Picky eating isn’t a disease or disorder. It is a fussy or selective eating behavior where picky eating kids show traits, such as an unwillingness to try new foods (food neophobia), preference for selected foods, and refusal to eat specific foods or food groups. This eating behavior is common in young children but may persist in late childhood and adolescence (1). It affects both girls and boys.
Generally, picky eating isn’t a problem unless it causes severely restrictive eating habits, affecting a child’s growth and development. Yet, it can be frustrating for parents. Trying some simple steps with persistence can help overcome picky eating behavior over time.
Read on to know more about fussy or picky eating behavior in children, its possible causes, and practical tips to make children eat a well-balanced diet.
Possible Reasons Why A Child Is A Picky Eater
Children could experience appetite changes. Most changes are temporary and could develop due to the following reasons (2).
- Sensitivity to food: Certain children are more sensitive to food’s taste, texture, and smell than others. These children dislike a particular food or foods if their taste, smell, texture, and even appearance aren’t according to their liking. Most children overcome their sensitivities with suitable feeding approaches. However, if they don’t, it may indicate an underlying problem.
- Increased autonomy: In early childhood, especially preschool age, children develop an increasing sense of autonomy. During this phase, they choose what to eat and how much to eat and may altogether refuse to eat certain foods without any apparent reasons. This phase diminishes gradually. Adequate guidance and proper feeding practices can help the child eat a variety of foods eventually (3).
- Rapid growth and development: During the growth spurt, children eat more due to increased energy needs. This intake reduces once the growth spurt wanes off. It is during this time that children may resist eating certain foods. This behavior is temporary and is similar to appetite fluctuations that adults experience.
- Early feeding difficulties: Frequent colic and reflux episodes could make a child a picky eater. The child may associate eating with these negative experiences, refusing food often. Treatment and resolution of the underlying condition is necessary to develop healthy eating habits in children.
- Delayed introduction of lumpy foods: Experts recommend introducing solids between four and six months of age from where the child progresses to eating lumpy foods by nine or ten months of age. Research shows that a delay in introducing lumpy foods can cause picky eating in some children (4).
- Negative mealtime experiences: Accidental choking and gagging on certain food, forced feeding, bribing, rewarding, or punishing a child to eat can make them fussy eaters (5). These incidents make a child associate mealtimes with fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions, causing them to resist eating.
- Parental eating behaviors: Young children mimic their parents and elders. Research shows that children whose parents follow selective eating patterns are likely to have a picky eating child (6). This possibility increases further because your child eats what you serve, and what you serve is what you prefer.
Picky eating is usually not a concern, but it may become one when the child persistently eats less than their dietary requirements or shows a highly selective eating pattern. It is why experts advise taking timely cognizance of picky eating and follow ways to resolve it before it becomes a concern.
Tips To Help A Picky Eater Eat A Well-Balanced Diet
- Be calm and patient in your efforts. You can’t teach a child to eat healthy in a day. It requires diligent efforts across days or weeks to teach your child the value of healthy eating. You may face challenges, depending on the exact reason why the child is a picky eater. However, what matters the most is not losing your cool and being empathetic and patient towards your child.
- Set healthy eating practices early. Introducing different solid foods from infancy exposes your child to various flavors and textures, helping them adapt to healthy eating with ease. Initially, they may reject some foods or spit them after tasting, but the key is repeated exposure. Ideally, it takes at least ten repeated exposures for a baby to accept new or unfamiliar foods (10).
- Be a role model and set the right example. Follow healthy eating practices yourself and motivate your child to do the same. Eat at least one meal with your child daily and demonstrate how you enjoy eating healthy. Additionally, you can involve your child in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking to help them understand foods’ versatility.
- Encourage your child to eat new foods. Give them options to choose from and decide how much they want to eat. Ensure the choices you offer are no more than two to three as it can otherwise confuse or overwhelm the child. Once your child eats a new food, take a gap of about a week before reintroducing the food.
- Offer new foods when your child is hungry. It increases the likelihood that the child will eat what you have served, especially when there’s no other option. To ensure your child is hungry enough to try new food, monitor excess snacking, which often fills up their tummies.
- Serve new food first in small quantities. Once the child is eating the food amicably, gradually increase the amount over several tries. It will help reduce wastage. Eat new food with your child and show how you like trying new, healthy foods. It will encourage your child to do the same eventually.
- Praise your child whenever they try new food. You can say “thank you for trying a new food” or “I appreciate you trying new foods.” Use words that can make your child feel appreciated and encourage them to embrace various foods from different food groups.
- Serve the same foods to the whole family. Don’t make separate dishes for your child if they dislike the food served. Instead, tell them that the food you have made is for the family, and all will eat it. Include at least one food of your child’s choice to eat in the meal and encourage them to eat the whole meal.
