For example, at one point when my oldest was a toddler, she enjoyed eating salsa by the spoonful. No chips. Just salsa.
We teased her about it, told her she liked spicy food (even though the salsa was mild) and now, at age 10, she tells everyone she loves spicy food. What’s more, she eats spicy food.
Indeed, I’ve come to believe that my power over my kids’ eating habits is far greater than I realized. And like the old superhero cartoons said, I try to use my power for good, not for evil.
That means I’m careful to phrase what I observe about their eating behaviors in ways that will help them grow to like new foods.
So instead of saying, “How come you picked off the carrots and bean sprouts and only ate the chicken and crust from that Thai chicken pizza?”
I say, “So do you like that Thai chicken pizza?”
If they say, "No," I say, "Oh." And leave it at that.
If they say, "Yes," I say, "Good." And leave it at that.
I don’t elaborate on the self-limiting descriptions at all. But if they describe themselves as liking the pizza, I might casually mention to another adult, “My kids really like Thai chicken pizza.”
I’ll say this even if they only eat the chicken and the crust. Or even if they only eat the crust. Or sometimes, even if they only allow me to put the pizza on their plates and don’t touch it at all!
It’s About Learning to Develop a Palate
Is this deceptive?
Not really. I view this as teaching them to develop their palates, just as I teach them to tie their shoes, read and play soccer.
When they learn to read, they don’t start with Harry Potter. They start with Dick and Jane. They don’t get every word on the first try, but we certainly don’t label them ‘Poor Readers.’
Why, then, would we label them ‘Picky Eaters’ if they don’t like Brussels sprouts on the first try?
Re-Phrasing Their Choices Changes How They See Those Choices
Children don’t choose what to eat based on what’s good for them. They choose based on what tastes good and what’s familiar to them.
You can make them more familiar with foods they now avoid by exposing them to these foods on a regular basis. (Exposing, by the way, doesn't mean forcing. It just means having it available.)
You can also label their good choices in a way that encourages them to make those choices again. If that means taking a little creative license, so be it.
When your son says, "See? I ate my spinach?" And really, all he did was allow you to put it on his plate. You can respond with, "That's great. You know spinach makes you strong." And leave it at that.
This is the same technique dolphin trainers use. Reinforce the positive. Ignore the negative.
Eventually, he will taste the spinach. And maybe, in time, he'll like it. Maybe he won't. But reinforcing his eating habits with positive labels can only help. And the more you do, the fewer food issues he'll have over time.
For more advice, sign up for my Fruits and Vegetables for Picky Eaters email course. You'll get dozens of new recipes, plus lots of strategies for dealing with picky eaters.