There is no doubt in my mind that you are visiting because you think your child is a super picky eater. If your child is a super picky eater I bet you are at your wits end trying to come up with new strategies to get your child to try new food. I bet you are sick of spending time, money and creativity into food planning, that gets wasted and spat out.
I also feel your pain, because you just want your child to be healthy, full of energy and eat a balanced nutritious diet. This post outlines the basics of fussy eating, possible causes and red flags to look out for. I will follow this up with some tips and links to help you manage your child’s fussy eating.
My Child is a super picky eater or is it a sensory sensitivity?
Fussy eating can be a common phase during the toddler and early childhood years. As a child’s sense of taste, smell, touch and sight develop, their food choices change. For some children it will take 20-30 tastes of something before it is accepted. All these developing senses contribute to a huge sensory input and often the developing brain can be overwhelmed.
As adults, we have been desensitized to the look, smell, texture and taste of food. In the first 3-4 years of life, sensory input from meals needs to be processed. Many children just need that consistency and repetition. While other kids are testing their boundaries and craving for independency.
Many will grow out of their picky eating stage.
However, for some children who are next level “extreme picky eaters” or those who have a food sensory sensitivity, eating certain food is painfully uncomfortable… And I don’t mean “gross, that’s green”, I mean gaging and crying as if you are forcing witchy grub guts in a brew of green slime down their throat, while listening to nails screech down a chalk board. That level of uncomfortable!
To us it may seem trivial and hard to fathom. It is odd that food can do that, but to some children it can be extremely horrible.
7 Reasons why your child is a super picky eater.
Food battles are a leading cause of power struggles with toddlers and young children. Many children will out grow picky eating.
Possible reasons why your child is a super picky eater.
- Power struggles. Food can be an easy area in a child’s life where they can assert control and independence. kids like to be in control of them self and have that safe stable feeling that they are in charge. If a child is not given opportunities to be independent and in control of other areas in their life, food can be one outlet for them. Saying no to food might be your child’s way of being independent. It might be as simple as they are testing your threshold to see how far the boundaries will stretch.
- Learned behaviour. Children learn through cause and effect. For instance, if they get the jam sandwich and yoghurt (that they like) every night after throwing the broccoli and meat at the wall screeching ‘yuk’ at the top of their lungs… Well positive reinforcement ensues. Chances are the next time they see broccoli and meat they’ll do the same to see if they can get their way again.
- Observation or association. Another thing to consider if your child is a super picky eater, is that children also learn through observation. Observing their parents, family members, friends and others. Depending on what they have observed such as facial expressions or comments in relation to a food, they might have developed an underlying association.
- Growth and development. Children naturally grow and develop through stages. When they go through a development spurt they will naturally want to eat more and then it will come to a stand still. Children’s eating habits fluctuate with their growth cycles. This occurs frequently between ages one to six.
- Different dinner time and meals. Often if you are offering different meals or eating at different times children will build a wall or push the boundaries more. If you are trying to make them eat vegetables and salad but you don’t, that’s a cause for fussiness. Also they might want to eat what you eat and be included in your meal times.
- Junk and processed food. If you tend to offer unhealthy alternatives in a bid to make your child eat something at least, they might start to develop a preference for the taste of junk food and processed food. Which then will cause fussiness to healthy foods. Because lets face it, who wouldn’t rather pizza over Brussel sprouts.
- Food aversion. Some children will develop aversion to certain foods. An aversion develops from associating the food (smell, look, taste or texture) to a negative experience that is processed into their brain.
For instance, a child who likes veggie soup watches a tv show while eating it and the babysitter changes the channel, a zombie apocalypse flashes up momentarily as they are eating and from that moment on, soup = major zombie fear. Food aversions happen through connections in the brain.
Where does your child’s super picky eating stem?
The most crucial thing as a parent is to find out where your child’s picky eating stems from. A good way to do so is to keep a food/behaviour journal. Write down meals, time, type of food, their response/reaction and yours.
