Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

A Very Simple Idea I Have About Picky Eating

In the nearly two years I’ve been working towards my Masters degree in Food Studies (I’ll be done in May!), I’ve read a lot of journal articles about picky eating in children. I’ve seen research on the influence of breastfeeding practicesthe role of ethnicity and income, and the question of whether picky eating can be considered an eating disorder. One paper considers whether a teacher acting as a role model can encourage “food acceptance” in toddlers (verdict: maybe a bit, sometimes); another investigates whether nagging children to finish their food has any effect (answer: sure, but that effect is not “eating more”).

The existing scholarship looks at the issue from all sorts of angles–except, it seems to me, the most obvious one. I’m not ruling out other influences, and I think it gets a lot more complicated the older a person becomes, but is it possible that what is characterized as “food neophobia” among small children might just be an appropriate response to bad food?

None of the research I’ve seen is interested in challenging the accepted but deeply flawed notion that there is such a thing, gastronomically, as “broccoli” (or any other ingredient). As a physical article, yes, broccoli exists. Culturally, though, broccoli is a spectrum. There’s raw broccoli, steamed broccoli, unseasoned broccoli, overcooked broccoli, sautéed broccoli with garlic and lemon, broccoli and cheese soup…you get the idea. All of these things offer entirely different flavors, textures and overall experiences. So when a social scientist says to me, “This child does not like broccoli,” I don’t know what that means. Does it mean that the child has been presented with the full spectrum of broccoli possibilities and rejected them all, or that he hates the way his mom makes it? Those are very different responses.

It’s funny that researchers will control for almost anything in a family, from socioeconomic status to the mother’s own eating habits, but no-one will take into account whether the food served in that household actually tastes good.

What if it just doesn’t? I’m serious.