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Want kids to eat better?
Stop calling them “picky eaters.”

Spend even a few minutes online and you’ll find blogs devoted to sneaky vegetables, artful bento boxes and countless other tricks to make kids eat spinach. Turn on the news, pick up a paper, check Facebook, and you can’t escape talk of school food, Happy Meal toys and the travesty of chocolate milk.

Spear me the labels

Everyone is working double-time to fix years of government-subsidized and heavily advertised junk food, in school and out. The effort to combat childhood obesity has become urgent and epic. But for all the good work, all the good intentions, nothing will change unless, along with the food and the system, we also change our expectations of what children will and won’t eat. Unless we recognize that there’s an insidious undercurrent sabotaging kids with two little words: “picky eater.”

It goes like this: Kids are picky eaters. They won’t eat food that’s green, brown or good for them. They are strong-willed little creatures who cannot be swayed. We must give up, give in, and feed them nothing but juice, crackers and neon mac and cheese.

Other things in a child’s life take time — learning to read, tie a shoe, ride a bike — and to that, parents say OK. But when it comes to food? When a child refuses something new? When a drive-thru or children’s menu is the quickest path to appeasement? That’s when parents throw up their hands and cry picky. Or, worse yet, tell a child she won’t like something before she even tastes it.

“Picky eater” has become a crutch and an excuse to fall back on easy, so-called “kid foods,” the notorious standards that everyone laments but too few seem willing to forgo. And there you have the setup for a head-banging self-fulfilling prophecy.

Young children go on strikes (refusing certain foods) and jags (eating only certain foods). Older kids have the added influence of marketing and friends. And all kids — and adults — have foods they just don’t like (whether at all or just right now). And, yes, sometimes it takes finessing to get children to embrace good food. But that starts with educating kids, not labeling them.

Language is important. Labels are dangerous. And when we label our kids, we diminish our expectations of them and make obstacles seem insurmountable. We also minimize the very real challenges faced by children who do have serious food allergies or sensory issues. Those kids aren’t “picky eaters,” either. They have legitimate underlying causes for their food aversions, and labeling just adds to the stress.

Think about this: The reason we even have Happy Meals and Lunchables and bland, non-nutritive school lunches is not because that’s all kids will eat. It’s because that’s the kind of food adults think kids will eat. And it’s the kind of food that manufacturers and marketers can produce and sell at a huge mark-up. In the race to homogenize food and maximize profit, we lost respect for kids’ palates. And for kids.

So now we can’t just fix the food. We also have to nix the labels.

Soon after starting Spoonfed last March, I wrote a post called “Let’s ban the phrase ‘picky eater.'” I’ve been on a mission ever since to encourage folks to rethink the labeling habit. This latest piece was published last week as a guest post for Mrs. Q’s Fed Up With Lunch.

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

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{ 56 comments… add one }

  • Krista February 23, 2011, 7:01 am

    Love this post! As the mom of a 9-month old boy, I’m also seeing another dimension of the picky-eater phenomenon amongst my friends. They create picky eaters from the start with the way they feed their kids.

    When did we foresake vegetables for wallpaper paste?? and I’m being serious here because the rice ‘cereal’ everyone wants to feed their kids is just flour and water (literally usable as wallpaper paste) with pretend vitamins in it. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard parents say their infant won’t move on to other foods.

    My son eats brussels sprouts by the fistful and his favourite on-the-go snack is grated parmigiano reggiano. Why does he like these? Because that’s what he’s been presented with. He doesn’t have to eat it, but if he wants to eat this is what’s served.

    I’ve always wondered if picky eaters exist in parts of the world where food is scarce…

    • Annette August 24, 2012, 11:17 am

      I just came across this posting and starting looking at the comments. I love your comment about parents saying their babies won’t eat other foods after rice cereal. My son actually refused the rice cereal! We stopped giving it to him and added more fruits and vegetables to his diet instead. He still doesn’t eat as much cereal in a day as all the “infant diet recommendations” state, but if his pediatrician is good with it, so am I!

    • Rachelle February 26, 2013, 6:23 pm

      My husband was born and raised in Kenya…. he makes fun of all of the picky things “wazungu” (Americans) do, such as eating food. He ate what as given him, which largely consisted of a lot of Kale and collard greens. Kids will eat what you give them, no one enjoys being hungry.

    • jamco February 27, 2013, 11:21 am

      I have to repla because while i agree with this article. PLEASE don’t state your status as a mother of a 9 month old who eats brussell sprouts as an expert on how to feed your kids. My son also ate brussel sprouts, but broccoli and cauliflower were his ultimate favorite foods. Until the day that they magically weren’t. Around 4, he said, “broccoli doesn’t taste as good as it used to” and by 5, he was flat out refusing to eat it. Sitting at the dinner table till bedtime with his lip turned up. Now at 15, he’s a very adventurous eater, but won’t touch, broccoli, brussell sprouts or cauliflower without a fight or negotiation. I usually settle for him stuffing down one large bite while watching him dramatically plug his nose so he can’t taste it while he chews. Kids tastes do change. And to say that all kids will eat what you give them if is all they know is a bit ridiculous, considering many adults have foods they refuse to eat as well. I’m 35, i WISH i could eat onions, nothing is more humiliating than being 35 years old at a restaurant having to ask for things without onion. But i try them, time and time again, they instigate my gag reflex :(

      And I highly doubt children who are starving would dare refuse any food, hell if i’m starving i think Taco Bell tastes good (it does not). But i wouldn’t recommend starving your kids to get them to eat brussel sprouts either.

