Adult Picky Eaters UK

For Picky-Eating Adults in the UK and worldwide

When Is A Food Not a Food? August 16, 2007

Filed under: General — Claire @ 4:58 pm

Thoughts on Reading Jane Kauer’s PhD 

A feeling common to many picky eaters is that whole swathes of items considered by the rest of the population to be foods just don’t seem like food to us.  I know that almost everyone else in the world would count an apple as a food, but to me, you might as well ask me to eat a brick, or a blanket, or a plank of wood.  This is what I’m up against.

Being omnivores, humans need to learn a great deal about what is a) edible, b) safe and c) socio-culturally acceptable.  This learning process begins at the point of switching from a milk-based diet to solid foods.  Apparently, young children first being weaned are fairly accepting of new foods.  As they mature, however (around the age of 2 years) they become more conservative in their food selections (Satter, 1990).  In the USA (for that is where the research has been done), children under the age of two will put virtually anything in their mouths.  Over the age of two however, children apparently start to distinguish between food and non-food categories, though they don’t assign the value of “inappropriate” until over the age of five years (Rozin et al., 1986b).

So is it appropriate to say that picky eaters have an over-extended “non-food” category, and an underextended “food” category?  Over- and underextension are very common patterns in the development of children’s categories (check Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate if you’re interested).  In ordinary circumstances, however, children’s assignment of items to the food/non-food categories is informed by sensory information, observed behaviour of others and explicit learning, and will generally develop into something approximating the patterns of assignment of their cultural environment.  Why did this not happen for us?

An additional factor in making distinctions between food and non-food items, according to Jane Kauer, is “beliefs about the food itself”.  There does exist research on how children categorise objects according to their edibility – Rozin et al. (1984, 1986a, 1986b) – but I have yet to ascertain what these “beliefs” might be, or how they might be influenced and applied.

In terms of socio-cultural influences on children’s food selection, it appears that while adult demonstrating behaviour may be effective, it is peer behaviour that has the stronger influence (Hendy et al., 2000).  If most of us had “normal” peers, why then was their influence not effective?

Another point to note is that picky eating in childhood, while perfectly common, is of concern to medical professionals because of the stress it may place on the parent-child relationship (Satter, 1990).  Could it be that it was this stress that diverted us from growing out of this fairly normal developmental phase? 

Hendy, H.M., & Raudenbush, B. (2000).  Effectiveness of teacher modelling to encourage food acceptance in pre-school children.  Appetite 34, 61-76.

Rozin, P., Fallon, A., & Augustoni-Ziskind, M. (1986a). The child’s conception of food: The development of categories of acceptable and rejected substance.  Journal of Nutrition, 18, 75-81.

Rozin, P., Hammer, L., Oster, H., Horowitz, T., & Marmora, V. (1986b).  The child’s conception of food: Differentiation of categories of rejected substances in the 16 months to 5 year range.  Appetite, 7, 141-151.

Satter, E. (1990).  The feeding relationship: problems and interventions.  Journal of Paediatrics, 117, S181-S189.


4 Responses to “When Is A Food Not a Food?”

  1. Amy Says:

    So as a mother of a 2 year old and a wife of a “picky” eater… what do I do to maybe prevent my son following in his fathers footsteps?

    Currently I have not noticed a problem but I do notice that he is more inclined to only eat his favourite off his plate than the whole meal. Which I assume is normal. I keep putting new things on his plate but I don’t make a big deal about it at all. If he gets up declaring he’s “all done” and all he ate was a slice of plain bread and a french fry for supper I do try to airplane a piece of chicken or something but if he is not finding me hilarious and clever I just let him go on and play.

    What say the “picky eaters”? Tell me your opinion.

  2. Claire Says:

    Hi Amy
    I don’t know what you could do. To some extent (albeit very anecdotally), it does appear that there’s a genetic component to it, which of course one can’t do very much about. One of the things I notice is that the medical profession’s interest seems to be limited to the stress that this places on the relationship with the child, so I guess I would say try to avoid getting worried about it.

    A thought I’m having just now is what would have happened if anyone had tried talking (and listening) to me about the whole thing. Talking about why I didn’t want to eat this or that, though I guess at 2 that might be tricky…:-) But my point is when I was a child, no-one had heard of this, so their capacity to understand or engage was maybe…limited.

  3. This is a thought provoking post. I don’t consider myself a picky eater but can see how the things you mention played a part in my eating growing up. Raisins were never a food item to me. They were little bags of puke and I never could understand how others could like them. Also, I LOVE french fries, but as a child my sister made an association between the fries I was eating and a movie that scared me and I could no longer eat what was on my plate. Also, I had to go 6 years without eating pistachio pudding because I was eating it while watching a soap opera that had a dead body scene and suddenly I correlated my pudding with dead bodies *shiver*.

  4. Colin Taylor Says:

    Your analogy to apples ; “everyone else in the world would count an apple as a food, but to me, you might as well ask me to eat a brick, or a blanket, or a plank of wood” is a very useful one for people like us.

    In trying to explain my SED recently to my Mother (who has obviously been aware of it for 40 years – but still doesn’t ‘get it’), I asked her if there were any circumstances under which she would eat faeces (or dog s**t) and of course she replied that there was no level of social pressure which could induce her to eat it – naturally ! The point being that people can grasp the levels of disgust we feel if you explain it to them in this way.

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