It might be worth noting things that could also contribute to their eating experience. For instance, it might be a certain chair they sit on or the shape of their bowl, maybe they will eat with their own fork, or maybe they want to sit next to a certain person.
Tip: Try and nut out the cause of why you child is a super picky eater. It is important to try and understand why your child is a super picky eater. What’s the root problem to eating properly? This information will help tackle the problem, but also help if you need to see a professional.
Other reasons why your child is a super picky eater.
Food struggles in early childhood can stem from numerous behavioural causes as noted above. Other reasons could be to do with the child. Some examples are;
- Temperament or personality,
- Being a premature baby,
- Problems with chewing or swallowing,
- A history of medical issues like reflux,
- Food aversion,
- Learned behaviour,
- A sensory processing sensitivity.
And many more I am sure.
Red flags for Sensory Sensitivities.
It can be normal. It is important to also be aware that it can be a red flag. Another possibility is sensory sensitivities or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD can be viewed on a continuum, and not just with regards to food. Children who experience this may seem to have over-sized reactions to what we consider “normal” sensory inputs from our five senses.
If a child is a super picky eater and you can not find any cause or stem and it doesnt seem to improve for a few months at least, there might be something going on that they can’t get past. SPD kids often will experience anxiety and seem to not be able to get passed the sensory sensitivity they are experiencing. They often struggle to explain it.
Children with SPD have difficulty processing and managing the sensory information that their body collects. Everyday tasks like eating, brushing teeth, dressing, brushing hair, bath time or being in crowds and loud areas, or eating different textures can be overwhelming.
What it boils down to is trying to nut out where your child’s uncomfortableness stems from.
Still not certain?
If you are still saying ‘Help! my child is a super picky eater and I am not sure why’. If you cannot see why or where this began, and still think it is more than just ‘being fussy’ you might have noticed some more curious or concerning flags.
Flags worth investigating:
- Your child will refuse to eat food based on the look, smell, texture or taste.
- They will not eat any more than 15 sorts of food (including the basics).
- Might complain, excuse, gag, whinge and whine.
- They might cry and fight when you mention mealtimes.
- Children might simply refuse… and there is no way you can persuade them.
- Meltdowns are common when the sensory system is overloaded regarding food.
- They might hide food. Especially in their cheeks, or under their tongue. But also, could be under other food or a napkin, under the placement, the chair, in their clothes, on their siblings’ plate. You name it.
- Might experience sensory and tactile sensitivities in other areas. For instance, they might fuss over dirty hands, clothes being annoying, tags of clothes, people playing or touching their things, germs or gross textures, clothes or shoes being too tight or too loose, super sensitive smell or hearing (or the opposite, lack of smell and hearing). Sensory tasks in general.
- They might seem to be extreme in their behaviour or personality. A lack of behaviour inhibition and not be able to self sooth. Meltdowns and emotional breakdowns may be common due to a build up of internal frustration.
- Children might refuse to eat or do certain sensory invoking activities that they used to love, for no apparent reason.
- They cannot say or think anything positive or nice about certain foods/textures/smells and really don’t have an explanation.
Do you have any other significant flags that you have noticed in children with sensory processing issues? Leave them in the comment section for others to see.
What can I do if my child is a super picky eater?
Children’s brains are plastic and they learn quickly. It’s just a matter of finding what works. If you think it is something you want to try and work through, CBT and play ideas might help.
By using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy concepts, and play based learning, you can also help (or re-train) your child’s negative thought patterns associated with being a fussy eater. This involves positive statements, encouragement, and a reward system. Combined with play and sensory stimulating exposure.
Alternatively, If you think it is a major concern and more than a fussy stage, talk to your child’s doctor, nurse, childcare educators and allied health care professions.
Here are my favourite resources.
Lots of ideas and recipes, some for SPD but all would help a fussy eater too.