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Do Kids Really Prefer Junk Food?

By Rebecca Odes |

Do kids prefer junk foodFood Revolution scared me. And not just because of the Pink Slime. The parents on the show seemed educated and informed. They were feeding their kids well at home, but being undermined by the institutional food their kids were eating during the day. One mother said her son’s tastes had actually been altered by school lunch: “He used to eat all the good food we have at home before. ” Others nodded gravely. Are kids that vulnerable to influence? Would they really just be eating pizza and fries at every meal if we’d let them?

Yesterday’s New York Post asked the same question in a very different context: an article quoting various restauranteurs about kids and fine dining. The angle was irritating in general, but it was the last quote that left me with the worst taste in my mouth:

… at least one of the city’s top restaurateurs thinks parents may be forcing gourmet cuisine down their children’s gullets. ‘The only food I ever see children enjoy at any of my restaurants are the pizzas at Pulino’s,’ said restaurateur Keith McNally, who also owns Balthazar and Minetta Tavern. ‘That’s all children ever want to eat. Anyone who says anything else is lying.”’


I saw some children enjoying the linguini and clam sauce at one of McNally’s restaurants earlier this week, and the brandade, octopus, and chicken liver mousse on earlier occasions. Some of these kids weren’t even mine.  Kids with adventurous appetites may be in the minority, but they’re out there. Maybe Keith wasn’t looking, or maybe he just wants to sell some pizzas. I don’t know if picky eaters are born or made. And I don’t judge people whose kids won’t budge on diet—lord knows my kids are mules about other things. But I do wonder how we settled on the few items that kids menus offer. Do we really believe our kids are pre-programmed to eat in a certain way, which just happens to be cheap, easy to prepare and in many cases, not particularly healthy? Is it possible that we’re telling kids that this is what they should like?

Meanwhile, kids who eat adventurously are considered weird, laughable, pretentious. Maybe their parents are just doing it to show off. We didn’t have some grand plan about creating mini foodies.Our kids eat what we eat, when we’re eating it. That’s the way we’ve always done it, and it generally seems to work. Partly it was just easier to make one dinner than two (or worse, three).  Am I thrilled that my kids like to eat a lot of different foods? Sure. But just because I love food and want to share it with them. Not because I think it makes them somehow superior, or because I want people to think I’m an awesome mom for “getting them” to eat this way. Is the theory that we’ve taught our children to pretend to like sushi because it’s cool?  ”Just hold your nose and think of pizza, sweetie.” That they’re eating this way because they want to impress us?   I don’t know about your kids, but mine are ALWAYS doing things they hate just because they think I want them to.

I was talking to a friend of mine, another mother of the rare adventurous eater child, about this today. Her take: Kids like what they like. If they don’t like something, you can’t make them. But you can offer them more options. And maybe, as in the case of the kid on Food Revolution, if you offer enough of the easy stuff—sweet, fatty or otherwise—other things don’t seem as palatable anymore.  I’m not sure what makes kids more or less open to eating outside the kids’ menu box.  But I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume that if that’s all we ever offer them, there’s less chance of them wanting anything else.

Read Twee-sine in the NY Post.

photo: Darwin Bell/flickr

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About Rebecca Odes


Rebecca Odes

Rebecca Odes is a writer, artist and mother. She was inspired to write her blog, From The Hips, during her first pregnancy when she discovered every pregnancy book she came across made her feel anxious or irritated. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

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0 thoughts on “Do Kids Really Prefer Junk Food?

  1. Amy says:

    Something I’ve noticed about myself, if I eat junk food I want more junk food. I don’t know why. But I don’t doubt that happens to children, too.
    As far as children only wanting pizzas…totally bogus!! Now, I do believe that most children are less inclined to eat things that are spicy or bitter. But that’s no reason not to serve to children what the adults eat, more or less.

  2. Linda, the original one says:

    Mine don’t, so I guess we’re just pretentious and weird. ;) I pretty much can’t force my kids to eat school lunches or fast food. It’s not what they’re accustomed to. I wouldn’t consider us “foodies” in any sense of the word. To begin with, we can’t afford to eat out very often. I just cook simple foods with fresh ingredients. And my kids pack simple lunches (sandwiches, salads, fruit, yogurt) or take leftovers. Tonight we’re having a rousing gourmet meal of baked whole wheat pasta with canned sauce and cheese, mixed green salad, and fruit salad. I think people make meal prep harder than it has to be.

  3. Linda, the original one says:

    I wanted to add that when we go out to eat for special occasions my kids always order salmon.

  4. Angela says:

    Of course it’s ridiculous to assume that kids only like chicken nuggets and pizza but I do think that people are programed to want foods that are high in sugar, fats, and sodium. My son loves Indian food and wolfed down the saag paneer he had at lunch, but if I offered him the choice between that and potato chips and cookies (which he’s only eaten a few times in his life) I’m sure he’d choose the junk. I wouldn’t be surprised if even adventurous young eaters choose McDonalds over their favorite sushi bar given the choice.
    Also most parents don’t want to spend more than a few bucks to take their kids out to eat. For $4.99 or less you really can’t expect restaurants to be providing octopus or stuffed truffles so if you want to introduce your kids to some of the more gourmet options you’ll need to be prepared to fork out full price for it.

