Can I be honest about something? It pisses me off when I read that picky eating is a normal developmental stage that children grow out of.
It’s not that I don’t think children typically go through a stage where they become more difficult to feed. They do. Just like, I would add, children go through a phase where they become more difficult to dress too. It’s normal and natural for children to want to exert what little control they have.
What pisses me off, though, is the idea that because it’s “normal” there’s nothing parents can do except wait it out. And passively continue to serve up new foods, all the while hoping that this time will be the magic moment when their kids miraculously start eating more adventurously.
Of course I say passively serving up new foods because that’s the advice. In reality, most parents are anything but passive. We try to tempt, we cajole, we beg, we barter. And who can blame us? The kids have to eat, right? Moreover, it’s our job to get healthy food into them. And then there’s the problem with food waste when children refuse to eat what we prepare.
Recently, The New York Times published an article that explores what happens when picky eaters grow up. Although estimates of picky eating in children range from 5-25%, the prevalence of picky eating in adults is unknown. One reason, the article reports, is that many adults keep their picky eating a secret. Nonetheless, one survey found that 75% of adults who identify as picky eaters said the pattern started in childhood.
So, we can look at this in two ways. Either people have picky eating, like they have allergies for instance, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Or, the way we respond to picky eating in childhood often cements the deal.
Stephanie Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate (a book I found to be an interesting read) says, “People aren’t choosing to dislike food. There’s a lot of shame involved. There’s not a lot of empathy for picky eaters.”
Shame. Lack of Empathy. These are powerful feelings.
The current feeding environment doesn’t encourage a lot of empathy. Indeed, it pits parents against children. Just look at the language we use. We talk about “getting” healthy food into kids. Or “getting” kids to like new foods. We’re told to actively show kids how much we’re enjoying our food. “Mmmm, this is sooooo good.” Or invite your children’s more adventurous eating peers over for a meal. “Look, Johnny enjoys broccoli.” These strategies (inadvertently of course) frequently produce feelings of shame and inadequacy.
So what can you do to parent a picky eater? For one thing, it’s important to recognize that picky eaters would eat differently if they could. (Just like children who struggle to read would read better if they could.) Second, recognize that this is a teaching challenge more than a feeding challenge. Some picky eaters will remain picky for life. They need strategies for coping. What do you do when something offensive hits the plate? Or you’re dining at a restaurant? How can you manage anxiety and stress?
And finally, picky eaters need to learn how to explore new foods.
Stephanie Lucianovic taught herself to overcome her picky eating by learning how to taste new foods. And then she kept at it until the unfamiliar became familiar. Parents can, and should, do this with children. Turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, however, doesn’t happen by plopping a pile of peas on the plate. Or by requiring a “no thank you” bite. It happens by creating safety. For the very picky, food exploration happens best away from the table so there is no expectation of eating. And the first step might simply be looking or smelling.
“A person’s experiences often need to be validated and fully understood before changes are even considered,” says Dr. Nancy Zucker, a psychologist and director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders. That validation and understanding has to start in childhood.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~