Your kid is a picky eater and it’s a really big deal

I got a lot of pushback for this post. I want to add this:

I appreciate that kids are kids. Every person has personal preferences and tastes — especially kids' tastes — change and evolve. While my daughter is an award-winning eating champ, my son is less so. He has a smaller appetite, and is often not that interested in foods. But the same tabletime rules apply to both kids. If you don't eat the meal, there is no snack.

Also: I don't take credit for my kids good eating habits. My kids join the vast majority of people in that they were born interested, curious and hungry. I don't do anything that has not been done since caveman days: I cook and expect them to eat.

There are no doubt some kids who are unuusally picky eaters, and my heart goes out to them and their parents. As you can tell by this post, I enjoy food very much and think that mealtime is a critical part of life. My goal in writing this post is not to shame parents into changing their ways, but rather take a big-picture look at what every grilled-cheese sandwich and special kid meal means to a person's whole life — beyond remedying the aggravation of an ornery child who refuses to eat a perfectly delicious home-cooked meal. Because we've all been there, me included.

So carry on – and bon appetit!


Lately my daughter, 5, has been making a big deal out of the fact that she doesn't like avocado. Announcing it publicly – to anyone who will listen. This is news only because avocado is the only food she doesn't care for.

I love watching this kid eat. Whatever I put in front of her, she consumes hardily, seemingly enjoying every bite. Most of the time, when faced with a square meal, Helena dives first into the green vegetable, polishing off the broccoli, asparagus or zucchini before gnawing on a chicken thigh, quinoa or roasted salmon. Would she like more? No, thank you. Satisfied, she pushes away her chair, and lops off to play with the cat. I often admire her healthy body – strong legs, fleshy tummy, shiny straight brown hair and those incredible, sparkly eyes. My kids are rarely sick.

I don't need to tell you how I got such good eaters for children: I cook healthy, tasty meals three times per day. We sit down together for breakfast, lunch and dinner (when we are in the same house). There is no snack or dessert until they clean their plates. We cook together, shop and visit the farmer's market. No magic involved. No chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs.

It helps that, yes, I do enjoy eating cooking very much. Yes, shopping for food and teaching my kids where it comes from is interesting and fun for me. At least once per week we have dinner guests. Last weekend we snuck off to spend a night in an adorable, simple cabin (no plumbing – yay!), located on a small working farm in upstate New York. The kids collected eggs, we poked at the mama goat's full, wobbly utter, and oogled the adorable black piglets (the small, fat sow's name is Football. ha!).

Clearly, food is my thing. It may not be yours, and that is totally OK. But there is so much wrong with raising picky eaters. Catering to childish pallets. Feeding young bodies stupid, dumbed-down food that is not only low in nutritional value, but poor in its flavors.

I don't want to hear about how your kid just won't eat vegetables. Hogwash.

Hunger is the most powerful human drive. If a child is hungry enough, she will eat. But you don't have to starve your kid to encourage that. Just put the food there. Eat it with them. Say a few nice things about the meal and where that eggplant came from. Don't overdo it. Kids can sniff out a phoney from a mile away. Just be normal and eat your food and expect them to do the same thing.

This isn't sophisticated child psychology. This is basic parenting. Food is a basic, core element of life. Normal, healthy life includes good meals enjoyed with other people. Raise picky eaters, and this is what you rob your children of:

1. Good manners. Like I said, I host lots of dinner guests. Before I cook, I always ask: “Is there anything you don't eat?” I respect dietary restrictions for health, religious and political reasons. Once in a while a guest will lend a long list of foods they don't care for, and another of foods they prefer. Oh, barf. Just come over, enjoy what I cook. Or don't. But I'm not a restaurant. Just like I tell my 3 and 5 year-olds — people who know that you eat what you are given.

Open, adventurous diners have the world at their fingertips. You are a delightful and oft-invited dinner guest, yes. But also an open-minded traveler, likely to be invited to locals' homes. You are fun to hang out with because you don't make friends crazy with your demands on restaurants. When someone brings you their raisin pie when your dad dies, or a bottle of grocery-store Malbac on your birthday, you dig in with delight — right there in front of them. The picky eater pushes the foodstuff to the back of the counter, with a weak smile and promises for later snacking. Happy eaters are delightful people. Picky eating is rude.

