Picky eating, phase or problem?
In speaking to 100’s of parents a year in my role in picky eating support, I have found that most parents know when their child’s eating has become a real problem.
If deep down you know that what is happening for your child is more than a normal fussy phase, then trust your gut. Even though many other people, including trusted professionals may be telling you it is a phase, if you are sure that what is happening for your child is beyond the norm, you are almost certainly correct.
Picky eating phase or problem?
Picky eating is not one neat little problem to be described and defined in one sentence. Even experts from around the world use different words, different parameters and various definitions when talking about picky eating.
In my mind, it is best viewed as a spectrum. There is a big difference between a child that refuses all but a few vegetables and one who vomits at the thought of a carrot.
Let’s look at both ends of the spectrum, with of course, many children falling somewhere in the middle!
The picky eating spectrum
On the one hand there are the children who are averagely fussy:
– They may refuse some meals and most vegetables
– They accept foods one time and reject them the next, then accept again
– They may eat more away from home – at Kindy, with friends or nana!
This can be very frustrating, but it is not uncommon. It is important though, to keep a close eye on the ball and make sure this doesn’t get consistently worse. If it is indeed just a phase it should not get more difficult around meals over time, it should get slowly better.
I have spoken to many parents whose child’s picky eating began like this and they felt they blinked and suddenly it was dramatically worse.
On the other end of the spectrum are the extreme picky eaters:
– They have food aversions where just looking at/touching/smelling foods can induce extreme reactions, like gagging
– They often meltdown or shut down around new foods
– They eat only a handful of foods
Let’s look in more detail at where your child may sit on the spectrum.
Averagely picky eaters
1. Eat 20-25 foods on a regular basis
2. Eat from the major food groups: some fruit and vegetables, some carbohydrates and some protein
3. Are able to eat different textures, purees, crunchy, chewy etc.
4. They may refuse foods at some point but then are able to eat them again later
5. Are able to try some foods with encouragement, even if reluctantly
6. Standard strategies work, like bribing, rewards or consequences
7. They are able to vary foods, like eating different brands of nuggets
8. Are able to have different foods on their plate, again not always happily!
9. May eat different foods from the family but can eat alongside everyone else
10. Parents may mention their child’s eating when visiting the GP or doing wellness checks
Extreme picky eaters
1. Eat less than 20 foods, and maybe many less than this
2. Can gag, recoil or even vomit when faced with new foods
3. Refuse whole categories of foods eg. no vegetables eaten at all
4. May only be able to eat specific textures
5. Can become really emotional if offered something new
6. May drop a preferred food and not eat again
7. Standard strategies like bribes, rewards and punishments make little difference
8. May find the look, feel or smell of foods overwhelming
9. May like foods prepared and served in a specific way or only eat certain types or brands.
10. Almost always eat a meal that is different to the rest of the family
11. May be challenged eating with other people
12. Parents consistently report their child’s eating as an issue when visiting medical professionals or support services
Looking through these lists should give you a good understanding of where your child sits on the picky eating spectrum.
I have also compiled a list of “red flags” that I use to help parents determine whether they should looking for additional support around eating:
If your child is over 3 and you are able to tick all or most of the items on the checklist I would recommend talking to your GP / seeking support for your child’s eating.
1. Your child is not able to try any new foods.
2. Your child has not added a new food for a long period, especially if they are dropping previously accepted foods.
3. Your child is losing weight or has stagnant growth.
4. Your child eats less than 20 foods.
5. Your child has an extreme reaction to unfamiliar foods.
6. Mealtimes are stressful and disrupted and your child eats differently to the rest of the family.
7. Your child has a very rigid approach to food eg. foods must be prepared/served in a specific way, only one brand is accepted etc.
8. You believe they would starve rather than eat something outside of the comfort zone.
9. Social situations are difficult/uncomfortable.
10. Your child avoids whole food or texture groups. eg. fruit/ anything soft.
Identifying there is an eating challenge is step one in finding a solution.
Often, even for the extreme picky eaters there are strategies that work really, really well and support a child to learn how to accept new foods.
If you’d like to speak to me in detail about what your feeding challenges are please feel free to book a time: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2020-08
If you feel this article could be helpful for another parent, please share.
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 qualifying as a psychologist. 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/