I posted this article on my Facebook page: An Open Letter to the Moms Who Judged My Kid’s for Being Picky Eaters and got lots of great feedback. But I soon realized that while I like the article’s no judgment message, its overall takeaway may be one of helplessness. That’s because if picky eaters are born and not made, like the article says, there’s not much parents can do. To me, this is just as bad as choosing the other side of the argument: picky eaters are made, not born.
The problem with labeling kids’ eating as all nature or all nurture is that neither is true. It’s a messy combination of both. Sadly, something important gets lost every time this issue is hotly debated:
“All children can grow into great eaters, regardless of how long it takes them to warm up to food. But how parents interact with their children over food matters…. a lot.”
The All Nature Mistake
There’s little doubt that every child is born with certain food preferences, some individual to them and some based on developmental factors. One study shows that preferences for protein, vegetables and fruit tend to be more genetically influenced while snack food, starches and dairy preferences are shaped more by one’s shared environment. A child’s reluctance to try unfamiliar food (food neophobia) peaks between 2 and 5 and is highly genetically linked.
When we choose the all nature side we risk labeling kids’ eating ability way too early. This can result in short-order cooking or never offering different foods. Just because a child is cautious with food at 5 doesn’t mean he can’t learn to like different food over time. Kids are constantly changing — mind and body — but beliefs that children’s eating habits are static will naturally lead to fewer opportunities for them to learn and grow with food.
The All Nurture Mistake
Although parents greatly influence children’s eating over time, they cannot control their food preferences, how their body turns out or how much food they need to grow. Research shows that what mom eats during pregnancy and how and what infants are fed influences a child’s eating. But doing “everything right” does not guarantee a young child who will eat everything.
When parents choose the all nurture side it leads to a lot of guilt and effort to raise the perfectly eating child. This can result in tense meals and controlling feeding practices that negatively impact eating over the long haul. In some instances, kids may eat a certain way to please their parents, but rebel later or when at their friends’ houses. In short, parents are trying to control what they can’t because of the underlying belief that they are completely responsible for what and how much their child eats.
The Middle Ground
My son was a bad sleeper from day one, unlike his older sister who slept through the night by 4 months. Having read up on sleep, I knew he had colic and it usually improves around 4 months, which thankfully it did. But it wasn’t until he was 18 months that he slept most nights without waking. Even though it was obvious he wasn’t sleep blessed as early as my daughter, I knew he could get there with support from us.
I think we get too hung up on kids doing things early and that gets in the way of doing our job as parents. I didn’t like that my son had more trouble learning to sleep, but what good would it do to go against his nature? I could have let him “cry it out” at 6 months, but I know my spirited son would have been the baby who cried for 4 hours straight. Or I could have given up, labeling my kid as a “bad sleeper.” Instead, my husband and I stayed consistent with naps and bedtimes until he seemed ready to go it alone at 18 months.
I would never ever judge a parent for their child’s limited food choices. But I hope every parent understands how powerful they are in helping shape their child’s eating — and relationship with food — over time. It’s not about choosing a side but using the knowledge of a child’s nature to effectively nurture him in the best possible direction.For more on how to feed a picky-eater, check out From Picky to Powerful: The Mindset, Know-How, and Strategies You Need to Empower Your Picky Eater