Is your child not eating anything? Read this

Tirtzah Shani, an experienced children's dietician, explains how to recognize picky eating in kids, why they’re picky and how to deal with it.

 Illustrative image of children eating vegetables. (photo credit: ZAKI AHMED/PIXABAY )
Illustrative image of children eating vegetables.
(photo credit: ZAKI AHMED/PIXABAY )

Picky eating is a problem that really bothers parents, and is also quite common. Between 20-50% of kids are defined as picky eaters, and among those on the autistic spectrum, the incidence rises to 80%. 

These numbers aren’t exact, since picky eating doesn’t have an exact diagnosis and it’s defined by examining the whole picture in its entirety and looking at various factors.

Tirtzah Shani, a senior pediatric dietitian who specializes in picky eating, explains that in order to diagnose the problem, it’s necessary to check if there are entire groups of foods that a kid won’t eat. 

How do you know if your child is picky?

Count the number of types of food they eat. Under 30 foods is an indication of pickiness, so check if this lasts more than a month. Shani says it's important to look at the whole picture in order to give a diagnosis.

Picky eating has a wide range, from a typical developmental stage, which almost every child is expected to go through, to a real disorder. Shani said that around the age of 18 months-two years old, there’s a developmental stage called neophobia – fear of anything new – which includes food items. 

 Child eating breakfast (illustrative) (credit: PEXELS) Child eating breakfast (illustrative) (credit: PEXELS)

At this stage, many kids refuse to try new things. Shani adds that at this point, the parents' reaction to the pickiness may have a decisive effect on whether kids will remain picky.

On the other side of the spectrum is an eating disorder that has entered the DSM5, the manual of psychiatric disorders, which is called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. 

Shani explained that these kids or adults eat something like 5-7 foods, usually snacks and/or sweet things, and it’s very difficult for them to eat a whole range of food products.

There are several reasons for the development of picky eating, among them a health problem such as a milk allergy that passes with puberty but leaves the avoidance with it, sensory regulation problems that make kids more sensitive to tastes, textures or smells, and physical limitations such as difficulty in chewing. 

Shani stated that a child who has difficulty acquiring the ability to bite and chew will prefer soft foods, which greatly reduces the variety of foods this kid can eat.

There are also behavioral reasons such as how parents speak with their kids about eating and the variety of foods the child is exposed to at home. Shani has some tips for parents who want to prevent kids from becoming picky eaters or if they’re currently dealing with picky eating. 

How can you prevent picky eaters?

For example, eat together where all the foods are in the center of the table so that kids are exposed to foods, smells and sights. Shani adds that we should be a model for kids and try to be more adventurous ourselves, try to diversify as much as possible and try to use seasonal foods and fruits at meals.

Some eating behaviors are important to establish during mealtime in order to maintain a pleasant and stress-free eating experience. Parents should divide responsibilities like deciding on mealtimes and which dishes will be served including a food that the picky eater will definitely eat.  

Kids decide what to eat from what is served and how much. This is the foundation for a calm communication system that supports healthy eating.

At older ages, bring kids into the kitchen and let them help make dinner. Also, grow fruits and vegetables outside, or herbs in a home planter with the assumption that if kids for example water tomatoes, watch them ripen and pick them, they’ll be much more willing to eat them.

If your kids are picky eaters, or you fear that they’re starting to develop pickiness, seek advice as soon as possible to avoid potential health consequences because picky eating can lead to a lack of nutrients that can impair growth and proper development. 

Picky eating can also have potential social consequences which may harm the lifestyle of kids and their families. Shani said that many families come to her after trips abroad because they spent countless hours looking for a restaurant that had food that their kid would eat.

It’s important to emphasize that if you’re interested in seeking a diagnosis or treatment for picky eating, you should contact a qualified professional such as a clinical dietitian or speech therapist specializing in picky eating as soon as you notice a problem. 

It takes time to get an appointment and several tests are needed to confirm a diagnosis, so the sooner the problem is recognized the faster it can be solved.