Lessons Learned From Picky Eaters

Picky kids have no problem with extreme reactions like spitting chewed food back on their plates and wildly scraping their offended tongues clean. It's up to their parents to stop the staged retching and gagging long enough to teach them that there are more appropriate ways to express their opinions.

Like most kids, my boys went through their own stages of picky eating. As a parent, I was afraid that their finicky ways would keep them from having a healthy, balanced diet. But I also didn't like what it was doing to my own appetite. It's hard to enjoy a bowl of vegetable chili with two little people proclaiming that it looks like bloody guts and tastes like wet garbage. 

It quickly became a family rule that we could not say gross things about the food being served. My husband and I explained that everyone was allowed to not like some foods, but it wasn't fair to make those foods sound gross to the people who did like them. 

The idea made sense and even seemed to cause a bit of a revelation. There were still temper tantrums, but the argument began to shift from "That's disgusting!" to "Why do we have to eat what you like when I want pizza?" And from there we could have rational discussions about compromise, healthy eating and being a part of a family.

Our rule was created to curb gross behavior at the dinner table, but, in hindsight, it's easy to see how the rule may have done more. By showing the kids that it was rude to say gross things about the food we liked, we taught them to respect our different tastes. It also opened their minds to the possibility that the food they didn't like might actually not be disgusting. 

We talked about how food tastes different to different people, and how your sense of taste can change as you get older. We read about how taste buds work and explained what it means to say something is an "acquired taste." We agreed on compromises like letting them have the broccoli they liked, as long as they tried just two bites of another vegetable, too. 

After a while, it became common to hear one of them say, "This wasn't my favorite dinner, but we had what I like last night." Which slowly evolved to, "This isn't my favorite, but I'm glad I tried something new." There are still a few things that they choose not to eat, but they no longer think it's gross to see that other people do enjoy them.

Now that my kids are teenagers, it's interesting to wonder how the lessons from their picky-eating years might have influenced the way they look at other issues. Perhaps the experience reinforced the simple idea that people have different opinions. Maybe it taught them that there is value in keeping an open mind. At the very least, I hope it will help them find more effective ways to argue their points of view without resorting to gross behavior. 

Unfortunately, it seems like many adults today have yet to learn that lesson themselves. Whether discussing religion, politics or other hot-button issues, it's all too common to hear people react with gross behavior like name-calling, ad hominem attacks or even threats of violence. 

In dealing with my finicky kids, I wanted to show them that there was another point of view. They thought vegetable chili was gross; I thought it was delicious. I didn't think it was appropriate to force them to like (or even eat) the vegetable chili, but I did insist they respect my right to enjoy it. 

It would be nice if our society valued civil discourse over sensationalized news and emotional appeals. Perhaps we will reach that point someday, but I can't help but wonder if it would happen sooner if we'd all stop to look for little ways to be more civil in our daily lives. 

Even when we feel strongly about an issue, we don't have have to resort to gross behavior. In fact, a logical, respectful response is often the most effective argument we can make.


  1. "...scraping their offended tongues clean". that is good writing, buddy. Awesome.