      Just continuously reintroduce foods as no fuss, or sneak them in from time to time. I love making lasagna laden with spinach and then telling the kids about it after they’ve scarfed it down. It makes them much more open to possibilities.

      • Cassie March 6, 2013, 3:51 pm

        Ditto your answer

  • Cloth Diaper Malaysia February 23, 2011, 9:48 am

    Great article, and I’ve never really thought about it like this… But you certainly have a point! I’m sharing this with others on my facebook page’s wall. I subscribe to you on e-mail because in general I agree with your cause 100%, but this is the first time I’m commenting (I think). Cheers from Malaysia!

  • The Table of Promise February 23, 2011, 10:02 am

    I love this post. I never got a chance to read it over at Fed Up With Lunch.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I do still hide veggies. I make a mean pumpkin and kale smoothie, unbeknownst to my two boys. But I am cool with this because I offer veggies all day long with meals and as snacks. My 3 year old is pretty good with most veg, but my 18 month old is completely unwilling. He’ll get there.

    But since both kids love meat and milk and cheese, I go to great efforts to buy grass fed and local options of all of these. That way at least I know that the animal fats they are getting are far healthier, higher in Vitamin D, Etc. I have read that kids need the satruated fat of animal products for proper brain development in their early years and this makes it more likely that they will prefer more calorie and fat dense foods. But even if kids need fat, they don’t need to get it from Ho Ho’s and Doritos!!

    I love this post. And I see this all the time. Although I am committed to offering my kids non processed and homemade options, I am constantly amazed by how many people try to pacify them with processed crap like goldfish crackers. It seems to b everywhere-other caregivers, preschools and even ahhemm, my husband. People absolutely go to lousy foods for kids because they don’t want the fight. But far too few realize the importance of establishing good food habits early.

  • Becca February 23, 2011, 11:48 am

    I’ve been guilty of referring to one of my kids as a “picky eater”, but I agree it’s a really bad idea. Labels are often self-fulfilling. We have one child that will eat almost anything they are presented with, and another that will often skip dinner or just have a couple of bites rather than eat what’s on the table. It’s been this way for probably 6 years. (fortunately breakfast and lunch are healthy and filling – but it’s the same food every day!) While this has been difficult and tiring, we are FINALLY seeing a change and a willingness to eat something different. I wonder if the change would have happened sooner if I’d never used the “picky eater” label. Probably!

  • heather tomasello February 23, 2011, 12:00 pm

    yes! ban the phrase! they just did a story on CNN about how the ‘healthier’ lunches that are offered. it was all i could do not to scream at the tv “its because they dont get the healthy food at home!” but i would have scared my co-workers and they think im weird enough

  • Katie @ Wellness Mama February 23, 2011, 12:18 pm

    I agree completely! The first foods our kids get are avocado and coconut oil mixed with veggies and they go on to eat *gasp* salads and vegetables at every meal (including breakfast) by the time they are two. I do think it has a lot to do with keeping only healthy foods in the house though, as I am yet to meet a small child who would refuse sugary treats if offered them. My kids have realized though (at 4, 2 and 1) that when they eat these things other places, it makes their stomachs hurt, and they do choose to avoid at times. Great post!

  • treen February 23, 2011, 12:19 pm

    I suppose one of my daughters would be considered a “picky eater” but I’ve inadvertently (because I wasn’t deliberately avoiding it) managed to skirt that term. Little kids just go through phases when they’re learning about any foods, and that’s how I’ve always thought about it. It just depends on their moods and what their bodies want at the time. Lately, she eats apple slices with peanut butter, and cheese. Fruit, protein, and calcium. Good enough.

  • Holly February 23, 2011, 1:51 pm

    Yes, please ban this phrase! I was labeled as a “picky eater” when I was a kid because I would get a hamburger at a restaurant and very carefully pick off the lettuce and tomato because they tasted “Yucky”. When I grew up and started eating vegetables from our Farmer’s Market, I discovered that I like tomatoes and lettuce. There are dozens of different varieties and just because I didn’t want the bland lettuce and tomato from a McDonald’s hamburger (ugh, I wish I could go back in time and stop myself from eating that!) didn’t mean I was a “picky eater”. Sometimes there is a genuine reason a child doesn’t like something and as a parent we need to try and find the reason not just fall back on a crutch of labeling.

