How to Deal with Picky Eaters: Explore the Causes and Solutions for Picky Eating
Whether it’s your food preferences, a picky spouse, or a child that will eat anything but a vegetable, you’ve probably had to deal with a picky eater in one form or another. This can range from a minor inconvenience to a major annoyance. But can picky eating also be a health concern?
Nutrition, after all, is a fundamental aspect of health no matter your age. And a key part of nutrition is eating a well-rounded diet. But is it possible to eat a balanced, nutritious diet as a picky eater?
The short answer—it depends. Read on to puzzle out the long answer and find tips for how to deal with picky eaters, and—whether it’s yourself, your child, or your partner—how to provide the nutrients they need.
What is Picky Eating and What Creates Picky Eaters
Picky eating looks a little bit different for everyone. There are a number of eating preferences that can be described as pickiness and each of these can range in intensity. But if you distilled the variety of picky eater experiences into one, single definition, you’d end up with something like this: picky eating is the avoidance of specific foods, textures, flavors, or other elements of food and eating.
When it comes to picky eating, most people have the same question: how can I get my picky eater to be, well, not picky? But before you start thinking about solutions for how to deal with picky eaters, it’s important to understand the underlying causes of picky eating.
Not all picky eaters are the same. Some avoid certain foods simply because they dislike the taste, while others’ aversion is based on texture. Some have a visceral reaction—gagging, spitting, or inability to swallow—to the foods they avoid, while others simply prefer not to eat certain items. The severity of an individual’s aversion to specific foods—as well as their reaction to those foods—can help you identify the underlying cause of their pickiness.
In some cases, picky eating can be attributed to neophobia (the fear or dislike of new and unfamiliar experiences). New foods can introduce you to a wide array of new experiences— flavors, textures, smells, etc. This multifaceted experience is part of what makes eating enjoyable and exciting. But for some, these new sensations can be intimidating.
Familiar foods are comforting and predictable. And some people want their eating experiences to be just that: comforting and predictable. While there’s no single identified cause for food-related neophobia, some studies suggest it is an inherited trait. That means if your parents are neophobes, there’s a good chance you will be, too.
There is also a link between picky eaters and being introduced to different foods later in childhood. Basically, the longer a toddler settles into the routine of only eating a set assortment of foods, the more likely they are to develop picky eating habits. If they aren’t exposed to tart foods early on, for example, they may develop an aversion to tart foods.
If a picky eater experiences bodily reactions, such as gagging or spitting, to certain foods, their pickiness may be the result of sensory food aversion. Individuals with sensory food aversion experience heightened sensory input from certain aspects of their food. This could be temperature, texture, taste, or smell. And because of this heightened sensory input, eating these foods can be overwhelming and unpleasant.
Is Picky Eating Unhealthy?
Picky eating can be frustrating for everyone involved. But for many parents, that frustration is rooted in concern. Eating a well-balanced diet is a crucial part of living a healthy lifestyle. And in many cases, picky eating stands in the way of a well-balanced diet. In short, it can start to impact nutrition.
This leads many parents to the same question: just how bad is picky eating for my child’s health? While the effects of picky eating on nutrition vary from person to person, there are common trends that parents should note.
One of the most common effects of picky eating in children is difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. For extremely picky eaters, especially those with sensory food aversion, eating can easily become a chore. There just aren’t many foods picky eaters like, and so they don’t eat as much as they need to. While being underweight isn’t always a health risk, it can indicate malnutrition—meaning a child isn’t getting the nutrients they need to support the body’s growth and development.
Oddly enough, picky eating can also have the opposite effect on your child’s weight. Because picky eaters tend to avoid fruits and vegetables, their diets often consist primarily of carbs—especially refined carbohydrates—and processed foods. And, when eaten in high quantities, both of these food types can lead to weight gain. Once again, this is an indication that your child isn’t acquiring the nutrients they need.
