Have a picky eater at home? You're not alone. Though it can be frustrating, picky eating is actually quite common and normal in children, especially in the younger years.
Children often go through stages in taste preferences as they grow. For example, it's typical that your child ate a variety of baby foods until about age 18 months, and then began to refuse certain foods like fruit and vegetables.
Some children may only eat certain vegetables, or hesitate to try new foods, or occasionally aren't hungry at a meal. That's okay. Children learn to try new foods over time.
Focus on what your child does eat, not what they don't
Don't worry too much about what your child eats on any given day. Your job is to offer a balanced diet, and theirs is to eat it or not.
Remember, children pick up on their well-meaning parent's worry about food. So sometimes pushing a child to eat (e.g. Just try it, you might like it!) actually makes them refuse even more forcefully.
In fact, the pressure to eat can lead to an increase in picky eating among children. The opposite, trying to reduce your child's portions, is also true and can push them to eat more whenever they get a chance.
Keep in mind that your child knows how much to eat. So, let you child's hunger be your guide. In time, they'll be tasting new foods, and enjoying them too.
Tips to manage picky eating at mealtimes:
- Be your child's role model: Children learn healthy relationships with food from their parents. Making mealtime a calm, pleasurable and stress-free experience is easier when you as a parent are feeling good and excited about eating. Learn more about your role in feeding your children and making mealtime struggle-free.
- Show them eating is a pleasure: Speak positively about what you're eating and model the enjoyment of trying healthy foods - not just because they are good for you, but because they taste good!
- Make food preparation fun: Involving your child early in healthy food prep means they get more excited about what's on their plate. Visit Better Together BC for easy ways to do it.
- Avoid grazing or drinking juice throughout the day: Similar to adults, children won't eat at mealtime if they aren't hungry. By keeping to a regular snack and meal schedule you avoid snacking too close to a meal.
Introducing new foods
When children always get to enjoy their preferred food, they never learn to like, taste, or even try, new foods. A food refused at first might become a favourite over time.
Children aren't sure what to expect from new foods, so they watch you closely for cues in deciding what to try. Try to compare the new food to something they already know and like (e.g. these taste crunchy like those carrots you like, or these hash browns taste similar to fries).
Tips for encouraging children to eat new foods:
- No pressure/no cheering: Let your child begin to taste new foods when they are ready, without pressure, bribes, or rewards.
- Be patient: Even if a child doesn't like a new food on their first try, keep offering up a variety of foods. Don't be discouraged. Children tent to accept new foods gradually, and their preferences will often expand over time. It can take offering a new food 10 to 15 times before they are willing to taste it, and many more times before they will like it.
- Put favourite and new foods together: When trying a new food, include another food that your child already likes along with it. Children prefer what's familiar, so try one new food at a time, and connect it to a taste they already know (e.g. this is kind of sweet, like that pizza sauce you like!). Or, if your child loves english muffins, top one with a new food you'd like them to try.
- Prepare food in different ways: Try using different cooking methods when preparing food, and experiment with shapes, temperatures, and colours. Bright and colourful fruit and veggies, and food made in bite-sized pieces like finger foods, often work well.
- Make it a family meal: While it's tempting to cater to individual tastes, try not to be a short-order cook. Make a decision about what you will service the family, and stick to it. There should be one food on the table you know your child will eat. Offer choice and variety within the meal.
- Provide plenty of food choices: Keep experimenting with foods to see how your child reacts to them. By providing more choices, you're more likely to find foods that your picky eater actually enjoys. Just remember to do so without pressure or expectations.
More 'Extreme' picky eating
Children with mental health challenges, particularly with autism spectrum disorder, may have trouble eating foods with certain tastes, textures, colours, smells or temperatures (known as sensory aversion).
Some examples include:
- Textures - Your child may be unable to handle certain textures (e.g. slimy or sticky). For example, your child won't eat soft or squishy foods, and only wants crunchy foods instead.
- Smells - Your child is over-sensitive to certain smells (they feel them more intensely). For example, your child can't be in the same room when you're cooking because the smell of rice makes them feel like gagging.
- Flavour - Your child finds foods either too salty, spicy, sweet, sour/bitter, or strongly prefers a flavour. For example, your child wants to cover everything in ketchup.
Tips for feeding children with sensory sensitivities:
- Keep a food diary: Find out what they like or don't like, and why if they can express it. The easiest way to keep track is by writing things down. Things to track include:
- Whether they always, sometimes, or never eat that food
- Organize foods into categories such as taste, texture, colour, smell, and temperature
- Try to break it down further. If they like cheese a lot, is it mostly because of the flavour or the smooth creamy texture?
- Use preferences to encourage new foods: Serve what your child likes and then use their preferences to introduce new, similar foods. If your child eats mostly foods that are crisp and crunchy, keep that in mind. Then introduce other foods that are crunchy as well (e.g. a salad with nuts, crunchy noodles, or raw vegetables).
- Change the texture of food: You can often prepare a food in different ways to change the texture. For example, try crunchy veggies vs cooked veggies, fresh apples vs apple sauce. If meat is too touch or chewy, when done in a slow cooker it often pulls apart and requires less chewing.
- Mask flavours with sauces: Add a favourite sauce, or let your child choose their condiments (e.g. ketchup, dips). It will mask flavour as they get used to texture. Then reduce the sauce slowly as the food becomes accepted.
- Pay attention to the food environment: Triggers like sounds and lighting can be an additional sensitivity. This could be the sounds of food when your child eats, or the sounds of others eating. Depending, it may be helpful to have music playing in the background or important to find a quiet place to eat at school, for example.
- Add a multivitamin: If your child is not eating a balanced diet, a daily multivitamin can help them get the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals. Sometimes supplements can interact with medications, so check first with your physician or pharmacist.
Remember, it's important to serve new foods all the time and keep offering variety. But don't force your child to touch, taste, or eat a food. Be patient and do your best to keep the experience calm. Keep calm and feed on.
A word about picky eating and sensory challenges: When to get more support
If your child has sensory issues around the texture of foods, or has severe food aversions, they may benefit from seeing an occupational therapist, behavioural therapist, or dietitian.
If the sensitivity or feeding problem consistently impacts your child's ability to eat a balanced diet (e.g. they are missing an entire food group such as fruit or veggies), or you are concerned about their growth, it's a good idea to reach out for support from a health professional.
Is your child not eating at all? Learn more about eating challenges such as Avoidant/Restrictive Eating Disorder (ARFID).