  5. GP says:

    I am so tired of the bad rap pizza gets. You know, if you make it yourself, with a thin crust, maybe even trying a whole wheat crust, and top it with veggies and cheese, it’s pretty healthy. Pita bread pizzas are an easy alternative, too. What’s so wrong with pizza?

  6. goddess says:

    My kids would rather eat salads than pizza. And the youngest- my picky eater- LOVES tilapia~

  7. puasamanda says:

    We don’t “disallow” treats in our house, and Grandma has done her fair share of getting The Peanut full-to-bursting with candy, cookies, ice cream, etc. He definitely enjoys a cookie…a piece of candy…a brownie…but I’ve noticed that he maintains a very balanced diet even when left to his own devices. He eats lots of fruits and veggies, lots of lean proteins – namely because that is how WE eat. He sometimes wants a treat, but he is just as likely to ask for peas as he is for a cookie.

  8. Kikiriki says:

    We eat well at our house, lots of variety, lots of interesting and tasty things, both my husband and I are fairly adventurous eaters with a taste for different cuisines, the kids are served what we are served… and both of my kids are super picky eaters who would always prefer pizza every single night if I would give it to them. Doesn’t mean I give into them, because I don’t, nor do I allow complaining that the food is “yucky” or they hate it, but it makes a good number of our mealtimes fairly miserable because our children are unhappily picking at their food or eating their piece or two of bread and that’s it and going hungry. So yeah, I’m pretty sure that adventurous eaters are born, not made. Hopefully by the time they’re in high school the picky ones will branch out a bit more.

  9. Diera says:

    I think it depends on the kid to some extent. I mention this every time there’s a picky eating story on Babble, but my two kids couldn’t be more different on this. My first would always rather eat spinach salad with hard boiled eggs and ham chunks and cucumber and olives with a glass of milk than almost anything else; my second’s favorite food list is pretty much only things you find in the average gas station’s market area (chips, cookies, sugary drinks, candy). I didn’t raise them differently or treat them differently as babies, they just showed up this way.

  10. Rebecca Odes says:

    Lots of good points!

    @Kikiriki and Diera: I definitely think there is a huge predisposition factor. When people ask me what I did to get my kids to eat well, I tell them what we did, but that I have no idea whether it made any difference!

    @Angela, thanks for bringing up the issue of money, I actually meant to put something about that into the post. The price difference between the kids menu and adult entrees makes it a non-choice for many parents.

    @GP another point I originally made and edited for clarity: pizza can most definitely be a perfectly healthy meal, especially made as you describe. Believe me, I love pizza…I just don’t agree with the idea that it’s all anyone under 10 wants to eat, ever.

  11. GP says:

    totally…sorry if I missed where that was said…
    there’s totally not a lot of rhyme or reason to what my 4 yo will eat…sometimes she’ll eat whatever weird thing we’re having (kung pao tofu?) other times she wants her “dinos and french fries”…I think if they generally eat a wide variety of non-junk food (mine sometimes just wants peanut butter on whole grain toast for her meal), there’s not alot of reason to sweat what they’re eating…I like to try and respect what she wants when she wants it b/c I understand being in the “mood” for certain things at certain times…I try to keep meals relaxed and the less fuss we make over things, the more likely she is to try things

  12. TJDestry says:

    The grandkids’ favorite place for birthdays and other special occasions is a Korean/Japanese restaurant where they usually order sushi. One of them picks the fish off the rice and eats it, leaving the rice behind, but doesn’t want to order sashimi instead. I think she enjoys the artistry of the sushi. And there are occasional small fits if one of them orders a dish that doesn’t include a bowl of miso beforehand. I don’t know what would happen if they were offered a choice of that place or McDonald’s, but they aren’t in the same classification in their minds. Mickey D’s is just a place you grab food. The Korean place is an event. I’m pretty sure they’d rather have the full event than just grab some food.

  13. PlumbLucky says:

    I’m waiting for my youngest to be a picky eater simply because my oldest eats just about whatever we put in front of him. (I’m not a short order cook. I don’t make separate meals for anyone. We eat what we eat and we eat at dinnertime. Period.) He DOES like french fries, which are a rarity. He does frequently request pizza, but he also frequently requests chicken and fish. He is not, however, a fan of most “kids menu items” other than macaroni and cheese.

    Now I wonder if I can convince husby to make his awesome from scratch pizza for dinner tonight…mmmmmmmm

  14. Rosana says:

    “it’s pretty reasonable to assume that if that’s all we ever offer them, there’s less chance of them wanting anything else.” I totally agree. I only buy from the kids menu for my 3 year old if it offers complete meals like pasta or rice w/ brocoli or quesadilla with a side of beans, etc. For my 14 month old, I always carry her fork, spoon and ask for an extra plate so I can share my meal with her. After all, portions are huge and I am doing myself a favor too.

  15. Amanda says:

    I think one of the problems is the idea of “kid foods” in the first place. If you assume that a child should order off a chilren’s menu at every place you go out to eat or you buy foods like nuggets, mac & cheese, etc. for your kids to eat at home, that’s what they’ll want. I plan on being like my parents as my son gets older. My mom only made one dinner for the whole family when she cooked and you either ate it or you didn’t, and we ordered off of the regular menu starting at a young age and just took the uneaten portion home. At my favorite childhood place to eat, I usually got an open face steak sandwich and salad from the time I was about 6. Kids aren’t automatically going to like crappy, processed foods unless that’s all they know.

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