When should you help the picky eater? That’s the big elephant in the room when scouring resources for picky eater help.
Your two year old won’t eat. Your older toddler won’t eat.
When do you step in and ask for help?
…before you’ve got a picky eating disorder on your hands.
Picky Eaters Are Getting Older
One of the trends I am seeing is children with picky eating are getting older and older.
In my practice, I tend to see the older child, some of who have selective eating disorder, and others who are extremely picky eaters for other reasons.
The 8 year-old boy who eats about 10 or so foods.
The 10 year-old girl who exists on white food and pitches a fit when food is foreign or not what she likes or wants.
Or, the child who has plateaued on his growth chart.
Side Effects of Prolonged Picky Eating
Some of the complicated picky eaters I see are iron-deficient. Or, they are fruit- and veggie-avoiders.
Some are slow growers. And others are overweight picky eaters.
Many have dietary deficits that need correction.
Why Do Kids Stay Stuck in Fussy Eating?
Some children have learned to negotiate and dodge the foods they don’t want to eat.
Other picky eaters experience a negative mealtime environment, reinforcing an association with eating that leaves them anxious about coming to the table.
Some children have real mechanical, sensory and behavioral challenges which make eating uncomfortable, hard and undesirable.
These kiddos are complicated. The pat advice of just let him go hungry, or sneak in veggies, and keep offering a variety of foods have been tried, and have failed.
Over and over.
You’ve probably heard it all (or quite a bit!) when it comes to the topic of getting help for your picky eater. There’s so much information out on the web, yet much of the advice is surface stuff that doesn’t dig into your ideal next move.
Today I’m addressing the elephant in the room. I’m going to help you decide when you need to get another look at your child and his picky eating tendencies.
When Should I Help my Picky Eater?
Picky eating usually shows up in the toddler years, between ages 2 and 6, when the toddler starts to show a desire to be independent from the parent.
Food is the easiest and one of the most common ways a toddler can take control, have a say in what’s going on in his life, and experiment with cause and effect.
While you’ve likely heard the message that picky eating is normal at this stage, you have little more to help you recognize when it’s taking hold.
Or in other words, when it is likely to stick around and become a complicated part of your child’s life.
Because I see older picky eaters, I often wish that parents had help earlier.
But, I recognize there isn’t always clear-cut advice about when to get more help for the more complicated picky eater.
And even less about what that extra help should include.
And, let’s be honest, intervention can be a delicate prospect. Do you draw attention to picky eating and make it an issue?
Or do you keep trying (and hoping) that it will resolve?
Practical Tips for Helping Your Picky Eater
When deciding when and how to help your picky eater, consider the following factors:
Four Years Old and Still Picky
If your child is going to preschool (~4 years) and you don’t see signs that picky eating is improving and starting to resolve, consider getting some extra help.
For example, if your child is still eliminating foods from his “liked” list, doesn’t seem to be growing well, or there is predictable drama at the table with food and eating, check in with some good resources or a professional.If your child is entering preschool & picky eating isn't getting better, consider extra help. Click To Tweet
This touch point is for you (and maybe your child), mostly to help you make sure you are feeding positively, not making the situation worse, and to chart a path that will lead to resolving your child’s picky eating exit strategy.
Six Years Old and Still the Same
If your child is in school and out of the “normal” picky eating age range (age 5-6 years) you may need help for both you and your child.
Older children may have sensory challenges that need a programmatic approach including desensitizing those foods that cause discomfort or anxiety.
You may benefit from setting up a system and structure to support your child, helping him move along to a broader palate and better relationship with food.
Obviously, there are a variety of reasons for getting extra help, but a big one is that children seem to become more ingrained in their picky eating as they get older (at least from my experience), and managing it as a parent gets tougher.
Other Signs Your Picky Eater Needs Help:
Other signs may signal a need for picky eating help.
If your child has experienced weight loss or a lack of weight gain, which can be seen on his or her growth chart, you won’t want to delay.
Children should ideally stay in their usual channel of growth. If your child’s growth curves are flattening, this is a sign that intervention is needed.
Gains Too Much, Unhealthy Weight
If your child is gaining excessive weight, his diet, sleep and activity routines may need an overhaul.
It’s a myth to assume picky eaters are thin. Some picky eaters become overweight because they overeat, eat too many unhealthy foods such as crackers, chips or sweets, and not enough plant-based food sources (fruit, vegetables, and whole grains).
Eats a Limited Food Variety
If your child eats less than 20 to 30 foods, then it is likely to impact his overall health. Also, if his list of accepted foods is dwindling over time, your child is not moving forward in his food repertoire and may not be meeting his nutritional needs.
Avoids Entire Food Groups
If your child refuses major food groups such as fruit, vegetables, dairy or protein foods, and is unwilling to try new foods in these categories, she may benefit from more creative efforts to play and experiment with them.
Becomes Emotional about Food
Your child demonstrates an emotional response to new foods or any food he doesn’t want to eat, showing signs of distress or anxiety, such as crying, anger, or tantrums.
Eats Different Foods from the Family
Your child eats different foods from the rest of the family. You may cater to your picky child because you realize, without doing so, your child won’t eat at all. This can be a vicious cycle and a difficult one to break without support.
Is Picky about Food Imperfections
Your child is highly aware of food imperfections such as black pepper flecks in food, food not cooked “correctly,” food at the wrong temperature, or changes in preferred brands of food.
Is Anxious around Social Events and Food
Your child shows social anxiety with eating. He or she may not want to go to parties or sleepovers with other children, or may dislike going out to eat.
‘Would Rather Starve than Eat Food’
Another sign that your picky eater may need more help is when he is willing to go days without eating. This is different from being willing to go to bed without dinner.
Going days, or several subsequent meal offerings without eating, can lead to dehydration, weakness and stress on the whole family.
Special Note: Some parents have sought extra help and walked away disappointed, or even worse, have felt that the experience was more damaging to their child than helpful.
This is terribly unfortunate. Seek out nutrition professionals, speech therapists, occupational therapists, or other healthcare professionals experienced with children, feeding therapy, and complicated picky eating and don’t be afraid to vet their experience and philosophy about treating your child!
Some Picky Eaters are More Likely to Need Help
The onus isn’t merely on parents to steer the picky eating ship in the right direction.
Sometimes kids have other things going on that place them at higher risk for challenges with picky eating, such as a history of prematurity, or a sensory integration condition.
The key is to recognize if and how your child is moving through picky eating. If your child is moving backwards with eating, intervention is warranted.
If your child is moving forward overall, you can shore up your patience and double-check that your feeding is supportive and not hindering your child’s progress.
Integrating a treatment approach that takes care of both the child (food and eating) and the parents (feeding approach) is ideal.
Ultimately, the goal is to help your child meet his nutritional needs, grow well, develop a happy and healthy relationship with food, and learn to overcome any challenges with food.
When did you seek help for your picky eater? Was it helpful?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: March 30, 2016
Updated on: May 9, 2019