What’s behind picky eating and how to overcome it

What’s behind picky eating and how to overcome it

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Nearly half of all toddlers exhibit some picky eating behavior.

  • Food textures, allergies, and previous bad experiences can all lead to picky eating.

  • Drs. Lisa Hoang and Jonathan Maynard share tips on helping children develop healthy eating habits.

If your child is a picky eater, you’re not alone. Evidence suggests up to 50% of toddlers and 25% of older children frown at something on their plates. It’s frustrating if you don’t know why your child refuses some foods but embraces others. There are many reasons and having a few tricks up your sleeve when they push the plate away can be helpful.

Recently, we listened to a conversation between Dr. Lisa Hoang and Dr. Jonathan Maynard, two pediatricians at Mission Heritage Medical Group who are also parents of young children. They discussed some of the reasons behind picky eating and offered tips you can use to help your child build a healthy diet. Here are some highlights.

 

The webinar is produced by Providence Mission Hospital.

How do eating habits develop in children?

Dr. Hoang: There are different eating stages where children have different abilities. From 0-4 months, they’re exclusively breastfed or formula-fed, and they only have enough muscle for a liquid diet. Around 4-6 months, if they have good neck strength and can manipulate food in their mouths, you can introduce some solids and purees.

By 9-12 months, they’re more sophisticated in handling solid foods and will be interested in the foods you’re eating. Cut up some food into small pieces the size of the tip of your pinky and offer it. Be sure it’s a mashable food like soft vegetables or soft meats.

When do children start developing their long-term eating habits?

Dr. Hoang: Around a year, they’ll start to eat two or three meals with snacks in between. Your child will have the finger dexterity to pick up foods and put them in their mouth. So, let them join you at the table.

When does the picky eating – the refusal of foods – start?

Dr. Hoang: Around 6-12 months is the prime time for your child to start refusing things. They can throw, toss, or push things around. They may also be learning to say “no.” They think it’s fun to see you struggle a bit. It’s a trial-and-error process with food, but it’s normal.

They’re also developing a sense of how things feel in their mouth. They’re learning new textures. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want the food or that they’re being picky. The food is just new to them, and they’re refusing it for now.

What else can affect whether a child will reject food?

Dr. Hoang: Teeth emerge between 6-12 months, so their gums may hurt. They’re also very susceptible to peer pressure at this age. Whether they’re in daycare, school, or at home, if they see other kids at the table pushing things away, they’re more likely to model that behavior.

Some children may have developmental delays or sensory disorders that make them pickier eaters. Other times, it’s food allergies or intolerances or it could be an adverse association. For example, if your child ate chicken soup and became nauseated during their last illness, they might assume they don’t like chicken soup.

How can parents improve their child’s picky eating?

Dr. Maynard: Offer milk only at the end of the meal. Children will ask for multiple glasses. It fills them up and prevents them from eating more of their food. Have them drink water instead.

Minimize snacks and set a mealtime where everyone eats the same food together. Much like lunch and snack time at daycare or school, it sets the expectation that it’s time to eat. You don’t want to be a short-order cook for your child. Shared meals are also a great opportunity to model good eating habits. Your child could be curious about what you’re eating and be willing to try something new.

Can parents avoid triggers that lead to picky eating?

Dr. Maynard: Yes, avoid screen time at meals. It’s a distraction and commercials can introduce unhealthy foods to your child. Consider driving a different route home to avoid fast-food restaurants. If your child doesn’t see it, they’re less likely to request it.

Keep sweets and snacks in a special location your child can’t see right away. This reduces the struggle over snacks versus healthy foods.

What tactics should parents avoid with a picky eater?

Dr. Hoang: Avoid using food as a reward. It’s difficult but try not to offer ice cream if they eat their dinner. It’s OK to do it every now and then, but you don’t want it to become an expectation.

Avoid punishments related to food, too. If your child associates food and mealtimes with punishment, they could develop an adverse association that will lead them to dislike a food long term.

How can parents make meals more enjoyable?

Dr. Hoang: Make food fun. Give smaller kids foods they can hold with their fingers. Keep flavors simple but offer variety. Even though it’s messy, let your child cook with you. They’ll be more likely to eat foods they helped prepare.

Try different sauces and dips and let your child experiment with different utensils like chopsticks. Consider giving them a play plate where they can play with their food while you feed them from another plate.

Use their imagination to your advantage. If they love dinosaurs, pretend to be one while you eat. Give foods funny names like “little trees” for broccoli or “dinosaur food” for bok choy.

How can the rest of the family help?

Dr. Hoang: Ask everyone else to model good eating habits in front of your child. If they don’t like something, that’s fine. Just don’t say “yuck” or push the food away.

If your child rejects something because it isn’t their favorite, show them that sometimes we must eat things we aren’t excited about. For example, even if Dad doesn’t like macaroni and cheese, serve it one night. Explain that sometimes you’ll eat foods your child really likes and other times they can try ones you enjoy, too.

Overall, what is your parting advice for parents?

Dr. Hoang: Have patience and stay positive. Focus on the long-term goals. Overcoming picky eating is a day-to-day thing. One day, your child will like one thing. Another day it will be something different. Eventually, they’ll have a great meal.

Listen to the full podcast

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Related resources

How to End the Picky Eating Struggle

10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Picky Eaters and What to Do

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.