As a child, I earned myself something of a reputation for spoiling family holiday get-togethers. The typical scene: My family trading jokes around the table, the air rich with smells of spices and food and slightly musty tablecloths—and then me, loudly protesting the contents of my plate, my displeasure registering in increasingly shrill arpeggios.
I was a picky eater, in other words. And according to Natasha Chong Cole, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois, I had good company. “Ask any pediatrician, and they’ll tell you one of the most common concerns of parents” is picky eating, she said.
According to a recently published review in the journal Appetite, children enter their pickiest phase of life around age 2. This pickiness generally declines by the time they turn 6, but some developments exacerbate the problem along the way. Around 3, for example, most children realize that parents can misrepresent food. (This is when they grow wise to counterfeit “yum” sounds and spoons posing as airplanes.)
A finicky stage may have an evolutionary advantage, the study authors argue: Research has shown that children 16 to 29 months old are likely to mouth “crayons, dish soaps, and even imitation feces” before their more discerning phase begins. Children under 2 are also more likely to accidentally poison themselves than older children. A pickier phase may help young children without much food experience distinguish between the edible and inedible.