Picky Eaters and How To Prevent It

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How do you prevent picky eating in your children?

Picky Eaters

It’s so simple you’ll be banging your head once you understand what I’m about to tell you.

When you expect your child to become a good eater, he will.

Let me repeat that.

When you expect that your child will be a good eater – and not a picky eater – she will fulfill your expectations.

Do you expect your child to become literate? Ride a bike? Hit a ball with a bat? These skills are not easy to learn, but most kids pick them up with coaching and practice. Parents, teachers and coaches expect kids to master these skills. Adults also have confidence that kids are capable of becoming literate and balancing on two wheels while moving at 15 mph without crashing.

Why is good eating any different? Kids can be good eaters. They are capable of becoming food literate. Believe it. They will believe it too, because they trust you.

Food literacy is not instantaneous

Of course it’s not all expectation without coaching and practice. All three must be present to get a child food literate. Expect good eating. Coach good eating. Practice good eating. Changing your expectation is the simple part.

Coaching and practice are not so simple. Considering how many swings it takes before connecting the bat with the ball. Or how long a child sings the alphabet, identifies and writes letters before attempting words or books. How long did babies and tots hear words before they could utter them? How many times is a child read to before they read too?

Why do parents shrug shoulders and throw arms in the air when kiddos don’t eat broccoli or meat the first or two dozen times it’s offered? Do we think our kids are stupid and illiterate when after hearing the same story book a dozen times they are unable to read it back to us at age 2? Do we think they stink at athletics after a whole season of soccer of barely remembering which goal is theirs?

No. We expect them to perform at a level matching their exposure and practice. Why is it different at the dinner table?

Food literacy is a life skill

Food literacy is like language literacy. It’s a life skill taking years to acquire. Good eating is also a life skill that limits opportunities, when not learned. By depriving your child of food literacy, you take away the opportunity for them to have a whole, well, nourished and energetic body with which to become gainfully employed. How productive are citizens, employees and parents who are constantly distracted by chronic or acute health issues? When people are well because we’ve grown up well nourished, we are satisfied with life choices. We have energy to overcome life’s challenges.

Think of whole food as your child’s alphabet. Food groups are like parts of speech. Recipes are words. Meals are as stories. Regional foods are different literary genres. You following me?

Obstacles to preventing picky eating

One Prevalence of Picky Eaters study determined that 19% of babies age four to six months were picky eaters and half of toddlers 19-24 months were identified as picky eaters. Dealing with picky eating is a universal parenting challenge. A parent with two kids is likely to end up with at least one picky toddler. Here are two things that might be getting in the way of growing a good eater.

Food abundance

When food is abundant, there is not motivation for a parent to spend time teaching a child to eat what is unpalatable. There are too many more palatable options around. Why bother with something that looks and smells funny, has an odd texture, or is just completely unfamiliar? Change is a stressor. If your family doesn’t view food experimentation as fun or enjoyable then your family becomes wary of new food.

Food scarcity will motivate hungry humans to eat unfamiliar things the way a brunch buffet table never could. Don’t starve your kids, but rather keep supply only slightly higher than demand.

Picky eater sympathy and condoning

If you’re a picky eater, you may have suffered poor health, psychological trauma from being forced to eat yucky food, teased because you don’t like certain food, or gone hungry because you refuse to eat unfamiliar food.

Parents instinctively don’t want their kids to suffer. Because of this, some parents mistakenly employ sympathy as a picky eater solution. This does not benefit the child. Instead, children need love and support to overcome their food aversions, giving them access to nourishment, for life.

Would you, even for a minute, agree to condone sub-par language literacy for your child? I suspect not. That’s why so many speech, reading, and learning disorder therapists are employed in our society. When teachers and parents note that kids are falling behind normal speech or reading levels, they suggest interventions. The same goes for food literacy. If your child is below norms on food literacy, consider investing some resources into interventions (see below) to boost food literacy skill development.

Do you believe your child – if you expect him to – will grow into a good eater? Share in the comments.

About JennaJenna Pepper

This is a guest post by Jenna Pepper. For the deep dive on reforming picky eaters, stay tuned for Jenna’s upcoming eBook Transforming Picky Eaters. Publication is scheduled for October, 2012. Can’t wait? Check out Jenna’s blog Food with Kid Appeal for real food recipes her kids will eat and tips to grow your good eater.