  • Tara February 23, 2011, 2:16 pm

    While I do agree that labels are wrong and create a problem, I do feel the need to write in to speak up for parents of resistant eaters. A resistant eater is very different than a picky eater. Some children have sensory issues that cause them to shun a lot of otherwise good and healthy foods that have been served to them by their parents. To put the blame fully on the parents for this is not ok in my opinion. I have been told that ‘he will eat when he is hungry’ but for a resistant eater this is not true. My son will starve himself before eating an offensive food and it is my job to make sure this doesn’t happen. I am not saying I will bring him to McD’s everyday because of this, but if he isn’t happily eating brussel sprouts by the handful I still think I am a good parent and he is a healthy kid.

    • Christina February 23, 2011, 2:51 pm

      Totally agree, Tara, which is why I made a point of mentioning kids with food allergies and sensory issues. But even those kids shouldn’t be labeled. And of course the majority of kids called “picky” do not in fact have these kinds of issues.

    • Theresa Steen April 22, 2011, 2:02 am

      Hi, I couldn’t help responding! Thanks for explaining what a resistant eater is because I truly believe my son is one. I can’t get anyone to understand this in my family; they all think he simply won’t eat certain foods because he likes power struggles! I have tried everything to get him to eat good, nutritious foods but nothing has worked! My insurance will not cover OT for sensory- processing issues as they don’t acknowledge it. I’m desperate for help and need any ideas as what to do. Please let me know.

      • Christina April 25, 2011, 10:35 pm

        Theresa, I’m not sure whether you read the later comments, but, in answering another question, I suggested the Raise Healthy Eaters blog and its series about picky eaters. That series includes an article titled “How to tell if your picky eater needs help.” Sounds like that could be helpful for you. (Don’t love the labeling in this series, but I appreciate the insights.)

        As for the insurance coverage, I think it’s worth asking again and lobbying your carrier if needed, especially if you can get your pediatrician or a specialist to make an explicit recommendation that references sensory issues. Insurance policies and coverages vary so much that it’s hard to know what might work in your situation, but I’d definitely dig and advocate a bit more (if you haven’t already).

        I hope this helps a little. Also feel free to pose this question on the Spoonfed Facebook page, where other readers might weigh in with their own experiences.

        • Tracey February 26, 2013, 6:56 pm

          I know it’s been almost 2 years but I wanted to let you know that while that Raise Healthy Eaters series had some great points, it really fell flat in practical pointers for helping the reluctant eater. I’m at my wits end with my teenager who has very definite ideas about what she will and will not eat. She is steadily losing weight because she eats little to nothing for breakfast, little to nothing for lunch and a medium something for dinner. There is no way that going that many hours without food at her age is healthy. :( She is very drawn to (maybe even addicted to) sugar and she makes poor choices when left to her own devices. I have tried to make sure only good food is in the house but that really only works if you’re children are pre-school age or younger. The sugar stuff tastes just fine to her, thank you very much. :(

          I would be very interested in talking to mothers who have successfully dealt with changing the diet and eating habits of those teenage and above. I am very scared that my daughter is doing serious damage to her long term health.

          • lara February 27, 2013, 6:52 am

            I hear you on the teen / pre-teen front.

            My daughter is 12. She is very selective about what she will and will not eat. This started at a very young age when she decided that nursing tasted icky, and just wouldn’t do it. (yes, at 9 months, she went for a day without eating, because my milk didn’t meet her desires.. not much that I had done to create that situation).

            What I have done to improve her food intake is to sit down, talk about the food groups, and how much a serving is (a real serving, not the huge servings we see everywhere), and how many servings she needs. We talk about the fact that sugar is not on the pyramid. Then, we make sure that she has all the good groups. Ok.. so she will not eat fruit. (I’ve been introducing it slowly since she was an infant), but she will eat all veggies if they raw. (yep. spinach, kale, carrots, peppers, etc… bring em on.. just raw). Won’t eat potatoes (texture thing here), but not a big deal there for me.

            Try different ethnic tastes. She loves indian food. All of it. She is usually willing to try anything. She also loves thai. Ordinary bland stuff… no thank you.

            So.. our food is always ethnic, and tasty. But.. we still have some big limitations when visiting others.

          • Christina March 5, 2013, 12:25 am

            Tracey: Have you spoken with your daughter’s doctor about this? If she’s losing weight and you’re worried about her health, then talking with her doctor and/or a nutritionist would be a good idea.

  • Lauren Slayton February 23, 2011, 4:12 pm

    Great points here. I think the label, as you said, lets parents off the hook (or gives them something to fixate on). The label also lets kids off the hook because they are “picky” so why budge.

  • christine February 23, 2011, 11:18 pm

    well said…labeling a child a ‘picky eater’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. just like teaching a baby to sleep, a toddler to use the potty or a child to ride a bike, it takes work. don’t give up on feeding your child real food, keep trying. make it fun. empower them with healthy options. don’t turn your kitchen into a restaurant. if you are consistent and offer them 1 or 2 real food choices for each meal, they will not go hungry.

    bravo on the article and the blog!

