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Stop Calling Kids ‘Picky Eaters’

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Illustration for article titled Stop Calling Kids Picky Eaters

Photo: Happy cake Happy cafe (Shutterstock)

Life is all about growing and learning and morphing (or attempting to morph) into the best possible versions of ourselves. As such, there is a certain thing I am going to stop doing, and I’d like you all to join me on this quest: I think it’s time that we stop calling certain kids “picky eaters.”

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To be clear, I have never labeled a child as a “picky eater” to their face—for the same reason I wouldn’t call a child “stubborn” to their face. Some might say my own son falls into both of those categories; but I would not say that because that would not be nice. Is the list of things he enjoys eating a bit limited? Sure. Is he tenacious in his stance about how much sauce is an acceptable amount to put on his spaghetti noodles? Why yes, he is. But that’s okay. He’s a kid and sometimes kids don’t like the same things adults like.

But I do talk about the struggles of raising a picky eater with other people who are not children. Actually, as Lifehacker’s own archives show, I am guilty of this over and over and over again. (Look, I am not perfect! And also, “picky eater” tends to work better in a headline than, say, “a child with a particularly discerning palate.”)

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But a recent thread on Twitter from writer Anne Thériault got me thinking that our framing about this is kind of, sort of, entirely wrong:

I suggest you click through and read the whole thread, because she makes some truly excellent points. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on so-called picky eaters:

You didn’t cause this

Lots of people think picky eaters are “created” by the bad habits of their parents. That is, unless your child ends up being the picky one, in which case you’re like, “Oh, huh, I was wrong about that.”

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On the flip side, if your child eats everything from scallops to broccoli to the finest of sushis, don’t tell me it’s because of how you fed them when they were 18 months old; I did that, too, and your smugness is showing. Kids are gonna be kids, The End.

Eating is a complex sensory experience

Anyone who says that “when they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat what is offered,” has never encountered a determined child on a hunger strike. It’s not that they don’t want to eat. (Well, sometimes it is). More often, it’s that something about what you’re offering is literally worse to them than the feeling of hunger.

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You might be like, but if you like sauce on your pizza, why won’t you try sauce on your noodles? Or, if you like a cold cheese sandwich, why can’t I make you a grilled cheese sandwich? Because these are different texture experiences, that’s why. I, personally, enjoy almonds. Almond butter, though? Zero desire to try that. Does not appeal to me.

Eating food is a complex sensory experience, full of smells, tastes, and textures, and lots of kids are sensitive to different smells or textures. If a child can’t stand the feeling of the seam of their sock, why are we shocked when they are horrified at the shredded lettuce on their sandwich?

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Is it good to use your grown-up logical reasoning skills to try to explain why bread and toast are both good? Yes, of course! But if they’re totally resistant to cooked bread, maybe just don’t worry about it for now. Because, after all…

This is a phase

For most people, having a limited palate is but a phase. Guess who was a “picky eater” growing up? Yep, this girl. Guess who grew up to eat practically anything you put in front of her? Also me! (Except anything peanut-related, but I’m still holding out hope that my tastes change on that one; peanuts are in lots of stuff, you may have noticed.)

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But I was an actual adult before I started eating things like seafood and vegetables that are not corn. When you label kids in certain ways, kids tend to rise—or fall—to that label, to your view of them. Not to mention that it’s likely an inaccurate way to describe them over the scope of their lifetime. They (probably) won’t want to eat chicken nuggets every day for the rest of their life.

Even if you’re not flat-out calling them a “picky eater,” they are probably picking up on the fact that their limited likes are a source of frustration for you. The less you focus on the fact that they only seem to like beige foods and more on building a healthy relationship with food, the better off they’ll be in the long run.

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Oh, and while we’re talking about kids not wanting to eat, here’s another quick reminder of a thing you should not do: Don’t force kids to eat foods they don’t want to eat. My own parents made that mistake once with me and lima beans (of all things). It didn’t end well, and to this day, the site of a lima bean makes my stomach turn, despite liking virtually every other bean as an adult.

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There are lots of methods for handling mealtime struggles, but I’ll tell you the rule in our house. You have to try one bite before you can say, “No, thank you.” I do this to encourage my son, in small doses, to branch out ever-so-slightly. And he knows I won’t push him to take a second bite if he doesn’t like it, so he is able to bear one tiny taste.

This method has led to him eventually like different foods with occasional exposure over time, as well as a couple of surprising immediate wins (I never would have pegged him as a shrimp kind of guy, but miracles are still possible). However, if it’s something I know he really doesn’t like—couscous, I’m looking at you—I give him something else on the side that I know he does like. I’m trying to broaden his horizons, not drive him to vomit all over the dinner table.

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