09 February, 2011

Picky Eaters are a Parent's Responsibility

There is no such thing as a picky eater anymore. Just selective or particular eaters. It's like the word picky got sucked up by the political correctness vacuum. Which means, of course, it must be replaced by something kinder that doesn't make a kid feel bad because they don't like green vegetables or meat that isn't chicken.

This is all simply ridiculous, I say, because ALL kids are picky eaters. The degree to which they pick and choose their food varies, but all kids are selective about what they will eat.

Take my kids, for example. More than once I've been told that my kids will eat anything, or that they are such good eaters. Um, not really folks. Sure, they love sashimi and will eat game meat even when we tell them what it is. The Monster, however, will not eat rice, mashed potatoes, the tops of broccoli, the bottoms of muffins, any filled pasta but one particular shape, and an egg any way but scrambled. It is a random day when Smilosaurus happily eats all her vegetables without any comment from me and she is rather particular about how things get cut and served.

That being said, I don't consider my kids picky. I consider them kids.

Kids are inherently fickle, most love a good routine and struggle with new challenges, and they respond to our lead like sponges wiping the kitchen counter.

I've said it before, I think picky eaters are made, not born. How we, as parents, approach food and feeding our children has more to do with your kids than anything. It starts right at the beginning when we give them their first soft purees. From the flavour to the texture we are indeed molding them. It's about more than introducing them to every taste in the book before they eat a chunk of food. It's about setting up the ritual of dinner - from the making to the eating.

When we give them their first chunks of fruit and grain we cut off the crust or the peels. We get into that habit and suddenly we have a 6 year old who doesn't eat the crusts. (Or you don't and they still don't eat the crusts, suddenly, one day after eating them for years!) We give them the choice of a rainbow selection of plates then have to deal with meltdowns when the pink one isn't clean. Before long and without intending to, many of us become short order cooks.

It sounds like I'm criticizing parents here, I understand that. I also make no apologies for it. We parents care about our kids and we should always take a critical eye to what we are doing. I include myself there too. I do think that a big part of picky eating is indeed what we parents do to create the situation.

The other thing we parents do is react to the situation. We worry that they aren't eating enough, they are eating too much of one thing, that they will never like the tops of broccoli, that somehow this makes me a bad parent... We often create a problem or think we have a picky eater because we struggle to get our kids to eat cottage cheese, not flavoured yoghurt. But this is OUR issue, not the kids.

There are great articles, resources, and tips out there to help you "break" a picky eater, banish picky eating, or even help a kid recover from picky eating habits. You can search on-line for days to get through all the tips. Seldom will you see the words Relax and Step Back. That is precisely what I suggest parents do.

Easier said than done.

Here are some tips to help you with that. These aren't about getting your kids to eat more foods or different foods, these are about accepting your kids as kids, regardless of how they eat. They are about accepting our role as parents without putting labels on them.

1. Kids don't need as much food as you think they do. One good meal every day or two can be good enough, augmented by some snacking.
2. Kids eat in cycles. One week they seemingly devour any and all food you can put in front of them, the next almost nothing.
3. Kids are fickle. One week they'll eat the crusts, another week they won't. And there is no explanation why.
4. Kids can indeed survive, in the short term, on odd diets like bread and butter with fruit.
5. You are in control of what food goes on the table. They are in control of whether they eat it or not.
6. It is perfectly okay to say no to your kids' requests for cookies for breakfast, a snack 20 minutes before dinner is on the table, and juice 24 hours a day. It is perfectly okay to ignore the tantrum that ensues when you say no.
7. Kids will not starve if they don't eat dinner. If they don't like what you are offering then don't offer them alternatives.
8. Shop, cook, and eat with your kids as much as possible.
9. Keep some guaranteed favourite meals in your back pocket and in the pantry. Pull them out on days when everyone is tired or when it's been a bit since they had a good meal.
10. Offer the best food you can. Focus on the quality of the ingredients even when they are limiting their diet.

It isn't political correctness that makes me want to lose the term picky, it's this notion picky eating is something to be tackled and eradicated like a disease. Kids are kids, and we need to respond to them like adults, not short order cooks or narrow minded politicians.


Roving Lemon said...

Hear, hear. It is so easy as a parent to get caught up in the details and lose sight of the big picture. Thanks for the reminder.

Fareen said...

Love this post! Makes me feel better about the issues we deal with with our picky/moody/selective son.

Jennie said...