  • jenna @ Kid Appeal February 24, 2011, 10:01 pm

    love to see all the support for the ban of the picky eater label. as a recovering picky eater who now consumes most of the foods that once made me gag, i’m glad to see others embracing the idea that for most kids (save for sensory issues, ASD spectrum, allergic kids) picky eater is a label that enables kids to focus on “preferred” food instead of “accepted” foods. nearly all kids will accept foods that are not “favorites” but only if they know it’s expected of them, or normal. it’s normal for kids to learn to read. it’s normal for kids to learn to ride a bike. it’s normal for kids to learn to eat a balanced meal.

    a change in mindset will go a long way to opening up the doors to learn to like a food you think you hate. don’t believe me? test it out for yourself.

    take the recovering picky eater challenge here. http://tinyurl.com/4f9pq3z

  • J in VA February 24, 2011, 11:37 pm

    I’ve seen first hand what over-focusing on food does. Ny niece from the time she started solids had her food intake obscessed over. Now extended familymeals often focus on how many bites of broccoli it takes to get dessert and how few squirts of spray butter (gag!!) she can have. Meanwhile my dd is happily eating brussel sprouts and cauliflower (and everything else on the table). The nephew who is less “picky” has learned that the way to get attention is to be reluctant with his food too.

    This niece has come to my home for a week and eaten numerous things that no one ever even thought to offer her: boiledshrimp, baked potato soup, eggs and oatmeal, etc… She has learned at our house food is not the focus of the universe. I will not pay any attention either way to what she eats or doesn’t eat; or how much. Dessert isn’t earned.

    She worries me….I’m trying hard not to see eating disorders in the future because food is the thing you can control. Her parents have made food the focus. The icing on the cake is that they think low fat and fake food are healthier than real, recognizable food.

  • Danielle @ Analytical Mom February 25, 2011, 12:30 am

    I so agree with you! It can be easy to fall back on “kid food” because it’s convenient (a graham cracker for a fussy toddler is quicker than steaming a batch of carrots), but there’s nothing good about it. It’s shocking to hear a mom say “I don’t think you’ll like this” to their kid! Unbelievable!
    Question for you: do you have your kids eating raw veggies pretty young? I have a 2 yr.old and a 1 yr. old, and they seem to have trouble chewing raw veggies. The “big kid” is just now able to eat salads with us, but it’s a lot of work for him! Do you do a lot of steaming for your kids?

    • Christina February 25, 2011, 9:50 am

      Danielle, I can’t remember exactly when we started our daughter (who just turned 7) on raw veggies, but I do distinctly remember the first time she ate a salad. We’d been offering salads right along (maybe since 18 months or so?), but she’d ignore them in favor of whatever other veggies/fruits were on the table. Then we were at a restaurant when she was about 3. I ordered a salad, she started picking at it and ended up eating the entire thing. She’s been a salad lover ever since.

      As for cooking veggies, we did lightly steam things like peas and sometimes broccoli. But mostly we roasted, pan-sauteed or broiled (squash, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, etc.). Always with a light touch, though, just enough sizzle to bring out the sweetness and flavor. And eventually we did start offering just plain raw veggies. To this day, Tess prefers veggies raw or lightly cooked (as do I!).

  • Kristy February 25, 2011, 10:17 am

    i read through all the comments on here and see great points with many. there were alot of things that i really did not know or had never thought of. i didn’t know that goldfish crackers were bad for you (are they really). i thought that was really an ok snack for my daughter. i thought she really was a “picky eater” i feel that i genuinely try to feed her healthy and teach her to eat healthy. she will not eat meat very often at all. she does eat any pasta and bread. she does not eat veggies. i thought i was doing good giving her spagetti with store bought sauce because the lable says it has 2 full servings of veggies in every one serving of the sause. i really thought i was giving her “hidden” veggies this way. she will eat chicken nuggets from mcdonadls so i buy them for her not every day nor do i make special trips to mcdonalds for her. but maybe once every two weeks when we descide to stop by mcdonalds after dance practice for a quick dinner we let her have nuggets for dinner. i have never thought there was anything wrong with that. i have actually been happy to see her eat meat. at home i do not make special dinner for her because she is “picky” i cook a meat with 2 sides and she chooses to eat only mased potatoes or a roll for dinner most of the time. i dont force her to sit with dinner for 2 hrs until she eats her broccoli and pork. am i doing a disservice to her for this. her doctor says she is healthy. she is growing and devoloping wonderfully. she is now 3 1/2. i think that as a baby i should have stuck with veggies or been more strictly devoted to not giving her fruity baby food. but i didn’t. so now that she is 3 1/2 how do i change her eating habbits. she is healthy but i do want her to eat healthier. i would love to go out for dinner and she order salmon or grilled chicken instead of mac and cheese. but how do i change it now? is it ok for her to just not eat because i truely absolutely feel thats what would happen if i ordered salmon for her or did not make some sort of noodles apart of our dinner. i would greatly appreciate suggestions.

