Is Your Child a Picky Eater?
Is it common for children to be picky eaters? Should I be worried? If you have a toddler or young child, you may have thought about these questions. But rest assured, if your little one lives on a diet of crackers, and mac and cheese, you’re not alone!
Juggling your children’s nutritional needs alongside work, school, and other responsibilities can be stressful. Here’s what you should know about picky eating, when feeding therapy might be necessary, and how to help your child explore new foods.
What defines a picky eater?
How can you determine if your child is a picky eater? A picky eater consumes a limited range of foods and avoids trying new ones. For instance, they may repeatedly eat the same food while rejecting any other options.
Is it normal for kids to be picky eaters? Research indicates that picky eating can affect up to 59% of children, which is quite significant! Picky eating is often considered a “developmentally appropriate” behavior, commonly observed between the ages of 2 and 4.
However, if a child consumes fewer than 20 different foods, they are classified as “hyperselective.” Usually, typically developing children tend to become hyperselective around 5 to 7 years old. A hyperselective diet typically consists of what is commonly known as “kid’s menu” foods, such as chicken nuggets, French fries, pizza, and buttered pasta.
When should you be concerned about picky eating?
While picky eating is considered normal within a certain age range, it becomes problematic when a child exhibits a “fight or flight” response when faced with new or non-preferred foods. This response could include running away, hiding, panicking, or shutting down. It might indicate a sensory feeding issue, which would likely benefit from the intervention of a speech-language pathologist specializing in that area.
For instance, some children may exhibit negative reactions to certain food textures, known as sensory aversion. A speech-language pathologist, also referred to as a speech therapist, can assist the child in reducing these negative responses to foods.
What causes picky eating?
Did you know that a toddler’s growth rate significantly slows down after they turn 2? Consequently, once a child reaches the age of 2, they tend to consume less food overall. They might be satisfied with smaller portions. So, that chicken nugget, handful of Goldfish crackers, piece of cheese, and yogurt pouch they had today? It probably suffices for them.
Furthermore, many children have a strong affinity for milk. However, excessive milk consumption can reduce their appetite for other foods since they already feel full. It’s important to avoid letting your child snack all day or fill up on milk so they arrive at mealtimes with hunger. (Note: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children over 2 years old should consume 16 to 20 ounces of milk per day.)
Another aspect to consider is the fear or anxiety associated with trying new foods. Often, a child’s resistance to trying new foods stems from:
- Fear of the unknown taste of the food
- Negative thoughts or memories related to certain foods
- Concerns about potential adverse effects, such as allergies or constipation
- If a child experiences medical issues linked to specific foods, they are unlikely to want to eat those foods again!
Here are some ways to support your selective eater and encourage them to try new foods:
- Alternate offering preferred foods every other day instead of daily to prevent burnout.
- Make small modifications to preferred foods, such as changing their shape or texture. Melt your child’s favorite cheese on toast, introduce a different pasta shape, or transfer a yogurt pouch into a bowl.
- Create a positive environment around food. Use encouraging, calm, and supportive language to reduce the pressure of trying new foods
- Instead of saying “Try it, you’ll like it!” try phrases like “Let’s try this food together.”
- Serve new or non-preferred foods in small portions to minimize potential adverse reactions.
- Encourage your child to learn about foods in different ways. Discuss their appearance, smell, and texture using descriptive language suitable for children.
- Provide a designated “learning plate” or “all-done bowl” where your child can move non-preferred or new foods if they don’t want them on their main plate. This helps reduce their stress of being exposed to unfamiliar foods.
- Involve your child in the food selection process. Let them help create a grocery list and take them along while shopping.
When is therapy necessary for picky eating?
If your child is a picky eater, know that you are not alone. While picky eating can be considered developmentally appropriate, it’s important to recognize when professional intervention is required. Here are some signs that indicate it may be worthwhile to consult a speech therapist:
- Your child consumes an extremely limited range of foods or exclusively sticks to certain foods (e.g., only McDonald’s chicken nuggets).
- Your child consistently panics or withdraws when presented with new or non-preferred foods.
- Your child frequently experiences gagging when attempting new or non-preferred foods.
Treatment from a feeding trained speech therapist
can significantly improve your child’s relationship with food. These professionals can support children and families in expanding their diet in a safe and respectful manner.
Feeding therapy is highly personalized, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a speech therapist if you have concerns. However, it’s important to note that if your child is losing weight or you are worried about malnutrition, be sure to consult your pediatrician.
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