Why is my child a Picky Eater? And what to do about it!
If you have a picky eater at home, you might be struggling to get your kids to try new foods. You’ve probably become a short order cook. And you may feel like you have to bribe, pressure or reward your child to try even take one bite of dinner.
All of this just leads to stress at the table for everyone. And often arguments and tears (on behalf of the kids and parents!). And we want dinner to be a nice place for everyone!
Wouldn’t it be great to stop stressing about how much or what your kids eat at the table? Have more peaceful dinners, with no more tears or yelling at the dinner table? And for your kids to eat new foods without complaining about it!?
This is definitely possible. But one of the obstacles for us to getting to this point is the plethora of contradictory advice about how to deal with your picky eater! My doctor told me to give my daughter what she wanted….which I know is exactly the wrong advice.
To give you some understanding of the underlying reasons of picky eating, read on or watch my video here.
1) Developmental stage
Kids often become more selective about the food they eat around 18 months to 2 years. This is also when they start to become mobile. There’s a theory that this fear of new food at one time was protective to little ones now crawling around and sticking everything in their mouth (poison!).
This is also an age when little ones start to find their voice and exert their independence. They have control over a few things – and one is if they eat or not!
And if you give them extra attention about eating, they’ll figure this out. And they like attention – whether it’s positive or negative!
2) Changing growth
After a year, growth rates slow down a lot. Take a look at a growth chart, and you will see the levelling off of the growth rate.
This is also often a time between ages 1 and 2 when toddlers can start eating less. And this is possibly just because they are responding to their decreased appetite. And listening to your appetite is a good thing!
It’s normal for toddlers and preschoolers to eat almost nothing for days. And they often make up for in the following week by eating more than usual. While as adults, our appetites are fairly consistent day-to-day, we can’t expect the same for our kids.
As a parent of your child – were you picky when you were little? Picky eating can be genetic. So essentially, this is payback from when you or your partner were little and all the grief you gave your parents! But maybe this will give you a little more empathy toward what your child experiences when eating?!
4) How do you deal with it?
Do you follow the Division of Responsibility in feeding at home?
Not if you let your child choose what to eat (by making them a special meal or bringing out “back-up food” when they refuse dinner). If this is the case, your child will quickly learn that they never need to expand and try new foods. Why would they, when they can always get their favourite?!
And if you put any kind of pressure on your child to eat more (or less) than they would choose to, this is another common hole in following the DOR. Check out my “3 reasons why the 3 bite rule sucks” video for more info on why pressure and food rules don’t often work.
5) Physical pain or concerns
If your child has reflux, constipation or allergies, they can experience eating with pain. And therefore, do not want to eat!
Another problem can be oral-motor issues. Or difficulty chewing and swallowing. If your baby had difficulty breastfeeding and has a tongue tie that wasn’t addressed, for example, they will often also have difficulty eating solids.
Another physical cause for low appetite can be low blood iron levels. This is a negative cycle because low iron causes low appetite and slow growth – and low appetite of course, causes decreased food (and hence iron) intake. Ask your doctor to test your child’s iron levels if you’re concerned.
6) Sensory difficulties
Maybe your child has increased or decreased ability to interpret smell, taste, touch, sight or everything – including food. Signs this may be a problem include: your child didn’t mouth toys as a baby, brushing teeth is very difficult, they only like one texture, they don’t like getting dirty.
There are sensory exercises that can be done to decrease sensory sensitivity, such as playing with different textures (playdough, sand etc). And textures can also be gradually changed and increased in a method called “Sequential Oral Sensory” or SOS.
What to do about it:
If you think there may be an underlying cause for your child’s picky eating, consult your doctor, dietitian or an OT/SLP specializing in feeding.
Regarding dealing with the behavioural aspect of feeding( both for the parents and children), you can follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Follow your roles and let your child follow theirs, and they will grow up to have a healthy relationship with food!
Learn more about this in my Global News interview here:
If you want more support with making dinnertime more peaceful, implementing the DOR, and other strategies to get your child the nutrition they need, watch my free training: “How to teach kids to try new foods without struggles at dinnertime”
Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.