If you have a child who is a picky eater it’s likely that you’ve already tried every trick in the book and found that nothing works.
Family and friends will ask you if you have “tried cutting the sandwiches into fun shapes”, have you “tried making sure nothing is touching anything else on the plate”, have you tried “sneaking vegetables into the pasta sauce”, have you tried “telling them there’s nothing else and letting them go hungry?” (Eek!)
How about if I tell you that picky eating often isn’t actually about the food?
Typical picky eating is a combination of our mistaken expectations about our children’s food needs, their abilities and a developmental stage called preoperational thinking.
This developmental phase includes food neophobia which is the ‘fear of trying new foods’ and can go on into older childhood if they didn’t gain confidence in eating whilst young.
In addition there are some children who:
- can’t eat – they haven’t yet learned all the oral motor skills required,
- won’t eat – they have sensory differences which makes certain foods thoroughly unpleasant,
- or they are being prevented from eating because of how they have been conditioned during the neophobic phase.
What is a typical picky eater?
For the majority of picky eater children, it’s a normal developmental phase of early childhood.
Babies and toddlers can refuse foods that they are unfamiliar with, which is why you often hear the phrase that it can take 10 times (or more) before they’ll accept a food.
Actually it’s 10 tastes and therefore there will need to be many more exposures which is why repeatedly offering refused food is so important.
At around the age of 2 developmental changes mean that toddlers enter a ‘neophobic’ phase where they become suspicious of both new food and some familiar foods. This is when many parents start to suspect that they have a picky eater.
They’ll experience a true fear in response to those foods so encouraging a toddler to eat something they are truly afraid of can be the cause of drama at mealtimes.
But this is totally normal and an expected part of early childhood.
However, for some children, it is more than just a typical picky eater phase and it can be difficult to know what’s to be expected and what’s something that needs further help.
When does a picky eater require more help?
When your child is refusing lots of food and their food range is getting smaller rather than bigger, you may need to seek professional help.
Any child who eats fewer than 20 different foods does need to see a dietitian for nutritional support and if you can find one who also teaches feeding therapy they can help you increase the range of foods they eat too.
Try my quiz to help you identify if your child has typical picky eater behaviours or if this is more of a feeding problem, then you’ll have an idea of whether you need extra help.
How does a child learn not to eat?
Children eat multiple times a day and if they perceive mealtimes to be a negative experience, they will be conditioned not to eat.
Negative experiences are perceived as negative by the child (they might not actually be bad) and include:
- Trying to eat a food that was a difficult texture,
- Being exposed to a food that had an unpleasant smell to them,
- Had a choking experience that frightened them,
- Had been told off for something at the table e.g. table manners
- Witnesses parents arguing at a mealtime
- Picked up on a negative mood?
When negative experiences happen the human body’s natural reaction is the stress response to escape the situation by either:
- fight – tantrums, kicking, hitting, arguments, throwing food, causing drama at the table
- flight – fidgeting, running away, avoiding going to school or friends houses for tea
- freeze – breath holding, child closes down, won’t talk
There’s many reasons why children don’t eat and finding out why is the first step towards supporting them to try new foods. This is exactly why none of those tips you find on google work!
Read this blog for a mini psychology of picky eaters lesson on how children learn not to eat.
Challenges and Concerns for a picky eater
It’s fair to say there are health reasons why a child can be a picky eater. For some children, sensory processing differences are the main reason they have difficulties eating.
Sensory processing refers to how our neurological system receives information from our senses and turns that into a motor response for example to move, play, focus and eat.
There are 8 senses (not 5) involved in eating and all 8 have to be co-ordinated at exactly the same time in order to eat. It’s the only thing that children do where all 8 senses work together.
The 8 senses are:
- Proprioception (muscles and joints)
- Vestibular (movement)
- Interoception (what’s going on inside of your body)
When children have under responsive or over responsive sensory preferences, eating can be tricky or downright uncomfortable. And when something is hard or unpleasant, you’re going to avoid it.
For example if a child has an over responsive hearing sense, they are going to be easily distracted and may not eat well in a busy school dining hall.
Likewise if they have an under-responsive sense of smell, they are not going to fancy bland food. They prefer strong flavours and foods with rich aromas.
Children with sensory processing differences that affect eating will need professional support from a feeding therapist.
Picky Eating and Constipation
Many picky eaters (but not all) gravitate towards dry foods and foods that you might describe as ‘beige’.
Beige foods include chicken nuggets, fish fingers, chips, crackers, breadsticks, toast, pasta etc and what they all have in common is that from a sensory perspective they are predictable.
No matter which day you eat them, they are always going to be exactly the same.
These foods are often processed and therefore easier to chew as the textures have been mechanically processed in a factory meaning less work for us. Children will nearly always gravitate towards foods that are easier to eat.
What this amounts to is a lack of fibre in their diets and fibre is what helps prevent constipation. Fibre adds bulk to the stool (poo) and makes it softer which makes it easier to move along the digestive system and pass.
