“It’s too spicy!” “The noodles are touching the veggies!” “They put ketchup on it, yuck!” “There’s a spot on my banana, I don’t want it!” Many parents know the struggle of getting their kids to eat a well-balanced meal all too well — so much so that it’s not uncommon for large numbers of kids to get labeled as “picky” eaters.
There’s a lot of controversy over what counts as picky eating, however, and who and what is to “blame” for said pickiness. Is it the parents? Is it our culture? Is it genetics? Some people don’t even believe there is such a thing as a “picky eater” (there’s even a book about this), while others believe that what we view as picky eating is often related to larger issues, like sensory issues, autism and more. So what’s a parent to believe, and more importantly, what are they to do when their kid flat-out refuses anything new at meal time?
But first, what exactly is picky eating?
“Picky eaters may be people who choose not to eat certain things based on the way they taste, look or smell,” says Ellie Friend, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. “Most of the time it is a phase that can be grown out of after re-introduction of the food over and over,” she explains.
What causes picky eating to occur in the first place?
Cesar Sauza, a nutritionist at the National Coalition on Health Care, believes many picky eaters were not exposed to a variety of foods — particularly whole foods like fruits, vegetables and different types of proteins — growing up. (That said, a review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that while some studies have highlighted fussy eating in terms of certain food groups, including veggies, data shows that picky eating can relate to all kinds of foods, even fruit, dairy, pizza and burgers.)
“[This] leads to an unfamiliarity with new foods and a hesitancy to try [them]. Many picky eaters assume they do not like foods they have not tasted,” says Sauza. Unless they open themselves up to trying different types of foods, these patterns can continue well into adulthood.
“Picky eating is not only common, [it] continues to rise due to the abundance of ultra-processed foods on the market,” says Sauza. He says that some of the other factors that contribute to this include parents not eating the same variety of nutritious foods they want their kids to eat, and early exposure to sugary and fast foods.
Additionally, Friend says that allergies and prior bad experiences with a food might also make a child more averse to eating.
Negative comments about foods can also contribute to picky eating. For example, telling your child how much you hated being forced to eat certain foods as a child, or saying certain dishes are “gross” or “stinky” might cause them to avoid those foods altogether.
According to a 2020 study published in the journal Pediatrics, turning mealtimes into a power struggle also exacerbates picky eating. Picky eating appeared to be reinforced when parents restricted what their children ate, put pressure on them to eat and were demanding at mealtimes.
Why are some kids pickier than others?
There’s no single answer for this, but most experts seem to agree that most kids go through some picky moments, and that how we respond has a lot to do with how extreme the pickiness gets and how long it lasts.
“Kids can become picky eaters for all sorts of reasons. Most often it’s a normal phase,” says Dr. Jenelle Ferry, a neonatologist at Pediatrix Medical Group in Tampa, Fla. “Often as children develop and explore their environment, they test lots of boundaries, and this can include trying to control what they do or do not eat.”
“As a small child, they may just be resistant to change or testing boundaries. Older children have the added influence of peers,” Ferry adds.
But this outside influence could go in either direction. According to Friend, a child “may start to expand diet variety after seeing what other kids at school are trying and eating."
Friend adds that there’s another major reason for school children’s picky eating: They’re “more susceptible to ‘food burnout’ due to repetitiveness of packed lunches and quick, easy snacks,” she says.
Can picky eating be a sign of something more?
Researchers from the same study from Pediatrics also found that picky eating can often be part of a larger issue in which children who struggled to control their emotions tended to be picky about food. Difficulties with emotional regulation can often indicate a number of issues, including ones rooted in neurodiversity.
“Some neuro-sensory disorders can lead to picky eating,” Ferry tells Yahoo Life. “These can include autism spectrum disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders and ADHD.”
While this can be challenging, it’s still possible to help your child increase the number of foods they eat, especially once you figure out which foods your child has an aversion to and which ones they like, or at least tolerate. However, Ferry says if the child exhibits severe rigidity in their feeding habits along with a decrease in weight gain or other growth parameters, it’s probably time to speak to a pediatrician.
“Concerning signs include constipation, abdominal pain, always feeling full or other stomach complaints,” she adds.
How can parents help their kids overcome pickiness?
Keep serving those broccolii florets. “It can take an average of six to 15 exposures, and sometimes [up] to 100, before a child develops a liking for a new food, so it’s important to continue to encourage trying new foods,” says Ferry.
Because many parents complain that their kids frequently refuse veggies, Sauza recommends that they try to offer at least one full serving of vegetables daily, regardless of whether or not the child eats it.
“The goal is to expose them to vegetables consistently until they become more familiar with them,” he says.
Sauza tells parents to avoid giving kids an unhealthy option when their child refuses healthy home-cooked meals, as it empowers the child to continue the picky eating behavior. He also encourages parents to model healthy eating habits so that kids will want to eat more of what they see their family eat.
If all else fails, working with a dietitian (or perhaps an occupational therapist or speech pathologist, especially for kids whose food aversions are based in neurodiversity) is always a good idea.
“Professional help may be warranted if parents are eating a nutritious balanced diet for the most part and have exposed the child to a variety of foods consistently but are still not seeing progress in the child’s feeding behavior,” says Sauza.
While picky eating can be frustrating, parents shouldn’t stress too much over it. According to the Pediatrics study, picky eaters are generally thinner than non-picky eaters, and they’re rarely underweight or unhealthy.
Finally, parents should remember that there are many ways to combat these mealtime struggles. Kids who refuse broccoli 20 times might end up liking it on the 21st try, or they might only like it when it’s offered raw, or with ranch dip, or covered in cheese. They might find that it’s just not for them, but later discover the joys of eating spinach, or celery, or mushrooms or carrots. They might finally open up to it if they see a parent eat it first, or if they notice an older cousin or classmate eating it. As long as they are trying at least one bite, and being exposed to new, different, healthy foods, that’s really what matters most.