What makes kids picky eaters, and what may help them ...

As parents, we have all experienced the frustration of dealing with a picky eater at some point in our journey of raising children. Picky eating is a common phase that usually starts during the toddler years and can persist well into adolescence and adulthood for some individuals. It often leaves parents wondering what causes this selective eating behavior and how it can be effectively managed.

In this blog post, we will explore the various factors contributing to the development of picky eating habits, including normal developmental phases, medical conditions, anxiety, and even the impact of eating disorders. We will delve into the symptoms of picky eaters and discuss the potential consequences of their limited dietary choices.

But fret not, dear parents and caregivers, for we are not only here to shed light on the problem but also to provide you with practical solutions and guidance. One effective approach in dealing with picky eaters, particularly for children with neuro-developmental differences, is occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy for children has emerged as a valuable tool in helping children overcome sensory issues, oral-motor challenges, and other difficulties that may contribute to their picky eating tendencies. We will explore how occupational therapy can be a game-changer in managing picky eating and enhancing your child’s relationship with food.

So, if you have a picky eater at home or wish to gain a deeper understanding of this complex behavior, keep reading, as we embark on a journey to decode the mysteries of picky eating and uncover the potential of occupational therapy in transforming mealtimes for the better.

How picky eating is developed?

Picky eating usually begins between 18 months and 2 years of age, when toddlers’ cognitive development is becoming more sophisticated and they’re better able to process characteristics like colour, texture, and taste. The picky eating phase usually ends by age 5, but for some children it continues into the elementary school years. And for others, it may even last through adolescence and into adulthood. 

What are the symptoms of a picky eater?

  • Refuse to eat specific foods (pears, ham, strawberries, peas, beans, etc).  
  • Refuse to eat entire food groups, like vegetables or fruits. 
  • Refuse to eat foods that aren’t a certain color or texture (only eating foods that are white or soft, etc).  
  • Unwilling to try new food.  

Why kids can become picky eaters?

Children can become picky eaters for several reasons.  

  • Normal development: picky eating often develops during the toddler years for two main reasons: 
  • After the rapid growth of infancy, a toddler’s growth rate and appetite start to slow down, so they’re less interested in eating than before. Toddlers are trying to establish a sense of independence, so refusing to eat certain foods is an easy way to have a sense of control. Other children develop picky eating habits by modelling their parents’ eating habits. 
  • Eating disorder: eating disorders are dysfunctional eating behaviours that harm a person’s health and ability to function. Picky eating that begins in early adulthood can also be a sign of the eating disorder called “orthorexia nervosa.” These individuals will avoid and refuse to eat any foods that are deemed “unhealthy” and develop very rigid dietary restrictions. Orthorexia can lead to serious health problems like malnutrition and other mental health disorders such as anxiety associated to eating.   
  • Medical conditions: Certain neuro-developmental differences such as Autism, developmental delay or psychological issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can cause picky eating. These include: 
    • Sensory processing differences, including sensory modulation issues, sensory discrimination concerns, and sensory-based motor disorders. 
    • Gastrointestinal issues with pain and motility problems 
    • Allergies 
    • Cardiac or respiratory issues 
    • Differences in muscle tone (hyper or hypotonicity) 
  • Anxiety: Anxiety can suppress a person’s appetite. In addition, having a bad experience, such as vomiting, that happened while eating a certain type of food can lead to avoidance of that food or more general picky eating. Symptoms of anxiety during mealtimes include:  
    • Anxiety at mealtimes 
    • Fear of choking or vomiting 
    • Fear of allergic reaction with eating 

What are the consequences of picky eating?

Picky eaters may not get enough vitamins such as Vitamin C or Vitamin B12, leading to a deficiency. Parents can give their children multi-vitamins. If a picky eater is starting to lose weight, it is cause for concern. Falling off a pediatric growth chart or having a body mass index (BMI) that’s too low is a sign that picky eating may be affecting a child’s growth and development.  

How to help your child if he’s a picky eater?

  • Start “no-pressure” meals: When you have a meal ready for your child, let him decide how much or whether he wants to eat. This choice helps him to learn to like more foods over time. The goal is to create a pleasant and inviting eating environment for your child where they he earns to like new foods. 
  • Encourage him to eat his meal whenever he’s ready: Children love to tell you their opinions about meal options. It’s easy to jump into the fight with them and force them to eat a certain amount. Instead, encourage them to eat their meal whenever they feel like it. Sometimes they aren’t hungry. Encourage them to eat to their appetite instead of telling them to finish their meal.  
  • Have specific timings for the kitchen: It might be tempting let your child eat food all day but letting him eat freely like this can backfire for a child who is already considered picky, as he is less likely to feel hunger and therefore much less willing to try new foods. Instead of letting him decide to eat whenever he wants, open the kitchen at certain times then close the kitchen when snack time or mealtime is over. Having a toddler eating schedule or a schedule for older kids, can make a huge difference. Kids need three meals and 0-3 snacks per day, depending on the child and the family circumstances. Serving kids meals and snacks on a routine every 2-4 hours can go a long way in improving picky eating. 
  • Sit down to eat: Have specific eating places and have kids sit down to eat. It helps prevent choking, and it also can help kids slow down and listen to their bodies, which allows them to eat better. Avoid distractions like cell phones, toys, books, TV, or other screens during mealtimes.  
  • Offer a variety of foods: Make sure to serve a few things your child likes at every meal. Even if he doesn’t eat everything that’s available, he’ll surely eat something.
    His food intake over the entire week matters more than what he eats at each individual meal. It tends to all balance out, so kid get the nutrients his body needs. 
  • Shop and cook with your kid: Even though parents are the ones buying and serving the food, children can be part of the process. Bring your kid to the grocery store and let him choose a new fruit or vegetable to try. Find a recipe your child likes and cook together.  

What therapies can help picky eaters?

  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is one of the most common and effective treatments for phobias. The person is exposed to the source of the fear in a controlled setting, which allows the effect of the fear to lessen over time. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This form of therapy focuses on identifying negative thoughts, dysfunctional beliefs, and harmful reactions and changing them into positive views and feelings. It helps control symptoms and helps patients manage their anxiety. 

Handling picky eating in neurodivergent children can be a bit more complicated so it’s best to consult your child’s doctor, a dietitian, or a speech language pathologist who specializes in working with kids on the autism spectrum. The important first step is to determine the root cause of the pickiness, which may be due to a digestive issue, such as underdeveloped oral-motor muscles, acid reflux, or chronic constipation. Other times, sensory issues with the taste, texture, temperature, or smell of certain foods might be another factor.  

Some advice for parents with picky neurodivergent children:

  • Stay as calm as possible during meals, and don’t let it become a battle between parent and child.  
  • Carefully consider which offerings are accepted and which are rejected – is it based on the color, texture, or temperature. Serve more foods that are like the foods the child normally likes.  
  • Incorporate food into sensory games and playtime. Try finger painting with whipped cream or fill sensory bins with pieces of oat cereal.  
  • Be transparent. Repeat exposure of food may work well, while hiding foods or being tricky may not. 

In conclusion, picky eating is a common yet multifaceted behavior that can be managed effectively with patience and understanding. From understanding its various causes to implementing practical strategies, we can help our children develop a healthier relationship with food.

For children with neuro-developmental differences or sensory challenges, occupational therapy can be a transformative tool. At TBC in Dubai, our experienced team is dedicated to supporting your child’s journey towards a positive and adventurous eating experience. If you need personalized guidance or assistance, don’t hesitate to contact us. Together, let’s nourish our children’s bodies and minds with joy and healthy eating habits for a lifetime.