Several times a week, I’m faced with the frustration of a parent of a picky eater, either in my pediatrics practice or in the Dr. Yum Project Kitchen where our team teaches families to cook. These parents are tired, worn out, and out of answers after trying every trick they can think of to coax their child to accept new foods. Some of these families have children with more intense challenges stemming from medically related and/or developmental issues and may need the help of a pediatric feeding specialist. Many of these children however are the more “garden variety” picky eaters, whose selective toddler eating style became reinforced by hyper-palatable, kid-friendly foods and well-meaning but misguided parental efforts. After months or years of struggles at mealtimes, these families may be at the end of their rope.

Words matter

Here’s one way that gets the ball rolling in the right direction. Let’s stop calling our children “picky eaters,” especially in their presence! Why? There’s a good chance that they will live up to that label after hearing it over and over, and think that forever they will be picky. But taste preferences are NOT static, and for almost all children pickiness CAN be overcome! The average American family offers a vegetable just 3-5 times before they give up on it, saying “Too bad! Johnny does not like asparagus.” The research shows that they may need SEVERAL more exposures before they learn to accept a new food. Likewise, kids may just need MANY exposures to many new foods before we can really label them a problem eater. When it comes to food, practice makes perfect, and what I observe is that most kids just aren’t practicing enough or in just the right ways.

feeding is a developmental process

The same example could be found in reading. It takes many years for a child to learn to read, and some will learn much faster than others. But most parents will spend the time, patiently singing the alphabet, teaching letters and their sounds, practicing letters, and reading with their children night after night. If it doesn’t come easily, we push on patiently, never rolling our eyes and calling a child “a bad reader” or “illiterate.” Instead, we celebrate every new word they learn, no matter how long it takes, and enlist the help of teachers and specialists if they are needed. We know that in order to have a productive happy life that reading is important, and we do whatever it takes to help a child learn that important skill.

Parent Patiently

This same patience should be applied to eating. So I ask parents when you talk about your children’s eating habits to their doctors or peers to, consider using words that are more encouraging. In the Dr. Yum Project Kitchen, we call kids “exploring eaters” or “learning eaters” to show that they are still working towards that adventurous palate. So if you come to my pediatrics practice or a class at the Dr. Yum Project Kitchen, instead of telling me that your child is a “picky eater”, tell me that your child is “still learning to eat a lot of new foods and we are working very hard.” I will understand that you are struggling and will help you in whatever way I can. From now on our doors are only open to “exploring eaters” of ALL types, and we will look forward to the adventure.