Nutrition and Pickiness in Picture Books

Just like pre-reading skills and literacy habits, food habits develop in early childhood under the guidance of parents and caregivers. But it’s not always an easy journey–according to some researchers, nearly forty-five percent of kids fuss over food at some point in their childhood! The good news is that many children outgrow picky eating eventually.  Much to their caregivers’ frustration, however, pickiness can linger for months and even years.

Busy parents may not have the time and energy to involve their children in cooking and gardening – activities that are thought to help reduce pickiness. However, most can find a few minutes to read a picture book and discuss it with their child.

Of course, many picture books emphasize humor and hyperbole, while others are simply outdated. Parents who have limited experience dealing with pickiness and other undesired eating behaviors may be tempted to adopt solutions they come across in children’s stories without doing thorough research about their scientific viability.

And that’s where you come in! Librarians could play an important role in disseminating information about recommended feeding practices to parents through programming and collection development. To help you do this effectively, we’ll start with some basic knowledge about child feeding practices, both beneficial and harmful.

First and foremost: pickiness is a normal part of childhood. Picky eating stems, at least in part, from the fear of unfamiliar. The best way for parents to manage pickiness is to know what to expect and how to respond. Fussy eaters can be expected to

  • Refuse all food, specific foods, or foods that touch each other
  • Argue, whine, plead, bargain, demand
  • Throw a mealtime tantrum (a strong verbal, physical, and/or emotional reaction)
  • Insist on eating the same food at every meal, sometimes for days (known as a “food jag”)
  • Become “creative” (deceitful): hide food, feed it to a dog or sibling, push food around a plate so it looks like it was eaten, throw food away while no one is looking
  • Wear out their parents by being messy and distracted, eating too slow, playing with food, squirming in their chair, and making rude noises

In turn, determined to take the matter under control, adults

  • Set rules: “You cannot leave this table until you clean your plate.”
  • Cajole, guilt and compel: “This broccoli is so yummy and good for you”, or referencing starving children in a certain region of the world
  • Appeal to the child’s senses: “How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?” or “Eat it if you want to grow up to be strong and smart.”
  • Compromise: “One more bite, and you can have ___.”
  • Surrender by becoming on-demand cooks.

Which of these feeding strategies do nutrition experts agree with? The answer may surprise you: none of the above.

Instead, experts believe that an approach known as “responsive feeding” is the best model to avoid mealtime power struggles:

  • Adults prepare and serve appropriate food and beverages and provide structured meal and snack opportunities
  • Children get to control what they eat (from the options provided) and how much.

Ellyn Satter, a major contributor to and long-time advocate of responsive feeding, discourages parents from controlling and permissive feeding styles. Even strategies that may seem positive and helpful, such as the two-bite rule, praise for trying/finishing food, food games, and talks about benefits of food, are considered pressuring techniques that should be avoided.

Her suggestion is to trust children. Place suitable food in front of the child and let him eat whatever he chooses, in the order he chooses, and however much he chooses. Children quickly learn that food is available at scheduled times; if they choose not to eat it, they will have to wait until the next meal or snack time. Children regulate their food intake and portions intuitively. Pressure to eat pushes that natural gauge off-balance.

Responsive feeding may be difficult for some parents to accept. Even some nutrition experts are not fully on board with it. This approach, however, is supported by research and presents a sensible alternative to some traditional feeding tricks. Why not encourage families to give it a try?

And now, if you’re hungry for an opportunity to discuss picky eating and responsive feeding in your programming, here are some titles to consider. Although picture books offer a variety of strategies to deal with pickiness, responsive feeding is not yet one of them. Your conversations and messaging can help spread the word!

I will never not ever eat a tomatoI Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

Charlie creates new identities for the foods that Lola refuses to eat. Moonsquirters, anyone?

Oksana says: Pretending food to be something else may encourage some fussy eaters to taste vegetables. If it does not, positive examples set by parents and siblings may do the trick.

Katelyn says: The Charlie & Lola books are worth pulling back out after all these years—the sparse text and great sibling interplay make for delightful read-alouds.

Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate CakeBetty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael B. Kaplan, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch

After she tries chocolate cake for the first time, Betty Bunny doesn’t want anything else.

Oksana says: A mischievous bunny is learning to be patient when it comes to her favorite food. This entertaining story comes with a word of caution: occasional use of words “hate” and “yucky” in reference to food, school and even family members may not sit well with some parents.

Katelyn says: The end of this story is on the didactic side, but there are lots of fun sound effects and surprises along the way.

Little peaLittle Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Jen Corace

Little Pea struggles to eat his candy dinner so that he can get his spinach dessert.

Oksana says: The Little Pea is pressured into eating candies. From the responsive feeding perspective, this is a strategy to avoid. However, this story can serve as a springboard for the discussion of what it means to eat healthy.

Katelyn says: The classic mama-papa-baby setup lends itself to all kinds of great voices and storytelling. Even I can recognize the rule-setting and compromise feeding strategies here, which could lead into some conversation about different approaches to picky eating.

Tales for Very Picky EatersTales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider

James’s father makes up outlandish stories to encourage him to eat various foods.

Oksana says:  It is open to debate whether tale-telling is a motivator for children to change their eating habits. Yet, this imaginative book may inspire families to make up their own tall tales with kids in the center of the action and, perhaps, nudge kids toward giving a disliked food a try.

Katelyn says: This Geisel Award winner is perfect for sharing one-on-one or in a small group. I suspect some of the stories would also make great flannelboards.


Today’s guest bloggers are Dr. Oksana Matvienko and Katelyn Browne.

Dr. Oksana Matvienko is an Associate Professor of Nutrition in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research area is dietary and educational interventions to facilitate health behavior change in children and adults.

Katelyn Browne is the Youth Services Librarian at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research does not focus on nutrition, so she has learned a lot from hearing about Oksana’s work!

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at

One comment

  1. Kelly Doolittle

    I was blessed with not one, but two non-picky eaters, so I am very lucky! I had a nephew, though, who would only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for many years. I squirmed but bit my tongue when his mom made PBJs look like turkeys at Thanksgiving! But without the pressure to eat, he did grow out of the food jag and lived to become a strong, healthy, happy young man, so I am a firm believer in the no-pressure rule. I also think the “responsive eating ” guide is the best way to go. But it is fun to share funny books about food such as Little Pea (which I’ve used numerous times in my storytimes, and every time, it was well received :)) Some more books I’ve used to good effect are: Mouse Went Out to Get a Snack by Lyn Rossiter McFarland, Who’s Hungry? by Dean Hacohen and Soup Day by Melissa Iwai. For Soup Day, we made our own “pots of soup.” We started with soup pots drawn on black construction paper with metallic silver pen. Then we added veggie stickers and alphabet “pasta” spelling our names with chalk. It was a big hit and I think we touched on a lot of issues – food, art, spelling, cooking…it was a lot of fun!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *