Picky eating is a problem of plenty—plenty of food available in the supermarket, plenty of food available in the fridge. I know it seems like these are “fighting words,” but you’d be hard pressed to find a picky eater anywhere that food is scarce.

Of course, there are children in areas without a lot of food who have eating problems (low muscle tone in the tongue, an extreme gagging reflex, etc.). But the garden variety picky eating problem that afflicts most American kids? Not so much.

Abundance is a good thing. I’m grateful for the abundance each and every time I walk into the grocery store. But the underbelly of abundance is the picky eating problem that plagues our country.

  • Plenty gives children the idea that they can pick and choose what they eat.
  • Plenty makes it difficult for parents to establish firm boundaries around feeding. After all, it’s pretty hard to rationalize making your kids eat food they don’t want when you can provide food they do want.

When food is scarce, parents don’t have the luxury of worrying about their children’s taste preferences. When food is scarce, kids don’t worry about their taste preferences either.

This is the idea behind the “starve your kids out” strategy.

Artificially creating scarcity, however, isn’t a practical solution to the problem of picky eating because it pits parents against their children. (Both the parents and their kids know that the parents are voluntarily doing this to their children.) And that exacerbates the control struggle.

Besides, who can hold out longer isn’t the best paradigm for parenting.

So, if plenty is the problem, but artificially creating scarcity isn’t the solution, what can you do?

Stop thinking that picky eating is primarily about taste preferences.

Yes, children like some foods more than they like other foods, but being unwilling to eat something other than a favorite food—or being unwilling to eat anything that has been cut in the wrong way—is a luxury of modern American life. It's also a luxury to refuse to taste something new.

When it comes to picky eating, the abundance of our food supply is the elephant in the room; no one’s talking about it. The result is that we end up characterizing picky eating either as a problem of childhood (“This is just the way most kids are”) or as the manifestation of each picky eater’s individual quirky personality (“Joey doesn’t like anything green,” "Sally doesn't like anything cruncy.") Parents frequently subscribe to both beliefs simultaneously, making picky eating seem both inevitable and intractable.

Alternatively, recognizing that a great deal of picky eating flows from the environment will feel liberating. It will enable you to see that picky eating isn’t an inevitable part of childhood and that even your children can learn to eat differently.

But that brings us back to the million-dollar question: how?

The key is to focus on habits.

1) Lay the foundation for new food acceptance by using the Rotation Rule: don’t serve the same foods two days in a row. Don’t worry about new foods. Instead use foods your kids already willingly eat.

2) Stop arguing with your children about eating. Set up a system of Eating Zones (times when food is available and times when it is not). This structure gives children time to build an appetite; teaches children that refusing food produces temporary hunger; reassures parents that children who reject food won't actually starve because there's always another eating opportunity just around the corner.

3) Instead of introducing new foods at meals, when your children’s decision about whether or not to eat it is high-stakes, think of exploring new foods as a science experiment you do outside of meals. Talk about food in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature, and sound. Once you've grown a good taster you can bring new foods to the table, but that's a post for another time.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

© 2014 Dina Rose, PhD, is the author of the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books). She also writes the blog It's Not About Nutrition.

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