Will my picky eater grow out of it?
This is the million-dollar question for most families where a picky eater is present! It is also where there are so many different answers depending on where you look for information.
No one has a crystal ball so it is impossible to know what will happen to a particular child but, there are definite clues that help us to make a fairly good prediction!
Extreme picky eating
Feeding specialists around the world seem to be settling on a common figure though, when it comes to the extreme end of picky eating. This would apply to approx 5-10% of all children (up to 1 in 10!!) These children are unlikely to grow out of their eating patterns without intervention.
I know from my work and speaking to parents on a daily basis just how many families have children who have very, very narrow diets and often disordered approaches to food.
Many well-meaning friends and relatives will advise you to leave things and believe children will grow out of it on their own (remember Uncle Mike as a child blah blah). And this may be the case. But …
Things to take into account with “wait and see”:
a) how many years does a child eat a really restrictive diet until this occurs?
b) how stressful is it for both them and you?
c) how socially isolating is it for the child and the rest of the family?
d) how does it affect siblings (who often eat more widely and yet have a disordered approach to food)?
e) what happens if they don’t grow out of it?
f) what happens if they don’t grow out of it and you have waited years and now have a much larger problem?
I follow a site for adult picky eaters that proves there are 1,000’s of adults who just didn’t get the grow out of it memo!
GP’s will normally not be concerned as long as a child is traveling along their expected growth lines in terms of height and weight. In keeping with this, our bodies are indeed amazing machines and until we hit puberty can survive on minimal amounts of food and a limited range.
But is this ideal in terms of concentration and overall development?
Fussy eaters also generally have an easy time with carbohydrates like pasta, bread and crackers and so there is less likelihood of being underweight. The foods they do eat support them to put on kilos. But is weight the best barometer for determining whether eating is going well?
Why picky eating is not addressed
This leads me into one of my big soap box issues!
Picky eating is not addressed like other childhood challenges. If we have a child who struggles to walk, talk, or read, we have experts we can turn to and programs for them to participate in.
When it is eating, we are constantly told by a range of friends, relatives and “experts” that they will grow out of it. But that is just not true for many children.
Even if they do eventually grow out of it, what stress and frustration and limited intake of important foods have occurred along the way?
Why wouldn’t we look at this as a serious problem with proven solutions and offer parents the support they need?
If the child was going to grow out of it anyway, so what? Isn’t it better to be this year rather than 1, 5 or 10 years in the future?
My dream is to have picky eating recognised for what it is, a challenge for children and in turn for their parents that does have solutions.
If I’m struggling with feeding why shouldn’t I have access to the mealtime equivalent of a lactation consultant, even if my child is 7?
Should you tackle picky eating?
I believe whether or not to look for solutions to picky eating is a very personal choice and one that parents are charged with making on their own.
If I could give any advice it would be to look at not only what a child eats but also their approach to food and eating. Remember that eating is something we do 3-5 times per day every day. Any habits (good or bad) become very entrenched and the longer we do them, the harder to change them.
I was speaking to a colleague with a partner who is very selective (and over the half century in age). He loads his fork with exactly the same foods in exactly the same order at every dinner because this is the habit that enables him to eat his limited range of foods.
These are habits he’s brought with him from childhood!
There are some key pointers we can look at that help us determine whether a positive change is imminent:
1. If our child hasn’t added a food in months this is a concern. Why would they suddenly start adding?
2. If our child is dropping foods this is a major worry. Often children get bored or have a bad experience with a food and so stop eating something. If they already only eat a few foods this can be very concerning. If they are dropping, but not adding it’s unlikely they are “growing out of it”.
3. If our child is becoming more fussy with the look, feel and/or smell of foods this is often the precursor to dropping foods.
4. If food is becoming a flash point, stressful, guilt-inducing or miserable it’s time to look for solutions. The less fun food is the less likely we are to eat widely.
Are there ways to know if a child will grow out of picky eating?
A great predictor of whether a child is going to grow out of their picky eating is the age at which our child began struggling with variety.
If we have a baby that noticed if there was a formula change. Or struggled with purees, or just didn’t take to solids. Or even at that tender age was not interested in many foods then they are probably “pre-destined” to be more fussy than the average child.
Additional challenges like ASD, sensory sensitivities or general anxiety, are all going to make eating competently more difficult and therefore less likely to happen organically.
If, however, we have a child that ate all the lovingly prepared purees and transitioned pretty happily to solids. They are more likely to grow out of their fussiness.
If and how long this takes will depend on a whole range of factors and we, as parents, are probably the most important of those.
The way we behave and communicate around food and feeding will have the biggest impact on what happens to our child’s eating over time.
What can you do?
Thinking through how many red flags you are noticing in regards to what your child is eating is a great first step.
Then taking stock of the situation so we know honestly where we are at, as this enables us to plan.
1. How many foods does our child eat? List them in three columns. “Always eaten”, “eaten 50% of time or more”, “rarely eaten”. Total how many.
2. Write down what you think your child’s approach is towards:
i) Food in general
ii) New food
iii) Food that is slightly different to usual
3. When was the last time they added a new food?
4. Have they dropped any foods in the last 6 months?
5. If you had to describe your child’s eating on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being “I’ll eat snails and eggplant”) where would they be?
If you have done this and the answers are upsetting, then is it time to look for support?
If you’d like an objective opinion, we can tell you simply (and at no cost) whether it looks like a “phase” and whether intervention can bring about a change.
Let us give you the strategies that will support better eating in your house. Gain the skills that will enable you to gently encourage trying new foods. Learn how to serve one meal and have your child participate. And most importantly put the joy back into food for the whole family.
YES! We can make a difference.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/