Do Young Children Eat Better When They Are With Their Peer Group?

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Do Young Children Eat Better When They Are With Their Peer Group?

Have you ever noticed that your children will eat hardly anything with you, but will eat a wide variety of different foods when you are out with friends?

Or, do you have a fussy eater that smell a vegetable a mile off, but will gobble it up without any questions at Grandmas house in the company of cousins?

Studies have found that you are not alone – with up to 50% of children exhibiting picky eating traits in the first 5 years of life

‘Parents of picky eaters were more likely to report that their children consumed a limited variety of foods, required food prepared in specific ways, expressed stronger likes and dislikes for food, and threw tantrums when denied food.’

This can often lead to parents making different meals for the fussier members of the family, or to change the eating habits of the whole family to accommodate the fussy eater. With families being increasingly busy, neither of these options are ideal, or even sustainable long term.

However, I have often observed that my children will eat things that they wouldn’t usually and make healthier choices when they are eating with friends.

And it seems science backs this up, with a study published in Child Development showing that preschool-aged children model their eating behaviors on the behaviors of their peers. When a young child with a strong dislike for a food was seated with peers who had a strong preference for the same food, the child was more likely to change their food preferences over time and eventually select the initially disliked food.


This is what changed everything for me…

My children’s childcare provides morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, all chef prepared, and dietician approved. It is honestly a #gamechanger as I actually don’t like preparing school lunches (honestly, who does?)!

Now, I would say that one of my children was a super fussy eater, he literally only liked a few things, and most of those were beige or white foods.

He is slowly getting better at trying new things and eating them consistently, but I absolutely know I cannot take the credit for this turn around – I must thank his peer group.

Before they started providing meals at childcare, I used to send pretty much the same lunchbox day in day out (see point above about lunch boxes). We would introduce new foods where we could, but we weren’t consistent – which isn’t really good enough when it comes to changing food habits.

I was worried about my fussy eater

When they released the weekly menus, initially I was skeptical. How would my fussy eater go? There were vegetables in every single meal. Surely he would struggle?

But as the weeks went by, I wasn’t being pulled aside to be told he wasn’t eating, nor was he coming home hungry. So I let it be, and we just continued on as normal.

Then one day I had to drop him off later than usual, much later in fact. So much later that they were already eating lunch when we got there.

The children were sitting at tables in little groups with their plates, forks, spoons and cups and were being served up lunch. I think it was chicken and vegetables with rice. My fussy eater sat down, was given his food, and started eating it. He wasn’t just eating the bits that he liked, he wasn’t picking bits out, he was eating ALL OF IT!

I was honestly in shock. I just sat and watched him eat bite after bite until the entire meal was gone. The whole time he was chatting and interacting with his friends around the table.


The sudden realization…

That’s when I realized that the difference was that it was normal for him to eat this food because he had watched everyone else within his peer group do it too. Even as adults we sometimes eat differently when we are with other people compared to when we are alone, so why should children be any different?

With up to 80% of our children’s food intake being served up in an early learning setting, it was really relieving to know that he was getting healthy and nourishing food during this time.

It allowed me to let go of some of my anxiety and mum guilt around his eating habits. Which made for more relaxed meal times at home.

My big tip would be if you are looking at starting your child at an early learning centre, that you chose one that offers meals to get the full benefit of this peer influence. It might make the world of difference to your fussy eater.

Goodstart Early Learning now provide balanced, healthy meals at morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea at no additional cost across most Centres. Contact your local Goodstart Centre to find out more or click here.


Katie -


Katie is the Managing Director and Editor of Mums of Brisbane. Most days will find her drinking copious amounts of coffee, cuddling her kids and trying not to step barefoot on lego. Katie lives in Beautiful Brisbane with her husband and four gorgeous children.