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  1. prudence says

    I have a 5 year old who hates everything especially protien, chicken, hamburger, etc… every meal is a battle, she shoves her mouth full trying to get down the yucky food with crackers… till she gags and has to spit it out. I am the one who ends up in tears every meal. I don’t know what I am doing wrong, I know I must sound like an idiot, this is my 5th child, and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      big hugs purdence. big big ones. i feel your pain, my youngest son developed into a reluctant eater after being a voracious eater as a baby. i suspect your youngest child is unwell. when kids feel lousy, they don’t have much appetite. when appetite is low, only extremely palatable foods are accepted. sadly most of the highly palatable foods sick kids prefer are toxic junk which makes their illness even worse. to get off the sick kid cycle, you have to identify what the cause of your child’s dis-ease is. for my son, it was a combination of leaky guy, allergies and asthma. as he has recovered from all three, his appetite has returned, the tummy aches are gone, and he’s much more willing to eat the things he tolerated as a baby and refused between age 1-6. please come follow food with kid appeal blog and facebook page. we can help you figure out why your little one is unwell. find links to both in the article.

  2. Tracy says

    I don’t think my kids are picky eaters, although there are things they don’t care for and things our family doesn’t usually eat. We’ve always required a small amount to be eaten of whatever is served, but if there’s something the child consistently doesn’t like, they don’t have to eat it if it falls in the “unnecessary” category. For example, my oldest son (now 18) tries watermelon every year because it looks so good, but it just doesn’t taste good to him. He has never been required to eat watermelon.

    When I was in 8th grade our science teacher handed out little slips of paper for everyone to put on his tongue. About half the class was running for water while the other half of us were wondering why we were taste-testing paper. The teacher explained that there is a gene present in some people that allows them to taste the chemical on the paper that the rest of us didn’t. That has always impressed me that everyone is different when it comes to taste and it isn’t necessarily pickiness. Therefore, I’ve never felt guilty about hating liver!

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      tracy, that’s called the super taster gene, and it does impact food literacy for young kids. as kids age their super taster qualities diminish, meaning they might accept bitter flavors as a teen, where they would not as a child. that’s why it’s so important to understand the “why” behind “picky” eating. sometimes it’s genetics, sometimes it’s health issues, sometimes it’s personality, some kids are averse to new anything, food, friend, or play. if a super taster knows he’s a super taster, then he knows he’s not “picky”

  3. jenna @kidappeal says

    hugs back to ya! i would agree that finicky eaters are ungrateful, but i’ve learned in my travels that picky eating turns into reluctant eating for some poor kiddos who just feel lousy most of the time. when you feel lousy it takes super palatable food to taunt you into eating when you’re body is screaming, “don’t eat, we feel yucky.”

  4. Karen says

    Jenna, I could hug you! You are making public all the things I have been sharing with young moms for years — hopefully they will listen to your wise words. One last thing to consider…picky eaters are ungrateful eaters…another reason not to encourage this disturbing behavior in our home; be it children or adults. Thanks again for shining a light on a long neglected topic.

  5. jenna @kidappeal says

    @tiffany it’s so simple it’s almost counter intuitive. would we ever say to a child as we hand them a beautifully illustrated book with catchy prose, “oh, you probably won’t like this one, the images are probably too perky for you.” why do adults feel the need to predict what their kids will and won’t like be it play diversions, food or literature?

  6. Tiffany @ DontWastetheCrumbs says

    This makes total sense! My husband and I have always expected our kids to eat what was given to them. When my grandmother visits (so the kids great-grandmother), she’ll make excuses for them before they even take a bite. “Oh they won’t like that,” or “that’s not going to taste good to them” and it drove us batty! We nixed those comments in the bud QUICK. She always wonders why our kids eat everything, and why their cousin (who lives many miles away) eats hardly anything, and we’ve always explained that the cousin’s mother allowed the child to be picky. She never enforced nor set the example of the standard of eating. She doesn’t quite understand, but your article reinforces my stance!!

  7. Rebecca says

    Great tips. I never thought of picky eating in those terms before, but “food literacy” makes a lot of sense. My son is a definite picky eater, but we try all different types of foods. We’ll sit it in front of him and see if he likes it. We don’t pressure him, just put the food down and let him have at it. Usually, it ends up uneaten, but at least we make the effort. If we keep trying and trying with new foods, then he’ll be more likely to eat them down the road.

  8. Fern Miller (@Fernwise) says

    We had a simple rule – the Spawn could pick 2 foods he wouldn’t eat (and he could choose that every 6 months). All other foods he had to eat at least one bite of for every year old he was. And on the occassions we went out to eat, he had to taste everything we adults ate.

