How to Manage Picky Eating
Most parents are familiar with the struggle of convincing their children to eat a variety of foods. Even if you would not consider your child to be a “picky eater,” many children go through phases of refusing certain foods in favor of preferred foods. This is part of normal development, as children’s palates expand as they age. Still, picky eating can be difficult to navigate, and parents often wonder how to identify when picky eating has evolved into a more serious concern. Below are a few tips and tricks for parents with “picky eaters” and some telltale signs that picky eating has turned into a more serious concern.
Tips for Parents of “Picky Eaters”
The typical “picky eater” is usually a child who does not consume a variety of foods and is hesitant to try new foods. A picky eater may consume one or two preferred foods from each food group (e.g., chicken nuggets and hotdogs for protein, corn for a veggie etc.) When offered a new food, children who are picky eaters will likely reject the food upon the first offering or will require significant convincing and negotiating before taking a bite. To avoid escalating these conversations into full-blown meltdowns, check out my post on Talking to Kids About Food.
One strategy for avoiding stress at mealtimes is to offer foods without pressuring kids to eat. Some kids may need to be presented with a food 10-15 times before they feel comfortable eating it. In these cases, encourage your child to sniff or lick the food but follow their lead if they are uncomfortable trying it. Be sure to praise your child’s efforts as they explore new foods and try your best to ignore a child’s snarky/annoying comments about taste or appearance.
Parental modeling of eating a variety of foods is also key in encouraging your kids to venture outside of their food comfort zones. Try narrating your experience as you eat a variety of foods. For example, say something like, “I used to dislike pickles but I’m going to try a pickle with my sandwich today and see if I feel differently.” You can also narrate or describe your child’s experience if you notice them trying a new food. Say something like, “Wow you are being so adventurous trying pepperonis on your pizza.” To reinforce these successes, copy your child and explain enthusiastically that you are trying to be more like them, “I am going to have a slice of pepperoni just like you! I am so proud of you for trying something new!”
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder Overview
Signs that your child is experiencing a more serious concern than picky eating include weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, stunted growth, and fatigue. If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it is important to speak with your pediatrician immediately. If your child demonstrates very little interest in food, shows significant aversion to certain foods, or is afraid of certain foods, they may be experiencing an eating disorder called Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (or ARFID for short). ARFID is something your pediatrician or psychologist can diagnose, and you will likely assemble a team consisting of your physician, a mental health care provider, and a nutritionist to address the child's concerns.
Types of ARFID include Avoidant, Aversive, Restrictive, and a mixed presentation with symptoms characteristic of more than one type. Those with Avoidant ARFID are often sensitive or averse to textures and smells of foods. Kids with this type of ARFID may be so sensitive to the characteristics of foods that they only eat certain brands of food or foods prepared in a certain way. A common example of a child experiencing this type of ARFID is one who will eat Wendy’s chicken nuggets but will refuse nuggets from any other fast-food restaurant due to differences in texture, taste, and smell. Children with Aversive ARFID are fearful of certain foods due to concerns over negative consequences of eating such as nausea, vomiting, choking, or pain when swallowing. Finally, those with Restrictive ARFID often show no interest in food and view eating as a “chore” rather than a pleasurable activity. They may tolerate foods from one or two food groups but do not find these foods enticing. They neglect to seek out food and often forget to eat.
If your child is experiencing these or similar concerns, it can be helpful to get to know your child’s likes and dislikes and the reasons they are not interested in consuming certain foods. One way to do this is by creating a food hierarchy like the one pictured below. Approach this topic with nonjudgmental curiosity and ask your child to discuss how they feel about foods on each level of the hierarchy. This is a helpful tool for your therapist to become familiar with if you plan to start therapy.
If your child struggles with picky eating, has been diagnosed with ARFID or a similar concern, or if you are noticing your child exhibiting signs of ARFID, it is important to seek professional help!
For more resources on ARFID and Eating Disorders check out:
At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialize in assisting teens and children with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation, either over telehealth or in person!