- Schedule meals and limit snacks. It will help regulate a child’s hunger and satiety cycle. Children who eat frequent snacks tend to skip main meals. Thus, it is good to plan three main meals and two to three snacks in between for your child. Ensure these meals and snacks offer healthy foods from different food groups.
- Set a time limit for meals. Instruct everyone in the family to be at the dinner table and finish their dinner within the set time, say 30 to 45 minutes. If your child hasn’t eaten the food by that time, take the food away and let the child wait until the next meal or snack time.
- Offer a distraction-free, family environment at mealtime. Eat together as a family as often as possible. While eating, talk to your child about healthy eating and take their opinions. Listen to your child carefully and avoid any distractions, such as TV or mobile phones. If your child stays too distracted at the family table, try having some quiet time before meals to calm them down.
- Avoid food fighting. It means to give your child freedom not to eat a meal if they don’t feel like eating because they are full. It is not uncommon for children to have one heavy meal and then skip the next meal in some instances. Avoid making a fuss over it. It may make your child anxious and force-feed themselves.
- Don’t force-feed your child. Children may deny some foods, especially new foods, at first, but eventually, they accept them. So, be patient and give them time to adjust. Meanwhile, don’t force-feed as it can backfire and make a child associate mealtimes with fear and anxiety.
- Never bribe your child to eat. Doing so can develop reward-based eating, which can worsen children’s picky eating patterns. Instead, talk to them and understand why they don’t like a particular food. Once you know the reason, work on the solutions. For instance, if they don’t like carrot salad, serve them baked carrot sticks with food of their choice, such as mashed potatoes or cheese dip.
- Make food look attractive. You can serve different, colorful foods with varying shapes and textures. You can also enhance its flavors by adding different herbs. Doing these changes can lure your child into eating food, especially new foods that a child may be apprehensive about trying.
- Use the cross bridging technique. It means that if your child likes a particular food or has accepted a new food, start serving them new foods of similar color, taste, and texture. It will help a child accept new food with relative ease.
- Plan peer meals whenever possible. Children are likely to eat foods that they dislike or try new food when they see their peers doing the same. It is a common phenomenon that you might have observed when your child demands to do the same things or buy the same stuff as their peers.
- Avoid sneaking one food into another. It may let you disguise a food item that your child dislikes, but it won’t help them learn healthy eating. To teach healthy eating, let your child eat the food they dislike and develop a taste for it. You can mix one food with another, but to add color, flavor, and texture, and not to disguise it.
- Give balanced meals with various foods in the natural form. Serve fresh, whole fruits and veggies to your kid with various grains, cereals, and protein foods. Let your child know the exact taste or flavor of the food, while enjoying it as part of a balanced diet.
- Don’t hesitate to seek expert guidance. In most children, picky eating behavior subsides by five years of age, while some may have it for longer. Implementing these strategies may help. However, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from an expert, such as a psychologist or nutritionist, if you feel you need more help to improve your child’s eating habits.
Even after following these steps, some children may still be picky eaters. If picky eating persists for longer, it could cause nutrient deficiencies, affecting the child’s short and long-term health.
How To Know If It’s More Than Just Picky Eating?
Proper nutrition is necessary for a child’s growth and development. Extended periods of selective eating or undereating can affect their nutrition status. Below are some symptoms that indicate that your child’s picky eating behavior could be a matter of concern (11).
- Reduction in weight
- No increase in height or weight for long periods
- Child is always anxious and fearful while eating
- Frequent complaints of nausea or vomiting during or after meals
- Choking or gagging during eating
Pay attention to your child’s growth and overall health and if you suspect any deviations, consult your healthcare provider.
Picky eating is relatively common in young children, though it may also stay until late childhood and adolescence. In general, temporary selective eating doesn’t pose a risk to a child’s health. However, if it turns severe or persists for a longer duration, its monitoring is necessary to avert any adverse effects. You can resolve your child’s picky eating woes by diligently following healthy eating habits as a family.
2. Caroline M Taylor and Pauline M Emmett; Picky eating in children: causes and consequences; NCBI
3. Kathryn Walton et al.; Time to re-think picky eating?: a relational approach to understanding picky eating; NCBI
4. Helen Coulthard et al.; Delayed introduction of lumpy foods to children during the complementary feeding period affects child’s food acceptance and feeding at 7 years of age; NCBI
5. Picky Eaters; University of California San Francisco
6. Toddlers and fussy eating; Victoria State Government
7. How to Help Kids Who Are Picky Eaters; Child Mind Institute
8. Fussy Eating; Raising Children
9. 10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters; AAP
10. Infant Nutrition And Feeding; USDA
11. Picky Eating: How to Help Change a Child’s Food Habits; Nationwide Children’s
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