Guest blogger: Stop Calling Kids "Picky Eaters"


Guest post by Christina Le Beau who blogs about food literacy and sustainability at Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat.

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.

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 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.

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39 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Stop Calling Kids "Picky Eaters"

  1. Spot on, Christina.

    Real food is healthier, cheaper, and in my opinion, it's quite often easier to prepare as well. Ok, so the lunches I prepare every morning take a couple minutes longer than grabbing a lunchable from the cupboard, but I'm pretty sure I compensate by spending less time at the groceery store.

    I'm also sure there are plenty of lazy moms like me who have become highly skilled at putting together delicious lunches in next to no time – like last night's leftovers, or a quick sandwich, or like this morning, a speedy pasta with a sauce I made & froze last week.

  2. One way to increase adventurous eating and decrease whatever you want to call "picky eating" is to grow food in a garden.
    When kids grow food, they fall in love with food. No lectures on "health" are necessary.
    A majority of the dysfunction around food is a result of the disconnection from it.
    Gardens are the answer. It works for grown ups too!

  3. Bravo! I'm so sick of hearing this term applied to kids. Kids are kids all over the world and the only reason that kids in other countries accept vegetables better than US kids is because eating them is part of their culture, not because they are different from US kids and like them any better. US food culture is created by our farm policy that subsidizes corn, soy and wheat so big food companies can make all the kid foods that are so bad for our kids and make huge profits in the process. We all get unhealthy in the and companies declare 'nanny state' (that big evil nonentity-I imagine someone like Ms. Crunchbull from the movie Matilda) if any controls are suggested in solving the problem.

  4. AMEN !!!

    One of my biggest pet peeves in restaurants: the "kids menu" which always seems to list chicken fingers, grilled cheese, and mac and cheese.

  5. GREAT post. Kids mirror what they see. Mine wants to eat whatever I fix because I make sure she's involved in picking out the vegetables, "cooking" and helping. So when I ask her what vegetable she wants and she says "Swiss chard," I smile because she picked it, she will eat it, and I wonder what her peers are eating at the same time….

  6. Christina, you are so right! Here in San Francisco, we started putting salad bars into schools about 5 years ago. While making a video about the salad bars, I had an opportunity to visit an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The students came from the public housing projects located nearby, and the whole community was located in what is commonly called a "food desert" – plenty of liquor stores and greasy fast food, but no grocery stores. It was the last neighborhood where you would expect children to embrace a salad bar, even though it was so obviously needed. And yet, what we found was that these kids LOVED the raw veggies, and their hands down favorite was….raw cauliflower! Who would have thought?

  7. You make a wonderful point with this post.

    I know a few parents that (aiming to avoid exactly what you're saying) never take their kids to fast food places or give them any kind of highly processed foods. Eventually, they know that their child will be exposed to these "evils" from friends, marketing, etc. but they are making the effort to expose them to as many healthy, tasty, natural foods as possible early on in hopes that when the time comes, their tastes will be somewhat developed and they won't necessarily want to go for the fries or chips.

    Do you think that someday (especially with Michelle Obama's recent pushes) companies/schools will be forced to have child taste testers?

  8. Our children were never given the chance to be picky eaters. We served lots of fresh and steamed veggies when they first began eating. Now, at ages 10 & 11 they love almost everything (except soggy celery) and their favorite vegetables are leeks and brussel sprouts. They also love to help cook and explore foods from other cultures.

    As parents we set the bar, if we want our children to eat healthy then we make it an expectation and explain the importance of choosing our food wisely. Children will rise to our expectations; likewise, they can also fall to the lowest expectation (i.e. "Picky Eater"), too.

  9. As did Anonymous (above) I served lots of fresh and steamed veggies when my daughter began eating. I cook almost all of the food we consume as a family and try to make it healthy, flavorful, and colorful. Despite my efforts, though, my five-year-old will only eat five things. None of which are fresh or steamed veggies.

    I guess I should be grateful that she doesn't like most "kid food" like chicken nuggets and fish sticks and that the five things she eats are mostly healthy. But I am convinced that some limited eaters are born not made.

