Picky eating. It’s a topic that I am sure you’re all very familiar with because at one point or another (or everyday?), every parent looks for help in dealing with their “picky” eater. But lately, I’ve been hearing the word used to describe kids that actually eat a wide range of foods and to be honest, it upsets me on their behalf. “Picky” is not a nice word, it is often used when a parent really means something else, and it can set a child up for failure. Let me explain.
I think that when a parent says that a child is a “picky” eater, they really mean that they are frustrated by what the child does and does not eat. That the child doesn’t always necessarily eat everything they are given. And that the child sometimes exerts their will and their power at mealtimes. I know that there are extreme cases of selective eating and there are certainly feeding issues that sometimes need professional help, (this is a good resource if you think you might be in that camp) but those cases are actually quite rare. For the rest of our kids, here are a few things to keep in mind when that word is on the tip of your tongue.
1. Normal appetite shift. During a baby’s first year, they grow at an incredibly fast rate. They need to eat really regularly to keep up with their caloric burn, so we come to expect that of our toddlers. And while it doesn’t happen overnight the day they turn one, there is a very normal decrease in appetite during the toddler years. This means that your toddler might not be “picky”—they legitimately might not (yet) be hungry. You may need to lengthen the time between snacks or meals and limit in between snack/meal drinks to just water. In our house, if our girl doesn’t seem ready for a meal, we don’t pressure her. She can sit quietly and “read” a book or can sit with us at the table until she is ready to eat. Sometimes just 10 minutes can be the difference between resistance to a meal and eagerness.
2. Normal appetite variations. As I talked about in this post about How to Stop Obsessing About Toddler Appetites, what your toddler eats might vary considerably from day to day. Again, this is totally normal. It could have to do with how they are feeling, whether they are going through a growth spurt, if it’s really hot outside, or some other unknown factor. Or, they legitimately might not like the taste of something. Focusing too much on the daily intake—or the intake at one meal— can make you crazy, so (and I know I’ve said this before), it can help to look at it over the course of a week.
3. Neophobia. “When kids are highly food neophobic (afraid of foods), which peaks between 2 and 6, they can be very adamant about new foods, saying things like ‘I’ll never eat that!’. If a parent doesn’t understand the child’s development, and that this is normal and will lessen with time, they’ll be more likely to fight against it making the stage last longer.” This quote is from the super smart MaryAnn of Raise Healthy Eaters and I think it’s important to keep in mind. Introducing new foods to toddlers can be intimidating simply because it’s unfamiliar or the texture is different. And just because your child rejects a new food doesn’t mean they are picky—it means they are being a completely normal toddler!
You may need to introduce a new food over and over before they take a taste, but it’s not like you have to make a schedule. Simply serve the foods you and the rest of the family like to eat and go from there, adding in newer foods right along side items that are usually accepted. It might be less intimidating that way.
4. Texture. The texture issue is one that I found out about pretty late in the game, but I think it’s actually a much bigger issue that many parents realize. I’m not talking specifically about texture likes and dislikes, I’m talking about how kids need to learn to be able to manipulate certain textures in their mouth, which takes time and might cause younger toddler’s to “dislike” something that they really are just having trouble chewing. All of this is to say that if your toddler doesn’t seem to like sandwiches, raw broccoli, or seems totally uninterested in meat, it could simply be because it’s a challenge for them to eat. Be patient and give them time to practice by offering those foods in softer versions—regular bread as opposed to toast, shredded chicken instead of cubes—and give them free reign to explore their food with their fingers at the dinner table.
5. It’s just not nice. Let’s say that one evening while you are making dinner, your toddler takes everything off of the fridge. You’re stepping on magnet letters, daycare papers are everywhere, and the kitchen looks totally chaotic. If you think of it as a deliberate attempt to irk you. you will likely get upset and resent their natural curiosity. You might even yell. But, if you think of it as normal exploration—they might just want to see what happens if they drop a paper onto the floor, or what it will sound like if that magnet hits the floor—you might find it entertaining. Perspective can be the difference between parental outburst and a normal conversation.
Which is to say that if you regularly call your kid “picky” you may start to resent what they don’t eat at mealtimes, when, in fact, they might be doing a great job of deciding what and how much they want to eat for themselves. Looking at it that way, the word in itself might be setting the child up for failure at every meal regardless of what they eat!
The bottomline to all of this? It is absolutely unrealistic to expect our toddlers to eat everything we serve them. It is realistic to expect them to make choices about what they want to eat based on what we serve them. If we give them the opportunity to do that without judgement, then I think we’re setting them up for a much healthier relationship with food—and their bodies—for years to come.
What do you guys think?