Rethinking the Term “Picky Eater”
As children begin to eat solid foods and join in family meals, it can be common for them to have changing food likes and dislikes. It’s normal for young children to be cautious about new foods.
As these food preferences or refusal of certain foods continue, it can be easy to fall into the habit of saying the child is “a picky eater”. But what effect does this wording or label have on the child and their approach to food?
Children may hear and understand more than we realize and can start to “believe” these types of labels or statements about themselves. When caregivers state that a child does not eat a certain type of food or “only eats” another type of food, this may reinforce these behaviours. Research shows that a food may need to be given to a child more than 15 times before they accept it. Caregivers may “give up” and label that food as something their child does not like well before that number of attempts.
Use language that instills confidence in a child that you trust them to decide whether and how much of a food to eat and know that over time, they will learn to enjoy the foods their family eats.
Here are some tips to help develop a competent eater:
● A competent eater can decide how much of each food that’s in front of them they want to eat and feel positive about their decisions.
● The more exposure children get to a variety of food in a positive environment, the more likely they are to try new foods and eat well to support their bodies’ needs. Try serving new foods alongside a familiar food that the child is known to eat.
● Let the child choose whether, how much and in what order to eat the foods you have offered at eating times. This is outlined more in the Division of Responsibility in feeding.
● Research shows that a food may need to be given to a child more than 15 times before they accept it. Caregivers may “give up” and label that food as something their child does not like well before that number of attempts.
● Try preparing and/or serving the food in different ways (e.g. grated carrots vs cooked carrots vs carrot soup).
● Use neutral language and avoid pressuring or praising a child to eat a certain food. Understand more about your role as a caregiver in feeding.
For more ideas and resources:
Ellyn Satter is a Registered Dietitian who has done a lot of research into the feeding relationship. Learn more here.