On a pleasant evening this past August, I watched in awe as my normally picky eater casually ate everything on her plate. She was sitting at a picnic table, lakeside in northern Michigan, surrounded by five or six other cousins her age. They were all so busy giggling and talking, they barely noticed what they were eating.
It made me wonder: does the generational explosion of picky eaters have something to do with the decline of communal eating?
For most of my daughter’s first few years, she ate alone. Her younger brother was too little to join her at her small wooden table, and her parents ate (and still do) after she went to bed. My husband works long hours, and dinner at 7:45 p.m. just wouldn’t work for kids that are in bed by seven. It dawned on me that summer evening that while I grew up eating at a dinner table with my family five or six nights a week and routinely ate large meals, especially on Sundays, with extended family, my daughter almost never eats communally.
To be sure, “picky eating” is a major problem for today’s young kids. My pediatrician tells me horror stories of parents who only feed their kids chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, quite literally every single night, because it is all their kids will eat. According to WebMD, about one in five kids today fall into the category of a picky eater.
Theories abound as to why now and why so many kids. Increasingly, studies link picky eating to psychological issues like childhood anxiety or depression. Some have claimed it is genetic. Others argue it belies medical conditions, like autism and other sensory processing disorders. Others argue that it’s a cultural phenomenon that is especially pronounced in America. In her book Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman, an American ex-pat living in France, describes an American cartoon featuring a child who was a picky eater that had to be tweaked for French audiences, as they wouldn’t understand the concept.
In short, the cause of picky eating is not known, or perhaps there is no single cause.
But its rise has come suspiciously in tandem with the breakdown of marriage and community and the growing disappearance of family dinners. While the number of families that eat together almost nightly has stayed relatively consistent over the past 20 years, according to Gallup, the other half of the population is dining as a family less and less. No doubt that correlates with the decline of marriage, which, Gallup finds, makes a family more likely to eat dinner together.
When my own daughter began to struggle with picky eating, my pediatrician’s advice was simple: have her eat at the table with us and eat what we are eating. It made total sense but wasn’t practical given my husband’s long hours in our high-pressure urban environment. I tried other approaches, which eventually worked, though never fully cured her anxieties about food. That was until I watched her spend a summer happily eating what was served, surrounded by cousins and extended family, where we ate together as a large group each night at six.
Upon returning to the city this fall, we introduced our older kids (now ages three and five) to the concept of our own “family dinner” on Sunday nights, as if it were something novel. And lo and behold, it is the one night of the week when they try new foods with gusto, barely notice what’s on their plates because they are so busy talking, help with food preparation, and get excited about a meal they might otherwise resist.
No doubt there are other families with young children that find themselves in a similar scenario, unable to pull off the logistics of a sit-down dinner as a family every night at a reasonable hour. But my own anecdotal experience suggests that even a few meals together throughout the week as a family can dramatically improve anxiety about eating in young children.
The same goes for eating with other members of the community, something children experience less and less in a world where suburban life segregates families into isolated islands. Recently, as we ate dinner out with another young urban professional couple with preschool-aged kids, the father asked if our kids were “good eaters.” They had left behind a dinner struggle with one child who would only eat chicken and pasta. When I mentioned my theories about communal dining, an immediate look of understanding crossed his face. He said just the other day, his picky eater came running home from the neighbor kid’s house, eating a stalk of asparagus. “Look what I found at Tommy’s house!” he exclaimed. Something about eating with others made the food go from threatening to exciting.
Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best place to start when addressing a problem. For parents of picky eaters, finding ways to increase family or community meals may be a first step in solving picky eating habits.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.