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Picky Eating: Childhood Phase or Deeper Issue?

Picky Eating: Childhood Phase or Deeper Issue?

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Updated on Jul 7, 2012

You've tried everything from slowly introducing new foods to making healthier versions of kid-friendly grub, and still your child refuses to eat anything but a limited selection of approved dishes. Attempts at ignoring the problem, pleading and even sending her to bed hungry have failed. Often, a parent in this situation feels guilty for "making" their child such a picky eater. But what if a larger issue—not your parenting skills—is to blame?

Picky eating habits for kids are so universal that they're among the top five concerns parents bring to pediatricians. Researchers now know that kids' eating habits are determined by several factors, including early experiences, motor problems and genetics. Learn more about the causes of picky eating, as well as some solutions.

  • Fear of food. Most young babies will eat almost anything, but around one year of age, some children begin developing food phobias, according to Dr. Alan Greene, pediatrician, author and pediatric advisor for Plum Organics. This fear can stem from an evolutionary response (such as avoiding bitter food that could signal poison) or a traumatic experience with a certain type or texture of food, like choking on a chicken bone. Some young kids also suffer from a disorder known as food neophobia, or a fear of trying new foods, and just the sight or smell of an unfamiliar dish is enough to make them gag or vomit. Alleviate this nervousness by starting an open dialogue about food, and encouraging him to mix his favorite foods. By taking it slow and enlisting the help of a therapist, you can help him feel less anxious about tasting new things.
  • Ignore the naysayers. Many people think that eating is a natural instinct, which is why friends may say, "She'll eat eventually. She won't starve." If your loved ones are serving up some well-intentioned (but woefully misinformed) advice, simply reply with, "I appreciate your concern, but I've done research and believe her food aversions are rooted in a deeper issue." This way, you'll tactfully let friends and family know that sensitivity is required to be supportive of you and your child's issue with food.
  • Employ clever marketing. In a 2010 study by Sesame Workshop, children were offered broccoli or chocolate. Predictably, most of the kids went for the chocolate...until researchers placed a sticker of Elmo on the broccoli. After that, 50 percent of kids chose it over the chocolate. While stickers may not solve every picky eater's issues, Dr. Greene says it can't hurt to try. "Young kids are wired to distrust new foods. Elmo is a trusted figure for kids, so associating him with food increases their willingness to experiment." Additionally, serve foods on favorite plates and add some pizzazz. Brightly colored fruits are usually a hit, and don't forget sauces like yogurt or organic ranch dressing!
  • Watch for food allergies. Rachel Begun, MS, RD, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that children with undiagnosed food allergies or celiac disease often become picky eaters because they associate certain foods with discomfort. Watch for other signs of allergies, such as tingling in the mouth, hives, eczema, diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal pain. Talk with your pediatrician about allergy testing if symptoms continue.
  • Consider oral-motor problems. Eating is the most complicated bodily function, according to Dr. Kay A. Toomey, pediatric psychologist and director of the SOS Feeding Solutions Program at the STAR Center in Denver. Kids with sensory issues or under-developed oral motor skills may avoid food because eating is difficult or even painful. To help develop oral motor skills, play games like blowing bubbles or blowing through a straw. Cut food into bite-size pieces or long strips and place only three foods at a time on your child's plate. Offer as many tablespoons as your child's age (i.e. three tablespoons of each food for your three-year old). Eat regular meals at the same time and place every day, and make sure your child's sitting up with her feet supported.
  • Assess psychological factors. From an early age, children learn to avoid painful situations. If early feeding was traumatic, many children become picky eaters later. Babies with gastroesophageal reflux may associate feeding with pain. Premature babies who spend the first weeks and months of their lives with tubes in their mouths and noses may become picky eaters later, says Toomey. Take extra time to make eating an enjoyable experience. Give your child choices and allow her to help shop for and cook meals.
  • Get help. Around 5 percent of children have true disorders that need extra help to solve, such as Selective Eating Disorder (SED) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If your child eats fewer than 20 foods, has tantrums or meltdowns when you introduce new foods, has aversions to many food textures, and avoids entire categories of foods (such as all meats or all vegetables), he may be suffering from a feeding disorder. Talk with your pediatrician about possible solutions, such as finding a feeding clinic in your area.

Most kids outgrow picky eating in mid-childhood, but early intervention is key to solving eating disorders. Lifelong picky eaters face serious health consequences because of their limited diets. By helping your child work through the root of her eating issues, she'll feel more at ease in food-centered social situations and will work toward experiencing the joy of sharing a scrumptious meal with friends and family.

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