Why you need to stop calling your child a picky eater

Don't label your child a "picky eater" says expert.
Don't label your child a "picky eater" says expert. Photo: Getty Images

Stop referring to your child as a "picky eater." That's the advice from sociologist and author Dina Rose, who believes such talk is identity shaping and could potentially limit the way a child views themselves – with detrimental consequences.

In an article for Psychology Today, Rose writes that she'd like to start a movement to eliminate the label "Picky Eater." 

"Maybe kids who don't eat a wide range of foods could have picky eating," she says. "Maybe they could be going through a picky eating phase. Or even temporarily food challenged."

Rose's point is this: parents know not to call a child, "The Dumb One" and yet, "Picky Eater," gets a pass. The problem, Rose notes, is that it's easy for certain thoughts to become a reality.

When a child is labelled as a picky eater, they then adopt that identity too.

"Labelling a child as one thing," she writes, "makes that trait a child's dominant characteristic," And, she says, it's hard to change your identity once it's been established.

So what can parents of a child who is "temporarily food challenged" do to support their child? Rose advises the following: talk about picky eating as something that's just that – temporary.

"Letting children know that just because they have picky eating right now, this is not who they are, is a powerful lesson," she says.

And then, Rose notes, you can start teaching kids the skills they need to eat a more varied diet.

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"Begin by setting aside the goal of getting kids to eat new foods.

"Think of exploring new foods as a science experiment. Work on getting children comfortable exploring new foods in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature and yes, even sound.

"Comfortable explorers turn into adventurous eaters," she says.

Alyosa Hourigan, senior nutritionist and spokesperson for Nutrition Australia, has some other practical tips for parents of kids who are going through a picky eating phase: 

  • Don't make a fuss: "Put a little bit [of food] on their plate and encourage them to have a little mouthful but still try not to make a big fuss about not eating it all," she says.
  • Don't cook separate meals for everyone: "I think the worst thing parents can do is make a rod for their own back where they start to cook separately for each person's likes and dislikes," Hourigan notes.
  • Sit down and eat with your kids: Let your kids get used to watching you eat different foods.
  • Make sure your child is comfortable: "Sometimes kids can get anxious if they're not feeling stable at the table. It's important to make sure their feet are stable," Hourigan says.
  • Let kids serve themselves: As kids are developing their sense of autonomy, it can help to allow them to select their own dinner – within reason, of course.
  • Seek support from an accredited practicing dietician and/or GP for further advice if needed: There may be a place for a vitamin supplement and/or a more targeted eating plan devised in conjunction with a professional.

What do you think of the term "Picky Eater?" 

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