Why Do Kids Like What They Like?

Are children's taste preferences shaped more by nature or by nurture?

Posted Sep 29, 2014

There are a lot of things about teaching kids to eat right that parents misunderstand. Here’s one: Despite excellent evidence that taste preferences are largely learned—note that I said, “largely” not “entirely”—most parents I encounter believe that their job is to figure out what their children like. And then to feed it to them.

How do I know this? I spend a lot of time asking parents why they serve what they serve. The most common responses I get are: “Because she likes it,” and the popular variation, “Because I know she’ll eat it.”

In other words, parents think kids come out of the shoot liking what they like. Score one for nature.

Of course, parents also understand that Mexican kids like Mexican food and Indian kids like Indian food, not because they’re genetically preprogramed to enjoy these flavors, but because they’re culturally influenced to like them. And therefore, these same parents understand that what’s true for Mexican kids also has to be true for American kids. Right? Our kids like hot dogs, mac ‘n’ cheese and pizza because that’s what we feed them? Score one for nurture.

These two truths—that our kids’ taste preferences are both predetermined and environmentally shaped—produce an impossible conundrum for parents wanting to teach their kids to eat right.

  • If taste preferences develop over time, then parents need to feed their kids today how they want their kids to eat tomorrow.
  • However, if parents want their kids to eat today, parents have to feed their kids what they like today.

(Do you see where I’m going with this?)

  • But, by feeding their kids what they like today, parents are influencing what their kids will like tomorrow—the same things they like today!

The popular solution to this problem is to feed children what they like, and then to encourage kids to try new foods. This is a strategy that works for kids who are naturally adventurous, or who are at least comfortable trying new foods.

It turns out, though, that this is a strategy that doesn’t work when kids are, what I call, reluctant eaters. Encouragement turns into pressure, and then the whole system blows up. Kids dig their heels in; parents get increasingly more frustrated. Moreover, this is why parents of reluctant eaters tend to favor nature over nurture explanations. Taste preferences, these parents think, are innate, stable and unchangeable.1

But, of course, kids’ taste preferences can change. Parents just have to start thinking they have the power. (This is called self-efficacy and a little goes a long way.)

We also have to start thinking about how to create habits. There are two elements that take account of both nature and nurture:

  1. Feed to your kids' taste preferences in a way that builds a foundation for new foods.
  2. Introduce new foods in a way that builds trust rather than resistance.

In broad strokes this means:

  1. Start looking at food in terms of taste and texture. Make sure you vary these as much as possible, using the foods your children already eat. A day that starts with maple & brown sugar oatmeal, followed by a blueberry yogurt, then a PB&J sandwich, chocolate milk in the afternoon and a dinner of pasta with tomato sauce may hit all the “right” nutrients but from a habits perspective these items are all sweet and squishy.
  2. Eliminate pressure. “Just taste it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” feels to parents like a low-pressure tactic. To reluctant eaters, though, it sounds like this, “If you do like it, you will have to eat it.” That’s pressure. What’s not pressure? “Taste this teeny sample (smaller than a pea), and tell me what you think.”
  3. Focus on sensory education not on eating. Exploring food is easier when it’s completely unrelated to eating and when your children have lots of information. Talk about food in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature and sound before your kids even put a morsel in their mouths. The more they know, the braver they’ll be.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 

1 Russell, C. G. and A. Worsley. 2013. “Why Don't They Like That? And Can I Do Anything About it? The Nature and Correlates of Parents' Attributions and Self-Efficacy Beliefs About Preschool Children's Food Preferences.” appetite 66: 34-43.

© 2014 Dina Rose, PhD, is the author of the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books). She also writes the blog It's Not About Nutrition.