May 7, 2023

When is picky eating a problem?

when is picky eating a problem

It is normal for toddlers to go through a phase where they are fussy about food. It often goes along with a healthy desire to assert their independence from us at around 18 and 24 months. If extremely selective or restricted picky eating carries on for an extended period of time and may be affecting your child’s health it is worth deeper investigation.

According to Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, parents tend to become concerned if there child has reached 7 or 8 and is still eating a severely restricted range of foods. This can be a worry if a child is undernourished or failing to gain weight. 

Sympathy for fussy eaters

As parents, often we need to dig a little deeper to figure out why your child is struggling with food, it could be linked to a number of possible causes. Sometimes OCD or anxiety have a role to play – these could be linked to something your child is experiencing at school, a past event which was traumatic for them. It could be linked to a developmental shift which causes them to perceive the world differently. Some children have a heightened sense of taste, smell or touch which can make certain foods really unpleasant for them. This sensitivity sometimes fades over time but is an important reason to respect our child’s boundaries and not force them to eat foods they feel an aversion to. It is hard to know what the inner, subjective experience of a toddler is like, often we need to guess or infer from their behaviour. 

Get curious about your child’s world and see if you can imagine how they might be experiencing things. 

Older children might be able to describe their experiences around food. If you are approaching the subject with them it is important to do so at a time when they feel safe and relaxed. Let them know that you understand and can empathise with their feelings, give them time to express themselves. If they are not used to talking about food they may need time to put into words how they are feeling. 

See if you can come up with solutions with them, for example, ways they can feel more relaxed at meal times and foods that they might be willing to try. You may also need to explore if there are other factors causing stress and worry. Sometimes things which seem small to us as adults can seem overwhelming to a child such as going up a year in school or a friend moving away. Try to gather as much information as possible about your child. 

Growing Independence

The lovely thing about being a child is that you have people to do your laundry, cook your food, plan your social life (which sounds great to me at the moment!). The downside is that children have less choice and agency within their lives. Sometimes food can be a place where they express their desire for greater control. Finding age appropriate ways for them to express their autonomy can help them to meet this need.

When is picky eating a problem? Parenting Support from Journey into Parenting

It is normal for toddlers to go through a fussy phase, my son went through this at about 1 and a half and for a while would only eat yoghurt and bananas. I remember sharing my panicked feelings at a parent and child group. Often this is linked to their first foray into independence from us.

I found it helpful to lay out a selection of healthy “finger foods”, soft strips of things like cooked veg, cheese, toast or fruit. This allows the child to assert their independence by choosing for themselves what they would like to eat. This approach means we get to protect our children by offering nutritious foods which are good for their growing bodies. Some children will continue to favour this style of eating up until the age of twelve.

Toddlers can sometimes favour a certain food on a certain day, but pay attention to what they eat over the course of a week – there will usually be a good balance. Don’t be afraid to offer foods which they have previously refused, it can sometimes take several samplings (and mushing ups – a great way to get friendly with new textures) for a child to enjoy a food.

Avoid using food as a reward or incentive

I remember doing this when my son was small and was grateful when a friend picked me up on it! I understand the temptation. I would occasionally use delicious chocolatety blackmail in moments of desperation when he didn’t want to go into his car seat and I was running late. However, for our children to develop a healthy relationship with food it is important that they learn to listen to their body’s hunger signals and cravings. If we incentivise with food this can cause the child to associate food with acceptance or approval instead of a way to sustain the body.

Family meal times can be an important daily ritual, a time for us to interact and hear about each other’s lives. It is normal for young children to struggle when the attention is not on them so dinner conversation may need to be adapted so that they feel included. The pleasurable feelings we get from eating have the potential to become associated with family time. Involving children in food preparation also has numerous benefits including improving their relationship with food, learning life skills and the rush of self esteem which comes with knowing that they can contribute.

In conclusion, picky eating is not always a problem and we can often find creative ways to support your child to eat a balanced diet until they are ready for stronger flavours. It’s important to consider other possible causes such as OCD and anxiety and working with a qualified therapist or coach can be a great help. Reach out if this is an area you feel you need help with by booking a free consultation here.

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