  10. Hear hear! Kids reject dark green vegetables for a very specific reason: they are bitter. Botanically-speaking, "bitter" is a very good leading indicator of "poison" and humans have evolved to have an aversion to bitter, and it is very much an acquired taste. There are non-bitter vegetables though (root vegetables and tubers). Forcing kids to sit all night in front of a plate of cold asparagus isn't going to do anyone any favors, but encouraging them to occasionally try and re-try foods that they are averse to is probably a better strategy. I started liking broccoli (cooked, loathe it raw) when I was about 12 or so, didn't like asparagus until I was in my teens, I didn't like olives until I was 28, and I didn't like spinach until *three weeks* ago (I'm 37).

    What I did learn early on is to occasionally try a bite of something and if I still didn't like it, well OK. The worst thing you can do is turn it into a battle of wills, because if the child's tastes *do* change and they are no longer averse to broccoli, say, do you really think they're going to admit it and cede the "point" to the mom or dad who has been hectoring them for years? I wouldn't! I'd continue to refuse it out of spite!

  11. Love this post!!! My hubby and I have 4 children, the last being our "picky eater." We both realized that he just hasn't either gone hungry enough to eat what we feed the family or he just hasn't tried the food. We have worked on him and guess what, he eats what we give him now. I truly believe, and I'm guilty of this, that some parents are getting too lazy and don't want to bother. Wake up parents, we are here to teach, nurture and love our children, so they will become helpful members of society. My hubby and I are getting better at making better, healthier food choices for our family. Our children are more receptive to different foods and more willing to try them, even if it's only 2 bites. Reading this blog has helped me be more aware of what is going into our bodies and how to make it better. Thank you so much for these posts.

  12. One of the best, and few that I've actually 100% agreed with, posts I've seen on this blog so far. I will take this one to heart.

  13. Oh, Lunchables!
    There was a time when I was grade school aged that Lunchables were the "cool" lunch for field trips, summer daycare etc. I remember refusing to eat anything else in those situations!
    I recently volunteered at a high school event at a college and for one reason or another the kids missed lunch and only had time to buy food at a store that had a mini "gas station" selection on campus. I couldn't stand to smell or look at the meat in those Lunchables – I had to move! It's funny how our tastes change!

  14. I guess my glass is half full…….around here we say "It's easy being green" (Sorry, Kermit) and "Mikey, he likes everything" (cereal ad ca. 1975) When my son encounters a new food, I say "just put your tongue on it, let's see what happens" This has worked pretty well, as he's not "picky" He didn't care for watercress, though……Maybe next time!

  15. Thanks for this post! I have a beautiful baby boy who's about to turn seven months old, so we just started him on solids.

    While my husband and I were picking out some jars of baby food (we were instructed to start with vegetables), he'd look at some of them and say things like, "I can tell you right now he's not gonna like that," or "well I don't like squash so I'm sure he won't either."

    So I had to calmly but firmly tell him to throw that attitude out the window right then and there. First of all, there's no possible way for him to know what our baby will or won't like without him ever even trying a bite. Second of all, just because he (my husband) doesn't like a certain food, that doesn't mean our son will feel the same way. He has to try foods on his own, and decide for himself what he likes. And, furthermore, if he does try a food and doesn't seem to like it, that doesn't mean we can just give up on that food. He may have to try a food several times before he decides he likes it.

    And that's exactly how it has been! The first few times we tried feeding him the food (sweet potatoes mixed in with some infant oatmeal–we actually started with some rice cereal before moving on to the vegetables, but he didn't seem to like it much) he made funny faces and spit most of it out. But now he loves it and gets so excited when he's eating it, and he chows it right down! I can't wait to see how he reacts to the other vegetables, and when we finally get to the fruit.

    I find it interesting that vegetables are one of the first solid foods we're ever fed, yet at some point kids "decide" they don't like them anymore. I think it just goes to show kids don't always know what they like! And neither do parents.

