Nature vs. Nurture at the Dinner Table: Americans Weigh In on Whether Picky Eaters are “Born” or “Made”

A cute young boy looking disappointed with the meal in front of him

New York, N.Y. – We’ve all known at least one of them. The kid who refuses to eat anything but macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. The teenager who would rather go on a hunger strike than let a vegetable pass their lips. Or that all-grown-up friend who orders everything “on the side.” These fussy eating habits don’t always end with childhood and sometimes it’s a mystery as to how they start in the first place. A recent Harris Poll turned to Americans to weigh in on the subject.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,232 U.S. adults surveyed online between January 14 and 20, 2015.

Where do picky eaters come from?

Whether you sympathize with the behavior or find yourself wondering how a picky eater gets by, so long as you live in America chances are you’re not escaping it anytime soon. Eighty-four percent (84%) of Americans agree picky eaters are common in the United States. This compares to just 36% of U.S. adults who say the same about other countries.

So what exactly is it that makes one person picky and another person willing to eat absolutely anything? Is it nature or is it nurture? While the answer may be up for some debate, Americans appear to be in agreement that picky eaters are “made” (71%) rather than “born” (29%). Not too surprisingly, those who are self-proclaimed picky eaters are quicker to pass the buck to nature compared to those who are not so choosy (41% vs. 25%).

Regardless of the nature vs. nurture debate, nearly half of Americans are in agreement that parenting is the most common reason for picky eating (48%), followed by food allergies (31%), and an excess of food options (25%). Parents appear to have no problem shouldering the blame themselves. Those with children in the household are more likely than those without to say parenting is to blame (55% vs. 44%), though they’re also more likely to say that picky eaters are “born” (37% vs. 25%).

The generations differ on the most common reasons for picky eating.

  • Millennials are more likely than any other generation to say eating for general health is the most common reason for the fussy habit (20% vs. 12% Gen Xers, 11% Baby Boomers, & 10% Matures).
  • In contrast, Matures are more likely to point the finger at managing a medical condition (23% vs. 15% Baby Boomers, 12% Gen Xers, & 11% Millennials).

Those who are not picky eaters themselves are more likely to point to parenting (51%) and non-medical dietary restrictions (e.g., vegetarianism, veganism, kosher, halal) (23%) than picky eaters (37% and 17%, respectively). Meanwhile, picky eaters themselves point to eating for general health (22%) and genetic predispositions (18%) more than those who don’t consider themselves finicky (11% and 13%, respectively).

A vast majority of Americans (88%) agree it is good that many restaurants offer children’s menus, possibly signaling that Americans aren’t too upset by the notion of catering to this behavior, at least among children.

Who are they?

The majority of Americans can pinpoint at least one person in their life with choosy preferences, and only 28% of Americans say they don’t know anyone who they’d consider to be a picky eater. Of course, in some cases, the picky eater they’re pointing the finger at is themselves.

One-quarter of American adults (26%) self-identify as picky eaters. The behavior may dwindle as we age, however, as Millennials are more likely than any other generation to raise their hands, followed by Gen Xers (36% Millennials vs. 26% Gen Xers, 19% Baby Boomers, & 15% Matures). Fourteen percent identify their spouse as a picky eater and 5% say another adult in their household is picky about food.

Looking to the younger members of the family, 60% of those who have children in the household say at least one of them is a picky eater. Interestingly, those in households with at least one picky adult (either themselves or their spouse) are more likely to have a picky child in the house than those in households without picky role models (26% vs. 21%, respectively).

What do we think of them?

Just how acceptable do Americans find picky eating behaviors? Well, that depends. Overall, 71% say it’s normal for children to be picky eaters, while just 35% say the same for adults.

Acceptability is affected by the age of the eater. Majorities of Americans think it’s acceptable for children to be picky eaters (74% say acceptable for a child under 7 and 66% for children ages 8-12). Adults are split on how they feel about teenagers with, 50% saying it’s acceptable. However, majorities find the behavior unacceptable among adults (61% say not acceptable for adults 18-24 and 62% for adults 25 and older).

