Why are kids so picky about their food?
Picky eating is a big challenge for parents. When our children refuse food, we worry that they aren’t getting enough of their daily nutrition to support growth and development. Sometimes they’ll eat, but it’s the same meal on repeat all day every day and we stress that they’re not getting a sufficient variety of nutrients, and that they’ll fail to thrive. Sometimes it’s just that we get annoyed that they’re wasting food, or that they won’t even try this delicious meal on their plate!
Picking and fussing over food is a typical behaviour in childhood and hits a peak during the toddler years. Picky eating patterns are pretty-well established by about 18 months. By around age 6, the majority of children have worked through their fussiness, although this can depend on the child and the way that we engage with them around their picky eating. If we navigate this period poorly, we may entrench a habit that can be hard to undo. In some circumstances, picky eating can persist through middle childhood to adolescence, and even adulthood.
This article will explore why children are so picky about their food, and briefly expand on what parents can do if their child is being picky.
Why are they so picky?
Researchers have identified a handful of reasons children are so picky about their eating. These issues relate to young children and older children alike. Such challenges include:
- Actual food preferences. Believe it or not, our children really don’t like some foods, and they really DO like other foods. Sometimes we can forget that we all feel like that about certain foods, regardless of their nutritional value.
- Wanting to be in control. At around 18-months of age, our children start to discover that they can be in charge. They like this! Food is an arena they often feel they can exert their newfound sense of control, and they exploit this feeling, often to their parent’s distress. When children feel a lack of control, they often find ways to become the authority in their lives. Food refusal not only provides that feeling of control, it is also rewarding because parents either give in and offer their child alternative foods (that usually possess lower nutritional value) or they give them lots of attention.
- Lack of boundaries and expectations. When a child creates a fuss over food, parents experience a tension between trying to placate their child (no one wants screaming children at mealtime – or any time really) and trying to encourage eating. Whether it’s a food that has been presented many times or experimentation with new foods, picky eaters know that causing a fuss is likely to lead to the reward of not having to eat something they don’t want. They may even receive what they do want. In the case of food with low nutritional value, this is a concern. While parents must be mindful of food preferences, setting boundaries and expectations is crucial, but it must be done is such a way that it does not disempower the child by trampling their autonomy.
- Lack of routine. Studies show that families with fewer routines around mealtime are more likely to experience fussiness in their children. These routines could include everything from a specific time and place for a meal to be served, and even practices such as saying grace/giving thanks for a meal, or having a specific seat for the child, or even a habitual way of serving food.
- Mealtime stress. If mealtime is too busy or too stressful, young children may associate meals with unhappiness. Mealtimes where parents or children are eating in a rush or are not eating together at all leave children with poor models for how to enjoy good food. Sometimes families might come together for a meal and end up experiencing conflict (either between parents, or between children and a parent). The stress associated with these interactions (including stress created by picky eating) could lead to negative associations with food and mealtime and leave them disinterested in food options or eating with family.
- Sensory issues and sensitivities. Children may also be picky because of food sensitivities, non-typical development (children on the autism spectrum may be rigid in their eating patterns, or have sensory issues around food), flavours and textures, lack of familiarity with a new food, or even a medical issue (like food allergies or reflux) that parents may be unaware of.
- Emotional moments. Even if it is unrelated to the food on their plate, children who are brought to the table for a meal when they are too tired, too hungry, too stressed, too angry, or too emotional are unlikely to eat. If we choose an unhelpful response (either because we are so tired ourselves, or because our best intentions work out poorly), our children may learn to associate negative emotions with meals, or they may learn that they will be rewarded when they have big emotions at mealtimes.
- Picky examples. We may not know it but sometimes our own food habits can provide a model for picky eating in our children. If Dad complains that he doesn’t like greens, or if Mum makes a fuss about not enjoying mince (even in spaghetti bolognese!) our children may learn to be vocal about their preferences, and do as we do – even to the point of refusing to eat foods they find disagreeable. Big brothers and sisters might also model fussiness. While it is normal and reasonable for people to have preferences, we should also model a willingness to eat foods we may not be completely fond of from time to time.