2.  Gratitude. A few blocks from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, New York, there are two produce markets next-door to each other, with all their colorful abundance laid out for me, every single day of the whole year. Each time I walk by, I am overwhelmed with a sense of how rich I am to have access to this kind of wonderful food, whenever I want. I share that feeling with my kids. It would be heartbreaking if they did not appreciate all that they have.

If you expect the world to be a kitchen with a private chef, you are robbed of the empowering awareness of all your wealth.

3. Enjoying life. I recently heard that the tradition of clinking glasses comes from the notion that the chime of crystal introduces the fifth sense into the wine-drinking experience: The taste, smell, sight and touch of the drink are rounded off by sound.Enjoying good food is one of the greatest human pleasures. Long meals with people who lovingly cooked for you, shared recipes and culinary traditions. That satisfied feeling of having ingested great things, with great people. This is the pretty much all there is in life. The importance of good food transcends every culture and time. If all you eat is a piece of meat shaped like an extinct reptile, you are robbed of life.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Thinking momma on August 8, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    I think some kids are just naturally more picky than others. I grew up in Nigeria where everything we ate was organic and literally picked off a tree or harvested from the ground shortly before it made it to our plates. My mom went to the market every other week as back then, we did not have any grocery stores whatsoever. Being that we did not have the technology to preserve foods for a long time, we only ate what was in season. We literally only ate grains, fruits and vegetables. There were no cookies, ice cream, frozen dinners or fast foods. My mom was a stickler for healthy eating because she wanted us all to be disease free. The long and short of the story is that I basically starved my entire life because I BLATANTLY REFUSED to eat 70 percent of the meals served before me. My mom made lunch and dinner each day and refused to cook different meals for each child. She always said , “You will eat what I put on your plate.” While my brothers would happily devour the food, I would sit there for about 2 hours just staring at the food. I don’t think hunger motivates kids as by the time I was on my own at 17, there were times when I would forget to eat lunch. My theory is I had eaten so little growing up that my tummy had shrunk to the size of a pea. My son is seriously picker, but is getting better, but my daughter will eat anything and everything.

  2. Meagan @The Happiest Home on August 9, 2013 at 11:36 am

    I think there is a big middle ground between indulging a child’s ingratitude and “creating” a picky eater, and trying to help a naturally picky eater (and yes, they do exist) navigate the world of foods she doesn’t like. I also know from experience that kids who are picky eaters can grow up into adventurous eaters. I did.

    I mean, good for you that your kid is an awesome eater, but it doesn’t come naturally to all kids (or parents) and the tone of this post is really rubbing me the wrong way.

  3. debbie koenig on August 9, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Gotta say, I’m with Meagan re: the tone of this post. It seems intentionally provocative and judgmental. I’m a food writer. I love food. We eat family meals every single day, filled with color and flavor and love. And my kid eats air. Suggesting this is my fault is insulting. I know that as long as I keep offering a variety of food and not pressuring him, eventually he’ll come around. Meanwhile I deal with it, he thrives, and like your kids, is rarely sick.

    Considering how many of my friends with more than one child have “mixed” families, where one eats everything and the other will only touch white foods, I don’t see how you can say we parents are to blame. You’re lucky to have good eaters, that’s all. Look at it this way: I’d bet there are amazing things my kid does that yours don’t, but I’m not taking the credit.

  4. renee on August 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Oh wow, “your kid is a picky eater and it is a really big deal and it is all your fault,” is a spectacularly wrong title. Luckily my child is not a picky eater, but I sure was growing up. It was the ’80’s and there were no such diagnoses as sensory processing disorder, but, later in life, I am pretty sure that is what I had. Particular foods would just make me itch, gag, and they sounded horrible to me. What it is is that other senses would get false signals from taste or smell, so if you are totally neurotypical you don’t really understand how that can happen. It took many many years before I was comfortable eating a wide variety of foods, but now, as an adult, I’m not picky at all, have no gluten intolerance or food allergies. I willingly eat everything from Asia that most Americans are scared of. I haven’t adapted for all my sensory issues, I can still hear smells and taste sounds, but you’d never know it!

    I don’t also feel that, being a picky eater is a big deal. You live in America, and for the most part America is a country that caters to food allergies, insensitivities, diet crazes, vegan, halal, Kosher, vegetarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, and you name it. If you are picky or are culturally, religiously avoiding certain foods, nobody thinks you’re weird. Sure, in other countries that’s abnormal, but here, it really isn’t. I think it’s perhaps because America is just open-minded enough to accept that not everyone can or should be required to eat the same things as everyone else.

