Picky eaters. We all know them. They are the kids (and adults) who refuse to eat anything but a small selection of foods. While some kids are more adventurous with their food choices, just about every young kid goes through at least one picky eating phase.

While “picky eater” is the most common way to refer to a limited palate, I HATE the term. Here are three reasons why it makes my blood pressure rise, along with three tips to help your child break out of the rut.

After you read this, I hope you’ll join with me in banning the term “picky eaters!”

1.       It implies that “picky eaters” aren’t normal.

When we say that our child is a picky eater, it has a negative connotation. After all, no one is exactly proud of having a picky eater in the family, are they? But the fact is, being selective about food choices is actually a very normal part of child development.

First, as a toddler’s rapid rate of growth slows, he needs fewer calories, so instinctively decreases how much he eats as a way to control his calorie intake (smart little fella!).

Secondly, and probably more on-point, kids are sort of pre-wired to avoid certain flavors, like bitter vegetables. You can thank our hunter-gatherer ancestors for that. To them, plants with a bitter flavor were potentially toxic, so they quickly learned to not eat them. So when your child violently throws her plate of broccoli across the room, you really can’t blame her. After all, she’s just following her natural instincts.

While you can relax in knowing that your child’s food fit is normal, don’t give up. Being “picky” may be a normal part of child development, but so is eventually learning to love new foods. They may not eat everything that you give them, but they definitely won’t eat what’s never made available to them. So keep trying.

2.        “Picky eater” is a negative label that self-perpetuates.

We use labels every day as an easy way to describe a trait. But by using negative labels like “picky eater,” we inadvertently reinforce and encourage the behavior that we are defining.  For example, a child that is labeled a “slow reader” in the classroom will often become a slow reader in reality because that is what’s expected of him and that’s how he’s treated, so he acts accordingly.

The same holds true for “picky eaters.” Think about how many times you’ve seen a food at the grocery store or on a restaurant menu and not gotten it because your kid is a “picky eater.” While you certainly have good intentions of wanting to purchase something that your kid will actually eat, you’re unintentionally not giving him the opportunity to be anything but a picky eater.

Use positive reinforcement to create a “new” reality for your child. Constantly praise your child’s attempts to try a new food. Even if she doesn’t like it, or refuses to take a bite, look for other ways to offer praise. For example, you can talk about the way the food the feels, smells or looks. Then congratulate her on her observations and new knowledge. It sounds overly simple, but sometimes, just getting your child to keep a food on her plate (and not throwing it across the room) can be a small victory and the first step toward liking a new food.

3.       “Picky eater” is a term that implies permanence.

One of my favorite yoga teachers says that “flexibility” is a four-letter-word. It’s not about being flexible or not; rather, it’s about creating length from wherever your body is on any given day. I love this example and think the same holds true for helping your kids be more flexible in their food choices.

When we say that our kids are “picky eaters” they get stuck in the self-perpetuating cycle of being picky. Rather, we need to view it as a slow journey toward a more accepting palate.

I like to think of introducing new foods to a child as being like helping them learn to walk. There was a time when your little one couldn’t walk, but you didn’t just strap him in a stroller and give-up. Nope, you held his hand, cheered him on and picked him up when he fell. And now he’s running around like an Olympic sprinter.

Same goes for learning to like new foods. Expect some stumbles, but keep giving him opportunities to practice eating new foods. Sure, he may fall on his face a few times (or 20 times), but with lots of opportunities, his food repertoire will expand.

So instead of using “definite” expressions like “he’s a picky eater” or “he doesn’t like broccoli” think in terms of “he’s still learning to like it.” Not only will this help you be more patient and tolerant, it also will reassure your child that there will be a day when he actually will like the new food you’re offering.

Trust me, as my 1-year-old wrinkles her nose and bats her arms at every new food I give her, “she’s still learning to like it” is a mantra in my household these days.

 

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  • Thank you for this! I write about labeling “picky eaters” in my book and articles. Yes, I do use the term because it is one of the most searched terms on the web for parents who are trying to find support in helping their kids become more adventurous eaters. BUT, I NEVER use the term in front of children. Great post, thanks again!

    • Laura Chalela Hoover, MPH, RD

      Hi Melanie. I totally hear you. The term is something I struggle with all the time, too. Picky eating is such a popular term that I know we sometimes need to use it so people realize our content helps to address their problems. But every time I use the term, I can’t help but cringe a bit. Maybe we can coin a new term? By the way, I’ve been wanting to add an SLP to our group of writers. If you’d ever like to submit a guest post, we’d love to have your voice on our site.

  • David Grotto, RDN

    Hi Laura:

    Love that you drove home the concept of “permanence”. Dwelling on the negative may increase the likelihood of a transitionary stubbornness into a permanent one.

    Being both a concerned father and a registered dietitian can often be at odds with each other. Both roles see the importance of including healthy foods but the father side of me wants to wave the white flag and move on when I get push back. That is why I started working with the Hooray Puree folks who have created a line of shelf-stable vegetable purees that you can add to just about anything. Surprisingly, I have found that telling kids (AFTER they ate it) that I snuck butternut squash into their bowl of mac & cheese often meets with a favorable response. It doesn’t mean that I stop trying to offer other creative vegetable dishes but adding in veggies into their favorite dishes may be a technique for many parents that may speed up the transition. Here’s the website in case you are interested. http://www.hooraypuree.com .

    Keep up the good work!

    Dave

    • Laura Chalela Hoover, MPH, RD

      Hi Dave. Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear that even an uber-pro like you has the same challenges feeding your kids! I haven’t seen the Hooray Purees yet, but if you’ve given it your stamp of approval, they must be good. I’ll be sure to check them out. Thanks again! Laura

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