    • Christina March 1, 2011, 2:09 pm

      Kristy, it’s never too late to adopt better eating habits, and your daughter is still so young, so I wouldn’t worry about being able to turn the tide. I don’t believe in forcing kids to try new foods (or forcing them to eat anything, for that matter). But I don’t see anything wrong with asking a child to at least taste something. We personally have had good luck with the “one-bite” rule, and I know lots of other parents have as well. Not sure whether you’ve tried that?

      I’m also not a fan of “eat-this-or-eat-nothing.” So we introduce new foods by offering them in addition to items we know our daughter already likes (as part of the family meal, not by special order). That way you avoid that ultimatum while still exposing kids to new foods. They may not eat the new foods right away, but keep offering them and, eventually, they probably will.

      If you find that your daughter is eating mostly refined, non-nutritious foods like rolls and noodles, you might try eliminating those options altogether, and instead regularly offering healthy foods you know she likes (fruit, whatever veggies she favors, brown rice, cheese, yogurt, etc.).

      Now, I realize this all sounds easier said than done! So here are a few resources that I think might help:

      Food With Kid Appeal is a great blog for kids (and adults) in some kind of feeding transition. Jenna has lots of practical, effective ideas for what she calls “growing good eaters.”

      The Raise Healthy Eaters blog did a series about picky eaters that offers good insight and advice. (No surprise that I’m not thrilled about the “picky eater” part, but I understand that a lot of people are coming from a place where that label is the norm.)

      Fooducate is a great resource for learning what’s in packaged and processed food these days, and why we want to limit a lot of those items.

      I hope this helps, but please feel free to ask any other questions.

    • Laura November 4, 2011, 3:05 pm

      try offering the healthiest foods when your child is the hungriest. When I’m chopping up veggies for dinner, I always offer some to my son, so by the time dinner is on the table, he’s already had some carrots, zucchini, bell pepper, cucumber, mushrooms etc. We always buy whole fruits instead of juice or applesauce, and when I’m planning on introducing something new (kale, bok choy, etc), I add just a little to something I know he already likes, or I prepare it very simply (oven roasted, with a tiny bit of grated cheese, etc). If your daughter happily eats noodles, look for healthier types of noodles, like sweet potato noodles, etc. and be adventurous yourself, show how much you enjoy eating the veggies, etc yourself! the more real, whole food (versus processed, ready-to-go) you and your family eat, the healthier you’ll all be. real food tastes better too, so she might end up liking it more than you think she will.

  • Gia in CT February 25, 2011, 10:34 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Growing up, my sister ate about 7 things and it wasn’t until she graduated college that she started to taste different foods. My mom happily made plain pasta for her night after night and we always had to go to restaurants that had something she would eat. It drove me crazy! My sister now eats very healthy and a wide variety of food. She hasn’t forgiven my mother for not encouraging her to try different foods as a child.

    I have a 2-year-old daughter who has an amazing palate – and I’m the envy of all of my friends. But this was a lot of work. My daughter never, ever had a jar of baby food. She learned what “real food” tasted like as soon as she was old enough. I fed her steamed fruits and vegetables and moved her to finger food at just 7 months. Now, at 2 years old she asks for broccoli and carrots, has at least 3-4 servings of fruit a day and has never been inside a McDonald’s or tasted an Oreo cookie. She won’t eat white bread as it’s too bland, but will happily munch on whatever nutritious bread I buy (last week was a quinoa/whole wheat/flax bread, this week it’s olive bread). If you only supply your children with REAL food, then that’s what they will eat.

  • Adrienne February 25, 2011, 1:14 pm

    It’s also amazing how well kids will eat when they are actually hungry! I find that if I keep the snacking to a minimum, especially if I plan to introduce a new food at dinner, it will be much more readily accepted, (and more likely to be enjoyed) if they are hungry. Not starving, of course, just normal hungry.

  • LeAnne @ The Purposed Heart February 25, 2011, 2:02 pm

    Thanks for the great post! I have a baby boy who still exclusively nurses, although he has had a few tastes of things like carrots, egg yolks, and cheese. We are planning on going the baby led weaning route with introducing solids to him, and sometimes, when I think about this it makes me nervous! What if he doesn’t like the real, whole foods that I offer him? What if he is a “picky eater”? Thank you for these encouraging words. I am purposing in my heart right now to never label my son as a “picky eater”. I know there will be times that he won’t like what he is offered, but that’s okay! He will develop a taste for good, real, wholesome, and nourishing foods as long as that is what he is presented with and not junk food! Thanks again for the post! – LeAnne

  • Beth February 27, 2011, 11:31 pm

    What a great point of view! Rather than labeling what they can’t do just work hard to get them to eat. I haven’t given up yet, but it’s a lot of work!

    I recently found this great website http://childrenandbabiesnoteating.com/ . It has a ton of information about why some kids don’t eat and what you can do about it. It really helped me and gave me hope that there are things I can do to make a difference.