Those with children in the house are more likely than those without to find picky eating acceptable in children (82% vs. 70% for children 7 and under; 72% vs. 63% for children ages 8-12).

Not too surprisingly, those who are picky themselves are more tolerant than those who aren’t for most age ranges:

  • Children ages 8-12 – 72% of picky eaters say acceptable vs. 64% of non-picky eaters
  • Teenagers ages 13-17 – 62% vs. 46%
  • Young adults ages 18-24 – 52% vs. 35%
  • Adults ages 25 and older – 54% vs. 32%

With acceptability levels where they are, are picky eaters treated any differently than their non-picky counterparts? Those with a more varied palate might see a few more dinner party invites coming their way, as majorities of Americans say they are more likely to invite friends over for dinner both if they are not picky eaters (59%) and if they do not have children who are picky eaters (53%).

The same goes for dining out, albeit to a lesser extent, as four in ten say they’re less likely to dine out with both friends who are picky eaters (41%) and with friends who have children who are picky eaters (40%). And finally, singles beware… Some single picky eaters may have trouble picking up a date, as 43% of Americans say they’re less likely to date a picky eater. 

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TABLE 1a

PICKY EATERS – WHO ARE THEY

By Generation and Children in Household

“Which of the following people, if any, do you consider to be picky eaters? Please select all that apply.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Generation

Children in HH

Millennials

(18-37)

Gen. X

(38-49)

Baby

Boomers

(50-68)

Matures

(69+)

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Myself

26

36

26

19

15

30

24

A child in my household

23

33

31

13

6

60

5

Another adult I know, not in my household

17

18

13

16

27

13

19

Another child I know, not in my household

17

17

14

18

24

14

19

My spouse or partner

14

16

17

11

11

16

13

Another adult in my household

5

8

4

6

2

7

5

One or more of my parents

5

8

4

4

1

6

4

One or more of my in-laws

4

6

4

3

4

6

3

Someone else

11

14

9

10

9

9

12

NA – I don’t know anyone who I consider to be a picky eater

28

18

24

39

37

14

35

Note: Multiple responses allowed.

 


TABLE 1b

PICKY EATERS – WHO ARE THEY

By Self-Identified Picky Eater and Self or Spouse is Picky Eater

“Which of the following people, if any, do you consider to be picky eaters? Please select all that apply.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Self-Identified Picky Eater

Self Or Spouse Is Picky Eater

Yes

No

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

Myself

26

100

71

A child in my household

23

27

21

26

21

Another adult I know, not in my household

17

13

19

15

19

Another child I know, not in my household

17

12

19

14

19

My spouse or partner

14

14

14

39

Another adult in my household

5

8

5

7

5

One or more of my parents

5

7

4

5

5

One or more of my in-laws

4

3

4

3

5

Someone else

11

10

11

9

12

NA – I don’t know anyone who I consider to be a picky eater

28

38

45

Note: Multiple responses allowed.

 

 

TABLE 2a

NATURE VS. NURTURE

By Generation and Children in Household

“Do you believe “picky eaters” are “born” (the behavior occurs naturally) or “made” (the behavior is learned)?”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Generation

Children in HH

Millennials

(18-37)

Gen. X

(38-49)

Baby

Boomers

(50-68)

Matures

(69+)

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Made (NET)

71

67

67

74

80

63

75

Picky eaters are “made.”

39

36

35

41

44

35

41

Picky eaters are more often “made,” but sometimes “born.”

32

30

32

33

35

29

34

Born (NET)

29

33

33

26

20

37

25

Picky eaters are more often “born,” but sometimes “made.”

21

25

21

19

16

26

18

Picky eaters are “born.”

8

8

11

7

5

10

7

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.


