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When it's more than just "picky eating" and what to do about it

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

If you ever look at your child's plate and wonder "Why is my kid so picky? Is this normal?", you're in good company. Selective eating is totally normal and very common in toddlers and young children, but that doesn't mean it isn't stressful or frustrating for parents. We're diving into why picky eating is a normal part of a child's development and how to know when it's more than typical picky eating.

Here are just a few reasons you might notice food selectivity in your toddler or young child:

Appetite decreases after age 1

Growth slows significantly after the first birthday resulting in a decreased appetite. While physical growth like weight and height are slowed, the body is focusing on rapid brain growth and development instead. As a result, kids just don't need as many calories as they did as a baby. This leads to toddlers often being misperceived by caregivers as eating "too little" because they may be used to seeing their baby eat larger amounts of food in that first year of life. As children grow and activity levels vary, it is normal for appetites to fluctuate day to day and meal to meal. We always recommend looking at a child's diet over the course of a week, not one meal or even a day, as this gives a better representation of overall diet quality.

Baby playing with wooden tea set

Increased need for autonomy

Exhibiting defiant behaviors is typical during the toddler stage and beyond as children strive for independence. When it comes down to it, food is one of very few things young children feel like they can control. They have very little control over their daily schedule, where they go, who they see, and what they do, but they can control what goes in their mouth. This is why toddlers tend to reallyyyyy push boundaries at meals. It is the parent's job to provide a sense of structure and set limits (while also allowing room for some autonomy) to avoid power struggles at meals.

Children are busy

Children are more influenced by the feeding environment than they were as babies. They can be easily distracted by a chaotic house, the tv in the background or tension between family members. They may also view mealtime as a disruption to their treasured playtime.

Two girls wearing costumes in bedroom

Aversion to new

Children crave routine and predictability with everything and that includes food. Around age 2, selectivity and fear of new foods (neophobia) is normal and expected, but often fades by preschool. Children also tend to be more sensitive to strong flavors (think broccoli) than adults as they have more taste receptors than we do. As we age, our sense of taste and smell diminish which makes strong flavors more tolerable and even enjoyable for some. We recommend introducing a very wide variety of foods before the age of 2, so that most foods have already been explored before that neophobia kicks in. If you approach the toddler years with a longer list of foods your baby accepts, you have more to work with if/when they do become more selective.

So, yes, it is very normal for your young toddler to start dropping foods they once loved, somehow fuel their entire day on 2 crackers and a piece of cheese, and want to run a marathon around the dining room table at dinner. What's ultra important once you hit this bump in the road is how you respond so they don't get stuck here. If you're at this point right now and need some practical, evidence-based recommendations to help support your child, check out our Picky Eating Bee Gone toolkit.

If you're reading this thinking "but I've already tried all the things I can think of and nothing is working," it may be time to reach out for some individualized support (and sometimes a little cheerleading helps, too). Picky eating occurs on a spectrum and can be a sign of a more serious issue.

Caregivers should seek professional help if any of the following are observed:

  1. Decreased eating after a traumatic incident like choking.

  2. Tantrums or crying at mealtimes especially if there are signs of pain or arching when crying.

  3. Extreme food selectiveness. Aversion or avoidance of all foods in a specific texture or nutrition group. Willingness to eat fewer than 20 foods especially if foods are being dropped and not replaced with new foods.

  4. Extended periods of food refusal for more than 1-2 weeks.

  5. Ongoing poor weight gain or significant weight loss/weight gain shown by a dramatic jump/drop in percentiles.

  6. Prolonged mealtimes.

  7. Inability to advance textures or transition to a cup. Caregivers should be alerted if baby isn't accepting solids by 10 months or baby isn't advancing textures by 12 months. Unwillingness to transition from breast/bottle to cup by 16 months is also of concern.

  8. Absence of independent feeding by age 2.

  9. Choking, gagging, coughing, vomiting (especially when it's ongoing), aspiration or trouble swallowing. Anticipatory gagging when presented with food is also concerning.

  10. Poor sleep patterns or insistence on eating and/or drinking overnight.

If any of these red flags jump out at you, we're here for you. As pediatric dietitians, we work with families every day to ensure children are being nourished for optimal growth and development. Sometimes we work independently, and other times, we work as a team with other healthcare professionals to ensure the child is receiving any and all support they may need.

boy holding a soft pretzel

If you've come this far, thanks for reading! We want you to know that your kiddo doesn't need to be an adventurous eater to be healthy, smart, or just overall amazing. Sure, we want to ensure all of their nutrient needs are being taken care of, but that comes with time, reasonable expectations, and patience (and sometimes a temporary band-aid like a multivitamin). Most importantly, we want you to know that your child's eating habits are not a reflection of your parenting. In many ways, picky eating happens as a natural part of development and sometimes, we all need a little help to overcome hurdles with our children and in our own lives. You're here right now because you're a great parent who is doing the absolute best they can to raise a healthy, happy child.

If you're ready to work together, or you just aren't sure where to start and need some guidance, reach out! We offer free discovery calls to answer your questions and get to know each other better. We are currently in-network with Blue Cross Blue Shield and UnitedHealthcare. We also accept FSA and HSA and provide Superbills for out-of-network plans. We can't wait to hear from you and help you find the joy in feeding again!



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