  • Garden Variety Mama February 28, 2011, 5:36 pm

    What a good post! I had a roommate in college who had been told since infancy that she was a picky eater, and her eating habits, even now, are pretty atrocious. If it’s processed and packaged, she likes it. She makes faces at my ‘hippy food’, including homemade mashed potatoes. I don’t think she has any kind of sensory issues, just a mom who always fed her what she wanted, not what she needed. She never tries new things, and her line is “I’m a picky eater. It’s just how I am. I’ve been this way since I was a baby.”

    I don’t mean to pick on her because she really is a wonderful, caring person, but for me this has always stood out as an example of what this label can do.

    Let’s ban the phrase!

  • Derek March 1, 2011, 8:29 pm

    Great post. I find it interesting that people are also labelled “picky” when they choose to not eat conventional food, or what some of us may consider junk food. I have been labelled a “party pooper” for not letting my 2 year old to partake in an enriched flour, sugar laced birthday cake, but the fact is, he doesn’t really care because he’d rather eat a Lara bar.

  • sara March 3, 2011, 5:56 am

    I as well, have a son with a passion for premium cheeses. He’s 18 months old now, but he’s always loved to eat the weirdest things. Raw onions are among one of his other faves. I never thought i was doing anything different, but ive never really liked fast food or most restaurant food for that matter. Even living in alaska, i pay a whole lot more for produce because i love fruits and veggies. I really dont understand the gimic of “hiding” veggies. Hide them where? lol

    Funny thing though… 2 months ago, we visited my mother-in-law for dinner. She purchased some sort of 3 course meal from what i call “pretend high end meals in a bag”. When i opened up my son’s cooler and proceeded to warm his food, She asked me what i was doing. I tried to explain to her, that he doesnt eat that sort of stuff. “oh, is he a picky eater?” came out of her mouth. I just told her yes, in hopes of dropping the subject. I wasnt going to say “this food is gross” even though it was. I thought my insides died later that night. If anyone has any advice on mother-in-laws that don’t cook & don’t care, i would be most receptive and appreciative.

  • Sarah Caron March 3, 2011, 9:29 am

    Amen! I have two kids and a stepchild. I’ve raised them all with the assumption that they will like a wide variety of foods — never once considering that they would be picky. And at 12, 5 and 3, they all eat whatever is served to them, because that’s the expectation in our house. Does my daughter love Brussels sprouts and strong cheeses? No, but she still eats a little of them when served. And when she (being the youngest and most strong willed) digs her feet in about something, it is what it is — she can eat or she can wait till the next meal. She chooses to eat.

  • Bree March 21, 2011, 7:20 pm

    Not to mention, when a child hears you call them a “picky eater”, they know that you have already partially given up on trying to force them.

    This article is important to me because I strongly believe that children largely develop into who their parents say they will. “oh he is so strong willed!” “What a girly girl!” “picky eater!” “so clumsy” “so artistic” .. etc

    I say, stop labeling your children in general.

    • Christina March 22, 2011, 12:15 am

      Amen, Bree. Label a kid, and you’ve just guaranteed that he’ll drop to your expectations.

  • Karen May 23, 2011, 7:18 pm

    In my opinion, what’s even more damaging than labeling is parents who congratulate themselves on a child’s behaviors, personality, etc. that may not have anything to do with parenting. Meanwhile, since they are “responsible” for what they like about their kids, any child who behaves differently must be experiencing some sort of deficiency in parenting. I cannot stand the self-righteous tone of “Well, *I* did *this* with my child, and now s/he does ______ with no problem whatsoever! I just let them know who was in charge/didn’t put up with X/did black-and-white-a-b-c because everything is black and white and if it isn’t, it’s because a parent has screwed up.” The self-righteousness is probably worse for people in general than any “incorrect” or “misguided” parenting techniques.

    • Christina May 25, 2011, 10:48 pm

      Karen, I agree with you that folks need to be careful about taking too much credit for kids’ eating (or other) behaviors. Children, just like adults, are influenced by nature, nurture and everything in between. But I also think more parents need to acknowledge the dangers of labeling and lowered expectations.

  • Jennifer November 4, 2011, 3:00 pm

    Totally agree with the idea that labels can and often lead to parents giving in and serving yummy junk that has addictive carbs and sugar. We must realize, however, that these parents would be giving this food to their kids even if they weren’t picky!

    I appreciate that sensory issues were mentioned. My daughter has an eating disorder (often labeled picky by ignorant family) related to neurological disorders from birth. These make her insanely sensitive to textures, odors and how food looks. People say ‘oh my kid is picky too’ but this is the EXTREME.

    My point though is that we have always fed our daughter carefully. Occupational therapy and food chaining have widened her tolerance a bit. She eats gluten free and casein free. Some of the foods she does eat are vegetables!! Raw carrots, peas, green beans. She eats natural GF chicken nuggets, potato in various forms and ground turkey w chili spice (I don’t get it either). Those are the only two dinner options. She used to eat GF natural fish sticks until they improved them and now you can see the brown parts of the fish. She struggled to pick around it to no avail.

    She drinks filtered water all day happily. Not juice or chocolate milk or sodas. She’s never had a soda! We don’t drink it.

