Say Cheese! Exploring Preference and Changing Tastes with Picky Eating


When I was a child, I hated cheese. I couldn’t imagine eating it. Although I ate pizza, it didn’t really register that it was cheese on top. Once, when I was about 12, a good friend thought it would be hilarious to force me to eat some cold cheddar cheese. She easily held me down (being quite a bit taller than I was) and crammed a large chunk of cheese into my mouth and then kept her hand over my mouth so I couldn’t spit it out. In my memory, fumes were coming out of my ears. It was traumatic, and I haven’t ever let her live down that little stunt.

Early in college, I went on a trip to Europe with my dad and we spent two days on the Orient Express. Every afternoon on the train, they served stinky French cheeses at tea. I literally had to stick my head out of the tiny window next to my seat while my father enjoyed the array of veined cheeses. My senior year found me at a friend’s parents’ house where they served us wine and, you guessed it— cheese. This time, though, there were grapes and strawberries and crackers to go with it. I voiced my apprehension, and my friend gently explained how I might enjoy Brie or Gouda since they were milder. And she suggested I try a small amount on a large cracker— with a grape in the same bite. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. And my love affair with cheese began.

Mealtime Hostage blogger Skye VanZetten discusses her son’s journey toward cheese in this excellent post.

While I was a fairly adventurous eater in other regards, cheese was as far from “good” as I could imagine. My brother, on the other hand, never met a cheese he didn’t like. My whole family also enjoyed raw oysters, while I couldn’t understand the appeal (I still don’t). Family legend has it that my brother ate his first when he was barely two years old.

The thing about food is that we all have preferences. We love certain textures, flavors, and food combinations, but can’t stand the thought of others. I would venture that even the most adventurous eater probably has one or two foods that they would prefer not to eat. Depending on our histories and experiences as well as our unique sensory systems, we can have vastly different tastes from other people— even in our own family.

While researching sensory properties of food, I came across some interesting information about taste. According to the research, there is a bitter taste receptor gene (TAS2R38) that has been associated with the ability to taste certain compounds while others who don’t have the gene find these same compounds tasteless. However, we don’t fully understand how preferences develop. There is work being done that would help identify people whose genotype sets them up for preferring specific foods. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Would you want to know?

When working with kids with selective eating or even more severe feeding disorders, I remind parents frequently that their child is going to have preferences that may be very different from theirs. Especially if the child has high or low tone or has sensory issues, they may enjoy things that their parents cannot fathom. I have worked with kids who discover that they adore spicy wasabi: wasabi rice crackers, wasabi peas, even smeared on their chicken! I have many parents tell me that their three year-old loves plain lemons or spicy salsa— not exactly ‘kid-friendly’ foods. The thing is, if we only served kids the things that WE like or things that we expect them to like, we would miss out on the joy of seeing our kids enjoy something new. My own selective five year-old has some preferences that I would never have predicted: cucumbers and bell peppers of all colors are high on his list of preferred foods, yet he won’t touch a grape and rarely will eat a chicken nugget— food my seven year-old would eat at every meal if I he could.

Consider that kids have preferences, but that preferences can change.  Even (maybe especially) when children are more choosy, it can be a joyful experience helping kids to discover their preferences— because your child most likely doesn’t even know all that he likes yet. The path that children take to learn to enjoy food— even cheese— can be a hard road for parents, but your child will show you which direction to take.

Happy eating!


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