  5. Morghan on August 9, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I don’t feel that way about food. I’d take a pellet every day if I could avoid eating. But I can’t, so I eat.

  6. Emma on August 9, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    [FYI, if you’re interested in an even livelier discussion- check out]

    On one hand, the comments here and elsewhere have opened my eyes about how some kids are really truly born picky. Maybe more than I realized. But I still don’t buy that this is the prevailing cause of picky eating. I see everywhere educated, health-conscious parents feeding their kids stupid food. Family parties where the adult food is amazing, and the kids are only expected to enjoy crap. My kids tell me what is in their friends’ school lunch boxes. Grocery store shelves are lined with organic and other pricey packaged version of stupid kids foods: mac&cheese, nuggets of every variety, sugary yogurts — on and on.

    No where do I say I am taking credit for creating good eaters. I think people are born good eaters — curious people open to new and pleasurable experiences. I just cook what I like and feed it to my kids. This is normal. Pandering to picky children is just one example of over-empowering children which plays out in all kinds of outrageous ways as they grow up.

    If I were to edit this piece I would add that my son, 3, is a good eater, but not nearly as enthusiastic as his sister. Some days I do get frustrated by how little he sometimes eats — though he does eat most foods– but I generally don’t make a deal out of it. He is really used to not getting snacks or treats because he doesn’t eat his meal. He is healthy — and hefty — a solid little dude who looks like he eats steak three meals per day — so I am confident he gets what he needs nutritionally.

    @Morghan. Sigh. How many times do I need to cook for you before I bring you over to the light side?

  7. Kate on August 12, 2013 at 9:37 am

    holy moly. You are one sanctimonious harpy. Congrats on being a perfect hipster mom to perfect hipster children! Jesus. I’m going to go give my kid a dinosaur shaped chicken nugget just to spite you.

  8. Sarah on August 14, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Blech. I don’t buy it. You say you don’t take credit for raising good eaters, but:

    “I don’t need to tell you how I got such good eaters for children: I cook healthy, tasty meals three times per day. We sit down together for breakfast, lunch and dinner (when we are in the same house). There is no snack or dessert until they clean their plates. We cook together, shop and visit the farmer’s market. No magic involved. No chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs.”

    You literally say, this is how I raised good eaters.

    In your post about co-sleeping you identify your child as a poor sleeper (can’t fall asleep and stay asleep in their own bed) with kindness and grace. But for picky eaters and their mothers? #youredoingitwrong style holier than though barbs towards other mothers whose kids are picky eaters.

    “On one hand, if they’re scared or lonely and want a 2 a.m. snuggle with their mom – isn’t that my job? And what if I love to feel needed, and love a sleepy little snuggle bunny?”

    How about, “On one hand, if they’re in discomfort or hungry from constantly being presented with foods dislike and want something plain (but still healthy) to nourish them – isn’t that my job? And what if I love to feel like I’m meeting their needs and giving them security in this overwhelming world by being flexible?”

    I have picky eaters but they’re not unhealthy eaters. Lots of fruits, veggies, plain pasta, plain meats. No spices, no mixing. They don’t eat what we eat and I have kindness and grace in dealing with it – as you did for the sleeping issue. It would have been nice to have read a supportive, kind post here today on my first, and last, visit to your blog.

    • beeswax on September 21, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      Totally agree with Sarah’s comment. I almost wrote one exactly like it. Emma, the world would be a better place without this kind of unsupportive self-righteousness and your backpedaling comment at the top and in the comments below don’t justify your original post in the least. I’m so very thankful I rarely come across this type of hideous judgementalism, as the mothers in my world are sympathetic, kind, and helpful – which describes this article not at all. So sad it even came up in my google search. Why, if pickiness is the parents fault, what in the world must your mother or father done to make you write such a rude and offensive article? Oh, was that a low-blow? Now you have taste of your own medicine. Hey here’s an idea – I’ll feed my kids and you feed yours.

      • Emma on September 23, 2014 at 2:07 pm

        Thank you for engaging in this important discussion.

        “Hey here’s an idea – I’ll feed my kids and you feed yours.”