TABLE 2b

NATURE VS. NURTURE

By Self-Identified Picky Eater

“Do you believe “picky eaters” are “born” (the behavior occurs naturally) or “made” (the behavior is learned)?”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Self-Identified Picky Eater

Yes

No

%

%

%

Made (NET)

71

59

75

Picky eaters are “made.”

39

27

43

Picky eaters are more often “made,” but sometimes “born.”

32

32

32

Born (NET)

29

41

25

Picky eaters are more often “born,” but sometimes “made.”

21

29

18

Picky eaters are “born.”

8

12

7

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.

 

 

TABLE 3a

ACCEPTABILITY OF PICKY EATING AT DIFFERENT AGES – Grid Summary

“How acceptable do you think Americans find it for each of the following individuals to be picky eaters?”

Base: All Adults

Acceptable (NET)

Very acceptable

Somewhat acceptable

Not Acceptable (NET)

Not that acceptable

Not at all acceptable

%

%

%

%

%

%

Children ages 7 and under

74

34

40

26

13

13

Children ages 8-12

66

15

51

34

21

13

Teenagers ages 13-17

50

10

40

50

33

17

Young adults ages 18-24

39

11

28

61

35

25

Adults ages 25 and older

38

14

24

62

29

33

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.


TABLE 3b

ACCEPTABILITY OF PICKY EATING AT DIFFERENT AGES – Summary of “Acceptable”

By Generation, Children in Household, and Gender

“How acceptable do you think Americans find it for each of the following individuals to be picky eaters?”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Generation

Children in HH

Gender

Millennials

(18-37)

Gen. X

(38-49)

Baby

Boomers

(50-68)

Matures

(69+)

Yes

No

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Children ages 7 and under

74

79

77

70

69

82

70

68

80

Children ages 8-12

66

71

70

62

54

72

63

63

69

Teenagers ages 13-17

50

49

54

50

46

48

51

49

51

Young adults ages 18-24

39

35

42

41

41

33

42

41

38

Adults ages 25 and older

38

34

39

40

40

33

40

40

36

 

 

TABLE 3c

ACCEPTABILITY OF PICKY EATING AT DIFFERENT AGES – Summary of “Acceptable”

By Self-Identified Picky Eater

“How acceptable do you think Americans find it for each of the following individuals to be picky eaters?”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Self-Identified Picky Eater

Yes

No

%

%

%

Children ages 7 and under

74

78

73

Children ages 8-12

66

72

64

Teenagers ages 13-17

50

62

46

Young adults ages 18-24

39

52

35

Adults ages 25 and older

38

54

32

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.


TABLE 4a

COMMON REASONS FOR PICKY EATING

By Generation and Children in Household

“Which, if any, of the following do you believe to be the most common reasons for picky eating? You may choose up to three.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Generation

Children in HH

Millennials

(18-37)

Gen. X

(38-49)

Baby

Boomers

(50-68)

Matures

(69+)

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Parenting

48

49

49

47

45

55

44

Food allergies

31

36

32

27

29

33

31

Excess of food options

25

24

28

23

25

28

23

Non-medical dietary restrictions (i.e., vegetarianism, veganism, kosher, halal)

22

23

24

19

24

19

24

Weight loss

16

16

11

17

18

12

17

Genetic predisposition

14

14

18

13

13

15

13

Eating for general health

14

20

12

11

10

18

12

Managing a medical condition

14

11

12

15

23

12

15

Marketing/advertising

13

13

11

13

16

14

12

Something else

20

20

20

20

16

19

20

Not at all sure

11

9

8

15

14

8

13

Note: Multiple responses allowed.

 


TABLE 4b

COMMON REASONS FOR PICKY EATING

By Self-Identified Picky Eater

“Which, if any, of the following do you believe to be the most common reasons for picky eating? You may choose up to three.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Self-Identified Picky Eater

Yes

No

%

%

%

Parenting

48

37

51

Food allergies

31

31

31

Excess of food options

25

27

24

Non-medical dietary restrictions (i.e., vegetarianism, veganism, kosher, halal)

22

17

23

Weight loss

16

18

15

Genetic predisposition

14

18

13

Eating for general health

14

22

11

Managing a medical condition

14

13

14

Marketing/advertising

13

11

14

Something else

20

24

18

Not at all sure

11

12

11

Note: Multiple responses allowed.

