny bellies based on eating more of the foods they don’t want to avoid.

For the study, researchers followed 61 children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old to analyze the foods they liked and how much they ate at each meal. Kids were offered seven different foods at mealtime: chicken nuggets, ketchup, potato chips, grapes, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and cookies. All of the foods were put on their tray along with two beverages, fruit punch and milk. Before eating, kids were asked to rate their liking of each food — Super Bad, Bad, Maybe Good-Maybe Bad, Good, and Super Good. After the kids finished eating, they compared the leftovers with what the kids said they liked and disliked.

What they found was actually the opposite of what we would expect. When kids were presented with a meal, disliking a food was a stronger predictor of what kids would eat than liking food. Confused? Us too.

"In other words, rather than high-liking driving greater intake, our study data indicate that lower-liking led children to avoid some foods and leave them on the plate," says lead researcher Kathleen Keller, who is an associate professor at Penn State’s Nutritional Sciences and Food Science departments. "Kids have a limited amount of room in their bellies, so when they are handed a tray, they gravitate toward their favorite thing and typically eat that first, and then make choices about whether to eat other foods."

Since kids have smaller stomachs and can eat less food, when we put a plate in front of them, they are motivated to stay away from the foods they dislike. We may think if it tastes good, kids will eat more. However, that’s not the case.

"Reality is a bit more nuanced. In adults, we know that if you really like a food, you may or may not eat it. But if you don't like it, you'll rarely or never eat it. These new data show the same pattern is true in young kids," says study co-author John Hayes.

So what can parents take away from this study? When you’re planning meals for your kids, you may need to get more creative with the way you offer up foods your child doesn’t like. From mixing veggies into a sauce or a smoothie to offering up a favorite condiment like ketchup as a dipping option. Having a picky eater can make mealtimes stressful, but have the foods on hand they do like and keep trying new ways to find different foods to include in their meal rotations.

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