Picky Eating What’s Normal and What’s Not

If you have a picky eater at home, you're not alone. Many young children go through phases where they refuse to try new foods. While this can be frustrating for parents, it's important to understand that there are usually underlying reasons for a child's behavior.

In this blog post, we'll explore what is a picky eater and when to look for help. If you have a picky eater at home, you're not alone.

Many children go through phases where they refuse to try new foods. While this can be frustrating for parents, it's important to understand if there are underlying reasons for your child's picky eating, or if it is just normal developmental behavior. In this blog post, we'll explore the possible causes of picky eating habits, how to handle picky eating, and when to seek out help.

Kids can be picky eaters from a young age.  It could be totally normal for their age and developmental age for a child refuses certain foods. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong. Some kids may just prefer different foods over others. 

However, if you notice that your child only wants very limited foods and you worry about their nutrition, then it might be time to consult your doctor. Your child may have difficulties with oral sensory defensiveness, oral motor difficulties, pediatric feeding disorder, or ARFID. 

What is the definition of a typical eater?

A typical childhood eater is someone who has a varied diet, eating a wide variety of foods from all food groups. They may have their own food preferences, but overall they are getting adequate good nutrition and will eat over 30 foods.  

It is important to note that 30 foods INCLUDES variations of foods. So if your child eats 2 different types of the same food (for example grilled chicken and chicken nuggets), it counts twice. 

The typical eater will have foods in their diet that includes both crunchy and soft foods. They will eat at least some from each food group. And they will be getting enough nutrition. 

What is the definition of a picky eater?

A picky eater is a child who is very selective about the foods they eat and may only eat a limited range of foods. They typically have 15-30 foods they will eat on a regular basis. They may be missing foods from certain food groups, but overall their nutrition is adequate.  

Picky eating is when a child's diet is limited but they are still receiving adequate nutrition. Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters.

Why is my child a picky eater?

Picky eating can be caused by:

  • Dislikes different textures
  • Rejecting foods of certain colors
  • Normal developmental stage
  • Lack of variety in their diet early on
  • Difficulty with oral motor abilities caused by decreased jaw strength or low muscle tone

When does picky eating become a problem?

If picky eating is starting to become a problem, it may be worth consulting with a pediatrician or nutritionist to rule out any potential underlying causes.

When should I consult a doctor? If your child:

  • Is not getting adequate nutrition
  • Does not eat any foods from a certain food group
  • Your child rejects foods based on texture  
  • Has difficulty chewing meats
  • Eats less than 15 foods

Does your child have a hard time staying calm?

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Why do kids have aversions to certain foods?

There are a number of reasons why kids might have or develop aversions to certain foods. Some may have experienced negative reactions to specific foods in the past, while others may simply be less adventurous eaters. 

They may also have oral defensiveness (which means they do not like certain food textures) or difficulties with oral motor control (jaw strength or low muscle tone). If you suspect either of these issues, ask your pediatrician for a referral to an OT or SLP who specializes in feeding.

What is PFD Pediatric feeding disorder?

Pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) is beyond pickiness.  The child has an oral intake that is not age-appropriate and is associated with medical, nutritional, or feeding skill dysfunction. It is characterized by extreme food selectivity with less than 15 foods eaten.

There are nutritional concerns when a child excludes more than one food group from their diet. They also have a skill deficit that interferes with eating. 

A child with a feeding disorder has nutritional, weight gain, or growth concerns.  Early intervention is key! Pediatric occupational therapists are experienced with working with children with sensory defensiveness if that is the main concern. Many OTs and SLPs are also experienced in working with children with feeding difficulties that are caused by sensory issues or oral motor deficits.

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What is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)?

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder characterized by an intense restriction of the amount and type of food consumed. Unlike anorexia, those with ARFID are not concerned about their body image, shape, or size. It can lead to delayed weight gain and growth in children and dangerous weight loss, as well as difficulty maintaining basic body functions, in adults.  It is a mental health diagnosis. ARFID is more than extreme picky eating. It differs from PFD as children with a feeding disorder also have a feeding skill deficit. 

What to do if your child is just a picky eater with no other concerns?

If your child is just picky about eating, it may be helpful to encourage your child to try new foods and explore different flavors. But do not require them to eat the new foods. Avoid power struggles!

You can ease their transition by introducing new foods one at a time, preferably through smaller portions. Try offering them colorful fruits and vegetables instead of limiting them to the same old sweets for example. Help your child discover new tastes and expand their palate.

Offer foods you are eating to your children at the dinner table or during family meals.  Have a variety of foods available.  Serve new foods along with the preferred foods. If you must provide a separate meal, add the other foods to the plate as well.

If your child is currently going through a phase of fussy eating, it's important to understand that there may be underlying reasons for their behavior. But if they are just going through a normal developmental phase, you can help by being patient and offering encouragement, but not pushing to expand their repertoire of foods.

Picky eating can be very frustrating for parents and caregivers.  I hope this article helps you understand when to encourage your child to eat more and when to speak to your healthcare provider about feeding therapy or an occupational therapy evaluation.

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