Picky Eating in Children: Causes, Affects, & Tips for Dealing With Picky Eaters

As an OT (and a mom!) I get a lot of questions about children’s eating habits and parents worrying about their child being or becoming a picky eater. This is a common struggle, and most kids go through short stages where they refuse previously enjoyed foods or just don’t seem interested in food. These often resolve before too long but when they don’t it can become very stressful for both children and parents!

Children may start out eating a wide variety of foods and as they get a little older, between 18 months and 2 years, parents may notice that their child’s repertoire of accepted foods is shrinking. Some of this may be to a typical assertion of their own tastes and wanting control over what they eat – we all have food preferences, don’t we? But as many parents can share, sometimes it seems to be more than that and a child’s limited diet can be a cause of concern and a source of stress for the family.

What Is Picky Eating?

Expert Tips for Parents on How to Deal With Picky Eaters

When we talk about picky eating, we’re not talking about a child that usually eats relatively well, but doesn’t like green beans, or occasionally doesn’t like avocado. When we discuss picky eaters, we’re talking about children who refuse to eat more than a few choice foods; they may refuse entire food groups altogether, or will only ever eat certain foods, to the exclusion of all other foods.  

Some children may limit their diets to less than 10 foods!  This becomes an even more significant problem when kids experience a food jag – when they suddenly refuse a previously accepted food – shrinking their dietary repertoire even more! In general, picky eating peaks in kiddos when they’re toddlers and preschoolers.

What Are The Causes of Picky Eating In Children?

Picky eating can be a complex problem and can be due to a combination of factors.

  • Children may have poor oral motor skills and have difficulty feeling safe and managing different textures of food.

  • Children may have had a negative experience with food.

  • Children may have sensory processing challenges that make some food intolerable due to texture, smell, or taste.

  • Children may have had an illness that delayed feeding skills.

  • Children may be experiencing events in their lives that make them feel as if they have no control and eating is a place where they can exert some control.

  • Different medical conditions.

How Does Picky Eating Affect a Child’s Health?

Short-term bouts of food refusals are quite common in children – one day they’ll eat a certain food and the next they won’t touch it.  This is generally a passing phase and kids will resume their previous eating habits.  Picky eating is a bit different because it is a long-term trend in a child’s food tolerance and often escalates with the number of foods decreasing over time.  This can be detrimental to their health in a number of ways.  Kids are growing – we know that – we see how fast they outgrow their clothes!

How Does Picky Eating Affect a Child’s Health

What we don’t always see is how their brains are growing and developing.  Those developing brains need a variety of essential vitamins, minerals, fats, amino acids, antioxidants, and other micronutrients.  A diet that is severely limited for a prolonged period of time may not provide essential nutrients during the brain’s critical developmental periods, especially in those early years when so much development is happening. Picky eating can also affect social development, sensory processing patterns, mental health, and academic learning.

7 Expert Tips for Parents on How to Deal With Picky Eaters (Recommended By Our Occupational Therapist)

When your child becomes more selective about what they eat or how much they eat, the best thing that you as a parent can do is stay calm and understand that this may just be a passing phase.

If it continues, some strategies include:

  1. Respecting your child’s decision about how much they eat – as a parent, you are in charge of the what and when of eating, but your child should decide how much

  2. Avoid offering snacks or drinks other than water close to mealtime. These can fill your child up and reduce their appetite for meals.

  3. Create a positive atmosphere around mealtimes – turn off the TV, put away electronics, and enjoy social time with your family.

  4. Avoid commenting on your child’s eating – pressure to eat, offering rewards, or praising your child

  5. Avoid creating a food dichotomy where one food is presented as more desirable than another – we’ve all done it. “If you eat your vegetables, you can have ice cream!”

  6. Try to keep a consistent meal and snack schedule, offering three meals and up to three snacks daily to provide structure for your child.

  7. Encourage lots of active outdoor play – this is great for little appetites!

If your child has a sudden decrease in appetite, loses weight, or has slow growth, be sure to contact their pediatrician – ruling out medical causes is always an essential first step!

What is Picky Eating

Contact an Experienced Occupational Therapist

For more ideas about how to support your child if picky eating is a concern, please book an appointment with our Occupational Therapist who can complete an assessment and provide an individualized plan for you and your child – we’re here to help!

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Teddie Buchner

Teddie Buchner (she/her)Adult & Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Teddie Buchner graduated from Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. Her undergraduate studies were also completed at GVSU where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Biomedical Science and Developmental Psychology.  She is currently working towards her PhD in Occupational Therapy at...

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