Some level of picky eating is generally par for the parenting course. Children of any age might show some selectiveness about the food they eat, but parents often have the most struggles with toddlers and preschool-age children.
Most developmental picky eating will resolve itself by the time your child begins school—we have some tips below to help you manage until then.
In some cases, though, picky eating can be a symptom of something beyond an age-appropriate desire for independence. So, if your child won’t eat anything besides Cheerios or white bread and you don’t know what to do, keep reading. We’ll go over what typical picky eating looks like and offer some guidance on getting help for more serious concerns.
In some cases, picky eating can be a symptom of something beyond an age-appropriate desire for independence.
Why Are Some Kids Picky Eaters?
There are numerous reasons for picky eating, according to a large research review published in 2015. Some possible factors include:
It’s also worth noting that many children simply have a limited range of preferred tastes in early life. Developing a taste for new food is often a lengthy process, so your child may need to try a food multiple times, not just once or twice, before they’re willing to eat it on a more regular basis.
Children begin developing preferences for specific foods as they approach the preschool years. Of course, this is also when they begin to find their sense of independence. Preschoolers don’t have many opportunities to demonstrate this newfound independence, so they often choose the table as their stage. This can lead to any number of battles over food—whether the issue actually involves the food or not.
They also often lack the words to express how they really feel about certain foods. They may not want to eat something for a more specific reason than simply not liking it, but they don’t know how to tell you exactly what they think. Maybe the texture feels uncomfortable in their mouth, or they have an aversion to the smell of the food or the spice you used.
Allergies can also lead to picky eating behavior. Children with a mild allergy to a specific food may not have a serious or life-threatening reaction, but they may associate the food with any minor symptoms they experience and avoid it entirely.
Anxiety and other distress can also contribute to pickiness. Think about what you want to eat after a bad day. Everyone has preferred comfort foods: soup, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, popcorn, etc. Children experience stress and unhappiness, too, even if they don’t know how to talk about it. Confronting a new spiky green vegetable may be the last thing they want to do after a long day that left them tired, cranky, or otherwise out of sorts.
Mealtime Tips for Parents
The battle to get your child to eat may frustrate you, but you can avoid distress (for yourself and your child) by not looking at mealtime as something you need to “win.”
Keeping calm helps. If you’re frustrated or irritated with your child for wasting food or being stubborn, they’ll likely pick up on that. Sometimes, this can provide more incentive for them to push to win the argument. In the end, it boils down to control.
You might feel stressed about your child’s health or believe you’ve “failed” as a parent if you can’t get your child to eat nutritious foods. But try not to let that get to you. If they meet developmental milestones, enjoy general good health, and have energy to play, they’re probably just fine. If you do have specific concerns, your pediatrician can offer more guidance.
Try these tips to help make mealtimes easier:
Don’t force or bribe your child to eat.
This generally only creates more problems later. Offer nutritious foods in small amounts and let your child decide how much to eat.
Promising dessert after so many bites of vegetables may seem like a great way to get your child to eat those vegetables. However, this teaches children that dessert is better than everything else, an idea that can potentially contribute unhealthy eating habits later in life.
When you offer dessert, don’t make it conditional on finishing their dinner, either—this may lead children to eat more than they really need.
Don’t serve separate meals.
If your child refuses lunch, don’t offer to make them something you know they like. This just reinforces their behavior. Similarly, eat the foods you want your child to eat—at least in front of them. If you offer them a lunch of broccoli, apple slices, brown rice, and scrambled eggs while you have pizza, you may not be sending the best message.
Involve your child in food preparation.
Let your child choose vegetables and fruits at the store, then get them involved in the cooking process. You might not always succeed with this approach, but children may have more interest in trying new things when they helped create them.
Try not to get frustrated when they don’t want to take a single bite, even after helping you in the kitchen. They may be testing you, but they also might just need time. Keep calm and continue offering the new food.
Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Children who don’t seem to grow out of picky eating, or who eat fewer foods as they grow older, may actually have an eating disorder: avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID.
Experts aren’t fully certain what causes ARFID, but it often appears related to trauma. These children may have choked previously, had trouble eating as a baby, or experienced birth trauma or trauma in utero. They might refuse to eat new foods because they believe the food may lead to choking or other harm.
ARFID can also relate to sensory distress around the textures of specific foods. People with autism (ASD), attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), or any sensory issues may have a higher risk for ARFID.
Most children will eventually eat the food you offer them when they get hungry. But children with ARFID generally won’t eat foods besides their select “safe” food items. Mealtimes generally become very difficult for them, as they tend to experience anxiety and distress as a result of their inability to eat.
It’s generally best to seek a professional opinion if your child:
- Seems truly distressed by specific foods
- Loses weight or cannot put on weight
- Experiences pain or other stomach issues
- Has trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Feels cold or tired regularly
ARFID can have serious health consequences, since a child with a severely restricted diet likely isn’t getting the correct nutrients.
Treatment for ARFID
There’s help for picky eaters—even severely picky eaters.
A good first step is to talk to a therapist who specializes in working with children. Depending on your location, you may even be able to find a therapist who treats eating disorders in children.
Just be aware that other mental health concerns beyond ARFID, including obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other anxiety issues, can also contribute to picky eating. Your child’s therapist will start by determining what’s actually going on, since the most effective treatment generally depends on what’s causing their picky eating.
Your child’s treatment plan might include:
- Exposure therapy that gradually introduces them to new foods
- Somatic therapy (Somatic Experiencing), which can help them become accustomed to new textures without distress
- Individual counseling
- Nutrition counseling
- Group therapy or peer support
If something doesn’t seem typical about your child’s refusal to eat, don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor. There may be nothing serious going on, but you aren’t overreacting–even if their eating behaviors fall within the range of usual picky eating, it’s generally better to know for sure.
Begin your search for a compassionate, trained counselor at GoodTherapy today.
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- Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. (2017, July 28). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948
- Ehmke, R. (n.d.). More than picky eating. The Child Mind Institute. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/more-than-picky-eating
- Elliot, S. (n.d.). What exactly is ARFID? National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/what-exactly-arfid
- Knopf, A. (n.d.). When picky eating is a sign of psychological distress. Bradley Hospital. Retrieved from https://www.bradleyhospital.org/when-picky-eating-sign-psychological-distress
- Taylor, C. M., Wernimont, S. M., Northstone, K., & Emmett, P. M. (2015, December 1). Picky/fussy eating in children: Review of definitions, assessment, prevalence and dietary intakes. Appetite, 95, 349-359. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666315003438?via%3Dihub
- Tips for picky eaters. (n.d.). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/browse-by-audience/view-all-audiences/children/health-and-nutrition-information/preschoolers-picky-eating
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