Often, a picky eater might be prescribed laxatives from their doctor and sometimes this might be necessary until they can accept a wide variety of foods or specific foods that will help with their constipation.
When Is A Picky Eater A Cause For Concern?
- has multiple food allergies or intolerances
- omits an entire food group
- eats less than 20 different foods and is over the age of 18 months
- has anxiety at mealtimes
- when their fussy eating affects family life, social interactions or causes stress at mealtimes
- has ongoing weight loss or poor weight gain
- has ongoing choking, coughing, gagging or spluttering during meals
- has ongoing problems with vomiting
- has severe reflux or cries or arches their back during all meals
- has a history of eating and breathing difficulties
- has not been able to transition from baby food purees to solid foods
- avoids certain textures of food
- has a parent with a current or previous eating disorder in addition to the child not gaining weight (this is because you as a parent may need additional support around food parenting rather than being the cause of your child’s feeding issues)
If you resonate with one or more of these, or just want happier mealtimes please get in touch.
Strategies to encourage a picky eater to try new foods
There are some foundational things you can do at home to help your fussy eater try new foods. In fact we like the families we work with to have these in place before our first consultation.
Making mealtimes pleasant
One of the first steps for managing a picky eater is to establish a pleasant and stress-free mealtime environment.
A warm and happy atmosphere during meals encourages children to focus on their food and makes new foods seem less scary which is key to happier mealtimes.
The conversation around the table is also key. Encouraging your child to eat is not a good thing.
Prompting with “don’t forget to eat your green beans” or “you can’t leave the table till you clear your plate” has negative consequences.
Initially it makes the kitchen table a high-pressure environment disturbing the sense of calm that is essential for successful eating.
But it also causes the release of those stress hormones, and the subsequent fight, flight or freeze and switches appetite off instantly.
And avoid the negatives such as repeating “sit down”, “use your cutlery”, “elbows off the table” ….all of which come across as nagging and have a detrimental effect on mood.
2. Positive reinforcement
I’m not talking about reward charts, which can do more harm than good when they’re linked to eating.
But when your child interacts with a new food a small gesture to let your child know that you noticed is enough to keep the momentum going.
A smile across the table, a high five, or a “well done” when your child shows interest in a new food will encourage them to do it again.
Use positive reinforcement if they serve themselves, sit in their chair nicely, use their cutlery etc, all the things that go hand in hand with eating well.
And do the same with others around the table “Daddy, I like how you’re using your cutlery!“ and “well done little brother for dipping your pasta in the sauce!”
3. Repeated exposure to new foods for a picky eater
Children need to be exposed to food they don’t like on a regular basis in order to learn to like it.
They need to be able to see it, smell it, sometimes hear it, touch it, and one day, taste it before they can decide if they like it or not.
These steps are all sensory steps and there are actually 32 of them that have to be processed for each food.
Most people have heard the phrase “it takes 10 times before a child will like a food” and I’m sure you will have served it up way more than 10 times, and your child still doesn’t eat it.
That’s because the 10 times actually refers to 10 tastes.
You may well need to do 100 exposures before you get them to try it 10 times!
And that’s why it’s so easy to stop serving broccoli because your child hasn’t touched it for a good few meals.
But by taking it off the menu you’re making picky eating worse as they won’t get the chance to practise all of the sensory steps that happen before food goes in their mouth! (That’s actually steps 1 to 30 of those 32 steps I mentioned earlier.)
Make the phrase “you don’t have to eat it” part of your mealtime, this way the pressure is off.
Part of your repeated exposure includes you role modelling, eating and enjoying the foods that you want to see your child eating. If daddy is a fussy eater, it’s likely that your child will follow suit!
4. Family style serving
This is when you cook one meal for everyone but all the component parts are served in dishes and platters in the middle of the table, and everyone helps themselves, deciding on what they want and how much of it they’re going to eat.
Children who are picky eaters will be resistant when you serve them and put new food on their plates, or give them pre-plated meals. They feel a pressure to try it, even if you don’t say a thing!
Their anxiety levels rise, the adrenaline kicks in as does the fight, flight, freeze and before you know it you’d got a mealtime meltdown.
Serving family style takes the pressure off. Your child is still exposed to the food but the expectation to eat it is lower, and their anxiety levels are lower too.
I bet you have tons of questions like what if my child only takes the food they like? Well thats where the learning plate comes in.
5. Learning plates for a picky eater and their family
It’s always a good idea to serve a food that your child is either unfamiliar with or is still learning to like, alongside the rest of the meal as this is how you expand their range.
This unfamiliar food can go on a small ‘learning plate’ that sits at the side of their dinner plate if they don’t want it on their main dinner plate. It doesn’t need to be much, an adult thumbnail-sized portion is perfect!
The learning plate is not an ignoring plate, it’s for exploration and experimenting. There is no expectation to eat and in fact children should be encouraged to ‘play with their food’ on this learning plate.
