My Son is a Picky Eater

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Reader’s Question

I am the worried mother of a five-year-old boy who is a very picky eater.

Why are some children picky eaters?

How can I help my son to be more open-minded when it comes to food?

Psychologist’s Reply

Picky eaters, yes! As a mother I can commiserate about how bothersome this can be. The short answer that is provided time and time again by child development experts, however, is to continue to offer new and nutritious foods over and over again (up to ten times) to broaden your child’s tastes.

Why are some children picky eaters? There are different reasons for this. Toddlers (children 1 — 3 years old) may be picky because they have just finished a large period of growth and are now predisposed to pick at food and snack throughout the day. Grazing throughout the day and keeping portions small works for toddlers, but what about a five-year-old? At this age, food routines such as three meals and two snacks per day are likely already in place. Food preferences may have developed over time, and neophobia (fear of new foods) can deter a five-year-old from continuing to acquire new foods to eat.

One study suggests that neophobia is highly heritable (Cooke, Haworth and Wardle 2007). What does this mean? It means that if you were a picky eater, your child is likely to be one also!

In some cases, picky eating is severe enough to be considered a food aversion or a feeding disorder, both of which can impact growth and development. A typically-developing child who is a picky eater is different from a child who may be resistant or averse to foods due to sensory problems, an autistic spectrum disorder, or an oral motor impairment. You did not mention other concerns, but these types of eating problems are typically part of a broader picture of behavioral or developmental issues.

It is difficult to watch your child refuse food, and I hear in your question that it has created worry for you about his health and nutrition. Despite your sense of urgency about his picky eating tendencies, eating is an area on which to tread lightly, as this topic can lend itself to power struggles. Parents are used to being able to make decisions for their young children with regard to what is best. But there are two areas in which a child is in control: eating and toileting. They are in charge, ultimately, of what goes in and what comes out. And not coincidentally, these are two common areas in which power struggles develop between parents and children. You can provide good structure with regard to your family’s mealtime routines and provide nutritious food, but you cannot force him to eat it.

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What can you do to help your son develop tastes for other foods? Some general ideas can be found in many parenting books and may or may not be helpful for you and your particular child.

Again, what you will see most consistently recommended is to introduce new foods over and over again. Continued exposure to new foods and encouragement to try at least one “no thank you bite” may result in your child realizing that he actually likes a new food. It can take up to ten times for a new food to become a familiar or preferred food.

If you are feeling energetic, you can do your best to make food fun. Foods can be arranged or cut into fun shapes or named in a silly way can help boost appeal (e.g. being a giant eating “broccoli trees”). Sometimes when children are allowed to be involved in choosing fruits or vegetables at the store or helping prepare them, they can be more open to trying them.

If your son is hungry when he begins his meals, he might be more likely to try new or non-preferred foods if they are presented first. Beginning the meal with carrot sticks for a “snack,” for example, can be a prelude to a more preferred food. A combination of new or non-preferred foods and preferred foods at every meal should gradually expand your son’s menu of acceptable foods.

In the end, you can only control what you do, which is to present a variety of nutritious foods, encourage him, model good eating habits, and hope for the best. If you are concerned about your child’s health, your pediatrician can check to ensure that he is growing and healthy.

References

Cooke, L. J., Haworth, C. M. A. and Wardle, J. (2007) ‘Genetic and environmental influences on children’s food neophobia’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86(2): 428-433.

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