Picky eating is a developmental rite of passage. Almost every child will go through a picky eating phase—and all the ups and downs that go with it. Some will experience a very mild case of picky eating, while others may be picky eaters for years.
The typical age for picky eating is between 2-6 years old. Current research tells us that about 8–50 percent of children are either somewhat picky or very picky. Between 4 and 24 months of age, approximately 17-47 percent of males and 23–54 percent of females will experience signs of picky eating. These results are based on research studies based on parent questionnaires, which highlight parental perception of picky eating.
Picky eating throws many parents for a loop. Most try to survive this phase without causing more harm, such as poor growth. The truth is, if you can recognize what you’re dealing with, you can sail through it with flying colors!
Check out these signs of picky eating, remembering that your child may exhibit one or multiple signs as a result of picky eating:
- Refusing foods, especially vegetables. Young children feel more comfortable with familiar food. New food may cause an initial negative reaction. Vegetables, which are bitter in taste, may require more time and exposure for your child to warm up to them.
- Rejecting previously accepted food. One day your child loves applesauce and the next day he or she won’t touch it. What gives? Toddlers are easily distracted and flighty with food (and toys!). It’s the toddler’s prerogative to change his or her mind—it goes with the territory.
- Sticking with the same foods (called a food jag). Toddlers equally thrive on routine, so requesting the same food, which happens to be familiar, is a normal part of picky eating.
- Refusing to try new foods. Not a familiar food? Then no thanks. Some children may want to be in control of choosing their own food and may show signs of stubbornness in this area. Whatever the reason, refusing to eat an unfamiliar food is pretty typical.
- Fussiness at the table. Some children are pushed to take more bites of food, especially when they are picky. This experience may make a toddler reluctant to come to the table for meals. Fussiness at the table tends to breed more negative interaction between the parent and child, such as discipline and a negative meal environment.
- Disinterest in food. There is so much going on in a child’s world that stopping to eat may be a low priority. Most children will eat when they are hungry, as long as there is appealing, satisfying food and a pleasant environment.
- Limited eating. Due to all the reasons mentioned already, food intake can suffer, and perhaps even weight. Though, most children make it through the picky eating stage without any negative impact on their weight and growth.
- Eats slowly. Some kids take more time with eating than others. This may be mechanical (difficulty chewing, for example) or simply an individual eating style. However, if meals last longer than 20-30 minutes, it’s counter-productive to keep a picky child at the table. Move on, and plan something tasty and nutritious to eat at the next snack or meal.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- There are many signs that your child is a picky eater, all of which are considered a normal part of development between 2-6 years old.
- Most children survive picky eating without any damage to their growth and development.
- Sometimes, the duration of picky eating will be extended due to negative parental interactions that fuel the behavior.