Picky eating, as frustrating as it can be for parents, is usually a typical part of a child’s development. It’s natural for toddlers to be wary of new foods, and to want to assert control over their environment by refusing to eat things that have certain flavors, colors or textures. It’s also natural for parents to worry that a toddler who won’t eat their vegetables could be missing out on key nutrients they need to grow and develop. The best thing that parents can do to ensure their child is getting the proper nutrition is to be persistent in offering healthy food options, and get regular check-ups with their pediatrician to ensure they’re growing normally.
10 Strategies To Deal With Picky Eaters
What’s important for parents to remember is that your most important job is to provide your children with healthy food choices. It is up to the child how much they will eat, and which foods they’ll choose to eat. Picky eating most often begins around age two, and peaks between ages 2 and 6. The techniques outlined below are designed to help children of all ages.
- Prepare The Same Meal For Everyone
Preparing a different meal for your picky eater isn’t just exhausting, it can actually encourage them to avoid trying new foods. Plan family meals to include one type of food that the whole family enjoys, and make it clear that there will be no exceptions. Children are more likely to try new foods if they see everyone else at the dinner table eating the same thing.
- Persistence Pays Off
A study found that it can take 11 attempts at trying a new food before a child will decide they like it. Continue offering food even if they have expressed they don’t like it, and try to offer it in different dishes, or at different times of the day.
- Serve Fresh Produce As A Snack
If your child is averse to fruits or vegetables (or both), try to serve it when they are very hungry for a snack.
- Have Them Meal Prep In The Kitchen
Children are more likely to want to try foods that they’ve helped prepare themselves. When you go grocery shopping, let your child pick out the produce you’ll incorporate into dinner that night. Then let them assist with washing produce, stirring, measuring or pressing buttons on the stove or microwave.
- One New Food At A Time
Try to introduce new foods one at a time while pairing them with two foods that your child is already familiar with. Anything more than that is overwhelming to children, and makes them even less likely to want to eat a full meal.
- Dish Out Age-Appropriate Portions
Some parents make the mistake of putting adult-sized portions on their child’s plate, which makes the task of eating something new even more daunting for kids. When introducing a new food, start small. A crumble of cheese, a single pea, or half a piece of pasta is a good jumping off point that you can build on gradually. To be sure you offer food in the correct proportions, measure 1 tablespoon of food per age of the child. For example, a 4 year old gets 4 tablespoons each of veggies, starch, and protein.
- Create a Positive Eating Environment
As tempting as it can be, it’s important not to reward, pressure, trick, or punish your child for their eating habits. Allow them to eat the amount of food they want, and trust that they know when they’re full. Avoid overextending meal times. Healthy, happy eating environments encourage healthy relationships with food.
Language also plays a key role in how your child responds to new foods. This phrase chart put together by the USDA gives examples of words that hinder and help your child’s eating behavior.
- Let Them Play With Their Food
When children pick apart and sniff their food, they become more comfortable with its texture, feel, and appearance. By allowing them to familiarize themselves with the food on their plate in this way, kids are more likely to want to taste it later on.
- Put Foods On Rotation
If your child has an aversion to a specific food, don’t offer it to them two days in a row. It’s best to offer foods on a rotating schedule, for example, offer carrots with lunch one day, a choice of peas or broccoli the next, then carrots again.
- Experiment With Graduated Exposure
Also known as food chaining or food fading, this technique involves using a food your child loves to entice them to try a similar food. This method can be very effective at getting your child acclimated to a healthier version of their favorite food. For example, traditional french fries and sweet potato fries have similar textures, but sweet potatoes are the more nutritious option.
Eating Disorders and Their Warning Signs
Sometimes the avoidance of food can be indicative of something far more serious, such as Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), or anorexia nervosa.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, formerly known as Selective Eating Disorder, is defined as a persistent disturbance in eating, along with a failure to meet age-appropriate nutritional needs. ARFID can be caused by either a lack of interest in eating or a sensory aversion to specific foods. It is more common in children and young teenagers, although it can occur in late adolescence as well.
In order to meet the criteria of ARFID, signs and symptoms must include:
- Fear of choking or vomiting
- Aversion to swallowing
- Limiting food to specific textures
- Significant weight loss
- Stunted growth
- Nutritional deficiency
- Problems with psychological/social functioning
- Need for oral supplements and/or tube feeding to meet dietary needs
Unlike anorexia, ARFID is not associated with body dysmorphia or a fear of becoming overweight. There are many myths and misunderstandings about ARFID, making it tricky to diagnose. If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, consult with your pediatrician to help you find a specialized clinician with experience treating ARFID.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can occur in both boys and girls. It is characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.
Warning signs of anorexia in children ranging from elementary to high school may include:
- Low body weight or extreme weight loss
- Abdominal pain and constipation
- Hair thinning, dry skin and nails
- Feeling colder than others
- Dizziness or fainting
- Delayed puberty
- Eating very little food or none at all
- Excessive exercise
- An intense fear of weight gain
- Distorted body image (body dysmorphia)
- Irritability, insomnia, social withdrawal
Because anorexia can significantly impair a child’s growth and development, it is crucial to seek professional help as soon as your child exhibits any telltale signs. Your pediatrician can direct you to a multidisciplinary team when necessary, often including psychologists, psychiatrists, and nutritionists.
Capital Area Pediatrics provides superior care to patients from birth through adolescence throughout Northern Virginia. If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, growth, or development, call our office to set up an appointment. We are currently offering telemedicine visits for those who prefer to stay home, as well as touchless check-in to minimize the spread of COVID-19. You can also request an appointment online.