Is Your Child a Picky Eater?

By Wenda Reed

Why Kids Develop Patterns of Choosy Eating

Is your child picky, or just selective?
Find out when picky eating becomes a health problem.

My daughter went through a phase when she wanted cheese and grapes at every meal. My son had a peanut butter and honey sandwich period. For a while, new menu items were greeted with that dreaded mealtime word: Yucky!

Fortunately, my children swung back to a balanced diet with just a few individual foods they absolutely avoided. Sometimes, though, children can be very stubborn about sticking to a short list of preferences and a long list of refusals.

Initially, most children labeled “picky eaters” are merely moving through appropriate developmental stages, says Dr. Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University and co-author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health. If parents can adapt to those changes and avoid fighting with their children’s biological imperatives, they can prevent them from settling into a pattern of picky eating.

Evolving eating patterns

From 6 months to 12 months of age, a baby needs solid food as well as breast milk or formula. Parents’ efforts to present their children with new foods are aided by the fact that babies this age want to put everything into their mouths. For the first few months, parents should introduce new, easy-to-digest, simple foods slowly to their babies to prevent allergies, Roberts says. Later in the first year, the child may enjoy the variety of a new food every three or four days.

“When children get to solid food, we put them in a highchair and put food in them, and it’s all bland,” says nutrition counselor Cynthia Lair, author of Feeding the Whole Family. “We have problems later because we’ve trained them to have separate meals and to like bland food.”

12 –21 months a window of opportunity

The period from 12 months to 21 months of age represents “a window of opportunity” for getting children used to a healthy diet, Roberts says. Toddlers tend to crave adventure and variety, so she recommends giving them the same things the rest of the family is eating, without too much dependence on commercial baby foods. Lair, a professor at Bastyr University’s School of Natural Medicine, points out that in primitive societies, mothers chewed up some of their own food and then spit it out to feed to their babies. Along the same lines, she adds, today’s parents can take some of what the rest of the family is eating and grind it up for young children.

What parents can do to avoid food problems

To avoid food problems at this age, Roberts cautions parents not to force a child to eat more than he or she wants and urges them to provide enough variety of food to prevent boredom.

Parents can also set the stage for healthy eating by honoring the family mealtime. Young children get a lot of comfort out of ritual, Lair says. “If children sit down with other people, they’re less picky about food.”

She advises parents not to limit their own diets by crossing food items off their menu when a toddler refuses them. “We forget that something they don’t like today, they may like later,” she says, noting that it took her daughter 11 years to love kasha grain. Roberts cites the “Rule of 15,” noting that research has shown that a particular food can be offered to a child up to 15 times before it is accepted. At the same time, she advises parents to maintain a familiarity with the foods their children do like.

“As long as the food they’re focused on is not unhealthful, its OK to give it to them,” Lair says. Make sure every meal has a “winner,” she advises. “If your child loves bread and butter, make sure there’s some of that available.”

Picky eating as a survival skill?

Between the ages of 2 and 3, food cautiousness is quite common and this is when most picky-eating problems surface, Roberts says. She attributes this to evolutionary principles. In hunter-gatherer societies, toddlers would begin exploring their environment without constant supervision.

“Stone-age children who ate anything lying around – who were adventurous eaters – would probably have been poisoned and never managed to pass on their genes to the next generation,” Roberts postulates.

“What you need to do is not encourage this natural pickiness by pushing new foods on kids,” she counsels. “Let them refuse things while they watch you eat them, then they can decide they are safe to try themselves.”

Avoid overselling foods

With young children’s burgeoning drive toward independence, the worst thing parents can do is actively encourage or “oversell” healthy foods, Roberts says. If a child doesn’t want to eat what’s offered, leave the refused foods within reach so she can try them later in the meal. Offer one plain alternative, and let her see you enjoy some of the food that she refused.

Lair believes many parents inadvertently encourage temporary pickiness to become a pattern because they’re nervous about setting boundaries. Lair advises parents to say, “This is what we’re having; if you don’t want any, you may be excused,” rather than to negotiate, bribe, threaten, make separate meals or go out for fast food. As children reach the preschool years, their bodies are ready for the same kinds of foods – with the same levels of fat, fiber and nutrients – as adults eat. As kids reach a more cooperative and social stage, they will often want to eat what their parents eat, if they’re not overencouraged. Preschoolers will often like more kinds of foods if they have a hand in growing them, cooking them or shopping for them.

Is your child picky, or just selective? Click to find out when picky eating becomes a health problem.