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Prairie Fare: Are Picky Eaters Born or Made?

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
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We may be born with certain aversions to foods.

By Julie Garden Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

“Wow, this is good, really good!” my 16-year-old son exclaimed.

“Can you make this more often?” my 13-year-old daughter added.

As I watched my teenage son and daughter spear chunks of red potatoes, yellow onions, sweet potatoes and red pepper on their forks the other night, I couldn’t help but recall their toddler days.

Vegetables were not met with exclamations of admiration when they first were trying vegetables. I could picture their little grimacing faces and protruding tongues as I offered spoonfuls of mashed peas or carrots. I almost could see their small hands pushing the green beans away.

I recalled my husband saying: “Here comes the airplane!” The flying spoon loaded with mashed squash usually met a sealed-shut hangar.

As I returned from my reminiscence, I commented: “You guys eat almost everything now. What turned the tide?”

“Well, she showed up!” my son said as he nodded his head toward his 8-year-old sister, who grinned at me.

My youngest daughter was not angling for more roasted vegetables that day. She was eating ham and bread, and she had pushed the sweet potatoes and peppers to the opposite side of her plate.

“Did you think I needed a break so I could move on to the next challenge?” I asked.

They nodded and continued to eat their veggies. My persistence eventually paid off with them. I learned a lot from my first two kids. My most important lesson was not to make food a power struggle.

The other day, I was asked an interesting question during a media interview: “Are picky eaters born or made?”

As I looked for some research-based information to share, I came upon a study of twins. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, genetics may play a greater role in “food neophobia” (aversion to new foods) than previously believed.

The researchers studied 5,390 sets of twins and reported that 78 percent of neophobia may be genetic, while 22 percent is due to environmental factors. In other words, we may be born with certain aversions to foods. However, our experiences play a role in our preferences.

Other researchers have studied whether exposures to certain flavors during the prenatal and early infancy phase of life affect later acceptance of the food. Some studies have shown that your mom’s food choices during pregnancy may influence your taste preferences.

After all, you were nourished by all the flavorful foods of your mom’s diet while floating around, growing and preparing to greet the outside world.

Later, if your first “beverage” was breast milk, you tasted the unique flavors of your mom’s food choices, whether that was broccoli, brussels sprouts or other distinctive-flavored foods. Some researchers have shown that breast-fed babies are more apt to try new foods because they have experienced a variety of flavors.

But don’t blame yourself or your mom for picky eating. We all can learn to enjoy new foods.

Eating a variety of foods is a worthwhile goal regardless of your age. Some popular books have promoted a “stealth approach” in which spinach (or another food) is pureed and added to foods. Many nutrition experts are not sold on the idea. Sometimes the amount of added spinach is so small that it may not make a major nutritional difference anyway.

Consider some of these strategies that can help children, and possibly adults, try to enjoy new foods:

  • Offer a small amount of the new foods at a time.
  • Pair the new food with familiar foods instead of providing an array of foods he or she never has tasted.
  • Try other textures. Some people prefer crunchy, raw broccoli instead of soft, steamed broccoli.
  • Be a good role model. Enjoy the new food together.
  • Invite kids in the kitchen or garden. Now is a good time to start planning a garden, whether it is in a container or outdoors. Researchers have shown that gardening activities can foster a willingness to try the food.
  • Buy a new food or a different form of a familiar food at the grocery store. For example, if you like fresh blueberries, consider offering some dried blueberries as a snack for a change.
  • Be patient. Some researchers have shown that getting a child to try a new food may take 10 or more offers.

Here’s the recipe that was a dinner sensation in my house. You can vary the spices to suit your tastes. For a wide range of recipes, tips and other information about food, nutrition and health, visit

Roasted Vegetables

2 Tbsp. olive oil or canola oil

1 Tbsp. lemon juice (or chicken broth or water)

1/2 tsp. dried rosemary, basil or other favorite herb

1/4 tsp. seasoned salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1 1/2 c. baby red potatoes, halved or quartered

1 c. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks

1/2 c. onion chunks

1/2 c. red pepper chunks

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix oil, liquid and seasonings in a large bowl. Rinse and cut vegetables into chunks. Place the vegetables in the bowl and stir to coat all the veggies or place the mixture in a container with a tight cover and shake. Place the vegetables in a single layer in a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Stir after about 10 minutes.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 200 calories, 7 grams (g) of fat, 30 g of carbohydrate, 4 g of fiber and 35 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Feb. 16, 2012

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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