Picky eating is a common, though frustrating, stage that many young children experience. When children only want the same foods over and over and reject a wide variety of food, it can cause stress for the entire family. Parents and caregivers can play an integral role in helping picky eaters move past this stage without getting stuck in a feeding rut.
First, it’s important to recognize what picky eating is and to distinguish it from an actual feeding disorder. Picky eating is common between ages one to three. Typical picky eaters demonstrate the following characteristics:
- Food variety is limited, but will eat about 30 foods
- Still consume enough calories each day for growth
- Reject a particular food for a while, but then eventually start eating it again
- Accept a minimum of one food from all of the major food groups
- May not eat a new food presented, but will at least allow it to be on his or her plate
On the other hand, children with a feeding disorder have more severe symptoms, such as difficulty with chewing, sucking, swallowing, gagging, or having tantrums during meals. They may also refuse entire food groups or textures of food and often eat less than 20 foods. Picky eating is usually a phase, but it can potentially turn into a bigger issue down the road. The following tips may help prevent this problem:
- Expose babies to a wide variety of flavors and foods early on, when beginning purees and solids.
- With older babies and toddlers, transition to new foods (consistencies, textures) when developmentally appropriate. While a child should never be rushed, delaying the introduction of solid foods can delay appropriate feeding skills.
- Feed on a schedule. Provide three meals a day with one to two healthy snacks and only water in between, rather than allowing the child to graze throughout the day. Limit juice and milk intake so your child is hungry for food at mealtime.
- Get children involved in food preparation whenever possible. Let them touch, smell, and explore the food as they help. This helps to give them a sense of control and allows them to experience the food before it’s served.
- Keep it fun. Let children play games with food that encourage touching, smelling, and tasting.
- Whenever possible, make time for meals together as a family. Make mealtime a happy experience that focuses on connecting as a family, rather than stressing about the amount the child has eaten.
- Prepare the same meal for the whole family. Don’t make special meals that cater to a child’s pickiness.
- Never force feed or threaten, and refrain from commenting to the child about the lack of food eaten. Offer praise when the child shows interest in food.
- Make sure the child is properly seated with correct posture for feeding. Head, neck, and trunk should be straight and upright with hips, knees, and ankles at 90 degrees.
- Keep portion sizes small so your child doesn’t get overwhelmed.
- Introduce non-preferred or new foods first and pair with preferred or familiar foods.
- Don’t give up offering new foods, flavors, and textures. A new food may have to be presented up to 20 times before it is accepted. Even when a child continues to resist, give him or her time and don’t succumb to serving the same few things at every meal. It will be a hard rut to get out of once you are in it.
If pickiness persists or becomes more challenging and meals are repeatedly stressful, consulting a pediatrician and seeking help from a feeding therapist are the next steps. A pediatrician will check for potential underlying medical conditions. A feeding therapist will work closely with the child and family to improve oral motor coordination and strength, help the child accept a wider variety of textures and tastes, and make mealtime happier for everyone.
- Picky eating is a common stage.
- Learn to distinguish between picky eating and an eating disorder.
- Offer lots of new food and keep it fun.
- Don't shame or punish your picky eater.