 


TABLE 5a

OPINIONS ON PICKY EATING – Grid Summary

“Considering the following statements, please rate how strongly you agree or disagree with each.”

Base: All Adults

Agree (NET)

Strongly agree

Somewhat agree

Disagree (NET)

Somewhat disagree

Strongly disagree

%

%

%

%

%

%

It’s good that many restaurants offer children’s menus.

88

45

44

12

7

4

Picky eaters are common in the United States.

84

30

53

16

13

4

It’s normal for children to be picky eaters.

71

18

53

29

19

10

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they are not picky eaters.

59

23

36

41

22

19

It’s good that so many products in grocery stores are designed to appeal to children.

54

12

42

46

30

16

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they have children who are not picky eaters.

53

18

36

47

25

22

I am less likely to date someone who is a picky eater.

43

17

26

57

30

27

I am less likely to dine out with friends who are picky eaters.

41

12

29

59

33

26

I am less likely to dine out with friends if they have children who are picky eaters.

40

14

26

60

33

27

Picky eaters are common in other countries.

36

7

29

64

41

22

It’s normal for adults to be picky eaters.

35

7

28

65

41

24

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.


TABLE 5b

OPINIONS ON PICKY EATING – Summary of “Agree”

By Generation, Children in Household, and Gender

“Considering the following statements, please rate how strongly you agree or disagree with each.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Generation

Children in HH

Gender

Millennials

(18-37)

Gen. X

(38-49)

Baby

Boomers

(50-68)

Matures

(69+)

Yes

No

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

It’s good that many restaurants offer children’s menus.

88

88

84

90

90

90

87

85

91

Picky eaters are common in the United States.

84

85

88

82

75

86

82

81

86

It’s normal for children to be picky eaters.

71

79

76

65

58

79

67

69

73

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they are not picky eaters.

59

60

57

60

60

60

59

58

61

It’s good that so many products in grocery stores are designed to appeal to children.

54

61

52

51

45

62

50

52

55

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they have children who are not picky eaters.

53

55

50

53

54

54

53

53

53

I am less likely to date someone who is a picky eater.

43

41

41

44

47

45

42

42

43

I am less likely to dine out with friends who are picky eaters.

41

45

43

38

39

43

40

46

37

I am less likely to dine out with friends if they have children who are picky eaters.

40

43

38

38

40

38

41

45

36

Picky eaters are common in other countries.

36

41

37

33

30

40

35

41

33

It’s normal for adults to be picky eaters.

35

41

37

31

24

37

34

38

32

 

 


TABLE 5c

OPINIONS ON PICKY EATING – Summary of “Agree”

By Self-Identified Picky Eater

“Considering the following statements, please rate how strongly you agree or disagree with each.”

Base: All Adults

 

Total

Self-Identified Picky Eater

Yes

No

%

%

%

It’s good that many restaurants offer children’s menus.

88

89

88

Picky eaters are common in the United States.

84

84

83

It’s normal for children to be picky eaters.

71

83

67

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they are not picky eaters.

59

45

64

It’s good that so many products in grocery stores are designed to appeal to children.

54

60

52

I am more likely to invite friends over for dinner if they have children who are not picky eaters.

53

42

57

I am less likely to date someone who is a picky eater.

43

23

49

I am less likely to dine out with friends who are picky eaters.

41

33

45

I am less likely to dine out with friends if they have children who are picky eaters.

40

31

43

Picky eaters are common in other countries.

36

47

33

It’s normal for adults to be picky eaters.

35

58

27

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.


Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between January 14 and 20, 2015 among 2,232 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

 

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

 

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

 

The Harris Poll® #24, May 6, 2015

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll