Why does picky eating happen and how do you handle it?

Why does your child not want to eat burgers, ask for pasta without sauce and cry if the omelet touches the salad?

 Toddler and mother talking (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Toddler and mother talking
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Let's start by saying relax. Many toddlers go through a phase of picky eating.

It usually starts in the first year and reaches a peak between the ages of two and six. It’s normal, common and even has an evolutionary reason. We’re genetically programmed to eat only familiar foods for the simple reason that unfamiliar food can be poisonous, i.e. when we had to forage thousands of years ago, pickiness prevented us from eating bad mushrooms, for example. 

As our kids grow and develop, their taste buds change and they learn to enjoy a variety of foods and flavors as long as we don’t bother them and let them learn, naturally, which foods they enjoy or don’t like.

The issue of food in our relationship with and connection to our kids is built in from when they’re born. One of the first things a mom does after a baby is stabilized, cleaned and dressed after birth is breastfeeding.  Even if formula is given, from the first days of a baby’s life food is crucial and has a major role in an infant's development. Babies seem so fragile at birth, so at each doctor’s appointment, we feel satisfaction if the baby has gained weight. It’s the first confirmation that we’re good parents because the baby is developing and starting to thrive. From the start, if an infant can’t latch onto the breast or appears to be allergic to formula, this can be a challenging, difficult time for parents.

As breast/bottle issues fade, behavioral problems can develop around food. Our kids are smart and see at a very young age that food is a central, sensitive issue. They learn very quickly if it concerns us, and then of course unintentionally, not consciously and certainly not maliciously, they see that through pickiness and playing with food they can gain space and attention: "One last bite for mom," "Eat well, you’ll get dessert," and "Did baby finish the bottle?"

 Buffet of food (credit: INGIMAGE) Buffet of food (credit: INGIMAGE)

The basic advice to parents when it comes to food is to not pay attention. If there aren’t any cognitive issues or health problems, a baby or child won’t starve themselves. From infancy, everybody has an innate internal mechanism of hunger and satiety that signals when and how much to eat. When we bypass the innate body cues by insistence we erode their natural self-regulation and ability to control food intake. Obviously we all want kids to eat well and develop in a healthy way, so we need to trust them to know their bodies.

Practically, we can do things before eating specific meals in order to reduce selectivity. For example, keep meal times relatively regular. Yes, have kids eat a light snack mid-morning and afternoon, but don’t let them wander around noshing the whole day. This way, they’ll be relatively hungry for dinner, for example, because when they’re hungry, they eat. 

Have kids help prepare food. Give them several items to select from, have them feel different textures. After you chop and put veggies in a bowl let kids season them with spices, mix, pour into a dish and put in the oven. When kids help make the food their motivation to eat increases. Another tip has to do with visibility. Kids, just like us, eat with their eyes.  Arrange a plate with foods of various colors, cut a sandwich into triangles, and place the tomatoes in an interesting way.

Tips for success:

Here are some things that can be done during the meal. 

Take time to eat with your kids

You’ll be amazed at how much more delicious the broccoli from mom's plate is.

Keep portions small

Don’t overload plates as sometimes we forget how small their stomachs are. They don’t need large amounts of food and if they can’t finish a portion it can be stressful and frustrating.

Try to give funny names to food

After all, "fast carrots" are much tastier than regular carrots. Avoid distractions, however; don’t eat in front of a screen, and don’t shove food into a child’s mouth. The food will find its way to them even without an airplane.

Don’t bribe, insist or negotiate

We can’t control how much kids eat, pee or poop. And we don’t want to!

It’s important to note again that pickiness is a common phenomenon but seek advice in the following cases:

If it leads to a health problem such as weight loss or nutritional deficiencies.If you see excessive preoccupation with food which causes significant family tension.If it’s accompanied by other eating disorders like eating inedible objects, excessive vomiting or frequent choking.

Dana Amar is a Certified Behavioral Analyst with an MA in Special Education, a lecturer and an expert in helping families develop well.

This article was written in partnership with the JAMA parenting app.