        That’s the problem … you feed your kids garbage and like tens of millions of other kids they will grow up to obese and otherwise unhealthy. Everyone then is responsible for caring for them in terms of higher health care premiums, untold tax dollars going to care for the unwell, co-workers who under-perform and an environment being destroyed for the sake of processed food. None of us live in a vacuum.

  9. Emma on August 14, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Oh but Sarah (not that you’re reading this, since you will clearly never return here) – in the co-sleeping essay I go on about how I was wishy-washy about sleep rules. My kids were not the best sleepers because I was not the best mom in that department. If I were to have another baby — or magical do-over — I would establish firm sleep policy from the get-go. As is often the case, my younger child was a better sleeper because I was a better mom to him, having learned so much the first time around.

    I find it simply delightful to notice how I am lent so much criticism and advice on how I SHOULD handle my blog in the same breath that I am lambasted for being critical of others.

  10. Helen Hunt on December 2, 2013 at 1:15 am

    Just read this…. after googling picky eaters trying to find a ‘helpful’ article. Not exactly sure what vein this article was written but ‘helpful’ it certainly isn’t….patronising and perversely self praising it most definitely is. Most parents of picky eaters love food and like you prepare lovingly home cooked meals…I mean whats the alternative to that in this life?? Take outs and trashy prepacked meals?? Don’t think I’d be on here if that’s the way I rolled. All I say to you is thank God every day that you’ve been lucky enough for your children not to have variety eating as their issue….they probably have some others, you might be better equipped to blog about those because you certainly have no clue of the heartache involved in dealing with picky eaters….this article is just white noise!!

  11. calra on May 24, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Not only is this a great article, I give you credit for writing it. With the job i have, i spent most of my days pretty much summarizing this to families who just don’t want to do the work. I think with busy families, its just easier to pacify the kids and feed them what they want, however, then you have the 35 year old who is still eating nuggets when he or she goes out to dinner and obesity rates that are rising from all the processed white sugar/flour foods we are feeding our kids. Not to mention all the vitamins you rob your children of with the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits. Kids will not let themselves starve. If there are no alternatives, they will learn to eat what everyone else in the family is eating. You need to start from day 1 integrating them into family meals and not cooking seprate things, It’s just that simple. I sat and fought with my kids when they were little and trust me it wasn’t easy, its alot of work, and now they know they just eat whats in front of them. They have some meals they like more than others but who doesn’t. Things need to change. We are lucky enough to have the means to provide options in what we cook where other countries do not, but this doesn’t mean that we should be doing it.

    • Emma on May 26, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      Thansks for this Calra. I was surprised what a turd this post stirred, but it is true: there is increasing acceptance that kids today are over-coddled and helicoptered, yet so many parents defend the crappy food they feed their kids. Makes no sense to me.

  12. Crystal on July 23, 2015 at 12:57 am

    I love your post and completely agree with it all. After further research I do believe there are kids who are naturally more picky(the sensory thing where certain textures make them gag) so I’m not including that. I only have one toddler and she eats voraciously and apprecitively. I think it’s partially due to eating everything under the sun and because I respect food a lot (parents are chefs and small business owners) that made it a bit easier for my baby to eat whatever. I agree that allowing your kids to be picky does lend to bad manners and losing out experiences in life. Again, excluding phases and those with a serious disorder, I believe it’s possible that you train your child to be picky by pandering to bad habits. For instance, my friend’s kids grew up eating alright, but once they went through a slightly picky phase, it was exacerbated when the parents only fed them white rice because it was what they wanted. I’m sorry but no thanks

  13. wlm2 on November 27, 2015 at 7:26 am

    This post is spot on. Kids who only eat dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets are the progeny of overindulgent parents who promote that policy. I love the fact that the comments were overwhelmed by a bunch of sanctimonious self-indulgent parents whose children are so special they really need a special diet of 5 highly processed crappy foods. The reality is that not only are people not that special (this has happened 7 or 8 billion times before) but as I have told my kids many times, the world has no interest in the dislikes of a 5 year old. Your notion that encouraging this tendency discourages curiosity is 100% correct. If you look up kids that are picky eaters all of the articles are handwringing nonsense about how my kid is special and only judgemental jerks don’t cater to their kids every culinary whim. Thanks for putting this work of genuine parenting out there. Spend time with your kids, teach them to eat, where food comes from and to be curious… And if you teach them to only eat dinosaur shaped chicken, don’t come to my house expecting a personal chef and an individual meal.

    • Emma on November 28, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      ha, love it!

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