You’ve got a picky eater on your hands, and if you’re like most parents, you’re wondering what you should do, if anything, to manage this. You’ve heard the pat advice: don’t worry about it; this is a normal stage; your child will grow out of it. Yet, there is something nagging you. You’re just not quite sure if this is “normal” and something your little one will grow out of readily.
First off, many toddlers who experience picky eating will grow out of this normal stage of development. Picky eating tends to occur between 2 and 6 years old, when food neophobia (fear of new food) sets in. This timing is also when toddlers and preschoolers are finding their voice, and exercising it. The answer “no” to parent requests becomes more common.
Over-reacting may backfire and using tactics to get your little one to eat — such as rewarding with dessert, punishing him or her for not trying something new, or using pressure to manipulate your child to eat — may lead to overeating or a dislike for participating in family meals.
Beyond this, however, there are certain hallmarks that signify your child’s picky eating isn’t a stage that will pass. You will want to recognize these signs early on so you can get professional advice and assistance for your child, if needed.
1. Weight loss or lack of adequate growth
Typically, picky eaters still tend to gain weight and grow normally. If your child has lost weight, not gained weight for some time, and/or has shown slowed growth on his or her growth chart, it’s time to dig deeper into the roots of picky eating.
2. Drops foods from his or her “like” list (and doesn’t regain them)
During the picky eating phase, it’s expected that children will drop foods they once liked. For a time. They then, over time, gradually pick those foods back up again. For example, your toddler used to like chicken, but now he or she is obsessed with hot dogs. A typically picky child will be on the hot dog food jag for a while but then revert back to eating chicken and a host of other foods. The child who has severe or extreme picky eating won’t resume eating chicken later. Chicken may be off the list for good.
3. Eats less than 20 foods
Eventually, the list of “likes” grows more narrow, until it reflects a limited number of foods the child will eat. This list may be color-coordinated (ie, all white foods), or texture exclusive (only crunchy foods, for example).
4. Demonstrates other sensitivities
If your child has other sensitivities, such as refusing to wear shirts with tags, is bothered by sock seams, or shows anxiety at the meal table or in social eating situations, you may have a picky eater who also has sensory challenges. Because he or she is more aware of his sensory world including taste, texture, sound, smell, and the sight of food (and the world in general), picky eating may be best served by integrating strategies that address the sensory component and nutrition.
5. Disinterest or emotional distress with food/eating
If your child seems to survive on air, shows no interest in food, or seems to never be hungry, this could be a sign that there’s more to the picky eating story, especially if this goes on without an end in sight.
If your child seems to be irritated by eating, sitting at the meal table, or just generally and consistently unpleasant around meals, he or she may be experiencing emotional distress. A recent study showed children with moderate to severe picky eating to have more anxiety and depression than children without picky eating.
While these signs may indicate you need more help for your picky eater, don’t panic. Talk with your healthcare team if you feel there’s more your child is experiencing more than typical picky eating, and make a plan to evaluate and help your child.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019