Children are Not Born Picky Eaters

Let me start this by saying that I’m not going to argue with you about why your kid is a picky eater. Yes, I believe that all children (and bigger people, too) are different and have different likes and personalities. Yes, there are certain foods that I prefer not to eat. However, I challenge you to find a child in China who will only eat chicken nuggets, or one in India who can’t handle moderately spicy food. I feel that most children who identify as a picky eater have been trained to be that way (with the notable exception of people with sensory processing disorders).

Here’s what I believe happens

  • A parent assumes an ingredient is disliked forever, based on their baby’s first reaction to it
  • Negatively priming the child to believe that they are a picky eater
  • Trying to feed a child who isn’t hungry, leading to “chicken nugget holdout”
  • Making a big deal out of eating – Putting the pressure on
  • Limiting what kind of food they eat as babies and toddlers

Scenario one:

You offer a baby something that they have never had before, such as mashed carrots. Baby makes a terrible face and uses their tongue to shove most of it back out of their mouth. Based on that one interaction, you assume that Baby does not, and perhaps will never, like carrots. As they grow older, they will hear you saying that they doesn’t like carrots, and they will believe you.

When at first you don’t succeed…

What we did:  When Baby spat out the carrots, I understood that it was because this is a taste or texture that they have not tried yet. I attempted a few more times at that sitting to offer the carrots. Possibly they decided they love them, or they may have still refused them. It doesn’t matter… I would try again another day, even if I wait a few months for their preferences to change and mature. As Baby got older, even if they never seemed to get the handle of carrots, I would continue to offer them without making a fuss about it. They would appear on their plate if we were eating them, too. They got to make the decision as to whether or not they actually go into their mouth, but no matter what happens I would never say “You don’t like carrots.” Because kids believe what we tell them.

It might actually be the case that the kid truly doesn’t like carrots; I’ll eat nearly anything, and I certainly have preferences, as well as a (very short) list of foods I just can’t bring myself to chew and swallow. But let them figure that out on their own, as they get bigger. Just keep offering, don’t press the issue, and see what happens.

Scenario two:

The parent or guardian makes the big mistake of saying “You are a picky eater.” The child will believe this as a fact, just as readily as they will believe that they are human, have belly buttons and ten fingers. I have seen kids (and adults!) proudly proclaim that they are Picky Eaters. It has become a part of their identity. This is the same reason that I would never say “You’re so stupid” or “You’re a terrible kid.” They will believe it, and start to embrace the part, as well as taking a self esteem-smashing.

What we did: We used a psychological method called “priming”… which is what is exactly happening in the above scenario, but we would turn it around and use it for good. We used to sneak comments into every day moments that made our kids believe that they were adventurous eaters. We’d say stuff like “Wow, you really will try any kind of food, won’t you?” and “I’m impressed that you can eat such spicy flavors! I know adults who couldn’t handle that.” In the end, they did, in fact, become adventurous eaters.

“I can’t eat this. Mom says I’m picky.”

Scenario three:

Mary is making dinner for her two kids. The kids have been snacking off and on all day, and now they really aren’t interested in eating the lasagna that she’s prepared for them, even though they have tried it in the past and liked it. She coaxes, pokes, prods and begs them to take a bite. The fact is: they aren’t hungry. Fearing that they will starve to death overnight, she finally decides to pull out the big guns; something that she knows that they can’t refuse. She pops some chicken nuggets in the oven, and serves them up with ketchup. The kids have just learned that if they refuse the meal in front of them, they will get something that they love, and will eat even when they’re not hungry. They are going to use this tactic again, trust me.

What we did: We would set lasagna in front of the child. If they didn’t eat it, we would put the plate in the fridge so that it didn’t go to waste. Another food was not offered, and our kids were never forced to eat at a meal if they are not hungry. They are asked to sit with us while we eat and chat, and then they can be excused after a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes, they would pipe up, an hour later, that they were hungry, and the food would come back out and be warmed. If that didn’t happen, I would likely pull the lasagna out again for lunch the next day and offer it. It was usually eaten the next time it’s offered, so long as the kids have an appetite.

Young children don’t have our metabolisms. They store their calories in different ways, and some days, they just aren’t hungry. They may eat three bites all day, and be just fine with that. A few days later, they will eat everything you have in the house. This is normal, and it’s ok. In fact, it’s better not to push a not hungry child into eating, because that sets up some really bad habits, such as eating when you’re not actually hungry. We also don’t make our kids finish their plates. I was trained to finish mine, and now it’s an issue – I will clean my plate, even if there is more food than I really need to eat on it.

Scenario four:

Your family is invited to a friend’s house for dinner, and your friend has cooked food that your child is not familiar with. Your child looks at what is being offered on the plate and seems dubious. You see the look, and start to make a big deal about how delicious this foreign food must be. You talk about how the kids only has to eat it once, just try a bite, come on, be a big girl, we don’t want to disappoint our host, pleeeease try a bite? I’ll give you ice cream if you eat it!… Making a big deal out of the weird food is going to make your child want to try it even less, because now the pressure is on, and they are feeling the spotlight on them. Have you ever been pressured to eat when everyone is watching? Also, if you have made the chicken nugget mistake in the past, they know that they can hold out for something better if they just plain refuse. This is where you might make mistake number one again: “I’m sorry she won’t eat your food… she’s a picky eater.”

“Come on, just one bite?”

What we did: We didn’t talk about the food. It went on a plate, the kid was set in front of it, and we started to eat. Naturally, if the food was good, yummy noises were made by the adults and the chef was complimented. If the child was hungry, it was probably eaten, or at least tasted. If they didn’t eat it, we would apologize to the host if they looked especially offended, but we never labeled our kid as picky or rude. An “I’m sorry, she must not be hungry right now,” did just fine. If your child says “I don’t like xyz…” you can say, kindly, “You may actually like it; you just don’t want to eat it right now”  or “Maybe you don’t like the flavor now, but what you like will change as you get older.”

Let them try everything:

We gave our kids all kinds of food when they were babies.  So long as it wasn’t a major allergen and was thoroughly mashed as to be easy to swallow, it went in their bowl. They would eat what we ate, so long as they were able to chew it. We would gently spice their mashed food with garlic, cinnamon, curry, and other flavors. By the time they were graduating to food that they could chew themselves, they were fond of all kinds of textures and flavors.

So, now we have the teens that will consume just about anything, and rarely do we hear them say that they straight up won’t try a dish. They chomp on durian, enjoy pickled jellyfish, and love Sriracha (we never told them that kids aren’t supposed to like spicy food). We will be able to travel the world and not have to worry about where we can buy something that they will eat, too.

Final note:

All of this advice is basically null if the child in question has a sensory processing disorder (such as autism) and has food aversions. I would still recommend trying it out, but go easy and keep your expectations and pressure low. If you’re concerned about the nutritional intake of your child, please speak to their pediatrician or a certified nutritionalist about how to make sure that they are getting the calories and nurtients to thrive.

2 responses to “Children are Not Born Picky Eaters”

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