Think parents are the ones pushing their kids to try new foods and it’s the kids who are always resisting? Sometimes it’s the opposite.

The other day I overheard a conversation between a mother and her toddler as they were heading towards a restaurant for lunch.  I didn’t hear what item the child had said she wanted to eat, but this is the exchange that followed:

  • Mother: “Oh, you won’t like that.”
  • [Long Pause]
  • Child: “Macaroni and cheese?”
  • Mother: “OK!”

I have to admit, it took all the self-control I could summon not to point out to this mother that:

  1. She had just missed a golden opportunity to introduce her daughter to a new food.
  2. In doing so, she produced the very problem she was most afraid of. She taught her daughter that Mom prefers it when she makes safe choices, not when she tries new foods.
  3. All of this happened because of a prediction, which research tells us, is usually incorrect.

What’s the answer? Become an optimist!

(You’ll be happy to hear that I restrained myself from saying these things because accosting strangers on the street has not proven to be an effective strategy for getting my point across.)

If you want your kids to try new foods you have to be an optimist.

Parents who tend towards an optimistic outlook expose their children to more new foods because they are more likely to think their kids will like (and eat) them. But this mother was channeling her inner skeptic, and that’s not a profitable position for parents hoping to expand their children’s palates.

I know this mother wasn’t thinking about new foods. She was thinking that if she ordered the food her daughter asked for:

  1. The meal would probably go untouched.
  2. Then she would have a hungry child on her hands.
  3. During the time it would take to order another meal, the one the mother knew all along that her daughter would prefer, her daughter would go from being just a hungry child to being a really, really hungry child.

I sympathize, I really do.  But in an effort to avoid a hungry-child-meltdown, not to mention the money wasted on an uneaten meal, this mother missed an opportunity to expand her daughter’s culinary horizons. She also contributed to the very problem so many mothers complain about—their kids won’t try new foods.

Your feeding style can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Since exposure is the key to new food acceptance, the optimistic strategy ends up reinforcing itself: not only do these parents discover more likeable foods, they actually train their kids to like more of the foods they taste.

The pessimistic strategy reinforces itself too: parents who offer fewer new foods constrict their children’s taste preferences by exposing them to the same (small) set of foods—repeatedly. By erring on the conservative side, pessimistic parents reduce the number of meals their kids reject. On the other hand, pessimistic parents also experience more missed opportunities to introduce their children to new foods that their kids would actually like.

(By the way, one solution would have been for this mother to honor the child’s request and to make the safe order herself.  That way if the child rejected her meal, mom and daughter could have switched.  For more on this topic read Using Restaurants Right.)

Research shows that parents aren’t particularly accurate when it comes to predicting their children’s taste preferences.

Young kids can be pretty flaky about food. That’s why You Can’t Feed Your Way Out of a Picky Eating Problem.

So instead of sharpening your prophesy skills, consider your outlook. Then, if you want to make predictions, remember these tips:

  • Parents are better at predicting what their kids will like than what they won’t like.
  • If you’re trying to forecast the acceptability of a familiar meal, you’ve got a good chance of being correct. If you’re making predictions about something your kids have never seen before, it’s a coin toss.
  • When they have nothing better to go on parents typically rely on their own taste preferences, but research shows that the correlation between what parents like and what their kids like is weak at best. Researchers call this the “family paradox.”

So, the next time you’re tempted to make a prediction, remember to see the baby bottle (or your martini glass) as half full instead of half empty.  It’ll do you, and your kids, a load of good.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~



Mata, J., B. Scheibehenne, and P. M. Todd. 2008. “Predicting Children’s Meal Preferences: How Much Do Parents Know?” Appetite 50: 367-75.