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. Abbey says

    The greatest thing my mother EVER instilled in me was eating nutritious, healthy foods. As I grew up she served me a wholesome dinner nightly.(excluding our once a month pizza hut and soda) Every meal was fresh, full of vegetables, and delicious. The only thing I was forced to eat were my vegetables. I would have a hissy fit every night but she would never budge on the issue, except once. After dinner time was over and I still hadn’t eaten my vegetables she would still require me to eat them. I was not allowed to leave my chair until every piece was gone. On a particular night the veggie served were black eyed peas and I refused to eat them. My family had cleared off the dinner table, cleaned the dishes, my sister had brushed her teeth, it was time for bed. My mother was visually upset that I still had not eaten the peas. She told me I didn’t have to eat them but that I had hurt her feelings and needed to apologize. I felt so awful making my mom sad that I vouchered to always try to eat my vegetables again. I am in college now and because my mother instilled healthy eating habits in me I don’t go buy fast food, I don’t even eat processed food! I prefer eating vegetables and fruit, and I will never eat poorly. To all the mom’s out there dealing with a picky eater. Try to channel my appreciation and respect for you. You are doing a great job at influencing your children to make healthy decisions. You are very wise for feeding them vegetables and it was have an exceptional effect on their lives. They too, will commend you.

    • jenna @kidappeal says

      @abbey, i really appreciate you sharing your story here. i have always though that the therapists who deal with the overeaters and blame parents who were part of the clean your plate club as the root of the problem, then the counsel to “let kids choose their food” was retarded. i mean, as parents we don’t let kids choose their bedtimes, whether or not they attend school, etc. the idea that parents should just set out a buffet for kids and let kids adopt the buffet when ever they feel like misses a huge window of opportunity for food adoption in childhood. it’s not like kids don’t need protein, vegetable, fruit, dairy nourishment until they are adults. they NEED those nutrients in childhood even more than they NEED them as adults. it would be like sending a kid to the library 3x a day and “letting” them get literate whenever they were ready for it. sigh.

      as long as a parent guides their child with love and patience in their heart, saying something like “love, this is your dinner, it is here to nourish your body and mind, choosing to skip it will have consequences of hunger, low energy, trouble staying happy and dealing with frustration. are you sure that’s the choice you want to make?”

      if you would like to share your story on FwKA I would love to publish a 600-800 word story authored by you. contact me directly via my FB page if there is interest.

      • Abbey says

        Thanks Jenna! I agree with what you are saying. I would however like to add on to your comment. I do not think the “clean your plate” mentality is a positive influence on your eating habits. However, in my house hold, you HAD to clean your plate. This is a risky move IF you over serve food, and or make unwholesome food. Thankfully my mother put correct portions, and always had extra in the kitchen. I like how you compare food choices with library book choices. Keep in mind however you should tailor your kid’s liking into food planning, just as you would with reading books. Another great tip my mom did with me was letting me select between a few different choices of which vegetable for dinner. I was then in charge of cleaning it, preparing it, and carrying the dish over to the table! My family would then flower me with compliments of how good it tasted, and how thankful they were for me to make it. This also taught me how making food is a process, and that there are wastes attached to cooking. Now days I wonder with families who don’t cook, only eat out if their children believe food just magically appears and disappears. Not the same value placed on a hard cooked meal vs. being handed fast food in a bag.