    He always chose to not eat grapefruit, and his second no-eat varied between spinach and cantaloup. Not big surprises – my husband is a super taster, and the Spawn may be as well.

    He soon became a very adventurous eater, without arguments. Goat cheese? Sure! Flatbread with dried tomatoes, pesto, and ‘odd’ mushrooms? More please!

    Now 24, he still hates grapefruit, and has almost no tolerance for mayonaise …. except he JUST discovered he likes chipotle mayo on grilled portabello/spinach sandwiches. And, like I did at his age, he eats his lettuce-based salads with no dressing.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      i love the restaurant tasting rule! we share food when we eat out at restaurants, it’s a great way to expand palates because chefs have far more time to create recipes than i do!

      spawn sounds like a super taster. too sweet, too bitter, too fatty foods are off- putting to super tasters. i bet he doesn’t really dig hot beverages or cold desserts either.

      the older he gets the less tastebuds he has on his tongue, the more forgiving it will to the flavors that offended him as a wee spawn.

  9. Amber says

    I have always encouraged my son to eat a variety of foods and tried to introduce him to as many new foods as possible. While he can be picky about certain things, I feel that overall he is very food literate. Three things that I have learned with my son (which may help some parents). First, if I constantly buy a certain food, after about a week he will lose interest. So I switch off what I buy and let him pick something new routinely, if he has a say he actually gets excited about his fruit and veggies. Second, if it is a food I enjoy I only make myself a plate, then he will generally want what I have and will end up eating more than I do. Third, if he helps make it he is more likely to eat it. I let him help me add ingredients and stir and he just loves it. This is how I have a 5 year old who claims his favorite food is broccoli, chooses spinach as a snack, and begs me for my sushi when we go out. I know every kid is different, so these things will not work for everyone, but it is something to try.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      these techniques will work for the majority of kids. some kids, especially those on the various spectrums (ASD, learning, adhd, allergies/asthma, etc.) will need additional interventions to get them food literate. i discuss this in transforming picky eaters. we also discuss these topics on my facebook page, so if you can’t wait for the book, like the Food with Kid Appeal FB page.

  10. Lilly says

    Forget what the AAP says. Experience rules! When our children were children, if they refused to eat at mealtimes for whatever reason (most of which had nothing to do with yucky tasting food), that was fine. However they were not excused from the table. My husband would let them know that I, their mother, went through great lengths to prepare these delicious meals for them. After the meal my husband took our children’s plates of unconsumed food, wrapped them in plastic wrap and placed them in the fridge. Later, when our children voiced they were hungry, out came the plates of mealtime food they hadn’t finished earlier. Since the kitchen was cleaned up for the day, they had to wash, dry and put away their eating utensils too.
    Wise parents use every opportunity to teach their children respect for everything, even the foods they eat. Foolish is the parent who allows their child to choose what he or she wants to eat. Children are not educated enough to make right choices in eating habits. That’s why they have parents, and hopefully parents with some backbone.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      very wise indeed. kids need to know that meal prep is not free. skipping food loving prepared by the home cook wastes time and food resources. if more kids learn that, they will be prepared to make their own food and clean up after meal prep when they leave home. otherwise they fall in to the convenience food trap that makes people sick.

      • Jessica says

        The problem with all this is parents like my brother and his wife who refuse to let their children eat anything until the eat that particular meal. They have recently decided to switch to vegetarian. Their ten year old son did not want to eat what they made. They packed it up, put it on the refrigerator and brought it out the next meal. This went on for a day and a half. They said he wouldn’t eat until he ate that. Yes, he eventually ate it because he had gone almost two days without food. When my son refused to eat a sandwich I made because it had mayonnaise they said I should do the same thing. Well I didn’t! I will have enough battles with my children as they get older. We eat healthy in our household but I also pick my battles.

  11. Courtney Biddle says

    Thank you for this article! I have a 3 (almost 4) year old son who is a very adventurous eater. Don’t get me wrong, he would live on mac and cheese if we would let him, but he also likes other things. What has been helpful in our family was 1. Allowing him to try new foods as soon as the doc OK’d it when he was a baby. Sometimes, I would go out of my way to a certain grocery store because I knew they had guava or papaya baby food. 2. Being adventurous eaters ourselves – my son loves many foods from many cultures, and has been exposed to those his entire life. 3. Choosing to only make one meal. His only choice if he is really hungry is a peanut butter sandwich instead of what we are eating, but he has to try at least one bite of the regular dinner first. I will make him a sandwich, and he can eat the same vegetables/fruits that we eat. I understand that he just may not like what we are having that particular evening 4. Knowing and understanding that sometimes he will want to eat these things and other times he won’t. He will eat when he is hungry, and we don’t push food on him. 5. Not listening to others when they say “Kids shouldn’t eat goat cheese/sundried tomatoes/etc. Kids can and will like more than just chicken nuggets and hot dogs.

