What is picky eating?

What is picky eating?

Picky eating is a problem that can often be misunderstood by those around us.

If you’re raising a picky eater, you may have been told that your child will simply grow out of their fussiness; that it’s a normal part of childhood development. While this is true in some cases, for many kids, there may be underlying reasons for their picky eating that can’t be resolved on their own.

This can be frustrating, especially if family mealtimes are stressful and you aren’t sure who to turn to for help. The good news, though, is that help for picky eaters is available – and it all starts with the right information and approach. To get you started, here are the basics about picky eating and why it happens.

What is picky eating?

Picky eating is when someone regularly refuses to eat certain foods or try new foods. It can also be called fussy eating, problem feeding and in its most extreme form, selective eating disorder or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

Signs of picky eating can appear at birth or later in childhood – usually around 18 months to 2 years. In many cases a baby may begin eating solids well, but become more selective with their food preferences as they grow older.

If you have a picky eater in your family, you may be feeling anxious or even isolated. Rest assured that the problem is more common than we think: a US study of 917 children aged 2 to 6 found about 20% were picky eaters. When applied to the Australian population, this amounts to 180,000 kids who are affected by picky eating. You are not alone!

Is picky eating a serious problem?

There are different levels of severity when it comes to picky eating. For some kids, fussiness with food is developmentally appropriate as a child learns to separate themselves from their caregivers. In these situations, the problem may resolve itself if managed in the right way.

In other cases, picky eating is more severe and a child needs help to overcome it. Recent research suggest that up to 70% of picky eating is genetic, which can make change difficult without intervention. On the most extreme end, some children may be diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): a condition where selective eating may lead to significant nutritional deficiency or dependence on supplements.

What are the causes of picky eating?

Eating may seem simple, but it’s actually a complex process that requires many parts of your body and mind to work together. If something in this process goes wrong, it’s easy for kids to be fussy or even fearful of what they eat.

There are many issues that can contribute to picky eating in children. These include:

  • Past trauma from a medical condition, such as tongue-tie, reflux, allergies, gastro, choking or constipation. If this happens at an early age, an aversion to certain foods can become hard-wired into a growing child’s brain, making change difficult.
  • Behavioural issues, especially if your child became a picky eater at 12 to 18 months.
  • A sensitive gag reflex that is triggered by certain food textures.
  • Sensory processing disorder – this occurs when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information from the senses, resulting in difficulties with certain tastes, textures or smells.
  • Delayed oral-motor skills, which impacts a child’s ability to chew.
  • Not being able to recognise the body’s hunger cues.
  • Being a ‘Supertaster’ and so more sensitive to bitter tastes.

A combination of these issues can contribute to picky eating – along with having a child who is particularly anxious, stubborn or strong-willed!

Whatever the reason, it’s important to remember that picky eating isn’t the parent or caregiver’s fault. Although it’s natural to feel guilty about your child’s eating habits and question your parenting, it’s worth remembering that the cause of many of these issues are well beyond your control. What you can control is how you then respond to it.

Can anything be done about fussy eating?

Help for fussy eaters is out there! A great place to start is working out the reasons for picky eating, as this will determine what you need to do to help your child overcome it. Getting in touch with a health professional can help, you can find some who share our approach here.

Once you understand why your child is fussy, you can start to explore the many approaches available to help your child improve. We’ll be exploring some of these solutions in future blog posts, along with the health professionals who treat picky eating and things you can do to help at home, such as using the learn play eat app.

You might like to share this post with family and friends, so they can understand what’s going on and how they might help. 

Stay tuned!