You always imagined your child would eat what you serve and mealtimes would be something that you enjoyed. Fast forward to now. Your child refuses many foods and has strong preferences. You dread mealtime. They do too – because it’s always a battle.
The first step to help is to identify the cause of picky eating. This critical step allows you to know the best path forward and use strategies that pair well with your child’s specific challenges – and ultimately, get the best results.
If you’re ready to dig in to find the WHY behind picky eating and figure out WHAT to do about it, you’ve come to the right place!
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Table of Contents
What Causes Picky Eating?
Eating is one of the most complex things we do as human beings. I know – it’s surprising, because many of us take this easy task for granted every day.
But the reality is, there are a lot of areas that things can go wrong when kids are learning to eat. Unfortunately, many parents can easily see their child is having challenges with eating and exhibiting picky eating behaviors, but knowing why can be difficult.
There are 4 broad categories of causes of picky eating:
- Lack of learned skills
- Medical conditions
- Developmental phases
Many times picky eating behaviors are a result of multiple causes that impact one another and make identifying where it all originally began difficult. Parents can often feel like they reach a point where they know picky eating is a problem, and wonder, “How did we get here?”
But even if you can’t identify the very first thing that sent you and your child down this path, knowing the mix of why you’re here is still tremendously important to moving forward in the right direction.
Lack of Learned Skills
Although eating may feel natural and easy for you, kids do need to learn how to eat. There are 5 skills they need to learn, and when a child experiences a challenge with any of these skills, it can present as picky eating.
5 Learned Skills Essential for Eating
Sensory Tolerance – a willingness to touch and engage with food comfortably and a desire to explore
- Postural Stability – the ability to sit up in a position appropriate for eating
- Tongue Tip Lateralization – the ability to use the tongue to push food to molars to chew and then push food back for swallowing
- Rotary Chewing – ability to chew properly with jaw moving in a rotating motion
- Positive Mindset – a joy in eating and lack of negative physical, mental, or emotional associations with eating
There are also many medical conditions that can cause eating challenges that present as picky eating. They tend to fall within a few body systems.
5 Common Body Systems that Can Impact Eating
- Respiratory – Any issue that creates breathing challenges, impacts eating. This can include needing oxygen due to premature birth, chronic allergies or colds, etc. Breathing is the body’s number one priority and it will cease all else to preserve it – including eating. A child with breathing difficulty can present being fatigued at meals, eating very little, and being uninterested in food, just to name a few.
- Circulatory – Since one of the primary roles of the circulatory system is to pump oxygen throughout the body, it makes perfect sense that any issue in this system will naturally also cause breathing problems, and therefore eating challenges.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) – It makes complete sense that if a child is experiencing any issue in their GI tract (the path of food through the body), that this could impact their desire and ability to eat. Reflux, constipation, and diarrhea are just a few of the more common issues that can cause issues and present as picky eating.
- Nervous – Our nervous system is responsible for receiving and transmitting all the information taken in from our senses. Food is interpreted completely through our senses, so if there is a disconnect in this process, eating challenges that present as picky eating are often the result.
- Musculoskeletal – Muscles are used in many parts of eating, from sitting upright to be in a position to eat, chewing, grinding food in our stomach, and moving food throughout the GI tract. Any issue in these areas makes eating difficult and picky eating behaviors can result.
In addition to active issues in these body systems causing difficulty with eating, each challenge along this journey can result in negative associations with eating. Replacing negative associations with positive ones in relation to food and eating must be a part of addressing picky eating.
Kids go through developmental phases during which picky eating can naturally begin or if already present, can get worse.
These are also times that parents feel overwhelmed and worried because they aren’t confident in how to respond to their child’s new behaviors, further complicating things.
5 Ages When Picky Eating Starts or Worsens
- 4-6 months – At this age, eating is no longer instinctual and it’s important to give opportunities to practice the learned skills necessary to make this transition.
- 12-14 months – During this time, flavor perception changes and strong preferences can emerge. This is the time when parents see refusal of foods that were once accepted.
- 18-36 months – In the toddler years there is a shift in awareness of self and children begin to understand that they are their own person. They desire increased autonomy and start to say no to foods, even ones they like, because they can.
- 5-7 years – During the early school-age years, children start to have logical thinking skills and can draw conclusions about why they like certain foods. Many times this is when they realize that highly processed foods are a consistent sensory experience and draw the conclusion that they are a favorite.
