At 14 months, you were bragging about how your little darling ate seafood risotto and shaved asparagus salad. At three, you're suffering nightly tantrums because the plain pasta you're serving is rotini instead of elbow macaroni.
Before you start negotiating over "just one bite" of steak, or sneaking vegetables into the brownies, or resorting to a rotation of bland kid-friendly meals, review these facts about picky eating.
Picky eaters are still getting enough calories
The biggest concern parents have about their picky eaters is that they will not maintain a healthy weight. It's true that, in the short term, picky eaters weigh less than their less-picky counterparts. But it is not clear whether the picky eating caused the low weight, or whether lower weight leads to smaller appetites.
A recent study of picky eaters found that while they may eat fewer foods, they consume just as many calories as their less picky peers. The Stanford Infant Growth Study followed children for 11 years and found that picky eaters and non-picky eaters showed no difference in the distribution of BMI.
The study suggests parents shouldn't worry about a kid who suddenly refuses all non-beige food. Picky and non-picky eaters alike all change their eating habits around age two, when their growth rate slows.
Unlike adults, who often ignore satiety cues, kids are good self-regulators of hunger. Heather Burrows, a pediatrician-researcher at The University of Michigan, says that sometimes, you'll look at your not-eating kid and wonder how he's gaining any weight at all: "Is he photosynthesizing?" Many parents worry that their kids aren't eating enough, but kids are good regulators of what they need.
No one needs balance on every plate
Parents of picky eaters may also be concerned about whether their kids are getting an appropriate variety of foods.
Many of today's parents grew up with the Food Pyramid. Our kids are growing up with MyPlate. The problem with food models like these is that we tend to interpret them as blueprints rather than guidelines. Our growing focus on "balanced" meals, for example, has led to increasingly elaborate bento box lunches and reports of what Jimmy didn't eat at preschool.
If humans can survive weeks without food, it stands to reason that a child can go a day or two without hitting every food group.
That's especially true because different nutrients are stored differently within the body. Fat-soluble nutrients like Vitamins A, D, and E don't leave the body as quickly as water-soluble Vitamins B and C. So if your child eats his spinach on Sunday, the fat soluble Vitamin A will be there for a while. If he eats a handful of almonds, he'll bank some Vitamin E.
When it comes to getting a varied diet, Burrows advises parents to worry less about what's on any individual plate and think instead about the calendar: "Don't focus on any one day or even one week. Make sure he's getting everything once a month." Focusing on the big picture--a month filled with different food experiences--will help to save dinner table battles while still ensuring your child gets good nutrition.
Picky eaters aren't even "picky"
If our kids are getting enough calories, as well as enough variety, then they don't have a picky eating problem. We do.
When we face off against our kids in a tabletop battle of wills, their picky eating becomes a direct affront to us. Instead of a shared meal, there's a contest of wills between authority figures and children disobeying them.
But that is only one way to frame picky eating. Instead of viewing eating as an act of either obedience or defiance, parents might instead view the dinner scene as practice in autonomy. That's the argument that Kathryn Walton and colleagues make in a recent issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. They argue that a child dutifully eating dinner is a short-term goal. A child developing "diverse and healthy food preferences" is the long-term goal, one that parents cannot achieve if dinner is a confrontation.
Walton and colleagues argue against using the label "picky" to describe a child's eating, because "such labels pathologize what may be normal variations in children’s feeding preferences and increase parent and child stress." Instead, parents should view a child's decision not to eat as a reasonable act of autonomy.
Setting the table for success
Allowing for more agency at the dinner table can be difficult when kids are screaming, "Ew!" or making gagging noises. But metaphorically setting the table can help parents make dinner time less battlefield and more opportunity for kids' personal growth.
1 | Serve food family-style
Letting kids serve themselves is one simple way to allow for autonomy. If you get to control what goes on the table, they get to control what and how much goes on their plates.
2 | Describe your food
Do the carrots taste sweet to you? Does the soup feel silky? Describing tastes and textures can help give your kids vocabulary with which to appreciate food...even when they don't "like" it.
3 | Take your kids grocery shopping
This is a huge ask of parents who want to avoid mid-day checkout meltdowns, but bringing kids to the store and letting them pick out the vegetables extends more autonomy over their eating.
4 | Let your kids write the menu
If they're old enough to read cookbooks or even just look at pictures, they can start helping decide what's for dinner.
5 | Try and try again
In "The Man Who Ate Everything," Jeffrey Steingarten shares his growing horror at the realization that, once he became the food critic for Vogue, he was going to have to eat anchovies. His approach to overcoming his food aversions was to try everything 10 times: "make eight or 10 reservations at Korean restaurants, purchase eight or 10 anchovies, search the Zagat guide for eight or 10 places with the names Parthenon or Olympia (which I believe are required by statute for Greek restaurants), and bring a pot of water to the boil for cooking eight or 10 chickpeas." Steingarten's success as a food writer is proof that he re-trained his palette.
6 | Expose yourself to new foods
Steingarten's trial goes for you, too. So whatever food you've been avoiding, it's time to try it. And if it's tough to swallow, try to remember you're doing it for the kids.