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Helping Your Picky Eater—And Knowing When to Seek Help

Offering solid food to your baby is an exciting time. But the excitement can suddenly end when they refuse to eat their favorite food. Nearly all kids have a period of picky eating early in life. There's even a term for it: the toddler appetite slump.

"When children are first starting on solid foods, they may have strong reactions to tastes and textures," says Cindy Gellner, MD, a board-certified physician specializing in pediatrics at University of Utah Health.

The typical “picky eating” stage is seen around ages 1-5 years. This is when toddlers begin to develop food preferences.

One of the most important tips for parents is to not get frustrated. “Just like learning how to talk, it takes time for your child to learn how to be a competent eater,” says Miranda Reynolds, a clinical dietician at University of Utah Health. This stage will eventually pass.

Here’s how you can help set your child up for success to not be so selective as they get older:

1. Establish regular meal and snack times

Eat at the table instead of letting your child graze and carry around food and sippy cups. Avoid giving milk and juice in between meals because it can decrease their appetite at mealtimes. Only offer a small cup of water between meals instead. If your child uses a bottle, replace it with a cup. Your child will likely drink less from a cup, leaving more room for food at mealtimes.

2. Don’t make separate meals

Prepare the same food for everyone—even if your child complains or refuses to eat it. It’s important that they learn to eat what the family eats. Offering a different meal may teach them not to try new foods because they will always receive food they like.

3. Avoid pressuring your child to eat

Respect their ability to listen to their body and let them choose what and how much to eat from what is offered. Place a small serving of a new food on their plate without forcing them to try it. It may take several attempts before your child feels comfortable accepting a new food.

4. Respect your child's hunger and fullness cues

Avoid forcing your child to finish their plate, and encourage them to stop eating when they feel satisfied. Children have much smaller stomachs than adults, so it is normal for them to eat less than others—or not at all.

5. Involve your child in meal planning and preparation

Let them select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods at the grocery store. Getting them involved in meal preparation could also be fun for them. Let them choose their toppings, offer a dip, or arrange their foods in a creative way.

6. Be a good role model at mealtimes

Eat a variety of healthy foods, avoid negative comments about foods you dislike, and create a calm and pleasant atmosphere without distractions like toys or the TV.

7. Avoid bribes

Using dessert or treats as a bribe for eating other foods can negatively impact your child and lead to later habits of disordered eating. Do not use food as a punishment or withhold meals.

Picky eating is normal

When a child’s eating behavior suddenly changes, it can create a lot of anxiety and stress on a parent. But just because your child no longer has an interest in a particular food doesn’t mean there’s a serious, underlying issue.

“If your child is growing well with their height and weight, it most likely is behavioral picky eating and not a medically serious cause,” Gellner says. “It’s not that the child has a medical reason for not eating what a parent wants. It’s that kids naturally gravitate towards sweets and other treats and will hold out until they get those.”

So, if grandma, grandpa, or another relative is giving your child sweets and junk food, your child is probably filling up on those. According to Gellner, parents usually give in because they get worried that their child isn’t eating and will starve. But in reality, a child is “training” the parent to give in to what they want.

“They won’t starve, but they just might have to eat something they don’t think they like and may find out that they like it,” Gellner says.

When to seek help

If extreme fussiness with foods persists after age 6, it may be time to look at other causes for the picky eating. Figuring out those causes starts with talking to your child and their pediatrician.

"It may be that your child just has not been properly re-introduced to a food they dislike," Gellner says. "It can take as many as 10 times before they accept a food they encountered negatively."

In most cases, a little detective work and perseverance pays off. However, in children with mood or sensory issues, it may take a bit more.

"You also need to let your pediatrician know if your family has a history of anxiety or autism," she says. "That will help identify potential issues early on and address them."

Of course, in any situation, a child needs to eat. Once a problem is identified, it's important to work on solutions that ensure proper nutrition is being obtained. Working with a registered dietitian can help make sure your child is getting what they need to grow and develop.