- 9-11 years – In this age range, logical thinking continues to improve and kids make more decisions about what they feel comfortable eating, based on their experiences – positive or negative.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that most often, PARENTS DO NOT CAUSE PICKY EATING.
However, as challenges arise due to learned skills, medical conditions and developmental phases, parents can use strategies that make picky eating worse or last longer. It’s with the best intentions, but can have negative effects.
Parents feel stressed, worried, and want to make things better. But parenting skills are also something all parents have to learn! Parents aren’t born knowing what to do.
Many parents default to strategies their parents used. Others try new strategies, but don’t know how to handle their child’s resistance and push-back. And many times, life isn’t like a textbook, and implementing strategies is just plain hard.
Identifying Your Child’s Specific Eating Challenges
Before we can move on to how to address picky eating, it’s important to know the reason YOUR child is struggling. Every child and situation is different and very often picky eaters come from a complex mix of these causes.
Knowing which is pertinent to your child can help you identify the best next steps and pair strategies appropriate for them. This way, you aren’t wasting your time with things you don’t need to focus on!
To learn about each of these topics in greater detail and get a workbook to guide you in thinking specifically about your child, check out the FREE Causes of Picky Eating mini course.
How Can I Address Picky Eating?
Once you have a handle on why your child is struggling with picky eating, it’s time to do something about it! There are so many strategies that you can use right in your own home, many of which are ultimately just great practices in feeding any child.
Address Underlying Issues
If a child is having any physical difficulties (such as chewing or swallowing) or medical conditions, this must be addressed first, with the help of the appropriate medical professionals.
Kids exhibiting picky eating tendencies sometimes need the services of an occupational therapist, speech therapist and even a physical therapist to address underlying functional issues. They also might need the assistance of a specialist physician, depending on the issue.
A good starting point is a discussion with your pediatrician about what you’re seeing at home. Then, a referral can be made to the right specialist.
Once addressed, or if physical/medical issues are not a concern – the next steps are to overcome negative associations, set up the home environment for success, and use expansion strategies.
These are laid out in the upcoming points and are just some of the ways parents inside the Mastering Mealtimes Membership are supported.
Serve Meals and Snacks on a Schedule
When kids are allowed to graze throughout the day, it can appear that they are eating quite a bit since they are eating all the time. However, they tend to eat less overall, eat lower quality/less healthy food, and reject food at mealtimes.
They tend to have a strong preference for their favorite “snack” foods, choosing to eat those and then come to the table for a meal and eat very little or nothing.
Getting a good meal and snack routine helps kids have a rhythm of increasing hunger, eating until full, and then having a few hours without eating. This sets them up to come to the next meal or snack hungry and ready to eat the largest variety possible for them.
Hunger, while not something that will make a child eat something they don’t like, does help a child engage with foods and eat higher quality foods overall. This sets up parents to be less stressed about their child’s eating and makes implementing other strategies easier.
Be Thoughtful About What You’re Serving
Deciding what makes it into a meal or snack is a parent’s decision and sometimes that can feel especially daunting when you have a child struggling with picky eating.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you decide how to compose a meal or snack that’s most helpful to your child’s progress.
- Be considerate, but not catering – Always provide a food your child is comfortable eating, but pair it with something that they are learning to like as well. This exposure is critical in helping them work toward trying new things. Plus, it helps to make it possible to serve one meal to the whole family.
- Don’t always serve the ultimate favorites – While yes, you do need to have a food your child is comfortable eating, it doesn’t need to be their all time favorite every meal and snack. Foods that are just “OK” work too and help to ensure that your child has the biggest possible variety of foods served to them.
- Be mindful of beverages – While milk and juice can be part of a well rounded diet, they don’t need to be served at every meal and snack, as well as in between. Kids can fill up on these beverages quickly, making food less appealing. They are often more than happy to skip anything that isn’t an absolute favorite or even opt to eat nothing if they’ve filled up on fluids.
- Consider making things fun – Every meal and snack will not be special. It’s just not realistic. However, seizing the opportunity to make some times special can start to tip the scales when a child has been exposed to a food over and over, but hasn’t felt ready to taste it. Things like favorite dips, shape cutters, and food picks can be used thoughtfully to make food more appealing and engaging.
- Think about the next logical step – In addition to adding an element of fun, thinking about the next logical food your child might be comfortable tasting can also increase the chances of successfully adding new foods to their diet. You may have heard of this being called food chaining or food bridges, and when done thoughtfully, it can make all the difference.
