True story 1. I was the kid who liked all my foods to be separate on my plate. I’d eat each one on its own and would sometimes get upset if the different foods touched. I have a vivid memory of my grandmother watching me eat a meal she had made food by food and then her exploding, “You are RUINING my meal!” I was the kid who had a long list of foods I wouldn’t eat: mushrooms, tomatoes (unless they were in a sauce), avocados, olives, cream cheese, raw onions, strawberries, etc.
True story 2. My husband was so picky about texture and color as a toddler that my mother-in-law freaked out one day, threw out his food, and filled his plate with rocks because they weren’t “too green, too red, or too soft.”
True story 3. My son who is more adventurous when it comes to food can taste even the slightest hint of ginger and will then refuse to eat any more.
True story 4. My pickier son has at one point or another spat out food, refused to take even a bite of something new, and declared that he hates all green foods.
Why do I share all of that? Because I am sick and tired of witnessing (and experiencing myself) the shame that some parents feel about their picky eater and so I thought I would just put my own experience out there for everyone to see. I have definitely been nervous at friends’ houses about how my kids will react to food; terrified that someone will judge or be offended when my kid doesn’t eat everything given to him. I have had numerous friends apologize to me (unnecessarily) when their kids won’t eat food I prepared. Why do we do that? Why do we feel this shame?
When we stop to think about it, when we really stop to think about it, we know that many kids (and many adults) have foods that they refuse to eat. There are evolutionary explanations, sensory explanations, and social explanations for why this is the case, but no matter what the reason, when your kid is the one who is refusing to eat it can be incredibly embarrassing.
We, as parents, often feel that somehow we have failed and, quite honestly, many of the experts imply or even directly say that this is the case. We are too lenient, too permissive, too coddling. Or we are too pushy, too authoritarian, too insistent. Some say that it is the culture and that if we were only more like the French, Dutch, Chinese, our children wouldn’t be so picky. Maybe all of this is true, maybe none of it is true. But one thing that is true is that many of us parents have been the one with the kid who refuses to eat anything that is being offered, and most of us have felt shame about that. We have felt that we have failed.
But I say enough is enough with the shame. Let’s let go of that sense of failure. Let’s move on from the tension and anxiety. I think it is time for a reframing of picky eating. Instead of seeing it as a problem that needs to be fixed, let’s see it as one of the areas where we as parents can help our children to grow and expand their horizons. It is a lot like teaching them to swim. For some kids, just throwing them in the pool works, but for most kids we need to give them the tools to learn how to keep their heads above the water. Helping kids to learn to eat healthfully and happily is very similar. If we can equip them with the tools they need to experience and explore foods, then over time (and with patience towards them and ourselves) they can learn to enjoy and have a healthy relationship with food. They will start with the doggy paddle but with help, support, and guidance, eventually, they will learn to dive.