A Fresh Perspective on 'Picky Eating'

Your children are a product of their feeding environment.


I don't like the term "picky eater" to describe children. First, it suggests a child is constitutionally incapable of eating a variety of foods – an innate trait no more immutable than having brown eyes or a cleft chin. Second, it implies that a child's (poor) eating habits are inborn, having nothing to do with his feeding environment. Lastly, labeling kids as "picky eaters" often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby expectations are lowered, new foods are no longer offered and opportunities to expand the veggie repertoire beyond French fries never materialize.

To be sure, some children are absolutely more challenging to feed than others by nature. (My twins have very different attitudes toward new foods and vegetables despite being raised around the same dinner table; I joke that between the two of them, I have one perfect eater.) Still, this doesn't let us parents off the hook as bearing significant responsibility for facilitating our kids' abilities to grow into the healthiest, most flexible eaters that their natures will allow.

[Read: You'll Gladly Die for Your Children; Why Won't You Cook for Them?]

While you can't change your child's natural disposition when it comes to eating, you can change how you approach feeding him or her. In so doing, you may discover that your philosophy of feeding can play a significant role in your child's success in broadening his or her food horizons.

Old feeding philosophy: "I'd rather he eat SOMETHING than go hungry."

New feeding philosophy: "By allowing my child to feel hungry, I'm helping him be more successful at mealtime."

In food-secure families, parental fear of a child being hungry for a few hours leads to all manner of behaviors that undermine the development of flexible eating such as over-snacking and catering special meals. A child needs to be allowed to feel hungry if expected to eat well at mealtime. So, rewarding your daughter's lunch refusal with an afternoon buffet of Goldfish, pretzels and juice – so "at least she'll eat something" – is setting her up for an equally poor showing at dinner. When dinner is the meal that's refused, parents may feel too guilty to send junior to bed without eating.

As a result, it's tempting to offer an alternative meal – or avoid the problem altogether by short-order cooking safe staples like chicken fingers for the child while the rest of the family eats something else. But all of these concessions undermine the process of socializing a child to learn to eat – and enjoy – family meals. Letting your child (politely) refuse to eat a meal without offering him an alternative – or a scolding or guilt trip for that matter – is a short-term investment that generally yields positive long-term benefits.

[Read: The Working Parent Dilemma: Less Time for Healthy Meals?]

I don't offer this advice glibly, and I practice what I preach. My son – the neo-phobic veggie skeptic of the pair – routinely refuses school lunch, which is homemade, vegan fare that's heavy on foods like beans, kale and quinoa. While the thought of him going without lunch certainly bothers me, I'd rather that he be exposed to (but refuse) homemade, healthy meals than be offered junky processed food that he'd eat with gusto. After all, this type of exposure has led to his acceptance of at least some new healthy foods such as edamame and mushroom barley soup, which he'll now eat at home.

On days he skips lunch, he arrives home with an appetite and eats family dinner like a champ. Similarly, I can't count how many times I've put him to bed without dinner (unless ketchup counts as dinner); the upside is that he wakes up hungry for a big, healthy breakfast.

Old feeding philosophy: "I need to get vegetables into her at meals."

New feeding philosophy: "I need to offer her appealing vegetables at meals."

The imperative to "get vegetables into" a child leads to all sorts of problematic tactics such as nagging, cajoling, negotiating, bribery and threats. All of these cross the line that divides your respective roles and responsibilities with regard to feeding. As I've written previously, your child will conclude that vegetables must not be very tasty if you must resort to forcing them down his gullet. So, to recap: Your job ends once those vegetables are on the table. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.

Redefining your responsibility with regard to veggies in this narrower way can be surprisingly liberating. Once I fully embraced this philosophy with my own kids, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I started defining a successful meal by factors within my control – whether I served nutritious foods – rather than by a factor outside my control – whether my kids ate. I now look back at the week and evaluate it based on the variety of different veggies I served: Broccoli and red peppers on Monday, snap peas and carrots on Tuesday, haricots verts and cauliflower on Wednesday … well done, me!

[Read: Wow Your Picky Eaters With Vegetarian Chili.]

It's worth noting that like toys and iPhones, vegetables are most interesting to children when someone else has them. So it helps to set a good example and eat them yourself!

Old feeding philosophy: "There's no point in making ___ for dinner; the children will never eat it."

New feeding philosophy: "The more I offer ____ for dinner, the greater likelihood they will learn to eat and enjoy it."

It's not coincidence that my sushi-loving friends have toddlers who love to eat sushi or that my kids share my love for a certain well-seasoned Indian dish loaded with spinach. Children in Japan learn to eat fish, and children in Korea learn to eat kimchee. Why? Because kids learn to eat – and favor – those foods they are served the most frequently.

Your kids are no exception to this rule: They will learn to eat – and love – most family favorites if they are served these dishes with regularity. Conversely, a child cannot learn to love lentil soup, or Grandma's stuffed cabbage, or asparagus or salmon teriyaki if all they're served is pizza and hot dogs.

[Read: We Must Be Kidding! The Case for Eradicating 'Kid' Food.]

The surest way to have children who eat a variety of foods is to serve your children a variety of foods. Limiting your family's repertoire to the handful of safe staples your most challenging eater has deemed acceptable does a disservice to everyone – and will backfire the moment she decides that she no longer likes one of those dishes.

Planning meals with a few components – a protein, vegetable and starch – in which at least one of the components is familiar can help neo-phobic children succeed at family meals as they grow accustomed to new flavors. For example, I serve more familiar starches like pasta or rice if offering a less accepted protein like fish or tofu, and I pair familiar proteins like chicken or meatballs with less beloved sides like quinoa and spinach.

While there may be some exceptions to the rules when applied, for example, to certain children with sensory issues or isolated cases of extreme neo-phobia, parental feeding practices can generally bring out the best or the worst in a child's innate eating disposition. If you feel stuck in a rut of frozen kid-food staples, mealtime battles or short-order cooking for your children, perhaps its time to adopt a fresh perspective on your overall feeding philosophy.

[Read: 7 Steps to Successful Family Meals.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.

Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.