Four reasons why labels like picky or fussy eater can be more harmful than helpful.

8th March 2017

There are four reasons that jump out at me when I consider why the terms ‘fussy and picky eater’ are more harmful than helpful.

Have you ever heard of the old adage, if your child is a picky or fussy eater, ‘don’t worry they will grow out of it?’ or this one ‘Just ignore them they will eat if they are hungry.?’ Yeah me too- probably too many times now! Although I am not saying that there is not an element of truth in these words of old but I know as a parent it is a risk you must be prepared to take sticking by them.

The truth is that a lot of kids do grow out of fussy eating and become well-reasoned and rational adults in their consumption of food and their approach to eating healthy. However, there are children that won’t and will refuse to eat anything. For some children that could be an experience of a bad taste, reaction, smell that could lead to all out food refusal, if not identified.  I have known children to continue into adulthood with a very limited and unhealthy diet.

The risk of labeling your child as a picky or fussy eater is that your child might not be. Therefore, I advocate only the building of your child’s relationship with ‘you,’ the ‘family’ and most importantly ‘food.’ Then if your child is in the risky category, you will have an advantage point, can assess, respond and potentially get help if needed. I know that the terms fussy and picky to describe eaters is popular I have used it to signpost the issue I am describing here. However, I don’t feel either of them credible describe or define the multiple challenges we face as parents with out children, food and healthy eating.

 Here are the four reasons that I do not champion  the use of picky and fussy eater about your child or to describe the predicament.


  • The labeling of a child as a fussy or picky eater can be dangerous because it provides both a reason and a solution to describe the situation. Therefore, as a parent if you have the solution why would you need to explore further. The truth is that there could be multiple reasons or issues behind your child’s food refusal but by closing down the possibility of there being any other issue, than picky or fussy eater, holds you back in you ability to discover. I have known children to literally starve themselves, make themselves ill through not eating the ‘correct’ balance of foods and still not be able to eat, not because they are picky or fussy eaters, or stubborn but because they need help! They need to learn how to eat, how to enjoy food, what it means to eat and why it is important to eat in a calm and relaxed environment. Therefore, I know that labels are unhelpful and that is why it is more important to build your child’s relationship with food rather than diagnose them with a generic label like picky or fussy eater. As a parent you will have more scope to identify what you are dealing with and if you might need help. Keeping you mind open can help you determine if there is an issue behind their food refusal, that it is not a mere tantrum or reaction to a single unrelated issue or event that happened away from the table.


  • The label of fussy and picky eater can be given to a child displaying other behaviors. There are many eating habits that can mistakenly be placed under the generic banner of picky or fussy eater. Some children eat slowly, and might need to take breaks in between eating mouthfuls, if forced to stay at the table to eat the restriction might negatively impact on their ability to eat. In the end they might end up refusing to eat anything. An act of rebellion?Yes! Interestingly, in this case the food is not the issue. The labeling and intolerant acceptance that can accompany the advice in dealing with picky or fussy eaters can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your child might end up adopting this narrative as there story and play it out for the rest of their lives. If you can start from the perspective of identifying and accepting what type of eater you have grazer, slow, a child with heightened taste buds it is easier to adapt and change your mindset and potential judgments about their behaviors.


  • The minute you label and interpret your child as a picky or fussy eater there are hundreds of solutions, tips and cures ready at your disposal. You can type into any search engine picky or fussy eater and there will be handy list or ‘how to’ video of things to try. The only way to establish a ‘cure’ for  picky or fussy eating in my opinion is, to first listen, then observe, note down and understand. Rather than being led down an external path of tackling fussy eating in a generic way you need to start with your individual child learning inside out.  I have now heard countless times ‘I have tried everything, all of the advice out there and it hasn’t worked.’ It is clear for me as to why the things that have been advised do not work. The moment we, as parents, diagnose our child as a picky or fussy eater we stop looking at the issue and focus on the cure. This can create a barrier between you and understanding what is actually going on. Your child might have had a bad individual experience when eating a certain type of food that could have created a bad memory associated with either the texture or the taste. The generic guidance can encourage us to overlook the actual issue in order to apply the generic based solutions. Therefore, applying these methods in the majority of cases won’t work because they are not designed for the individual characters that are our children!


  • Aspects of the rhetoric used to describe and cure picky or fussy eater contains assumptions that your child could be manipulating and controlling you. This negative misconception does not bring out the best in anyone. You as the parent feel like you are being made fun of and abused by your child whilst they can feel accused and misunderstood. The negative assumption that you are being manipulated can tailor your reaction and approach to any given situation. I remember a mum sharing with me a story about her baby’s sneaky behavior that she had witnessed through watching her baby monitor. These stories can be funny but they can also be unhelpful because they distort perceptions in the most stressful situations. If you have classified your child as manipulative at any given point in their lives it can have an impact on how you judge them and their behaviors. There are a wide variety of lenses that we can view our children through. Dependent on the lens you use will make your child look different. For example if you use an adult lens to interpret a child’s behavior the end projection will be that they have adult like tendencies such as the capacity to manipulate. The lens is very important when it comes to the phrases of picky or fussy eater because it is the block that can stand between you and your child and identifying and understanding what is actually going on.

My advice is always to strip back to the basics and forget terms like picky or fussy eater. I understand that it is easier and comes more naturally to us as humans to assign a label in order to understand and workout what the solution is. I know firsthand that when it comes to most things with children it doesn’t work and here is why. I was always ‘Sarah’ the picky or fussy eater and this was known to all. Still today I can be seen in this light and I witness in through people, I have a shared history with, reactions to my eating. It is buried deep within in the psyche and I am still sensitive to it. My limited eating habits continued into my early adult years and became partly a self-fulfilling prophecy when I was a child. My issues were never dealt with they were just defined and then written off. As parent’s we do need to identify the issues and find the solution to any challenges we face. I know that building your child’s individual relationship with food is key to identifying and ironing out issues.


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