Neuroatypical or typical, picky eating is very common among little growing children. In the early formative years, underlying developmental issues could cause your child to reject certain foods. In some cases, these issues go away as the child’s neurological and sensory systems mature and, in some cases, persist through adolescent and adult years. Some pediatric experts even believe that picky eating is biological and that the child’s brain chooses foods that help them sustain the best!
Regardless, those ‘picky eater’ years can be very stressful for parents. This is because eating is an essential activity for nourishment and is associated with specific social expectations (like how you conduct yourself at mealtimes or holiday meals). So parents must address not only the nutrition concerns with picky eating but also challenging behaviors in social situations.
To hear straight from the source, we interviewed many families to listen to their views on the topic of picky eating.
What is picky eating?
Parents define picky eating from four different perspectives:
- Nutrition challenges: Many picky eaters have a limited food repertoire. Also, parents worry that their child’s nutritional needs are not being met. When a kid eats nothing but chicken nuggets and mac n cheese, a parent is naturally concerned. Parents worry they are not getting all the food groups for development and growth.
- Behavior challenges: Mealtimes can be pretty unpleasant for the child and the family due to many factors:
- Parents try to force their kids to eat when they are not ready or averse to certain foods.
- Underlying digestive issues or pain associated with feeding can make kids act out at mealtimes.
- Some kids have certain obsessive behaviors like eating only a particular brand or specific order.
- Pervasive habits like the dependence on on-screen time during feeding, like watching TV or iPad as a distraction to eat.
- Sensory Sensitivities: Many children, especially those that are autistic, have underlying sensory issues that cause food aversions. This can be as simple as certain textures or consistencies to as complex as painful gut issues.
- Social issues: As mealtimes are a vital part of our social life – family gatherings, holidays, and parties, accomodating a picky eater can be very stressful. These occasions can expose parents to judgment and criticism, which may cause the family to avoid social situations, resulting in isolation.
In addition to these specific categories of challenges, an over-arching sentiment expressed by parents is the challenge a picky eater poses to household workload.
How much of a problem is picky eating?
Parent responses clustered into three main vectors;
- Every picky eater situation is unique, and issues change over time.
- Parents do not get adequate support from their care providers on this topic.
- It is one of the most common causes of family stress that also results in social isolation, especially during holidays and family gatherings.
“As parents who took pride in eating healthy and never leaving mealtimes without scraping our plates clean, we were in for a bit of surprise when our little boy was born. Early feeding years were easy peasy. Then the picky eating years began with massive meltdowns at mealtimes. No peas, no eggs, no fruit, no milk, no, no! no! no! Slowly but surely, we became ‘that’ family who brought our son’s dinner to family parties and holiday gatherings. We braced ourselves for some choice words from grandma on our crappy parenting every time. Our fridge and pantry were overstocked with the same few things our son would eat. What were we doing wrong? Is he growing okay? Will he manage as an adult? Forget that, how will we manage the next meal time?!” – Lisa and Fred on their picky eater Sammy
Who can help parents with their picky eater problems?
No parent ever said I don’t need help! However, many had no idea who would be the right person to help them. So we put together a list of key people that can provide coaching and guidance on this topic:
- Experienced parent: A momma who has raised a picky eater and navigated her way through it, especially if she has experience with sensory issues, behaviors, or gut issues.
- Holistic nutritionists specializing in little children: holistic coaching has become very popular in the last few years. Holistic practitioners look at the whole child and family background to recommend practical solutions and even recipes.
- Occupational therapists: Surprised? Yes! a pediatric OT is well qualified to help identify underlying issues like sensory sensitivities and environment. They also have clever tips and tricks to address various day-to-day problems associated with picky eaters.
If you are looking for an expert to help you, visit the vitalxchange website.
Picky eating truths
We learned some fundamental truths and myth busters from parents and our VitalGuides. These could be useful for you as you deal with your little picky eaters.
- Every day is a new day – to try new things – new foods, new environments, new tricks. Your child’s brain is growing and they are maturing…who knows what pleasant surprises tomorrow will bring. Just keep trying!
- For those families rooted firmly in tradition, it is important to remember that all children need peer acceptance. So pushing them to eat culturally specific foods (read ‘weird’ from the child’s point of view ) in a public setting (e.g school lunch or gym) could create unhealthy (and life-long) prejudices towards food in general.
- Parents are not perfect by any means! This means that we need to be aware not to let our poor food habits influence our children. A good part of diseases correlated to ‘family-history’ are not actually genetic, but related to bad food habits and traditions transmitted from generation to generation.
- Those little eyes are always watching; those little ears are always hearing. Always presume competence and model through example how you eat and the choices you make.
- No matter the situation, try to avoid foods with harmful ingredients like food colors, excessive sugars and sweeteners and those with zero nutritive value (candy, soda pop). Bad foods will adversely affect behavior and health under all circumstances and lifelong.
A big win for a little picky eater and his mom!
“I’m celebrating my son’s first time eating spaghetti. He has pretty much only eaten like 5 foods his whole life. He doesn’t even eat dessert or candy…. We’ve been working hard to expand his choices to make life easier …. Today, he ate spaghetti! This adds another food that the whole family can eat together and reduces my household workload. You are helping people reach little life celebrations like this one.” – SNS, mom of four.
Great reads on food and nutrition from Vitalxchange
Yummy and simple sensory-friendly recipes
Holiday traditions for the neurodiverse
Causes of Meltdowns (hint: food sensitivities)