Are picky eaters a myth?

I see this debate every now and then and often wonder if picky eaters are born or made. I am specifically referring to healthy, neurotypical children and adults. I was often cautioned that my son would eventually hate all food except for chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. That day has not yet come. He eats what I eat and turns up his nose at nothing. Am I just lucky? I hear about parents who really struggle to get their kids to eat and who resort to giving them whatever the kid will actually put in his mouth.

Often, picky eaters will only eat a handful of things and they’re sometimes not the healthiest options: frozen nuggets, boxed mac ‘n cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pizza, grilled cheese, etc. I’ve seen kids who will only eat pizza or some sort of frozen chicken product dipped in sauce. All of those things are ok every once in a while but I wonder how do we get to that point? Obviously, convenience plays a role. Who wants their child to go hungry?

The next time you go out to dinner take a look at the kids menu. Most restaurants offer the same tired things for kids: macaroni, nuggets, pizza, mashed potatoes. It’s all so uninteresting. Why do we limit our children to these options? Even the food that’s marketed to kids is made up of the same bland stuff. Sure, there are better options available but the companies that spend the big bucks to advertise and thus have the most prominent placement in stores are often the same companies that produce all sorts of junky food products.

I believe that there is a very tiny amount of kids who are truly picky about what they eat. Some children may not even like to eat. It’s a struggle that I am sure many parents face with a lot of anguish. Being constantly worried that your child gets adequate nutrition when they refuse to eat most things is a headache I can’t even imagine. I also believe there are things we can do to encourage healthy eating habits in our children and avoid the stereotypical picky eater behavior. A lot of the habits they form now will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I am, of course, not an expert but here are a few things I have learned and applied to my own son with successful results:

  1. Don’t give up too soon.  Sometimes kids reject foods several times before they decide they like them. If your child tries carrots once and spits them out don’t decide that she hates carrots! Offer them again at a later time prepared in a different way. For example, Diego will eat cooked carrots but has not yet accepted raw ones.
  2. Don’t force a child to eat anything. Some nights Diego will eat his way around his plate and eat some things but not others. Making a clean plate a requirement causes a negative association with food and mealtimes. Allow your child to make choices by offering options on their plate.
  3. Make mealtimes family time. When kids see us do something they are likely to follow suit. We try to eat all of our meals at the table as a family and we all eat the same thing.
  4. Involve them in meal prep. How much they can be involved in will depend on their age but even a two year old can get a kick out of watching or even dumping ingredients in a bowl.
  5. Don’t be too quick to assign a label. All kids will refuse something or other at some point, but don’t slap the “picky eater” label on them. It will cause you to give up.
  6. Before you offer your child an alternative meal ask yourself if what you’re giving them is out of convenience. The very few times Diego refused to eat something I instead offered him some cottage cheese, yogurt and fruit. I never cook a separate meal for him but I am flexible enough to have healthy alternatives for when something just doesn’t jive with him.
  7. Kids develop bad habits because we allow it. Whenever I hear people say that their child eats ONLY pizza, or nuggets, or peanut butter I wonder how the child developed this taste for the food. The answer is always because the parents provide it. It’s so tempting to reach for something you KNOW they will eat. Resist that urge whenever possible!
  8. Variety is key. I have started cooking a lot more veggies. Even ones I had never tried before. The more things they try the more opportunities they have to discover things they like.

Food preferences will arise but to me, a preference is different to “doesn’t eat ANY vegetables” and “doesn’t eat ANY fruit” or “she ONLY eats xyz”.  I guess I am a bit on the fence about the whole picky eater debate. While I think that sometimes parents do play a role I also think that some people are just picky. My husband is one such example. I have no idea how he was fed as an infant but I find his palate to be very different to mine. He rarely tries a new food and so I am often at odds with his preferences and my desire to try new things and introduce Diego  to as many foods as possible. What I resort to doing is simply sneaking stuff in. Most of the time he is none the wiser although I always come clean once he’s finished eating. He’s not a fan of my method but I think he’s slowly realizing that more veggies in his food is not a bad thing at all.

I know that my experience is different to that of a parent who struggles each day to get their child to eat anything at all. Coming home tired, cooking dinner only to have it rejected by your child would wear me down as well. So, why not give them the boxed macaroni with nuggets?!  It’s food, it won’t kill them and it will get them fed. Sometimes whatever works is all we have left. I don’t like it when parents get judged for doing the best they can. I know that I wouldn’t feel good feeding my son PBJ sandwiches everyday which is why I don’t, but how other people cope with the curveballs of parenthood is something I don’t feel is my place to judge.

Lastly, I am well aware that I am privileged to have the time and financial resources to cook from scratch, and be choosy about what I serve my family. It’s not cheap or easy to be picky about what we feed our picky eaters 😉

How about you? Do you have a picky eater? How do you avoid a food rut with your kids?

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