WHY is my Child a picky Eater?

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

"Eating is complicated but making progress often doesn’t have to be. Little steps will enable small amounts of progress and over time these little steps will combine to form notable gains." Judith Yeabsley - The Confident Eater

I always ask parents why they think their child struggles to eat. Many give me a list of all the things they feel they have done wrong. Others really struggle to give an answer as food has just always seemed so challenging for their child. It’s natural to blame ourselves when things go wrong, especially with one of the things we feel is a core responsibility, like feeding. Yet more often than not a child becomes a picky eater because of they have entered a particular phase in their development, or they have fallen into an unfortunate habit, none of which are the fault of the parent. From my observations and experience there are a few key phases/periods when fussy eating seems to start, and you can probably identify with one of these.

Key phases/periods

1. From baby

Your child never seemed to get into food. Right from the start they were not enthusiastic. They may even have been a baby that was uncomfortable with a change in formula, for example, it goes that far back.

2. Soon after baby

Your child takes food initially but soon after seems to find it difficult and is not interested in eating.

3. Toddler

Almost overnight your puree/family food loving baby starts refusing everything and you find yourself down to only a few options.

4. Traumatic event/life

Something happens. Your child gets sick and spends two weeks hardly eating. When they are well again the whole eating landscape seems to have changed. Or you go on holidays and the food is different and your child struggles to eat for the two weeks and again, once home everything seems more challenging. There are many different versions of this, but the outcome is the same, a child who was eating well and suddenly doesn’t seem able to.

5. Gradual

Baby eats well and all is going along as expected. Your child drops the odd food here and there but nothing drastic. Suddenly you take inventory (often when you are travelling or a relative stays etc.) and you realise that your child’s diet has become incredibly limited.

6. Compromise

This often happens during periods when life is particularly busy or stressful, for example, with a new baby, a sibling who’s unwell or moving house. There are too many plates spinning, so we are just coping. Food becomes a lower priority and meals that are eaten easily are top of the list. It seems to happen so quickly, our veggie eating child is suddenly only accepting pasta, nuggets and crackers.

Could it be something medical?

If your child is one who has struggled from really early on or never took to food at all, there is (or was) generally something additional in the picture that is preventing them from eating comfortably. This could be anything from undiagnosed allergies, to sensory sensitivities, to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). It’s important that whatever was preventing your child from eating well is identified and if possible, rectified. See your GP if you suspect this might be the case.

If it is due to co-factors that will always be present, then in this situation we need to find ways to support more confident eating, and this can be done. It definitely does not mean that all is lost. We are still able to support your child to eat well.

If your child ate well and then stopped, either gradually or due to an event, it is generally easier to build back variety into their diet. The younger we begin, the fewer habits there are to overcome!

What to do now?

Because eating is influenced by physical, emotional, social and mental factors this impacts how comfortable a child is around certain foods. There are, however, three important things you can do to support your child to overcome their picky eating.

1. Have everything supporting progress in terms of language, dynamics and approach

2. Build up a comfort level with new foods/or previously eaten foods

3. Gently and consistently offer foods that are not currently eaten, but not pushing your child to eat them, either

Focus Points

  • Consistently work with your child and develop a system for ensuring they are really supported with their eating.

  • Focus on helping your child learn to eat new foods.

  • Don't give up on those long-term gains.

Eating is complicated but making progress often doesn’t have to be. Little steps will enable small amounts of progress and over time these little steps will combine to form notable gains. If you feel that you have inadvertently played a part in creating your child's picky eating habits, the good news is you can also be the solution. As daunting as it may seem at first, stick to your values and systems and you may find that once you get going it's not as challenging as you were anticipating!

Judith is the author of the book Creating Confident Eaters and also a mum of two boys -a tween and a teen.

Judith's dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear. She delights in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. Judith is currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology as she would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating.

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