Having a child that is a picky eater can be frustrating. Here is some information about picky eating and tips for parents of picky eaters.
Picky eating can be maddening: Your kids hate a food today that they loved yesterday. They refuse even a tiny bite of something new and request mac and cheese on repeat. It all triggers stress at the table every single day.
Picky eating is also a normal part of development. Many kids have some finicky behaviors around eating starting when they’re toddlers, and it often gets better in the early school-age years.
When is picky eating normal?
Picky eating involves rejecting new foods (called “neophobia”) and asking for the same foods again and again (called “food jags”). Kids may narrow the number of foods they eat and stop eating foods they used to enjoy. It’s also normal for kids’ appetites to fluctuate, so they might dig into dinner one day and only nibble the next.
Keep in mind that picky eating isn’t your fault–and is a pretty typical phase of childhood–there is no magical age to when picky eating will stop, it varies by the child. There are things that can make it worse (read: 5 Easy Mistakes That Make Your Kid’s Picky Eating Worse).
When do picky eaters need help?
For some kids, picky eating doesn’t get better as they get older. It may actually get more severe. For those kids, all the usual picky eating strategies you’ve heard may not work. In other words, that tough-love advice of “He’ll eat when he gets hungry enough”? Fact is, some kids just won’t.
Here are signs that your picky eater might need extra help:
- Eats less than 20 foods
- Rejects whole food groups (such as fruits or grains)
- Gags or chokes when eating
- Frequently cries or acts fearful or upset around food
- Loses weight or falls off growth curve
These kids may have a more severe form of picky eating. For instance, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder that can occur when children have a lack of interest in eating, aren’t eating enough for growth and nutrition, and have progressively worsening picky eating.
Tips for parents of picky eaters
If your child shows those red flags above, talk to your pediatrician, don’t force your picky eater to eat. Your pediatrician can check your child’s growth and offer referrals to feeding specialists such as pediatric dietitians or occupational therapists who specialize in children’s eating. I also recommend the book Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating which includes strategies to use at home.
For garden-variety picky eating, stay the course. Continue to offer foods like fruits and vegetables (even the ones they don’t like yet) and make one meal for the family (but always have at least one thing on the table that you know your child likes). And though it can be hard, try to be patient as you wait for some of the picky eating to pass. In the meantime, check out 5 Ways to Please Picky Eaters and listen to the podcast episode Dealing With Picky Eaters.