Put simply, children (and any picky eater adults, for that matter) should eat a variety of whole foods, including fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Unfortunately, these are typically the foods picky eaters avoid most. Without fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meat, and whole grains, it is difficult to get the appropriate amounts of fiber, protein, and vitamins a child’s growing body needs.
Strategies for How to Deal with Picky Eaters
So your suspicions have been confirmed: picky eating isn’t exactly healthy and is certainly not ideal. What’s next? Fortunately, picky eaters don’t have to be picky for life. There are a variety of strategies you can use to help a picky eater broaden their tastes—it’s just a matter of choosing the right strategy for the situation.
Studies suggest many food aversions can be overcome with repeated exposure. This means a picky eater may come to enjoy a food they avoid if they try it enough times. Say your child hates tomatoes—if you offer them tomatoes enough times, in a variety of forms, they may eventually come to enjoy them. If you’ve heard the term “acquired taste,” the same principle applies here. It’s just a matter of helping your child acquire a taste for certain foods.
Children respond to modeling. If you don’t eat your veggies, there’s a good chance your child won’t either. Don’t prepare separate meals for you and your child—sit down and eat the same food together. Show your picky eaters that you enjoy the tricky foods. Additionally, preparing food in a variety of ways can help a child branch out to new foods. If they hate raw carrots, try steaming them. (Worried about how this will affect the nutrient content of your food? Read up on the effects of cooking on vegetables!)
6 Tips to Make Feeding Your Fussy Eater Easier
If you’re looking for a variety of simple, actionable items to try to get your child to eat, look no further. Give these six tips a try!
- Give your child options: As children grow and develop, their sense of autonomy grows, too. This means kids may want more say in what foods they eat. Obviously a four-year-old boy shouldn’t have full control of his diet, but you can indulge his budding sense of autonomy by providing options. If you’re struggling to get your kids to eat carrots, it might not be about the carrots. It might be about the children’s sense of autonomy and control. Instead of forcing them to eat a carrot, provide two healthy options and ask which they’d prefer. Sometimes a question as simple as “Do you want carrots or green beans tonight?” can solve the problem.
- Don’t prepare separate meals: As mentioned above, children look up to their parents for modeled behavior. Don’t give in if your child sees a meal you’ve prepared and demands something else. Sit down to eat the meal together. As they watch you eat and enjoy the food, your picky eaters might decide to do the same. Again, be sure to allow for choices within the meal—peas vs. broccoli, for example—but don’t simply let kids opt out and choose a different meal entirely.
- Establish and maintain routines: Children thrive in an environment with established routines—and mealtime is no exception. A lot of picky eating can be attributed to children avoiding the unfamiliar. Trying new foods and branching out is stressful enough for young children, so try to make the rest of their eating experience predictable and consistent. Set aside blocks of time each day specifically for meals. Be consistent in when and where you and your children eat.
- Be patient and don’t force it: If your child refuses to eat broccoli, they probably won’t wake up one day and miraculously love it. Acquiring the taste will take time and repeated exposure. This might mean your child chews up a piece of broccoli only to spit it out—and there’s nothing wrong with that! Give picky eaters time to adjust to new foods and keep giving them opportunities to try the different items.
- Mix it up: While repeated exposure is one way to help a child eat a food, this doesn’t mean you should only prepare that food until they like it. If your child hates raw bell peppers, for example, don’t try to feed them raw bell peppers every night. Remember, their aversion might be rooted in texture. Mix up your preparation and try grilling or sauteing. And, let’s be honest, bell peppers aren’t the only healthy food out there. Don’t be afraid to give it a break and serve your child other nutritious foods—maybe carrots, broccoli, or green beans.
- Give feeding therapy a try: If you have an extremely picky eater or a child with sensory food aversion, feeding therapy is also an option to consider. Feeding therapy is especially helpful for children with strong bodily aversions to food—in other words, kids who gag, cough, spit, or choke when eating foods they don’t like. Although it shouldn’t be your first solution, feeding therapy can be a great way to help your child enjoy eating when all else fails.