Excellent post Cheryl, and spot on too. I'm so tired of headlines that lure parents in with the offer of a cure-all to what is really just kids being kids. I was a discriminate eater as a child, and, well, look at me. Proof enough in my book.

Jan @ Family Bites said...

Great post and good advice. I'm fascinated by your daughter who won't eat the tops of the broccoli stem - my son won't eat the bottoms!

Wanda said...

I LOVE your post! But I have to disagree (at least in my case) with the picky eaters are made not born. We struggle every day with our 5.5 yr old girl to get her to eat. I made her baby food and followed recipe books so she was eating things like baby gumbo, spiced up baby stews, ratatouilles..curries...you name it..I made it!! She did great and quickly became a lover of all things pesto...different cheeses, sundried tomatoes...olives....fish...you name it. I didn't hold back...even fed her (later them) things we didn't eat. And today we struggle with her eating. It's insane. Happily she will typically still pick fruit over candy...but meals are over the top battles as she'd rather stare into space...or be chatty cathy or complain about the food...just not eat. I do appreciate she is a kid being a kid...but at 5 yrs old to declare you don't like meat after eating so well as a baby/toddler??! Well at least there's wine ;)

Wanda said...

Oh and I also wanted to note we never cut off the crust of any bread and she ate bread fine until we started ready Little Critter books and in one of them the crusts get cut off his sandwiches...and ever since she has refused to eat bread with crusts! grrr!!

NS Foster said...

It's funny--no kids here, but I see my husband in this post. His mother was, not to be cruel but factual, a distant fixture in his formative years. The family got served the same meal day in and day out for years: steak, potatoes and broccoli. As a result, my husband grew up being unused to pretty much anything. We've been together ten years, and we've progressed to whole artichokes and spicy chipotle pork tenderloins for dinner. Not unlike a child, it's taken time, patience and a willingness to accommodate. ("We'll try this orange-rosemary chicken, but I won't put too much sauce on your plate.") He certainly was made, but he's willing to get unmade, too ;)

ToyLady said...

When my son was small, he went through a "hot dogs and peaches" phase - that's all he'd eat, three meals a day. Until suddenly, he stopped and moved on to oatmeal and broccoli (not together, thankfully!). I never made a big deal of it. As he got older, he inexplicably "hated" some things, and loved others. If dinner was on the"hated" list, well, he went without.

Now he's 22, 6'3" and hasn't yet starved!

Dana said...

What a great post! As a nanny of a child whose parents follow pretty much none of your suggestions, I can definitely agree with you that a picky eater is made not born.

I used to be quite a picky eater, but thankfully I grew out of that. :)

Charmian @Christie's Corner said...

I don't have kids but you have just confirmed my suspicions about the role parents play in what a child will and won't eat.

Interesting post.

Anonymous said...

YES, thank you. I agree with everything you said. I think often times as a parent I get more wrapped up with what they didn't eat rather than what they did eat. I have stopped beating myself up if my daughter eats two bites of her chicken and I am no longer offended when she refuses something the day before she ate like a shark.


Luann said...

Excellent post! I've got two girls that eat almost entirely different things - they both started off eating a wide variety of food and have slowly whittled it down. Every once in awhile they'll try something new and I try not to make a big deal about it. If they see my husband and I eat a wide variety of food and enjoy it, I think eventually they'll be game to try new things. It is rather hard when you've worked hard on a meal to have it greeted with "Yuck" and "I'll never eat that" but I'm trying to get over it.

Christina @ Spoonfed said...

"That being said, I don't consider my kids picky. I consider them kids."

Right on, Cheryl. As you know, I've blogged about this topic before, so I read through this piece with my head nodding. Labeling kids drives me nuts (even more so for kids with legit food allergies or sensitivities -- they're not "picky" or "selective" or "choosy," either -- they just *are*).

In fact, I just blogged about this again in a guest post for Mrs. Q over at Fed up with Lunch: http://fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com/2011/02/guest-blogger-stop-calling-kids-picky.html. This time I looked at it from the perspective of food reform, and how this epic effort to get kids eating better is useless unless we raise our expectations and stop labeling them.

Tara said...

For as much as I brag about my childrens' lack of fussiness, sometimes they surprise me with what they don't want to eat. Like rice. Your post is bang on!!

Our trick to preventing pickiness is to include the kids in meal planning. We ask for ideas on meals and make them healthier so while they eat their meatloaf, they don't realize that it's full of veggies!

Belinda Fireman said...

Absolutely, completely agree. Great post!