    Eating disorders in children are often missed. Many parents of these children put food on the table and say ‘eat or starve’ and the kids just don’t eat. For DAYS. We learn the hard way that this isn’t stubbornness. We need to be careful about judging!

    • Christina November 17, 2011, 2:50 pm

      Jennifer: Thanks so much for sharing your story. (And apologies for the belated reply.) I’d take your first point a step further and wager that one of the reasons so many kids have been labeled “picky” in the first place is because their parents have fed them that sort of food since infanthood. Hence: self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Dina Rose November 4, 2011, 3:15 pm

    I agree whole heartedly. Ban the label picky eater. As you point out, it takes time time (and lots of parental patience) to teach kids the skills they need in life; eating right is just one of them. I’ve never heard a parent say, “Oh well, she’ll learn to brush her teeth when she’s older. I can’t expect her to do it now.” But parents say this all the time when it comes to food.

    Great post. Thanks.


  • Jennifer Seibel November 4, 2011, 3:46 pm

    Thank you for talking about this subject. I am a recovering picky eater. I was labeled one as a kid, and many people on the outside were always trying to force me to eat new foods. I remember people trying to trick me into eating different things more than once. As an adult with a 4 year old child who eats all sorts of different foods I know that I am lucky. I do not blame it on the way I was raised, I just think my tastebuds couldn’t handle such strong flavors w/o gagging. Our kids have plenty of other pressures swirling around them so why do we need to pressure them about trying certain foods. Offer nutritious alternatives to stuff they do not like (I find the best way to avoid the fast food drive through is to pledge to yourself and kids out loud that you will not be doing that as a family — then have plenty of yummy, nutritious food around the house)

  • Jordan February 26, 2013, 6:12 pm

    Great article! As a mom of a sensory kid that refuses any and all texture unless he can drink it through a straw, I scream inside(and to my husband when I get home) when mother’s say “oh, my child is a picky eater too”. It is enraging to me when someone compares their child to mine when it’s their fault they have a “picky eater”. No one really talks about this issue and how it affects the stigma of children with actual food issues. Thank you for mentioning it.

  • Tiffany February 26, 2013, 7:28 pm

    There’s a time when I’ve used “I don’t think you’ll like that”, and I think it’s appropriate – about to take a very large bite of wasabi, wanting to eat a raw potato, dipping a finger into raw rice flour. But, these are really all opportunities to discuss food, cooking, and how we (should) be making our food.

  • Kellie February 26, 2013, 8:52 pm

    I was a very “picky eater”. Now I know that I had sensory issues that would not allow me to tolerate certain tastes or textures without gagging. My dad was the same way. We both have out grown it and can tolerate most things now…I still can’t do cooked tomatoes or onions. I have a son with autism and mix a genetic sensory issue on top of that and you have a child that is extremely “picky”. I had him eating healthy food as a baby and about age two it turned in a meltdown (not a tantrum there is a difference between a typical tantrum and an autism meltdown) at every meal. He didn’t talk until almost 3. We decided to wait on trying new foods until he had better communication skills. He is six now and tried his first green bean in 4 years last week. He gagged but did it. This has nothing to do with our parenting skills. It has nothing to do with our child being a brat. None of the typical parenting techniques worked. Trust me, I tried all of them. I bought all the sneaky chef book but most had textures or smells that offended him…hours of blending pretty much wasted. I think we might finally be at a place where we can try those again. I am just tired of people assuming it’s something I am doing or that I made him this way (besides passing the sensory issues to him). Thank you for mentioning the sensory issues in your article…it’s the first time I have seen it in an article about “picky eaters”.

  • Lisa Evans Brown February 26, 2013, 10:20 pm

    With regards to the older “picky eaters” most of the fault seems to lie directly with the parents. If the parents idea of dinner consists of pizza, frozen potstickers or chicken fingers and zero veggies (I know people who eat like this more nights than not) then how is 4th grade Kevin or Kayla going to know how to prepare and relish a kale, salmon, roasted cauliflower and salad dinner. Who’s going to teach them that cumin, basil and sage are as necessary as salt and pepper…..That roasted asparagus is heaven?
    Some of the lucky kids “rebel” and start eating “exotic” foods (like kale, salmon and roasted caulifower) and for that we can thank the stars.

  • Aliza February 27, 2013, 1:16 am

    Love the idea of working on labels. As a therapist, who works with eating disorders, I work with this concept heavily, that labeling is problematic and negative. However, it’s worth mentioning an additional dimensions. It’s not just an issue of parents labeling their child, parents need to work on their personal anxiety regarding their child’s eating habits.

    When a child refuses to eat, many parents become worried, concerned that their child will lose weight, not get enough vitamins, etc. Aside from offering your child a wide array of foods and continuing to offer foods that have been previously refused, parents need to learn to relax and reframe how they view food refusal, and by doing so, reduce their personal anxiety. So your child skips a meal here or there – generally not a big deal. So they refuse certain foods – reintroduce them down the line.

