As a family nutrition expert, I constantly come across myths about feeding young children, especially picky eating. Not only do these beliefs have the potential to compromise a child’s relationship with food, they make mealtime a struggle for the entire family.
By tackling the most common feeding myths, I hope to bring the truth to light. Identifying fact from fiction not only helps parents do a better job feeding, it has the power to restore joy to the family table.
So here are the 5 myths about picky eating I encounter the most often, and the truths that lie just beneath the surface.
1. Once a good eater, always a good eater
I’m with a group of moms and overhear someone say what a great eater her 15-month old is. She can’t believe the trouble other parents have with picky eating. What this mom doesn’t understand is her daughter is in the honeymoon stage of feeding. This is a time most (not all) young children are very accepting of a variety of food.
While every parent wants to take credit for the older baby who eats everything, it’s actually to be expected as growth is at its highest and little minds have not learned to resist yet. Instead of gloating, parents can get busy taking advantage of this stage by feeding as much variety as possible (not bland baby food) and bringing little ones to the table.
2. Picky eating is always bad
Around toddlerhood, most parents notice a change in their child. Maybe Joey no longer eats anything green or Emily wants to skip dinner. The myth is that such picky-eating habits are bad when in reality it’s a normal part of how children develop. Most toddlers aren’t picky eaters as a result of what parents do or don’t do, they just aren’t growing as fast and naturally become skeptical of new food.
In fact, food neophobia (fear of new food) peaks between the ages of two and five. In one study, 27.6 percent of three-year-olds were found to be picky eaters but this dropped to 13.6 percent at six years. That doesn’t mean picky eating disappears by age six, but it generally gets better as kids enter school. During the picky stage, children drop some of the foods they used to eat, eat erratically, and become resistant to anything they view as “new” or “different.”
3. Picky eating is all parents’ fault
There are many articles that actually blame parents for picky eating, which is the most harmful myth of all. The truth is picky eating is not only part of development, there is a genetic component.
Research suggests that 70 percent of preschoolers are sensitive to the bitter compounds found in many vegetables, which may be why young children often shun vegetables. One study showed both genetic and environmental effects on food preferences but found liking fruit, vegetables, and proteins is more likely to be genetically linked, while preferences for starchy foods, snack foods, and dairy are more likely to be due to a child’s food environment.
4. Just make them take a bite
While some kids do okay with one-bite rules, pickier kids typically don’t because they are more sensitive to the taste and texture of food. In one study, children who were less picky were more likely to accept a novel fruit with modeling and prompting. Yet the pickier children did best with the modeling only (no prompting).
Eating is not a two-step process (sit down, put food in mouth) for children the way many parents believe. Learning to eat is actually quite complex with a steep learning curve. According to feeding specialist Kay Toomey, pickier children may need as many as 25 steps before they are ready to put a food in their mouth!
5. Go cold turkey: they won’t starve
You often hear advice along the lines of telling children “eat this or starve.” That harsh stance intuitively feels wrong to many parents so they go in the opposite route and cater to their children. What if we approached other learned subjects this way? If a child was having difficulty learning to read would we force him to read the same novel we were reading? Of course not, we’d have them practice just above their level or get them some help. And we’d never think to have them read beginner books their whole childhood.
We can support young children by eating with them, making sure there’s always something at the table they can eat, providing a wide variety of food, and taking the time to teach them about food (Satter’s Division of Responsibility is another must). The more they learn and become familiar with a variety of food, without pressure, the more they will expand their tastes over time.
Picky eating is simply a reminder to support children the same way we do with other learned skills — math, reading, riding a bike — that kids master during childhood. We can’t expect for them to have eating all figured out by the time they are four or five. No, it takes an entire childhood.