Kids’ Food Habits (& the Excuses that Go with Them)

Kids' Food Habits and the Excuses that Go with Them

As a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve heard many explanations about kids’ eating and their food habits. Parents certainly get frustrated and discouraged when their child isn’t eating well or making healthy food choices. But sometimes they give up and explain away their child’s food habits as if there is nothing left to do about them.

As a result of excusing these food habits, a parent may not encourage their child to branch out with variety because he’s picky, or blame family genetics as the reason their child carries extra weight. While these explanations may be true, in part, they carry a negative tone and encourage the parent to give up or become complacent in feeding. 

I believe we have to be careful when we use excuses to justify a child’s food habits, their weight, or their motivations around food. Why? They may limit our child’s potential to grow out of poor food habits, as well as our own motivation to keep our eye on the prize and on the job at hand–raising and feeding healthy kids.

Food Habits and Their Excuses

“He’s a picky eater.”

A lot of kids are picky eaters. I’m not one to question whether a child is picky or not. I’ve found that often, kids are picky in some way. Much of the time, it’s easy to understand why: their age and stage of development, the feeding practices being used such as pressuring a child to take another bite or eat more, or another condition that may include picky eating as a potential side effect.

What really bugs me is the “picky eater” label.

It’s like saying my child is shy, or my child is always loud, or my child is bad (and yes, I’ve heard parents say this about their child), or my child is a bully. Kids hear these labels and may assume that persona, especially if they hear them consistently over time.

Labeling a child as a picky eater cuts his chances of believing he is anything else but picky. It slashes his efforts at trying to be adventurous and may harm his self-esteem eventually. A picky eater label implies abnormality, whether a parent intends this or not.

“She’s obsessed with food.”

Can kids really be obsessed with food? Perhaps. I personally dislike the word “obsessed.”

It sounds so…terminal…and psychological.

I prefer to think about any appearance of an obsession, fixation, or focus on food as a transient condition–one that children (and their parents) can grow out of with the right approach.

Some children are overly sensitized by food, and we don’t always know why. It’s hyper-available, tasty, and may be used manipulatively, such as in rewarding with sweets or controlled too tightly. This may heighten the focus on food. In other scenarios, a parent’s feeding approach or feelings about food can play into the situation.

My co-author of Fearless Feeding, Maryann, wrote a nice piece on this, summarizing how the feeding approach and feelings about weight and food can affect children’s thoughts and motivations about it. 

Here are some positive steps you can take to help your sweet-fixated child

“He would choose junk if I let him.”

Oh ye of little faith.

Please, have some faith!

Trust that the healthy meals you serve to your child demonstrate what it means to eat a variety of foods. Children will often choose what they perceive as the tastier food, and that may be the less than healthy option. But I have seen in my own children, and in other kids, the ability to choose a healthy item over junk food, too.

Expect the best! Expect your child to make healthy choices and trust that he will—at least some of the time. And remember, it’s a process. Kids learn to eat healthy over time.

“He won’t eat that.”

How do you know he won’t eat that?

I know it’s hard to be rejected. I know it’s tiresome to make food that your child might not eat. But only serving the food your child will eat automatically curtails his diet.

I also know the joy of that day when he eats something you think he won’t. That’s a feeling you don’t forget. That’s a feeling that keeps you going and keeps you making delicious and healthy food.

Don’t throw in the towel on feeding your child. Be innovative, persistent and consistent when it comes to offering a variety of foods.

The magic will happen. Eventually, you and your child will get “in sync” and that little will try new food. I even wrote a book to help you get moving with the right techniques, mindset and strategies.

“Her weight is from his {or her} side of the family.”

The genetic link to weight is a compelling component, but it doesn’t represent the whole picture.

I do understand it’s an easy connection to make, though. Research shows the typical genetic association as this: if one parent is overweight or obese, their child has a 40% chance of becoming overweight or obese. If both parents are overweight or obese, then there’s an 80% chance of the child becoming overweight or obese. If both parents are lean, the risk of obesity drops to 14%. 

Don’t let these statistics unnerve you. There is room for prevention. While our environment may be obesogenic (a term that means the environment encourages obesity—think food options, food availability, few options for physical activity in some areas, food deserts, etc), it doesn’t have to be a reason to miss out on being as healthy as you (and your family) can be. 

For example, the food purchased and served in the home, the structure around eating, and the frequency of exercise can have a positive influence on a healthy body weight. Kids can be fit and healthy, no matter their body weight.

“I want him to want to eat healthier.”

It’s really hard to make anyone want to eat healthier. That’s an inside job, or a desire that comes from within. For kids, motivation to eat well and make healthy choices takes time. Demonstrating good eating and a healthy lifestyle is the model of living all parents should strive to instill—this may take years to achieve!

I get into the details of maximizing internal motivation to eat well in my book Eat Like a Champion. Sports parents are always interested in ways to motivate their young athletes to eat well, but the science behind intrinsic motivation applies to everyone.

Are there food habits that bother you?

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  1. yes, I totally agree with this Jill! I hate when parents come into my office calling their child a picky eater, saying “oh, he won’t eat that.” If your child hears you speaking like that all the time of course they are going to internalize it and label themselves as a picky eater.