  16. Excellent! We have "reverse picky eaters" in our family. They won't go near mac and cheese, hotdogs, soda and other "childhood" fare. I thank my sister in law who taught me to put fresh, whole foods in front of my kids early and often.

  17. I have to say my brother and I grew up eating what mom made, or going hungry. She was a good cook and did her best to make healthy meals that tasted good. I believe that the way my brother and I eat today is a direct result of that. The things we got most excited about when we out to eat? Chinese food (lots of veggies) and big salad bars! It used to freak people out to see us making big salads when we weren't even tall enough to look thru the sneeze-shields.

    Did we like everything every time? No. There was a battle once with broccoli… I held broccoli in my mouth for over an hour! But that was me being a stubborn little kid. Nothing wrong with that broccoli. I love broccoli now, no damage done!

    Thanks mom!


  18. This is so so so true and since I am often called to speak to parent groups or school leadership groups, I often espouse this same warning: don't label kids. Kids meet our expectations. If we set low ones, and give them a label to live 'up to' they will! Have high expectations, they will surprise you and most often meet them!
    I have often been at a school lunch and had a parent say to me, with the child right under toe, "she won't try the potstickers, she's my picky one." guess what? The kid has just been given a role to play and will play it!

  19. Everyone: Such terrific support and insightful comments. Thanks so much. (And thanks, Mrs. Q, for the forum.) It's heartening to hear from others who believe our kids deserve better.

    @acoleman, you asked: "Do you think that someday (especially with Michelle Obama's recent pushes) companies/schools will be forced to have child taste testers?"

    I'm not sure I understand what you're asking… Can you clarify? Thanks!

  20. It's no coincidence that kids start self-limiting the food they eat when they get to a certain age. Between ages one and three, their list of acceptable foods narrows and narrows. Why? From an evolutionary perspective, this age is when they start walking, running, and generally being more independent. When a kid is wandering away from their parents, you don't want them to eat that mushroom they find, or that random plant, or that dead animal on the ground. So they don't. They eat bland, boring, safe food. Their taste buds get extra sensitive to make sure this is the case. Then around age six or seven, their taste buds mature and they expand their palate again. The more we wrangle with our kids about food when they are pre-schoolers, the more we create problems where none existed.

  21. Okay, first of all I have to say that I do agree that there are some children, and some adults, who have specific tastes. Not that I believe that children who have these specific tastes should be appeased with junk food all the time, or that they shouldn't be challenged to eat new foods, but I think it's a fact that we have to realize that there are simply some adults, and children, who have very specific tastes.

    My son and daughter are very picky – she only likes meats and he only likes pasta. BUT that doesn't mean that I let them ONLY eat these types of things. I actually force them to eat things that aren't their favorite foods, but I also require that they taste new foods on a regular basis.

  22. right on christina. removing the picky eater eater starts with a change in mindset of parents and kids. when mom and dad believe and expect their child can learn to eat wholesome nourishing food, and really listen to kids who have sensory or food allergies, kids absolutely will eat the family meal.

    1- empower kids by believing they can become literate to nourishing food.
    2 – expect them to eat what you serve (in love), just as you expect them to accomplish literacy.
    3- serve them what you want them to eat
    4- picky eating will abate,
    5 – you will have grown a good eater.

  23. Amen! And to the commenter who mentioned the Kid's Menu in restaurants, good observation. I've never considered that. Bleh!

  24. I like the idea of giving kids more credit, and expecting more from them, than we do. But there is a point to be made that if you give kids a choice of what food they want to eat (or ask what their favorite foods are), a lot are likely to say the usual junk like pizza and chicken fingers. Why? They taste good! Isn't that a component? The preference is there, it isn't just what adults think kids want. This is not to say that kids don't or won't eat and enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods if we have higher expectations. But to say that kid junk food preference is only in the minds of adults, or manufactured by marketing, is overly simplistic.

  25. I have been waiting for a post like this. I am so sick of all of the "you have to sneak good food into a kid's diet." I cry foul. You have to present good food to kids and allow them to be knowledgeable about their choices. Kids aren't stupid. Adults often are.

