little girl eating, picky eaters

Navigating Picky Eating

   

Picky eating is an incredibly common and typical part of child development and is often noted by parents of children who have been adopted. In fact, it’s so common and often occurs multiple times across a child’s life, due to natural bursts in a child’s cognitive development.

When the brain grows in this area of development, it frequently makes trying new foods stressful and more challenging for a child’s body. This can also make mealtimes more difficult for caregivers. Often, children who are picky eaters will refuse to try new foods, they will refuse to eat familiar foods that they have previously enjoyed, and they will request or want to eat the same foods for long stretches of time. Children this age do have the skills to eat a wide range of food textures; however, they are more selective in their tastes due to their developing brains. 

My toddler is pretty particular about the brand of chicken nuggets I offer her for somebody who just ate a crayon.

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Feeding is a sensory experience. Very often children will taste a food only after they have been given the opportunity to touch it first. Allowing children the chance to explore foods with their hands leads to greater comfort around foods and a stronger readiness to eat them. Remember: If solid food opportunities are postponed (beyond 6 months), or if a child is provided with few opportunities to practice eating foods and feeding themselves, it can make the process of eating much more difficult as well as impact oral-motor skill development. It’s important to remember that picky eating is typically a phase, and most children will move out of it. Children this age must often be exposed to a food 20 or more times before deciding to eat it, so eating new foods can take time and patience. 

What Is Problem Feeding (Extremely Picky Eating)? 

If a child is showing very strong preferences and is eating very little at meals, and this is happening over a prolonged period of time without improvement, caregivers should consider a referral to a feeding specialist to determine if something bigger is going on. Some diagnoses are more prone to extreme picky eating (also known as “problem eating”), such as autism spectrum disorders and children with sensitive sensory systems. 

Signs of Problem Feeding  

Your child:

  • Eats fewer than four different foods or shows a steady reduction in the types of foods he will eat 
  • Shows strong preferences for certain types of foods (only crunchy foods, warm foods, orange-colored foods, sweet foods, one brand of food, etc.) 
  • Shows extreme upset when offered certain foods, especially new foods 
  • Indicates strong preferences for eating foods in certain ways (same cup/bowl, foods must be separated and cannot touch, they must be whole and not cut, etc.).
little girl with Down syndrome laughing with parents

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6 Tips for Supporting Picky Eaters  

1. Offer frequent exploration. Allow children the opportunity to explore foods (new and familiar) with their hands and utensils. Offer lots of opportunities for food exploration throughout each day. The more a child can touch, smell, see and experience a food, the more comfortable they will become tasting it! 

2. Encourage food interaction. Allow children who are picky eaters the opportunity to feed themselves. When children feel more in control at mealtimes, they are more open to eating foods. Also, offer children the chance to serve themselves food at meals. When children are able to interact with food in different ways (including serving it to themselves), they become more familiar with foods and more open to eventually eating them. 

3. Go slow, small and familiar. Offer small amounts of new foods at a time to avoid overwhelming a child. More food can be provided once the first serving is finished. Offer new foods alongside familiar foods the child already enjoys. This reduces stress by letting a child see how they have options, including something they already enjoy. 

4. Be consistent. Consistently offer a child many opportunities to become comfortable with foods at meals. Offer new foods often. When children are able to experience unfamiliar foods often, it reduces their stress and increases their interest and comfort in eating them. Just because a child refuses a food once or twice, does not mean they don’t like it. 

5. Eat together. Eat alongside a child. Children like doing what others are doing, so this is a great way to let them know that foods are safe and nourishing. Allow children the opportunity to eat alongside peers. Children learn a great deal from their peers. Group mealtimes are a wonderful chance for children who are picky eaters to expand what they will eat just by watching their friends. 

6. Learn outside of a mealtime. Have fun experiencing foods in ways other than eating. Look at pictures of foods, play with pretend food and talk about foods you see in your environment, such as at the local market or in the kitchen. 

You could make dinner for a toddler, or you could just cut out the middleman and throw away a plate of food and squirt ketchup on the dog.

Simon Holland

During this exciting time of life, children continue to show big bursts in development, including the types of food and drink they are interested in and capable of eating and drinking. As a child’s skills continue to mature, caregivers play a large role in supporting a child’s interest in enjoying a wider variety of foods. When met with questions or challenges surrounding a child’s interest in eating and drinking, it’s strongly encouraged to seek the support of an expert in your community, such as a feeding specialist or occupational therapist.  

For more details on feeding best practices, download Holt International’s Feeding & Positioning Manual: Guidelines for Working With Babies and Children.   

adoptive parents receiving parent counseling with their adopted child

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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