There are various reasons why children may become picky eaters. Some children have a heightened sensitivity to taste, smell, and texture, while others may adopt picky eating habits by observing their parents’ own selective eating behaviors. When parents resort to punishments, bribes, or rewards regarding their children’s eating habits, it increases the likelihood of picky eating habits developing. The main objective when feeding a picky eater should be to encourage the exploration of new foods while avoiding conflicts related to food.
What is Picky Eating and What Creates Picky Eaters
Picky eating can vary greatly among individuals, encompassing different eating preferences and intensities. However, if we were to consolidate the diverse experiences of picky eaters into one definition, it would describe it as the avoidance of specific foods, textures, flavors, or other elements related to food and eating.
When dealing with picky eaters, many people wonder how they can help their child overcome their pickiness. However, before seeking solutions, it is essential to comprehend the underlying causes of picky eating.
Picky eaters are not all the same, as their avoidance of certain foods can stem from various factors. Some children simply dislike the taste of particular foods, while others are averse to certain textures. For some, there may be a strong physical reaction such as gagging, spitting, or difficulty swallowing when encountering avoided foods, while others may simply prefer not to consume those items. The severity of their aversion and their reaction to specific foods can provide insights into the root causes of their picky eating behavior.
In some cases, picky eating can be attributed to Neophobia (the fear or dislike of new and unfamiliar experiences). Trying new foods introduces children to a range of novel sensations, including flavors, textures, and smells. These sensory experiences are typically part of what makes eating enjoyable and exciting. However, for certain individuals, these new sensations can be overwhelming or intimidating.
Familiar foods provide comfort and predictability for children who prefer their eating experiences to be just that. While the exact cause of food-related Neophobia is not fully understood, some studies suggest that it can be an inherited trait. This means that the parents have Neophobic tendencies, there is a higher likelihood of them also exhibiting such behavior.
There is also a connection between picky eating and the timing of introducing different foods during childhood. If a toddler becomes accustomed to eating a limited variety of foods and settles into a routine, they are more prone to developing picky eating habits. For instance, if they are not exposed to tart foods at an early stage, they may develop an aversion to such flavors.
In cases where a picky eater experiences bodily reactions like gagging or spitting when consuming certain foods, their pickiness may be attributed to sensory food aversion. Individuals with sensory food aversion have heightened sensory responses to specific aspects of their food, such as temperature, texture, taste, or smell. Due to this heightened sensitivity, eating these foods can be overwhelming and unpleasant for them.
Is Picky Eating Unhealthy?
Picky eating can be frustrating for everyone involved, and for parents, it often stems from concern about their child’s health. A well-balanced diet is crucial for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but picky eating can hinder the achievement of such a diet, impacting nutrition.
The effects of picky eating on nutrition may vary from person to person, but there are common trends that parents should be aware of. One of the primary consequences of picky eating in children is difficulty in maintaining a healthy weight. Extremely picky eaters, especially those with sensory food aversion, may find eating to be a chore due to the limited number of foods they enjoy. As a result, they may not consume sufficient quantities of food to meet their nutritional needs. While being underweight is not always a direct health risk, it can indicate malnutrition, indicating that the child is not receiving the necessary nutrients for proper growth and development.
Interestingly, picky eating can also have the opposite effect on a child’s weight. Since picky eaters often avoid fruits, vegetables, and opt for carbohydrates, particularly refined carbs, and processed foods, their diets can be high in these items. Consuming excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates and processed foods can lead to weight gain. Once again, this highlights the issue of picky eaters not acquiring the essential nutrients they require.
In essence, it is important for children (and picky eater adults) to consume a variety of whole foods, including fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Unfortunately, these are often the foods that picky eaters tend to avoid the most. Without incorporating fresh produce, unprocessed meats, and whole grains into their diet, it becomes challenging for picky eaters to obtain adequate amounts of fiber, protein, and essential vitamins necessary for their growing bodies.
Strategies for How to Deal with Picky Eaters
Now that it’s clear that picky eating is not healthy or ideal, the next step is to explore strategies to help picky eaters expand their tastes. Fortunately, there are various approaches available; it’s just a matter of selecting the right strategy for the situation.
Research suggests that many food aversions can be overcome through repeated exposure. This means that a picky eater might develop a liking for a food they previously avoided if they are consistently exposed to it. For example, if a child dislikes tomatoes, offering them tomatoes in various forms and repeatedly introducing them to the food may eventually lead to them enjoying it. This concept aligns with the idea of acquiring a taste for certain foods.
Children are influenced by modeling behavior. If you don’t eat your vegetables, there’s a good chance your child won’t either. Avoid preparing separate meals for yourself and your child; instead, sit down together and eat the same food. Show your picky eater that you genuinely enjoy the foods they are hesitant about. Furthermore, preparing food in different ways can help a child explore new foods. If they dislike raw carrots, try steaming them as an alternative method of preparation.
Here are six practical tips to make feeding your fussy eater easier.
- Offer your child options: As children develop a sense of autonomy, they may want more control over what they eat. Instead of forcing them to eat a specific food, provide healthy options and let them choose. For example, ask if they prefer carrots or green beans. This approach addresses their need for autonomy and can solve the problem of resistance to certain foods.
- Avoid preparing separate meals: Children observe and imitate their parents’ behavior. When you prepare a meal, sit down together and eat the same food. As they see you enjoying the meal, they may be more inclined to try it too. Within the meal, provide choices (e.g., peas vs. broccoli), but don’t allow them to opt out and choose an entirely different meal.
- Establish and maintain routines: Children thrive in environments with established routines, including mealtime. Many picky eating behaviors stem from a fear of the unfamiliar. By creating predictable and consistent mealtime routines, you can provide a sense of security. Set specific blocks of time each day for meals and be consistent with when and where you eat with your children.
- Be patient and avoid forcing: It’s unlikely that your child will suddenly love a disliked food overnight. Acquiring a taste for new foods takes time and repeated exposure. Your child may initially spit out or reject a food they’re not accustomed to, and that’s okay. Give them time to adjust and continue offering opportunities to try different items.
- Vary the preparation: While repeated exposure is important, it doesn’t mean you should only serve the food in the same way until they like it. If your child dislikes raw bell peppers, for example, try different cooking methods such as grilling or sauteing. Also, remember that there are many other healthy foods available besides the one they’re avoiding. Don’t hesitate to offer a variety of nutritious options like carrots, broccoli, or green beans.
- Consider feeding therapy: If you have an extremely picky eater or a child with sensory food aversion, feeding therapy could be an option worth considering. Feeding therapy can be particularly helpful for children who experience strong aversions to food, such as gagging, coughing, spitting, or choking. While it shouldn’t be the first solution, feeding therapy can be beneficial when other strategies have been unsuccessful in helping your child develop a positive relationship with food.
Credit: Ask the scientists