  26. It wouldn't have done me a bit of good to have been picky in my household. My mom explained that I didn't have to eat the food, but that's all that would be served until the next meal. I ate the food. True, there were a few things that I had tried, but truly hated that she didn't cook often, but there were never "kid's food" in our household. One of my mom's friends was amazed when she came to visit and saw how well I ate. Her daughter was picky. BUT, she allowed her daughter many sugary snacks between meals and cooked special food if her daughter didn't want what was being served. My mom declared that she was not a "short order cook", cooking special meals on demand for each member of the family. I knew whatever was on the dinner table was all there would be until breakfast so–favorite or not–I dug in! And, I detested "kid's meal". There was a particularly nasty scene in a nice restaurant when I was about preschool age in which I threw one of my few public fits (and had to be taken out). I wanted steak. My parents were ready to order me a hamburger. I threw a fit and was carried out screaming at the top of my lungs, "I don't want no kiddie burger!! I don't want no kiddie burger!!" 🙂 Yep, I'm still a good eater and would rather have steak than chicken nuggets any day!!

  27. JGold, while taste of course comes into play, so does exposure. Kids who aren't regularly given junk food from a young age are less likely to choose it when offered (or even to think it tastes good!). So without adults giving it to them, there wouldn't necessarily be a "junk food preference" at all.

  28. One thing I haven't seen addressed is the continuous stream of anti-vegetable tv ads advising parents to buy various products, because they contain "hidden" veggies (V8 Splash, Ragu red sauces, etc.). "No need to tell them it's good for them," "It's our secret," and other such drivel. One even had a woman beating pans to drown out her husband reading the label! We need to stop acting like veggies and fruits are somehow wrong, like hiding some immoral affair that needs to be shamefully hidden. We should start talking about how freaking great veggies are, particularly if properly prepared. My parents boiled to mush every vegetable we ever had, and covered them in butter, both parts of which I hated. Now I LOVE veggies, because I figured out my parents were bad cooks (of veggies, anyway), and learned to be better. I was encouraged to learn to cook for myself around age ten, though I was baking before that. Doing so caused me to want to learn about what I was cooking, similar to the gardening exposure (from grandparents) causing me to want to learn how to do it properly. No more "hidden" goodness! Let vegetables come out of the closet.

  29. I generally agree that kids need to be encouraged to see and eat vegetables and to see their parents eat them too. My dad poo-pooed 'rabbit food', as he called it, when I was a kid and so there were things I simply avoided. I'm learning to eat them now.

    I do have to disagree slightly with Dr. Rubin's idea that, "One way to increase adventurous eating and decrease whatever you want to call "picky eating" is to grow food in a garden.
    When kids grow food, they fall in love with food."

    That is only semi-true, I find. We had a garden as a kid and mostly enjoyed tending it and eating what grew in it. I still, though, do not like canteloupe, which we grew. And for years I loathed whole tomatos, which I chalk directly up to having to pluck those hideous looking tomato horn worms off the leaves with my bare hands. *shuddering to this day at the memory*

  30. My mother made all the baby food she fed us four kids. She did get processed baby food to feed me, too, but I guess that since I'm the firstborn of two models who thought it was a good idea to put me into baby food ads, and I paid for my own food, it wasn't as bad… But I still miss the food my mother and grandmother made me.

    Someone said little kids' palates are adapted to bland, safe food, but I remember picking nettles at age 3 (I was careful, used a pair of scissors, gloves and a little plastic bucket), and took them to my grandmother so she could make nettle soup out of them.

    Nettles can be used cooked just like you'd use spinach, their leaves can be used for teas, and nettle juice can be used to treat damaged or dry hair, treat arthritis, or make clothes out of…

    I've had calamari that my dad and me caught ourselves when I was 4, helped gut fish since before I could walk, and know where to find a lot of food in Nature, and have had a little planter box in my grandmother's garden as a kid, so I could grow a little choice of my own flowers and veg as a kid.