  • Helene @ French Foodie Baby February 27, 2013, 1:26 am

    Fantastic post, 100% with you there, so unfair to children to label them picky! And don’t get me started on sneaky broccoli-apple purees… We are two birds of a feather, come by the blog some time, http://frenchfoodiebaby.blogspot.com/ :-)

  • elaine February 27, 2013, 1:34 am

    On the flip side, I would hate to condemn parents of “picky eaters” as the cause of the pickiness. I used to think that we did everything right – my 4 year old eats a good variety food – nearly all vegetables, sushi, sea cucumber, etc. At the very least give everything a try. But even with 3 good examples to follow, my 1 year old prefers bananas and applesauce over nearly anything else (and we offer her A LOT of options). Of course, if she were starving I’m sure she would eat what she was fed, but surely skipping multiple meals in a day can’t be the solution on a regular basis. It all goes back to the old “every kid is different.” The article makes some very valid points, but let’s not be too judgmental.

  • jamco February 27, 2013, 11:08 am

    I love this post. My husband thinks our 5 year old can’t eat steak, because it takes her so long to chew. So he thinks we should never have steak. I try to explain to him, that my son, now 15 never had this problem and its more of a problem with his impatience with her eating. But he tells her and everyone else she can’t chew it. He does this with pretty much any meat that isn’t ground up. Drives me nuts. Or I’ll make something and he’ll say “she’s not going to eat that” and then she’ll say “i don’t like that” some parents are so dumb. My husband included.

  • jamco February 27, 2013, 11:25 am

    Another suggestion, is to do what i do to my youngest. They have the worst attention span, they don’t remember what that ate that morning let alone last week. I put it in front of her, when she says “ewwww” i say, “we had this on Friday, you scarfed it down and told me I was the best cooker ever, now eat it” 99% of the time she believes me 30% of the time its true.

  • t_beaty February 27, 2013, 3:20 pm

    My 8yr old ate like a champ until 16 months old, then he just stopped eating foods that he once loved. Over the years he has eaten less and less and refuses to try new things. When he started refusing certain foods, I made sure the things he does eat have added nutrients (ie: less sugar, more fiber, less fat, added protein, etc). The doctors have diagnosed him with a sensory issue (horrible gag reflex as well). My 6yr old was the complete opposite. He loves most anything and has always been good about trying new things. In the beginning, I did label my older child as “picky” because how do you explain to people that he has a sensory issue? Most just look at you like you’ve grown 2 heads. “Picky” was the easier way around him refusing foods or requiring a specific diet. The last couple of years, I’ve done my best to get away from that label, because he started using it as an explanation for why he didn’t eat or try things.

    We encourage him to try new things – without making a huge deal out of it. I have found the more I push, the more he pushes back. And as long as his pediatricians aren’t worried, I’m not going to worry. The fact of the matter is – I have some of the same issues. I can’t stand hamburger meat because of the texture – I really don’t like most meats. Certain smells gag me. I have a horrible gag reflex. I see a lot of myself in him. As an adult, I do eat a variety of foods now, and I’m usually willing to try new things. (Except cream corn and peas, which a babysitter forced me to eat as a child). It is my hope that, as he grows up, he will do much of the same.

    I agree, we need to get away from labels…but we also need to understand that forcing foods on our children can do more harm than good.

    • Christina February 27, 2013, 6:03 pm

      T_beaty: Absolutely agree about not forcing food! In fact, I think there’s no question that does more harm than good. Did you somehow infer that I thought otherwise?

      And this quote captures perfectly why labeling is counterproductive: “The last couple of years, I’ve done my best to get away from that label, because he started using it as an explanation for why he didn’t eat or try things.” I’m so glad you recognized that, because, sadly, so many people don’t.

  • Darryl June 27, 2013, 1:30 pm

    You definitely have to be careful about what you think is the reason your kids will try things. I included our 3-year-old in EVERY step the other day. We drove up north, picked the strawberries ourselves, and played at the farm for awhile. He refused to try one, so we drove home, and I asked him if cutting one would help. He said yes, so I let him help me cut them, and he threw the green parts in the garbage for me. Still wouldn’t try one. Then, I let him put the strawberries in the blender and we made smoothies. He still wouldn’t try one. Then, I put some in a bowl and put ice cream in it. He still wouldn’t try one.

    There was no fight. He wasn’t mad at me, and I wasn’t mad at him. I told him the doctor said he had to eat a strawberry, and that’s the next thing he has to have, and he could have anything else he wanted after that. I even told him it was ok to wait until his tummy was rumbling, as that might make the strawberry taste better if for some reason he didn’t like it. HE DIDN’T EAT FOR 24 HOURS!

    After this, he was thirsty enough that I talked him into have a sip of water, because I was obviously getting worried about dehydration, which was also something he resisted. After this, we went another 2 hours, for 26 hours total without eating, until I eventually got him to take one tiny sip of a smoothie, after which I had to admit he at least tried it, and was thus allowed to have something else.


    If you think they will always eat eventually to avoid starvation, you’re wrong. Some kids will starve themselves.

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