The food can be looked at, sniffed, prodded, poked, licked, chewed or spat out back onto the learning plate if they wish. It’s all about the exploration of the sensory characteristics of the new food.
6. Involving Your fussy eater in Food Choices
When children have more ownership and involvement in the choice and preparation of food it can increase their willingness to try them.
Active participation creates interest outside of the mealtime and away from the dinner table. It’s an opportunity for children to learn about food and where it comes from too.
Think about all the times in a day when you shop, plan or make meals and challenge yourself to see how many of these tasks your child could get involved in.
When it comes to meal planning, instead of asking “what would you like for dinner?” Give guided choices such as “would you like rice or potatoes with your fish” or “is it going to be pear or berries with your porridge”.
This is important as children don’t have the knowledge to make sensible nutritional decisions when you ask them open questions like what they want for dinner, they’ll choose from what they know and like.
Don’t use this as an opportunity to teach them about nutrition though, they’ll lose interest. Nutrition is too abstract for their young brains and although they’ll repeat back to you ‘an apple is healthy’ they don’t really know what that means.
7. Follow an appetite schedule
Eating meals and snacks at regular intervals without extra snacking in between helps children recognise and understand their feelings of hunger and fullness.
This is one of the foundational steps in regulating their appetite and guiding children towards becoming intuitive eaters.
A suggested routine could include meals like breakfast, lunch, and dinner, complemented by a snack in the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and before bedtime.
It’s best to maintain a gap of 2.5-3 hours between each meal or snack for young children and for older kids they can go for longer without eating.
But avoid offering food earlier than this, as it might prevent them from eating well when you want them to.
If they ask for snacks outside these times, gently tell them, “Sorry, the kitchen is currently closed. We’ll have our next snack after our trip to the park.” Associating meal/snack times with activities can help younger children grasp the concept of time.
In terms of drinks, while water can be offered freely, it’s best to limit drinks like squashes, smoothies, milk, and fruit juice to designated meal or snack times.
8. Treat all foods equally
Have you ever called chocolate a ‘treat?’ Have you ever incentivised eating dinner with a yummy pudding?
Have you ever offered sweets to ‘make it feel better’ when your child falls and scrapes their knee?
Most of us have at one time or another. It may well be how our parents raise us. We use food to feel better, to celebrate or reward.
But when the foods we choose to do this with are sweet foods, we inadvertently make them more desirable than everything else, because an emotion has been attached to them.
A yummy pudding as a reward for finishing their dinner is a guaranteed way of making sweet foods more desirable to your child than anything else on offer.
But here’s the thing….
Sweet foods really don’t need any extra help, because children automatically love them. They are born with a preference for sweet tasting foods, it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism to help babies seek out the breast at birth, breast milk is naturally sweet.
And you can’t fight this preference for sweet foods. It stays with your child right through childhood and the teenage years.
So, if sweet foods have always been labelled treats here’s what to do, just keep offeringing them in appropriate portion sizes, alongside all the other food you offer, but lose the emotive words that go along with it.
Don’t’ call them treats, call them by their name.
Make dessert an everyday part of meals if your family has them, let it come as standard. Desserts are actually a great opportunity for additional nutrition.
9. Make food fun for a picky eater
Have you ever heard that “we eat with our eyes first”?
This means that how food looks can really affect whether we want to eat it or not. For children especially, if a meal doesn’t look appealing, they’ll likely decline to try it.
Some parents get creative. They use shape cutters or even make smiley faces with the food to make it more appealing.
Use colourful plates, and when choosing the menu, go for a mix of colours and shapes. It makes the meal table look more inviting.
Likewise the flavour of food can work for you too, make sure it smells nice and tastes nice even if that means using salt or adding butter. Remember food doesn’t count as nutrition until it’s eaten.
10. Boost activity levels to boost appetite
I’m sure you’ll know that after a really active day you’re just starving?
Well, that’s how children feel too. The more they run around and play, the hungrier they get. And when they’re hungry, they’re more open to trying new foods.
So, if it’s sunny outside, get them moving and having fun in the run up to mealtimes.
But here’s the flip side: if they’re tired, they might not want to eat much. Inface they’ll just get ‘hangry’. That’s why dinner can be one of the trickiest meals for picky eaters.
It’s just before bedtime, after all.
Here’s a suggestion, make lunch the main meal of the day instead of putting the focus on dinner. And plan some high-energy activities for the morning.
That way, by lunchtime, they’ll be ready to eat and maybe even try something new!
How to get a child to try new foods
Essentially, you don’t!!
Whether a child tries a food or not is their choice. Our job is to help them feel confident and able to do so.
You can create a positive environment, you can help them to learn about food and increase their confidence at mealtimes, you can provide nutritious meals but this is where your role ends.
Learning to eat involves a whopping 32 step process for each and every food.
Before you see your child try a new food, you might notice them gradually interacting with the food a little more than they did the last time that you offered it.
How can we help?
If after reading this you’d like to consider getting help for your child, you are welcome to book a discovery call with Sarah.