    Call me crazy, but I think my food related upbringing was pretty good, and my kids deserve the same. 🙂

    Some stuff to get kids engaged might be trying to identify edible plants on walks:

  31. I'm surprised there haven't been any negative comments here yet. It seems often when this subject comes up, parents show up talking about "supertasters" and how if they don't feed their kids chicken nuggets every day the kids REALLY WILL starve themselves. They say it's a genetic condition that nobody can do anything about.

    Has anyone seen that PediaSure commerical with the mom saying her kid is a picky eater, which "started to affect her growth and development" so her pediatrician told her to give her kid PediaSure to make up for it?

    That kind of stuff scares me. I don't have kids myself but would like to some day, and I really hope that picky eating isn't something that just happens and there's nothing I can do about it. I don't want my kid to rely on PediaSure or else have nutritional deficiencies.

    But I have my doubts about how innate picky eating is, because it just doesn't make sense that kids can only eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. What about kids in other countries and cultures? What about kids in the stone age? "No, I don't like mammoth." "Your father killed a mammoth today and you're going to eat it!" "No! I don't like mammoth. I only want acorns!"

    I just hope I end up one of the lucky parents with a kid who will eat a variety of foods.

  32. In reply to Penny, I have had jobs before at parks where I led nature walks, and you'd be surprised how many kids will eat some plant you point out to them on the trail who probably won't touch broccoli at home. I even had parents comment on it. "You'll eat greenbriar shoots but you won't eat peas?"

    It's probably similar to the garden thing. I can see how it might be more attractive to a kid to eat a plant they grew/found themselves rather than one their parents tell them they have to eat or no dessert!

    Either that, or it's the freshness.

  33. Yes, Amanda, kids have an innate appeal for things they grow or find themselves. I think it's an instinct thing. After all, for thousands of years, all our ancestors had to learn how to find their own food or starve. With this in mind, it doesn't surprise me that a child thinks it's cool and fun to eat things they're involved in finding, growing, catching and preparing. I think it's important to involve children in cooking and baking, even if it means you need to double the time you need for it (like when baking muffins, I had to let a couple of kids I was babysitting "help" me and let them mix the batter, line up cupcake cups for them or measure flour, so they got to participate, too.)

    I still love fish, thanks to a bunch of parents and grandparents teaching me how to catch them and prepare them. 🙂

  34. My father tells me that before I was born, he swore that he would not raise a picky eater. I am not, nor have ever been, labeled as such and I was exposed to all sorts of food from the time I could manage solids. Self-fulfilling prophecy? (As an aside, though, it took me a long time to fully embrace certain foods with very strong flavor, i.e. asparagus, brussel sprouts, spinach, bleu cheese, smoked salmon and smoked cheeses, and I still don't like grapefruit. Maybe I'll give that last one a try, as it's been several years since an attempt.)

    The friends I eat with on a regular basis have a three year old, so I'm pretty familiar with the local restaurant scene's kids menu. It's all chicken nuggets, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs. He still prefers to eat baby food out of jars over solids when it comes to most fruits and vegetables. His mama has been overwhelmed with the battle to get him to eat "normal" food and as far as I can tell, has chosen not to push it much. It's a bit sad for me to watch. I can only imagine how helpless a parent can feel if getting her child to eat real, healthy food turns into a battle and she would rather him get some calories in him, even if it's all processed/fried/fatty food. And the offering on a typical kids' menu certainly doesn't help. I can only hope that someday when I'm a parent, I will find a way to do it without resorting to dinosaur nuggets and french fries on a regular basis.

  35. This article hits at the heart of a major problem. And "Or, worse yet, tell a child she won't like something before she even tastes it" IS VERY TRUE!

    I have seen this over and over with people I know. I love the example about reading and walking taking time. I was once told that if it weren't for McNuggets, a certain child wouldn't eat any breakfast.

    I just replied, "Really? Wow. Did he drive there by himself one day? What would he do if you just said your weren't going there?" They were stumped.

    Supermarkets have a lot to do with health problems in children. Here's a recent article on that: Grocery Stores Central in Childhood Obesity

    Kevin :: Glycotrainer
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