Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?
J Julia DeNey

Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?

Mar 13, 2024

As parents, we've all been there. The dinner table standoff: you've prepared a nutritious meal, but your child refuses to eat anything except for their "safe" foods. This can be frustrating and worrisome, leading many to wonder, why are some kids so picky about their food? The answer is multifaceted, involving sensory sensitivities, developmental stages, and sometimes, underlying medical issues. To learn more, we spoke with Brenda Chilstom, pediatric occupational therapist and feeding specialist and the founder of That Makes Sense OT. Here is what she had to say. 

The Spectrum of Picky Eating

First, it's crucial to distinguish between picky eaters and problem feeders. Picky eaters may turn their noses up at vegetables but generally have a wider range of acceptable foods. Problem feeders, on the other hand, have a significantly limited diet, often tied to sensory issues. They might reject a familiar sandwich simply because it's cut differently. These children experience a rigid and inflexible approach to food, pointing towards a need for specialized support, such as feeding therapy.

Root Causes of Picky Eating

So, what sparks this picky eating? There are numerous factors, including a developmental phase known as neophobia—fear of new things—which peaks around 18 months to 2 years of age. This period marks a time of growing independence and communication, where toddlers start to express their preferences more strongly, often leading to a narrower selection of accepted foods.

Medical reasons like reflux can also play a role. Infants treated for reflux might continue to experience discomfort, leading them to graze on food to mitigate pain without ever fully satisfying their hunger. This creates a cycle of minimal eating, with parents unwittingly reinforcing these habits to soothe their child.

Furthermore, sensory difficulties can contribute significantly to picky eating. Consistency is key for these children; they gravitate towards foods that look, feel, and taste the same every time, like certain brand-name snacks. This predictability helps manage their sensory processing, making varying textures and flavors of natural foods like fruits a challenge.

Strategies for Parents

Understanding the underlying issues of picky eating can guide parents in supporting their children. Here are a few strategies:

  • Introduce Flexibility in Play: Activities that promote flexibility and novelty in play can help translate to a more open approach to trying new foods. If a child learns to be adaptable with their toys, they may become more receptive to different food presentations and types.
  • Create a Positive Mealtime Environment: Avoid power struggles at the table. Offer a variety of foods without pressuring your child to eat everything. Celebrate small victories when they show willingness to explore new tastes.
  • Seek Professional Guidance: If your child shows signs of being a problem feeder, consult with a pediatric feeding specialist. Feeding therapy can offer targeted strategies to address sensory sensitivities and expand your child's diet.

Picky eating in children can stem from a complex mix of sensory sensitivities, developmental stages, and health issues. By understanding these underlying causes, parents can adopt more effective strategies to gently broaden their child's food preferences. Remember, patience and persistence are key. Each child's journey to overcoming picky eating is unique, but with the right support, they can learn to embrace a more varied and nutritious diet.

About Brenda Chilstrom, OTR/L

Brenda Chilstrom is a seasoned pediatric occupational therapist with over 30 years of experience, specializing in sensory and feeding challenges. After working in various settings, including schools, early intervention, and specialized centers, she founded her own business, That Makes Sense OT, in 2007 to provide focused support to children in need. Brenda's commitment to her specialty is underscored by her continuous education in feeding and sensory integration. Now based in Naples, FL, she offers private practice services to preschools and homes, aiming to enhance community awareness about sensory needs and promote independence and well-being in children. She also does online coaching for feeding and sensory processing. Brenda is also an advocate for using supportive tools, such as compression vests, to aid children's sensory integration, helping them to feel more grounded and secure. Her work is dedicated to ensuring every child can become the curious being they were always meant to be.

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