Is my child a picky eater?
Feeding young children is TOUGH! Picky eating is a common challenge starting in toddlerhood and can last into the school years. However, it is a normal part of development as your little one learns to exert their independence. Keep reading to learn more about what picky eating habits are actually “normal” and how to handle them.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What is considered a picky eater?
Most kids go through a picky eating stage (or a few!) starting around age 2. The good news? This is a completely normal part of development and signals your toddler is learning how to use their voice and assert their own opinion. Typically, picky eating behaviors start to fade around age 4 or 5, though for some, the phase may last into elementary school .
A handful of “normal” picky eating habits are listed below:
Eating a lot at one meal and not much during the next
Having a large appetite for a day or couple of days then not eating much the next day or few days
Hesitation to try new foods
Preferring carbohydrate foods or foods that always taste the same (i.e. crackers, granola bars, etc.)
Needing to be exposed to a food multiple times before trying it
Touching or licking a food but not eating it
Refusing to eat a food they previously enjoyed
Preferring to eat the same one or two foods for days or even weeks
So how do you know when picky eating escalates to something more? Well, extreme picky eating, as it is sometimes called, doesn’t have an exact definition, but it usually starts with the behaviors above and turns into a pattern that interferes with daily life. Family mealtimes may become difficult or unpleasant, it may become hard to eat outside of the home or the child’s growth may be impacted.
Are my expectations mismanaged?
Since there's no exact definition of picky eating, it can be difficult for parents to tell if their toddler’s eating habits are picky or if they just have mismanaged expectations. Oftentimes, parents forget that children are learning to eat just as they are learning all sorts of new skills.
Signs your expectations may be off include:
Expecting your child to eat or like every food you serve them.
Just like adults, children have taste preferences. It’s okay if they don’t like a food or do not want to eat a certain food. This may come up during baby-led weaning as they try new foods.
Expecting children to eat the same amount at every meal or snack.
Kids’ appetites vary from day to day and can be impacted by things such as physical activity, mood, or illness.
Expecting children to eat vegetables and other “healthy” foods when you don’t do so yourself.
Modeling eating habits, including enjoying vegetables yourself, increase the likelihood that children will eat more healthfully . Children love to do what their parents do, but not always what they say!
How to help your child overcome picky eating
Overcoming picky eating requires time and patience. When both parents and children follow their “jobs” during mealtime (parents provide, child decides)  picky eating naturally runs its course. Do your best to maintain a positive mealtime environment and use the tips below to make picky eating more bearable.
Follow feeding jobs
Stick to a feeding schedule
Serve food in small quantities
Always serve one food your child is comfortable with
Involve kids in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking as you can
Expose kids to new foods in other ways (use books, toys, etc.)
Avoid forcing your child to eat
Offer choices where appropriate
Keep offering food even if your child doesn’t eat them
Avoid becoming a short-order cook
Meal ideas for a picky eater
Every child is different when it comes to eating habits and preferences, so there aren’t one or two “go-to” meals for picky eaters. My best tip is to always include one food you know your child generally accepts or likes. This allows them to feel more comfortable at mealtime and once they start eating they are more likely to try other foods on the plate.
The suggestions below are examples of balanced meals that include foods kids often like. However, it doesn’t mean your child will like (or has to like) them. These base meals can be changed slightly to add variety. For example, change out the type of bread used, which fruit you offer, etc.
Breakfast ideas for a picky eater
Toast with nut or sunflower butter and fruit of your child’s choice
Scrambled eggs and cheese and fruit of your child’s choice
Lunch ideas for a picky eater
Chicken nuggets with carrots sticks and ranch, and fruit of your child’s choice
Yogurt parfait - let your child add toppings themselves
Toppings may include chopped nuts, fruit, chocolate chips, shredded coconut, pepitas, granola, etc.
Dinner ideas for a picky eater
Pasta and meatballs -- serve separately to improve the likelihood of eating
Build your own taco bar - let your child choose their own toppings
When should I be concerned about my child’s picky eating?
For many children, picky eating runs its course and they grow out of it by their school years. However, for some, it can persist and begin to impact their quality of life or growth. If mealtime becomes extremely upsetting to your child or they have difficulty eating outside of the home, it’s best to contact your pediatrician right away. They can assess their growth pattern and help you figure out the next steps. A feeding evaluation may be used to determine if there is an underlying issue contributing to picky eating. This may include a sensory issue or lack of muscle strength or coordination to chew properly.
Picky eater FAQ
Q: What causes a child to be a picky eater?
Picky eating is a typical part of development and most children go through it at one point or another. Sometimes, picky eating has an underlying cause such as a lack of muscle strength or coordination to chew properly, swallowing issues, or sensory issues.
Q: Do parents create picky eaters?
Parents do not create picky eaters as it is a normal part of development for many kids. How parents respond, however, can impact how long picky eating lasts and if it progresses to a more extreme form of picky eating.
Q: Do kids outgrow picky eating?
Yes, kids typically outgrow picky eating. Many children’s picky eating tendencies improve around age 4 or 5, but some take longer and last into the elementary years.
Q: How common is picky eating?
Picky eating is very common, but how it shows up and how long it lasts varies from kid to kid. As a parent, it can be a frustrating and tough time, but with the right tools, it is more manageable.
Q: Can you prevent your child from being a picky eater?
There really isn’t a way to prevent your child from going through a picky eating phase as it is a normal part of development. However, you can lessen its impact by creating a positive mealtime environment and following the division of responsibility in feeding.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
Fernandez, Carmen, et. al. (2020). Trajectories of picky eating in low-income children. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/145/6/e20192018/76916/Trajectories-of-Picky-Eating-in-Low-Income-US?autologincheck=redirected
DeCosta, Patricia, et. al. (2017). Changing children’s eating behaviour - A review of experimental research. Appetite. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28286164/
Ellyn Satter Institute. (2015). Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ELLYN-SATTER%E2%80%99S-DIVISION-OF-RESPONSIBILITY-IN-FEEDING.pdf