The start of the New Year is all about pushing the reset button. We recommit to eating better, exercising more, and drinking less alcohol. Indeed research shows diet and health-related changes outpace nearly any other New Year’s resolution by a long shot. But I’d argue that this time of year is also a good one to take a look at all of our behaviors at the table, not just our eating habits. In my own house, I’ve used January as a chance to reaffirm rules around table manners, kitchen chores, or before-dinner snacking. For families struggling with the challenge of feeding kids, the New Year can be an opportunity to consider the patterns that have formed over time around that struggle. How easy is it, for example,  for any of us to fall into the habit of calling our kids “picky”. It’s a practice that child feeding expert and registered dietitian Maryann Jacobsen argues may do more harm than the picky eating behavoior itself. For today’s post, Maryann shares some insight on the subject pulled from the pages of her just-published new E-Book, From Picky to Powerful.  Read on:

The “Picky Eating Problem” Problem

By Maryann Jacobson

In the 1960s, two education professionals, Rosenthal and Jacobson, carried out a study in elementary-school classrooms to observe the “experimenter expectancy effect.” Applied to the classroom, they examined how teachers’ expectations affect student achievement. The kids were given an intelligence test, and 20 kids with average test scores were chosen randomly. The teachers were then told this group of students had “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and were expected to do very well by the end of the year. Eight months later, they retested the students. Those that were labeled as having more potential had significantly higher test scores than the other kids not described this way.

Just viewing the average kids’ potential for intelligence in a more positive light changed how the teachers treated the children. This resulted in children who did better in school compared to those viewed as less apt to learn.

Every single day this expectancy effect is in play with children and eating. When children become selective, the “picky eating” label replaces the “good eater” one. Even when a child isn’t told they are picky, caregivers send this message with their feeding approach: pushing, pressuring, and making special meals.

To get an idea of how this can play out, let’s look at two different ways children are fed:

Scenario 1: Jake’s mom thought she had a good eater until he was about 2½ years old, when he started to refuse previously liked foods and certain meals. She feared Jake would become one of those picky kids, so she stood her ground. The food battles started – demands for more bites and using dessert as a bargaining chip – and meals gradually became the worst part of everyone’s day. Different strategies were tried and failed, and there was no consistency with feeding in the home. Jake got the message that he wasn’t good at eating, and he especially disliked pressure-filled family meals. Not seeing results, his mom eventually gave up, providing mostly food Jake accepted because she knew the food battles were not good for their relationship. When he reached school age, a time kids begin to open up to food, Jake stayed with his tried-and-true meals. He didn’t believe he could branch out because it had always been tied to negative experiences.

Scenario 2: Gina’s mom understood picky eating was likely to show up sometime during toddlerhood, so when her two-year-old daughter started to pick at food, she didn’t react at all. She kept the expectation that her daughter would eat, and family meals stayed enjoyable even on the two-bite nights. On the days her daughter was done early, she reminded her when the next meal was and structured her eating in a sensible way. With some tweaks, she also knew how to boost her child’s nutrition, thus calming her worries. She even felt inspired, as Gina would stop after eating half a bowl of ice cream, reminding her of the amazing ability of small children to regulate their food intake. By the time she reached school age, Gina started to noticeably branch out with food and felt good about eating.

You can see how each parent’s outlook actually changed the atmosphere at the table, the feeding practices, and the level of confidence each child had in their eating. Unfortunately, Jake’s story is much more familiar. That’s because numerous articles and books tell parents picky eating is a problem that needs to be fixed. Although some strategies may work for some children, the problem is what is really behind the messages: Parents, you can control and manipulate your child’s eating. This will almost always backfire because children can sense that they are being controlled, even if technically no one is forcing them to eat. And parents feel like failures when the strategy loses its luster or if it never works in the first place. But if the origin of picky eating is normal for most kids, than it’s not a problem. The problem only occurs when we label it as a problem.

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From Picky to Powerful, helps parents change their outlook on picky eating by explaining why it happens in the first place and why each child is different. Then parents are taken through evidence-based strategies for helping children learn and grow with food. The books ends with stories of parents who have been there and come out the other side. The e-book is available on Amazon.