We had a little boy over for lunch recently. His mom asked what I do for work and when I told her, her eyes lit up. “He’s so picky! Maybe you can get him to eat something!” From the spread at lunch, he happily stuck with bread and butter, and we had a lovely time. (I won’t make your child eat vegetables, that’s not how it works.) During the meal, this six year-old shared that he LOVED his grandmother’s “homemade chicken soup” that was “organic, from scratch and has no chemicals in it!”
When I delivered him back to his RV (we are living/traveling/working in an RV across the US this year) I shared his story about how much he loves Grandma’s homemade soup. His mom rolled her eyes. “Campbell’s” she said, “…from a can.”
Small Children Can’t Understand Complex Nutrition Messages
We chuckled and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my then almost four year-old. “Mom, is lettuce protein?” When I asked why she wanted to know, she explained that every day at school, the children had to all share what “protein” they had in their lunch. The following year in kindergarten she was teased by two classmates for choosing 1% milk, “You’ll get fat! It has fat in it!”
What do these stories have in common? They illustrate how small children pick up on nutrition messages and words, and while they may seem to understand, in general they don’t. It doesn’t help their eating to try to use nutrition messaging as a way to get them to eat more or different foods. It’s another form of pressure.
Here are the most common words parents tell me they use:
good for you
full of protein
make you big and strong
Ask yourself, why am I using these words? If the answer is to get him to eat something, or entice him, it will probably backfire, especially for children who really want to “do it myself!” or who are sensitive and turned off by any agenda around eating— which is the case for many children with extreme picky eating. It’s tempting to try to rationally explain to your child why eating a variety of foods is a good thing. But extreme picky eating is not something you can rationalize, explain, or educate away.
Anxiety, Extreme Picky Eating, and the Words We Use
Talk can also backfire in unintended ways for children with anxiety, which often goes along with extreme picky eating. Like the mom whose anxious selective eater refused to eat anything not organic because it was “full of pesticides that will give me cancer.” Or my coauthor’s son who for months asked at every meal about salt content after a teacher instructed the then-preschoolers to avoid too much sodium. If you choose to feed your child organic foods, or foods free from artificial dyes or other preservatives, being aware of the words you use can prevent unintended anxiety and rejection of foods.
We offer the idea that if you’ve been encouraging your child to eat using nutrition talk and it’s not working, you can abandon it altogether. It’s often just more noise that gets in the way of your child being able to tune in to signals from his body about hunger, appetite, and curiosity around new foods.
What to Try Instead
Here are some other words you can try. If you’re trying to sell a food, they’ll know. If you’re trying to describe a food to increase comfort and familiarity, which may help with picky eating, use descriptive words:
vanilla, like the pudding you had the other day
And remember, when in doubt, the less you say, the less they will find to argue against, negotiate or resist.
*We think words are so important, that our book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating includes dozens of suggested words and “scripts” you can adapt to your situation in the heat of the moment.