Why It’s So Important to Drop the “Picky Eater” Label

When picky eating happens—which it inevitably will if you’re a parent—you may be tempted to negotiate with, bribe, coax, and micro-manage your child at meals. Although in the heat of the moment, these tactics may seem intuitive, we know that they don’t work very well, and can even enable picky eating.

What many parents don’t know, however, is that the seemingly harmless act of labelling their child “a picky eater,” whether directly to the child, around family or friends, or out in public, can have negative consequences too. Let me tell you, I’ve been there. I have three kids, all of whom have gone through their fair share of picky eating phases.

And even though, as a pediatric registered dietitian, I was armed with knowledge and expertise in the area of picky eating, experiencing it first-hand was enlightening. It allowed me to relate to picky-eating parents on a whole new level, which I was thankful for! What I wasn’t thankful for, however, was serving my daughter delicious and nutritious meals every day, only for them to go untouched. The struggle was REAL. So much so that I too caught myself labelling my kids as “picky eaters” from time to time. It’s so easy to do.

But when a child hears a word or phrase applied to them often enough, it “sticks” just like a name tag. This can change their self-image. Children tend to accept without question the labels adults use to describe their physical characteristics, personality, abilities, and limitations.

Labelling a child as a “picky eater”, or saying words like “oh, he won’t eat it anyways” in front of a child only makes him feel as though he is incapable of loving a variety of foods, or becoming a competent eater. It will also grant them permission to not explore new foods — they are a “picky eater” after all.

This label easily perpetuates picky behavior and decreases a child’s self-confidence at the dinner table. What can drive this home even more, is if your child has a sibling who eats really well and receives the label “good little eater” (in a child’s mind, if he is not a “good eater”, he must be a “bad eater”, right?).

See when we label or compare our kids, we’re praising them, or worse, belittling them, often without realizing it. Similarly, if parents or loved ones make comments such as “oh, he won’t eat that anyway” or “don’t serve him that food- it will be wasted,” it will make the child feel incapable of ever accepting or enjoying that food.

In order to help your child widen their palate, and more importantly, feel capable of accepting new foods, it’s important to make them feel confident in their eating abilities; to gently encourage them to explore different foods at their own pace, and remind them that even though they might not like a particular food today, they might like it the next time she tries it (or, in a few weeks from now). After all, we all have likes and dislikes, and these can change over time (just like our taste buds do).


When should you worry though? 

Looking at your child’s growth and eating patterns over time can help to ease your worry. I knew that my daughter was growing well and had lots of energy. She ate a hefty breakfast and ate well at our scheduled snack times too. Although her safe-food repertoire was limited at the time, she was still getting a nice variety of nutrients, except Omega-3 and Vitamin D, two nutrients that I was supplementing anyway. On particularly picky days, I often topped her up with a children’s multivitamin for peace of mind, but usually felt that this wasn’t necessary.

Knowing that she’s meeting her nutrient requirements and growing well allowed me to focus on creating a positive eating environment (whether she ate the food or not) because this is what really matters when it comes to building competent eaters who have a healthy relationship with food long-term.