If your child is a picky eater, you will be no stranger to the idea that the way they eat is ALL YOUR FAULT. You raised them - it must be something you have ‘done wrong’ along the way. Maybe friends and family tell you this. Perhaps you have even heard it from a medical professional. You may even believe it yourself.
Sadly, this parent-bashing is all too common. Although parenting practices, the feeding relationship and the mealtime environment parents create are really important, it is neither fair nor accurate to lay all the blame for eating problems at parents’ feet. Do we even need to blame anyone? Does it have to be the parent’s fault or the child’s fault, or could it just be a complex interplay of factors which result in a set of challenges to be overcome?
Anyway, I am digressing. [backs away from soapbox]
The point I am heading towards, is that when people blame parents for picky eating, the counter-argument I usually share is the fact that so many families include siblings where one is picky and the other is not. Sure, no two children are raised in an identical manner, even if they are siblings very close in age. But it is reasonable to assume that in the main, parents’ beliefs and habits in relation to food will have been broadly similar with all/both of their children and the children themselves will have been present at literally thousands of meals together. This is what researchers call the ‘shared environment’. While some experiences and some genetic traits will be different, much of siblings’ environment is common to both of them.
Although I don't know of any research data on this, I know that there are many, many families out there where one child is a picky eater and the other (or others) is not, because I am frequently asked about how parents can avoid copy-cat food rejection in the younger sibling. One of the ways babies and toddlers learn about the world is by copying, and when big brother or sister is eating a very limited diet, little ones may experiment with that too. Plus, very picky eaters’ accepted foods are often the easiest to eat, with high reward in terms of carbs, sugar, salt and crunch. So why wouldn’t a younger brother or sister aspire to eating crackers instead of spinach, with its more challenging texture, bitter notes and unpredictability?
I understand that copy-cat pickiness is a worry, especially if you have really been through it with your older child. I totally get that the last thing you want is to face that mealtime stress all over again. But if your younger child eats well and you are concerned that they will copy their picky big brother or sister, I’m going to advise you not to worry. Here’s why:
- It is normal for toddlers to experiment with the rejection of certain foods and gravitate towards the familiar. You are likely to be super sensitive to this if you have an older child who is very picky, but there is no reason to assume your little one won’t naturally move out of this phase.
- The positive behaviours you model in relation to food will be having an influence on your younger child even though you may not be aware of it. Research tells us that how and what children see their parents eating is an extremely powerful predictor of how they themselves will end up eating. While modelling alone isn’t enough to solve picky eating when a child has a genuine feeding problem, ultimately, your influence is likely to trump your child’s influence over a younger sibling’s eating if they don’t have major issues with food.
- If you can be laid back about your little one’s eating decisions, this will make it less likely that you will inadvertently pressure them to eat or contribute to a high-anxiety mealtime environment, both of which make picky eating worse.
- If your older child is in school or daycare, you can use meals and snacks when they are not around to give your younger one exposure to meals that may not work so well for their big brother or sister, such as strong smelling, one-pot or mixed dishes.
In order to genuinely feel laid back about your children’s eating, use family style meals and Satter’s division of responsibility to facilitate mealtimes that work for everyone. Your older child can have their accepted foods available without impacting on the foods your little one can eat and be exposed to. And if your youngest reaches for a cracker now and then, that’s not the end of the world.