Why I Won’t Call My Kid “Picky” (Even Though She Sometimes Is)

published Jul 18, 2021
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Lately, it seems like every parent I know, both in real life and online, says that they have a picky eater. And while I totally get the sentiment — my 3-year-old certainly doesn’t always eat everything I put onto her plate — I won’t call her picky. Here’s why.

The word “picky” has become a catchall for every type of eater — from the tot who didn’t eat his broccoli that one time to the child with severe sensory issues. And many times, parents use the word even as they list off an impressive range of foods that their child will eat. Often, I suspect that we adults are simply frustrated by dinnertime drama. By “picky,” I think we really mean that our kids aren’t eating everything that we want them to at every meal. But you know what? I don’t think that we should expect them to.

Even if your child enthusiastically started solids and ate everything in sight as a baby, they probably won’t act the same during meals when they are 2 years old. Did you know that normal appetite in kids decreases in the toddler years? It’s because toddlers aren’t growing at the same warp-speed as babies and, often, they aren’t as hungry. You may need to drop the morning snack, reduce the amount of milk they have before or with meals, or give them more time between mealtimes to work up an appetite.

From day to day, or week to week, a normal toddler appetite can also shift considerably, which is why there are days when my daughter eats as much as me and other days when she seems to hardly touch a thing. And yes, this natural variation does makes it hard to know how much to feed your child, which is why it can help to trust them when they push their plate away.

In our house, we’ve taken to serving really small portions, which is less overwhelming than, say, a pile of carrots. (It also has the added benefit of reducing food waste.) We also like to serve at least a portion of the meal family-style so our daughter can tell us exactly what and how much she wants. That little bit of power usually makes her a lot happier, too.

Not coincidentally, the normal time when kids start to fear new foods — it peaks between 2 and 6 — is right around the time that most parents start to have issues at the dinner table. At this age, kids may balk at a recipe simply because it looks different than they expected. They might need help to increase their comfort level since their little brains simply can’t predict what something will taste like based on looks. To help, we try to put at least one simple side on the table as a safety net. It could be a shared fruit plate, sliced cheese, raw cucumbers or snap peas, or a basic veggie side. This offers some choice and it reduces the chance that my daughter won’t eat anything at all.

And you know how little kids are sponges and repeat so much of what we say? We once went to a friend’s house and my daughter hid in my legs while declaring that she was “shy.” She must have heard me say it about her and so, she was acting the part. I’m starting to think that when a child hears someone call them “picky,” they realize they have an out — they don’t have to eat their broccoli since no one expects them to anyway! Which makes me wonder: Could we change our own perspectives about dinnertime simply by using different words? Maybe we should try calling our kids “adventurous eaters” for a week just to see what happens.

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: Why I Won’t Call My Kid “Picky” (Even Though She Sometimes Is)