Have you ever felt as if your child is a picky eater?  Maybe your child will only eat certain tastes or textures, or maybe your child won’t even sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family.  Some people will tell you that your child will “grow out of it” but sometimes there is more to picky eating than meeting a milestone. Often, there are underlying sensory concerns, social-emotional issues, or motor delays that can impact your child’s ability to eat a variety of foods. It is important for your child to get the nutritional variety he/she needs in order to grow and develop into a healthy adult. 

Here are ten questions to ask yourself to determine if your child’s picky eating is something to be concerned about.

1. Does my child eat at least one food from each food group?  A well-balanced diet is important for child development. Half of your child’s plate should be fruits and vegetables. Whole grains and lean proteins like chicken, fish, and beans add healthy nutritional value. Eating a balanced meal helps kids have more energy, boosts their immune systems, and decreases their risk of obesity among many other benefits. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 has detailed information about nutritional recommendations and is sorted by age group.

2. Does my child have a “list” of preferred foods, and these are the only foods my child will eat?  If you can count how many foods your child will eat, they are more than likely not getting a good nutritional variety.  This can be more challenging or stressful for parents when your child will only eat a specific brand or flavor of a food. Try expanding your child’s list of foods by making small changes to a preferred food. For example, if your child likes chicken nuggets, will they try a different brand of chicken nuggets? Could they try a new dipping sauce?

3. Does my child tolerate other foods being presented on his/her plate, on the table? Some children can be hypersensitive to the sight or smell of a food to the point where they cannot even tolerate the food being near them. If your child cannot tolerate other people eating foods that the child does not like nearby, your child may have sensory processing concerns that are limiting his/her tolerance of food varieties.

4. Does my child become upset or gag when someone else is eating a non-preferred food nearby?  This again, could be related to sensory processing concerns. It’s possible your child is unable to tolerate the sight, sound, or smell of the food being consumed by another person.

5. Is meal time stressful? When one or more children are distressed at meal time, whether he/she does not want to come to the table or will not eat the meal you have prepared, it can be stressful for the entire family. Try creating a less stressful environment. Here is a suggestion to start, if your child won’t even come to the table at mealtime, try serving preferred meals without pressure to try anything new or different so that your child will be comfortable sitting at the table with the family consistently.

6. Do I make a separate meal for my child and the rest of the family or do I only prepare foods that I know my child will eat?  This is a common challenge for parents, especially with younger children. In order to avoid some of the stress of picky eating, parents will frequently resort to preparing a preferred meal for their child.

7. Does my child only eat certain tastes, textures, or temperatures?  If so, this could be related to the way your child processes sensory information.

8. Does my child seem anxious at mealtimes?  If your child appears anxious at mealtimes, they may have had negative feeding experiences in the past. This could be choking on a food as an infant, or having a well-meaning caregiver try to “force” the child to eat a food. Remember, try to keep mealtimes calm, and don’t try to manipulate or force your child to eat a certain food. 

9. Is my child’s food intake less than is expected for his/her age? This is a hard question because many parents don’t know what the recommended serving size is for an infant, toddler, or younger child. Check out some of the great resources at  MyPlate | U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure your child is getting the amount of food he/she needs based on age.

10. Is my child at an expected weight for his/her age? If your child is underweight and seems to be a picky eater, you can “bulk up” the calories in the foods that he/she will eat to ensure your child is getting the calories that they need. For example, try adding nut butters or olive oil to a preferred food. Even though parents typically think of picky eaters as being underweight, your child may be overweight or at expected weight for his/her age and not getting the nutrition that he/she needs by eating a balanced diet. You can find out if your child is at a healthy weight by checking his/her BMI. (Calculate Your BMI – Standard BMI Calculator (nih.gov))

Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters

Meal times do not have to be stressful for you and your family. The tips below can help alleviate tension while promoting a nutritionally balanced diet for your picky eater.

  • Family meal times at a table are best for promoting social-emotional development and for creating bonds and memories between children and parents. Encourage your child to join your family at the table for meals. You may have to tweak their plates to make this a comfortable experience. Make sure to include your child in the conversation at the table, and not to zone in on whether or not they are eating their meal. 
  • A great place to start to encourage positive eating habits is to continue preparing preferred meals to reduce stress for the child at meal time. To introduce new foods and expand their menu, try adding a new “side dish” or dipping sauce. Make small changes to the meal to see how the child responds.
  • Modify preferred foods. Perhaps your child typically only likes grilled cheese, but maybe your child would be open to trying a different kind of cheese or a wheat bread vs a white bread.  This is a way to safely allow your child to explore a new taste or texture to build confidence to try other new or different foods.
  • Try to help your child be successful with trying something new by allowing them to try it but be ok with your child not liking the food. Don’t give up if it seems like your child will never try something new.  It can take 8-15 exposures of a new food before the food is accepted by the child.
  • Make sure to always serve at least one preferred food at mealtimes and support your child as he/she attempts to try new foods.  One of the most important things you can do is to continue to present new foods to your child, even if he/she does not try it.

How to Handle Picky Eaters

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, talk to your family doctor. Your child may benefit from an occupational therapy evaluation to look at sensory processing concerns, social-emotional dynamics at family mealtime, and oral-motor skills. The trained pediatric OT therapist at Niagara Therapy, LLC can help determine the root cause of your child’s picky eating and provide help to encourage less stress at mealtime for both you and your child while promoting trying new foods. Mealtimes don’t have to be stressful! Contact Niagara Therapy, LLC today for a consultation

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