Selective eating, or “picky eating” can be very stressful for children unable to tolerate a wide variety of foods and for caregivers wanting to end the mealtime battles. If you have concerns about your child’s eating abilities, contact a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or talk to your pediatrician. A SLP is often included in the care of feeding and swallowing disorders, and can help provide strategies for “picky eaters” through feeding therapy.

When does selective eating turn into a more severe problem?

Picky Eating Feeding Disorder
Will eat at least 30 different foods Very restricted range or variety of foods (less than 20)
Begins around 18mo – 3 years

May slow before age 6

Typically birth – 4 years

Can persist into adulthood

Able to tolerate new foods on their plate May have complete meltdown and rejection of foods when presented with new food
Continues to meet height and weight milestones Might be under/overweight and/or not growing as expected
May cycle through their favorite foods and take a break, but will go back after a couple of weeks Will eat their favorite foods, but then get “burned out” and then reject them consistently
Eats at least one food from each food group (e.g., protein, grain, fruit, vegetable) Refuses one or more entire food groups

(e.g., protein, grain, fruit, vegetable)

May frequently eat different foods from the family during the family meal Almost always has a “special meal” just for them and may not eat with the rest of the family
Often prefers one type of food but can eat it in different ways (e.g., chicken nuggets from multiple fast food chains and frozen bag) May have specific brand, shape, color, and type of food accepted (e.g., only Tyson dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets)
Food rejection may be due to choice or control Food rejection associated with fear and/or anxiety
(adapted from Dr. Kay A. Toomey)

Feeding Milestones for all ages

What can I do to help my picky eater at home?

  1. Respect your child.

As the parent, you control what foods are provided when. Your child decides whether or not to eat the food you presented and how much they want to eat. (Check out Ellyn Satter for more information.)

  1. Offer a variety of foods -and keep trying!

Young children may need at least 10 positive experiences with food for acceptance, but after seven years of age, it increases to 20 times! So just because they said they didn’t like it once, doesn’t mean they never see it again.

  1. Exposure and experience-without pressure- is the key.

Provide opportunities for your child to learn about food through play. Have no expectation that your child will want to eat it, so you can focus on having fun!

  1. Enjoy your family mealtime.

Try to share meals as a family around the dinner table without the phone, tablet, or television as often as possible. Engage your child in conversation and take the pressure off of the food. Remember-your child decides whether they eat and how much, so don’t stress about it if you can’t control it.

  1. Include your child in meal planning.

Have your child help make the grocery list, take inventory of the pantry, go on a scavenger hunt in the grocery store, and help stir the soup in the kitchen. Children often don’t know how their food looks in different ways because they are only served it at the dinner table. Have them be the chef!

  1. Use a dipper!

Carrots are so much better with a little bit of ranch, am I right? Condiments and spices often add a few extra calories to our diet and expand our flavor experiences with foods we already like. Think peanut butter, ketchup, oil & vinegar, cheese, salad dressings, salsa, etc. Don’t be afraid of trying a new flavor with spices either. Some children may respond well to ‘stronger’ flavors like ginger, curry, or cayenne.

  1. Make small – tiny – changes at a time.

If your child only likes round, plain pancakes, introduce a cookie cutter to allow your child to make their favorite pancake into a new shape. Once that’s accepted, try having your child add butter or dip into syrup. Finally, try adding blueberries to the plate or into the pancake mixture that your child helped prepare. Slowly, slowly, slowly the turtle wins the race.

  1. Make the plate “safe.”

Always try to include at least one food that your child will eat on their plate. That may be the only thing they choose to eat that meal, but with unfamiliar or unpreferred foods presented with it, they continue to get the exposure of new foods and can participate by talking about it, looking at it, smelling it, and who knows-maybe even licking it!

  1. Limit “empty” foods and drinks.

Because your child may choose to only eat a handful of foods right now, we want to maximize the good calories and nutrition to promote healthy growth and development. Sugary drinks and pre-packaged snacks are often high in empty calories, which makes us feel full. However, we know that these choices do not provide enough nutritional value for a growing child.

  1. Ditch “just try a bite!”

Taking a bite involves many oral motor and sensory skills to be working for a successful and positive experience with that food. Your child may not be ready for that level yet. To build up their acceptance slowly, your child may “try” a new food by blowing on it one day and touching it the next time. After that, your child may “try” it by giving it a kiss or a lick. A few exposures later, your child can put the food on their tongue and spit it out. All of these steps are building up to just one bite.

It takes time. It takes patience. Positive exposures and experiences matter more than quantity in the long run. Hang in there and enjoy what’s on your own plate.

Related Articles:

Picky Eating and the Holidays

What is feeding therapy?

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