- Expose, expose, expose – Consistently serving new and different foods can’t be understated. Keep serving foods you would like your child to learn to like. Even if they don’t taste it, continue to offer it. There’s a 100% chance that they won’t eat the foods they are never served!
Set Up the Right Environment for Eating
When picky eating becomes a problem, mealtimes almost always become stressful, often for the whole family. While it’s natural for parents to be worried, to start to ask their child to take bites, and even to require them to eat something to earn dessert – these actually work against their goals!
A calm, positive and pressure-free environment is what’s needed for kids to feel comfortable trying new things. So, it’s best to avoid pressure tactics, bribes, and rewards when it comes to food. Instead, shift the focus to connecting with your child and talking about non-food topics.
It’s also helpful to have your child eat seated at a table and without distractions. This allows them to engage with their food and have mindful exposure. While this might not feel like a big deal, because they still aren’t taking bites, it’s an essential first step in working towards it.
Allow Your Child to Practice Autonomy
It’s especially important during the toddler years and beyond to work with the autonomy your child desires, instead of against it. Whenever possible, have your child help make decisions and engage with food. The goal is to include both their food preferences and foods that are new.
This not only allows them to take ownership, making them more likely to try new things, but it also helps them learn about food. The more they know what food looks, smells, and feels like, the more comfortable they will be to give it a try.
You can have them help you plan a meal each week (with your guidance), take them grocery shopping, give them small kitchen tasks during meal prep, and serve themself at the table.
Most importantly, allow your child to decide what they are going to actually eat from what you’ve served and how much of it. This is their decision and is just one of many opportunities to avoid battles and power struggles that make picky eating worse.
Get Your Child Engaging with Food
Using senses to explore food must happen before anyone is comfortable eating. For adventurous eaters, this exploration and taking in a food’s smell and appearance, can happen quickly and easily.
However, for a hesitant eater, this takes time – weeks, months and even years. But it still happens just the same. That’s why exposure is so important, as it allows kids the opportunity to learn about food over time.
Typically kids struggling with picky eating are comfortable first just looking at new foods and then can move to start to touch and/or smell it. Games, activities and play are helpful in supporting child-led engagement without using pressure tactics.
Help Your Child Develop a Helpful Mindset
Believing that you are capable of learning to try and eventually enjoy new foods is a major part of addressing picky eating. No strategy will work if a child ultimately doesn’t believe it’s possible for them.
Helping a child have a helpful mindset around food occurs through the language we use, how we reframe their feedback about food, and lots of practice. Sometimes it’s even helpful to focus on a helpful mindset in other areas, as the skills kids learn can then be transferred to eating.
Model the Changes You Want to See
While it might not feel like it on the tougher days, your child idolizes you. You are their safe place. That means they are picking up their own habits by watching you and this includes eating habits.
Some habits that are positive to pass along to them include eating the foods you’d like them to learn to eat, trying foods that are new or challenging for you, and using language that promotes a helpful mindset around new foods.
Keep Your Own Mindset in Check
In addition to your child’s mindset, yours is equally important. Picky eating does not have a quick fix. Helping a child with eating challenges requires patience and consistency. It’s easy to get discouraged and bail on strategies before even giving them enough time to work.
Working on your own mindset about the situation, addressing your beliefs and fears, and getting support are critical for your sanity and your child’s success in the long term.
Takeaways on Picky Eating
Just like there is often no one cause for picky eating, there is very rarely a single solution either.
Helping a picky eater starts with finding the root of the challenges and then pairing the most appropriate solutions. Then, it’s all about consistency and sticking with it for the long game as you work to raise a child that can feed themself well as an adult.
Healthy eating and habits don’t happen overnight.
When you’re ready to get support in identifying your child’s specific challenges and have the solutions laid out for you in an easy to implement way, join me and countless other parents in the Mastering Mealtimes Membership.
I support parents in their implementation of strategies to address picky eating and make feeding your child approachable, stress-free, and even enjoyable!
Plus, once you join, you’ve got all the resources you need to successfully feed your child in your back pocket throughout their entire childhood journey – and that can really be calming on this wild ride called parenthood.
Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian, Quality Improvement Professional, Parent Coach and founder of On Your Table, LLC. She supports parents, so that they can support their children to overcome picky eating and learn to eat a varied diet. Kim has helped countless families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her from her about page and follow along on Instagram for more tips.