5 Mistakes (some) Parents Make When Praising Their Picky Eater

Guest Post from Feeding Specialist, Melanie Potuck

5 Mistakes Parents Make Praising Their Picky Eater (1)What’s parenting got to do with raising a healthy eater?  Everything.

Now, that’s not to say that kids become picky eaters because of “bad” parenting. When I teach classes around the United States, the audience learns that kids with serious feeding challenges got there because something went awry with their physiology, sensory or motor development, and consequently, children quickly learn to limit what they’ll eat.

For example, an infant with severe gastroesophageal reflux (chronic heartburn is one symptom) learns to avoid breast or bottle-feeding until their hunger pangs override the heartburn. They’ll typically only consume about two ounces and will often stop abruptly once the pain of eating is greater than the hunger. Treating the discomfort with medication doesn’t always resolve the feeding challenges, however, because the child needs to “unlearn” the lesson that eating hurts.

From infants to toddlers to older children, learning to be an adventurous eater is rooted in trusting that food will be a pleasurable experience. A trusting relationship between parent and child is an essential part of the process – and that’s good parenting.

For parents of “picky eaters” who are worried about their child’s nutritional health, it’s easy to make mistakes by over-praising or cheerleading their kids through mealtimes. Parents are often fluent in “awesome” and “good job” but hesitant eaters don’t really trust those overused phrases.  The child thinks quietly to himself, “Mom says that all the time” and it really doesn’t make much of an impact.

The Huffington Post recently shared an article by Amy McCready on how to praise kids, listing 5 mistakes made by well-intentioned parents. Following her lead, I’d like to share my own mealtime versions of those same mistakes.  Plus, like Amy’s Huff Post article, I’ve offered antidotes that will build trust and thus, encourage your child to explore new foods:

1. “It’s YUMMY!” Sure, we all probably say words like “delicious” or “tasty” several times a day. But for the child who isn’t keen on trying new foods, these descriptors lack substance. The hesitant eater may not trust that the first taste will indeed be “yummy” and just hearing you say it in the most convincing tone isn’t going to sway her into biting into that Brussels sprout.

The antidote: Give your comments more substance by using words that truly describe the sensation in your mouth. For example when tasting yogurt, try words like  “tart” or “smooth” or “creamy.” Teaching kids as young as preschoolers words that describe the sensations provides a vocabulary anchor for them to compare to other tastes and textures.  The next time you try a new but similar food, use that anchor and say “This new avocado dip is smooth like yogurt, but I don’t think it’s as tart – tell me what you think when you lick it. You’re really learning to detect those differences!”  Remember, it’s about building trust in what you say and communicating your confidence in their abilities.  (See Amy’s version: All Sweet Talk and No Substance.)

Young girl eating Octopus dinner

2. “Good Job Breathing!”  If your child didn’t do anything to earn it, don’t comment on it. I run into this whether it’s an 8-month-old who drinks their entire bottle or a sixteen month-old who becomes a member of the empty plate club. The parent exclaims, “You finished it ALL GONE!”  Well-meaning parents may be trying to teach the concept of “empty” or “done” but are inadvertently praising a child for something that frankly, just happened because they were really hungry. Soon, even 1-year-olds learn to eat more than they need because Mommy and Daddy praised them into it. It’s most important that kids learn to tune into their own body signals, like the sensation of fullness.  Let them decide if they need to eat more.

The antidote: “Sometimes it takes courage to try a new food!  I certainly felt very brave the first time I slurped a raw oyster off the shell.” If you have a hesitant eater who on his own decides to try something new, offer some
silly feedback to keep the mood light and still recognize that he did something challenging.  For example, if your preschooler is willing to spoon some Brussels sprouts onto his plate from the dinner platter and that’s the closest encounter he’s had
with B-sprouts, respond with a silly “Wow, you balanced that B-sprout just like a seal balances a ball!”  You’re telling your child you saw him balancing – and that’s a tricky skill to learn! Plus, you’re giving him attention for exploring a new
veggie and he’s likely to spoon another one onto his plate because you noticed his new achievement.  (See Amy’s version: Praising Natural Ability.)

3. “Why Kids Hate the Teacher’s Pet…unless it’s them.” Kids will live up to the labels we assign to them and when we repeatedly praise a sibling or friend for being “an adventurous eater” in front of a hesitant eater, we are essentially
telling him “and you’re not.”  On the flip side, referring to a child as “the picky eater in the family” is like hanging a blinking neon sign above his head that reads “PICKY FOREVER” for the entire community to notice. Consequently, neighbors
always serve macaroni and cheese when your picky eater visits because they know he’ll eat that. The same pizza gets ordered for class parties because several of the kids are known picky eaters. Specific restaurants are the dinner spot of choice,
thanks to the same old kids’ menu. In our new book, Raising a Healthy Happy Eater,
written with pediatrician Dr. Nimali Fernando (Dr. Yum), we suggest calling everyone in the family “food explorers” with the understanding that everyone has a different comfort zone when it comes to trying new things. Over time,
they’ll broaden that zone to include more and more foods. But expanding that comfort zone is always about exposing kids to new opportunities to explore new foods and that includes friends’ homes, school and restaurants.

The antidote: Expose, Explore, Expand.  When parents present healthy food options with a smile on their face and encourage exploration through food play, food prep and more, kids will begin to expand the variety of foods that they are willing to taste over time. When the entire family is into food exploration, it doesn’t matter who’s the best at it, what matters is that it’s fun to do it together!  Root on the entire family with your encouragement and don’t single out one person in the group. (See Amy’s version: Turning Praise into Labels)

Young girl in kitchen eating chicken and vegetables

4. “Your brother likes to eat broccoli…” This sort of round-about comparison is about as subtle as saying to your spouse “My first husband loved to vacuum…” and expecting him to rush to the nearest Hoover and plug it
in.

The antidote: Encourage every member of the family to be an active participant when it comes to food. It’s not about who’s best at it; it’s about making positive interactions with food a part of your family culture.  How?  My co-author, Dr. Yum, has a large teaching kitchen in her pediatric office where she teaches moms and dads how to “parent in the kitchen.” There, she teaches the 3 P’s: Plan, Prep and Prioritize.  Kids can help to plan what the family will eat; they can help with shopping, gardening and visiting farmer’s markets.  In fact, these family outings soon become the foundation for wellness and everyone enjoys doing it together. It doesn’t matter if one child is more hesitant to taste veggies and
his big brother eats broccoli with gusto.  Prioritizing healthy lifestyles can start with something as simple as a grocery list and even a three year old can help with that. Now that’s something to encourage!  (See Amy’s version: Dishing out the Good Stuff in Front of Siblings.)

5. “See, I TOLD YOU you’d like it!”  While the parents’ intention is to offer encouragement, kids interpret this statement as “I was right and you were wrong.” 

The antidote:  Join in on his discovery that he actually likes a new food by teaming up to talk about the qualities of the food or about the food journey itself:  “I like that too – it’s crunchy!” or “It took me a while to learn to like asparagus too, so I’m excited that we can try some new asparagus recipes together.” (See Amy’s version: Praise with a Chaser of Shame.)

Melanie headshot 2

Feeding specialist Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP and pediatrician Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH are the co-authors of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater:
A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (Oct. 2015) and the creators of ParentingInTheKitchen.com, where you can sign up for their newsletter offering more tips
on kids, food and parenting in the kitchen.