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Spend even a few minutes online and you’ll find blogs devoted to sneaky vegetables, artful bento boxes and countless other tricks to make kids eat spinach. Turn on the news, pick up a paper, check Facebook, and you can’t escape talk of school food, Happy Meal toys and the travesty of chocolate milk.

Spear me the labels

Everyone is working double-time to fix years of government-subsidized and heavily advertised junk food, in school and out. The effort to combat childhood obesity has become urgent and epic. But for all the good work, all the good intentions, nothing will change unless, along with the food and the system, we also change our expectations of what children will and won’t eat. Unless we recognize that there’s an insidious undercurrent sabotaging kids with two little words: “picky eater.”

It goes like this: Kids are picky eaters. They won’t eat food that’s green, brown or good for them. They are strong-willed little creatures who cannot be swayed. We must give up, give in, and feed them nothing but juice, crackers and neon mac and cheese.

Other things in a child’s life take time — learning to read, tie a shoe, ride a bike — and to that, parents say OK. But when it comes to food? When a child refuses something new? When a drive-thru or children’s menu is the quickest path to appeasement? That’s when parents throw up their hands and cry picky. Or, worse yet, tell a child she won’t like something before she even tastes it.

“Picky eater” has become a crutch and an excuse to fall back on easy, so-called “kid foods,” the notorious standards that everyone laments but too few seem willing to forgo. And there you have the setup for a head-banging self-fulfilling prophecy.

Young children go on strikes (refusing certain foods) and jags (eating only certain foods). Older kids have the added influence of marketing and friends. And all kids — and adults — have foods they just don’t like (whether at all or just right now). And, yes, sometimes it takes finessing to get children to embrace good food. But that starts with educating kids, not labeling them.

Language is important. Labels are dangerous. And when we label our kids, we diminish our expectations of them and make obstacles seem insurmountable. We also minimize the very real challenges faced by children who do have serious food allergies or sensory issues. Those kids aren’t “picky eaters,” either. They have legitimate underlying causes for their food aversions, and labeling just adds to the stress.

Think about this: The reason we even have Happy Meals and Lunchables and bland, non-nutritive school lunches is not because that’s all kids will eat. It’s because that’s the kind of food adults think kids will eat. And it’s the kind of food that manufacturers and marketers can produce and sell at a huge mark-up. In the race to homogenize food and maximize profit, we lost respect for kids’ palates. And for kids.

So now we can’t just fix the food. We also have to nix the labels.

Soon after starting Spoonfed last March, I wrote a post called “Let’s ban the phrase ‘picky eater.'” I’ve been on a mission ever since to encourage folks to rethink the labeling habit. This latest piece was published last week as a guest post for Mrs. Q’s Fed Up With Lunch.


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