    Thank you again for this post. As someone who has grown up with a lot of food issues, I am trying to do better for my son.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      i’m curious why you let him break your “only one meal” rule by offering him PBJ. do you think he’ll suffer if he chooses to skip the entree and just eat the sides? wouldn’t he come around sooner to the entrees he’s rejecting if he couldn’t choose PB sandwich?

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      “independence in eating” ?? do we give our children independence in reading or going to bed on time? we don’t let our children decide whether or not to become literate, we just insist they do, expect them to, and build their confidence so they can. we don’t let our children independently decide what time to go to bed, we tuck them in when the sun sets. so too must we insist they become food literate. because we love them, care for them, and know best that nourishing food is the way to a healthy body for life.

  12. joanne walsh says

    Thank you for this wonderful article!. I’m sure that it will help many parents learn this important role they have, and not encourage them to succumb to their kids running the show on this very important issue. At the same time, it will not make either parent or child feel defeated!

  13. Lilly says

    This Food Literacy article is a great read, Jenna! Educated parents = educated kids. Years ago I read a book called “Let’s have healthy children” by Adele Davis. She seemed to be the only natural health guru for parents like me back in the day. Thanks to her book, I began a journey of alternative eating learning and meal planning for my family. Today, my grown children make smart food choices because I taught them the importance of digestive enzymes in foods, raw food juicing, probiotics and crude fiber in their diets. I also taught them to understand food labels, ie – the many names of sugar. (We’re waiting for GMO labelling to happen) When parents understand that their children MUST have healthy guts to thrive, they’ll have the impetus to do whatever it takes to get their kids there. The side benefits of healthy eating are ….. flu and cold free kids, calmer, contented kids, smarter kids, happier kids and obedient kids! Their teachers will love them too!

  14. Angell @ Passionate and Creative Homemaking says

    I am waaay past the preventive stage with my boys. I have extremely picky eaters.

    So, if anyone has the same problem, you gotta check out Sneaky Chef. She’s a life saver for me!!!

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      angell – prevention is best, but reversing is possible. think about adults who learn to read. it’s possible, but tougher than learning as a kid. it’s not too late for your child. (i’m ducking, because you won’t like this) sneaky veggies are not the answer. who will sneak veggies into your child’s food when he’s at college? living on his own? veggie sneaking, while temporarily effective, is not sustainable. stay tuned for my upcoming books Eat to Learn and Transforming Picky Eaters.

  15. Carrie says

    Great way of putting it! We have a picky eater and I am always wondering what to do, now I have a roadmap to follow, thanks for that!!

  16. Bonnie says

    This is a very upsetting subject to me. People care about the children but let them live on pb&j’s or chicken nuggets. I’ve done childcare for 20 years. Kids will eat what you eat and what they are given. I had a mom pick up her child while he was snacking on carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. He asked for a baggie to put his snack in to go. She asked him “are you going to eat that?” I told her it depends on how she says that. She said they don’t eat broccoli and cauliflower at home, they smell bad. I told her not to tell him that and that’s probably why he thought a head of cauliflower was popcorn.

    • jennifer says

      I, too, run a child care. Parents are always amazed with the fact that their children not only eat the healthy items I serve, but do so with out argument. I simply tell the parents that the children are not given options. That what I make is what they get. Also..parents don’t realize they have to set the example! I had a mom tell me she couldn’t get her child to eat ANY kind of vegetable at home..not a one, so I asked her do you eat vegetables?? her reply, “Vegetables are gross!” I laughed at her and said, “That’s your problem!” Even though she refused to eat them she expected her daughter to and that’s just not how it works!

  17. BlogShag says

    As someone who grew up liking all kinds of foods, I really don’t understand the picky eating that kids have today. They want to eat all the wrong foods. When I was a kid, I ate the broccoli, lettuce, cabbage. I loved spinach, kohlrobi Eating fruit was no problem, because I knew that fruit was nature’s candy. I loved fruit back then and today.

    And keep in mind, yeah, I also used to eat at Mcdonalds, etc.. But to me there was nothing like a good home cooked meal

  18. Jennie says

    Never thought of it as “Food Literacy.” Of course if will take time to develop that skill! Thanks for the new perspective.