Are Your Children Picky Eaters

Do you have picky eaters in the family?

What You Need to Know About Eating Patterns

My daughter went through a phase when she wanted cheese and grapes at every meal. My son had a peanut butter and honey sandwich period. For a while, new menu items were greeted with that dreaded mealtime word: Yucky!

Fortunately, my children swung back to a balanced diet with just a few individual foods they absolutely avoided. Sometimes, though, children can be very stubborn about sticking to a short list of preferences and a long list of refusals.

Initially, most children labeled "picky eaters" are merely moving through appropriate developmental stages, says Dr. Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University and co-author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health. If parents can adapt to those changes and avoid fighting with their children's biological imperatives, they can prevent them from settling into a pattern of picky eating.

Evolving Eating Patterns

From 6 months to 12 months of age, a baby needs solid food as well as breast milk or formula. Parents' efforts to present their children with new foods are aided by the fact that babies this age want to put everything into their mouths.

For the first few months, parents should introduce new, easy-to-digest, simple foods slowly to their babies to prevent allergies, Roberts says. Later in the first year, the child may enjoy the variety of a new food every three or four days.

"When children get to solid food, we put them in a highchair and put food in them, and it's all bland," says nutrition counselor Cynthia Lair, author of Feeding the Whole Family. "We have problems later because we've trained them to have separate meals and to like bland food."

The period from 12 months to 21 months of age represents "a window of opportunity" for getting children used to a healthy diet, Roberts says. Toddlers tend to crave adventure and variety, so she recommends giving them the same things the rest of the family is eating, without too much dependence on commercial baby foods.

Lair, a professor at Bastyr University's School of Natural Medicine, points out that in primitive societies, mothers chewed up some of their own food and then spit it out to feed to their babies. Along the same lines, she adds, today's parents can take some of what the rest of the family is eating and grind it up for young children.

To avoid food problems at this age, Roberts cautions parents not to force a child to eat more than he or she wants and urges them to provide enough variety of food to prevent boredom.

Parents can also set the stage for healthy eating by honoring the family mealtime. Young children get a lot of comfort out of ritual, Lair says. "If children sit down with other people, they're less picky about food."

She advises parents not to limit their own diets by crossing food items off their menu when a toddler refuses them. "We forget that something they don't like today, they may like later," she says, noting that it took her daughter 11 years to love kasha grain.

Roberts cites the "Rule of 15," noting that research has shown that a particular food can be offered to a child up to 15 times before it is accepted. At the same time, she advises parents to maintain a familiarity with the foods their children do like.

"As long as the food they're focused on is not unhealthful, its OK to give it to them," Lair says. Make sure every meal has a "winner," she advises. "If your child loves bread and butter, make sure there's some of that available."

Picky Eating As a Survival Skill?

Between the ages of 2 and 3, food cautiousness is quite common and this is when most picky-eating problems surface, Roberts says. She attributes this to evolutionary principles. In hunter-gatherer societies, toddlers would begin exploring their environment without constant supervision.

"Stone-age children who ate anything lying around - who were adventurous eaters - would probably have been poisoned and never managed to pass on their genes to the next generation," Roberts postulates.

"What you need to do is not encourage this natural pickiness by pushing new foods on kids," she counsels. "Let them refuse things while they watch you eat them, then they can decide they are safe to try themselves."

Avoid Overselling Foods

With young children's burgeoning drive toward independence, the worst thing parents can do is actively encourage or "oversell" healthy foods, Roberts says. If a child doesn't want to eat what's offered, leave the refused foods within reach so she can try them later in the meal. Offer one plain alternative, and let her see you enjoy some of the food that she refused.

Lair believes many parents inadvertently encourage temporary pickiness to become a pattern because they're nervous about setting boundaries. Lair advises parents to say, "This is what we're having; if you don't want any, you may be excused," rather than to negotiate, bribe, threaten, make separate meals or go out for fast food.

As children reach the preschool years, their bodies are ready for the same kinds of foods - with the same levels of fat, fiber and nutrients - as adults eat. As kids reach a more cooperative and social stage, they will often want to eat what their parents eat, if they're not over-encouraged. Preschoolers will often like more kinds of foods if they have a hand in growing them, cooking them or shopping for them.

How Much Is Enough at 1 Year?

Experts say that the nutritional needs of a 1-year-old will be met by this average daily intake:

  • 16 to 24 ounces of milk
  • one-half to one cup of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • one or two one-ounce servings of lean meat, poultry, eggs or fish and/or a half cup of fortified cereal
  • about 200 to 500 calories worth of other foods such as cereals, breads and legumes, as appetite demands
  • water as desired for thirst.

When Picky Eating Becomes a Health Problem

When a temporary or long-term picky eating habit occurs, parents have two major concerns:

  • Is my child getting enough calories?
  • Is she getting adequate nutrition?

Generally, unless your child has stopped gaining weight for several months or is losing weight, she's getting enough calories. In fact, old caloric estimates were about 15 percent higher than children actually needed, according to Susan Roberts, author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health. Parents are often worried because appetite seems to decline so much after the baby's first birthday. This is because the rate of growth slows considerably, Roberts says, pointing out that if a child continued to grow at the same pace as he did in his first year, he would weigh 400 pounds and be 21 feet tall by his 18th birthday.

If you are worried that your child's limited preferences are not meeting his nutritional needs, make a list of what the child actually does like. It's usually longer than the parents first think, Roberts says.

From this list, you can then work out what is missing and determine what foods could be added to bridge the shortfall - "foods that are similar to things your child already likes," Roberts notes. She recommends that all toddlers and preschoolers be given a daily age-appropriate vitamin/mineral supplement to prevent deficiencies, particularly for iron, calcium, zinc, B-vitamins and anti-oxidant vitamins A, C and E.

Red Flags

Both Roberts and Cynthia Lair, a professor at Bastyr University's School of Natural Medicine, have a list of "red flags" indicating that a picky eater may actually be endangering his health and needs to see a doctor:

  • loss of weight or no weight gain for two to six months
  • lack of energy
  • behavioral problems
  • refusal to eat any solid foods
  • frequent colds or infections (one or two a month)
  • skin problems or dark circles under the eyes, which may indicate a food allergy or deficit.

If a child is eating much less food than he normally does, it often means he is coming down with an infection, Roberts adds. If it goes on for a long time, it could indicate a serious illness.

Monica Andis, M.S., a registered dietician and program manager of Nutrition and Dietary Services at the West Virginia Center for Excellence in Disabilities, also distinguishes between picky eaters and selective eaters:

  • Picky eaters eat foods from the four major food groups - dairy, grain and cereal, meat and protein, and fruit and vegetable - and have a basically balanced diet.
  • Selective eaters eat an abnormally limited variety of food, often avoiding one or more whole food groups. Selective eaters may also have unusual aversions, such as avoiding all cold, crunchy or red foods. This selectivity may be due to difficult medical history (such as procedures that made eating painful or unpleasant), digestive problems, altered or heightened sensory perceptions, medical/genetic conditions, such as autism, or medications that interfere with taste. Some children suffer from gastro-esophageal reflux - the muscles between the stomach and the esophagus are weak and do not close tightly, so that food and acid from the stomach back up into the esophagus, causing burning and discomfort. Selective eaters are often missing vital nutrients and should be seen by a doctor and a nutritional counselor or dietician, Andis says.

Wenda Reed is a former editor for United Parenting Publications (a Dominion Parenting Media property).

©, used with permission.

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