- Food neophobia. Neo means new. Phobia means fear. If someone is a food neophobe, they are afraid of eating new foods. Picky eaters typically avoid foods that are unfamiliar, but this can extend so they may become so narrow in their preferences that they avoid any foods that are unfamiliar to them as well. Food neophobia involves not just an unwillingness to try new foods, but an actual fear of new foods that can be sufficiently distressing that they will avoid meal times, and even avoid situations where food is available that is unfamiliar. Food neophobes are most likely to be found on the autism spectrum due to rigid preferences and unwillingness to try unfamiliar things. Research shows that avoidance only fuels the anxiety associated with food neophobia. Careful work with a healthcare professional is typically suggested in these cases.
However, it is worth recognising that while most young children don’t meet clinical criteria for food neophobia, their fussiness can feel like it. Most toddlers will grow out of their fussiness (or even neophobia) if they see people around them enjoying a wide variety of foods.
Phew! No wonder parents find picky eating one of the trickiest challenges they deal with!
What is a parent to do?
Entire books have been written on this subject. Here are some brief suggestions to get you through.
Recognise preferences. Your role is to provide food that is healthy and supports growth. Their role is to choose what they’ll eat and in what quantity. Every meal should have food with high nutritional value that they’ll eat. They may not eat it all. They may not eat everything on the plate. But ensure that there is food available for them that matches their preferences and is healthy. Let them choose from there.
Encourage autonomy. For younger children, let them choose the plate they eat off, the spoon they use, and where the different foods go on the plate (they might want some chicken on the left and some vegetables on the right, for example). Let them try to hold the spoon, even if it’s messy. Allow them to use their hands if it means they’ll eat. Control is key and your child wants it. For older children, recognise their preferences (as above) and then ensure you don’t make a big deal about their eating. Allow them to work things out for themselves. The less pressure they feel, the more likely it is that they’ll eat what they need when they need it. Oh, and never ever bribe. Never. Dozens and dozens of studies highlight that when we force or bribe or manipulate, we’ll make it worse. Children need choice when it comes to how much they eat. The more controlling you are, the more likely it is that things will go badly.
Ensure expectations are clear. Communicate about food using the 3 E’s of Effective Discipline: Explore, Explain, and Empower. First, explore their feelings about their food. Try to understand what they like and what they don’t like – and why. Listen carefully to see their perspective about mealtimes. Second, explain what your expectations are and why you have them. Be clear that your child can choose how much they eat of what’s on their plate. Explain that you’ll be mindful of their preferences. Help them understand what foods are good to eat all the time and what foods are ‘sometimes’ foods. Finally, empower your child to develop a plan with you so mealtimes can be a positive experience for everyone.
Create routine. Find ways to make meals enjoyable by establishing a meal list each week so your week’s meals are planned. Do some meal prep together as part of your evening routine. Then be sure to eat together. Kids want to enjoy meals while we are with them. Try to eat at the same time each evening and have a routine for what happens before and after your meal. Children thrive on structure.
Minimise stress at mealtimes. Remember not to introduce new foods when your child is distressed. In those moments, children want something comforting and familiar. We want new foods to be exploratory and enjoyable. It might be best to try new foods in between meals when the child can try it out without the pressure. (Also, children may need to be introduced to a new food between 10 and 20 times before they “get” it.)
Be sensitive to sensitivities. If your child has sensory issues, be mindful of this. But remember that avoidance only fuels anxiety! Under appropriate supervision from a healthcare professional, find ways to safely and positively expose your child to new foods or textured foods to build their resilience response to this input.
Be calm. Make mealtime a celebration of life. Stay calm, even when fussiness rears its head. Talk about happy moments from your day. Smile and be curious. And if your child begins to feel emotional, respond with gentle compassion and empathy. Try the following script:“You seem really upset about. Is that right? How can I help?”
Be an example. Make sure your child sees you experimenting with new foods. Don’t overdo it on the “wow this is delicious” stuff. Simply talk about what you’re doing and why and explore the idea that we won’t always love everything new, but it’s fun to try something you’ve never tried before. Remember, no pressure.
The last word:
More than anything, make sure their diet is full of love from you. They need to know you love them regardless of the food that enters their body.
If you have any concerns about your child’s picky eating, check with your healthcare professional.