In my household these days, grocery shopping is a relatively simple affair, largely because there just aren’t a lot of things my 4-year-old will eat. He rotates through a few breakfast options (oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, pancakes if I make them) and basically wants the same five-ish foods neatly divided into his green bento box for every lunch.
At dinner, he’s a bit more open to different foods, but goes through phases in which he’ll request the same meal, night after night, week after week, until he moves on to something else. He is even choosy about junk food. He’ll eat a Cheeto, but no other chips. He likes chocolate and vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, thank you very much, but will seldom tolerate chocolate (or ice cream, for that matter) in any other form.
He has basically been this way since we started introducing solid foods to him when he was 6 months old. When he came across a taste or texture he didn’t like, he wouldn’t just grimace or spit it out; he’d dramatically scrape it off his tongue, glaring at my husband or me with a mix of resentment and tiny baby rage.
I certainly think of him as a picky eater, but I’m less clear about how he stacks up against other kids his age — and am curious about my own culpability in all of this. Like, have I totally screwed him up? Am I failing him by not pushing him to expand his palate? And does any of this actually matter in the long term?
I’m hardly alone. According to one study, half of parents of 2-year-olds said their kids were picky eaters. (What of this other 50%?! Who are these unicorn toddlers?!)
Here’s what experts told me about all of this.
What is picky eating really?
A major challenge with tackling this topic is that there isn’t a clear, science-backed standard that says if your kid eats less than a certain number of foods — or engages in XYZ behaviors at XYZ age — he or she is a picky eater or selective eater, according to psychologist Stephanie Lee, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center with the Child Mind Institute.
“When a family comes in [with concerns about selective eating], I’ll typically start by asking: ‘Does your child eat a few different starches, a few different proteins, a few fruits, and a few vegetables?’” Lee told HuffPost. “I also want to know: ‘Is this problematic for your family? Are you unable to go to restaurants? Is your child unable to go to friends’ houses?’”
It isn’t atypical for parents to feel like they’re making different meals for their kids than themselves some of the time, but it can be a sign of problematic pickiness if it’s happening much more frequently, Lee says.
The subjectivity of all of this is tough, echoes Alisha Grogan, a licensed pediatric occupational therapist whose site Your Kids Table focuses on picky eating and sensory problems. Some parents will say their kid is picky if they don’t like vegetables. For other parents, a picky kid is one who eats maybe five foods and gags if the wrong thing is put in front of them.
In Grogan’s mind, an average picky eater might stick to about 25 or 30 foods they’ll eat most of the time, but even that threshold is fluid (which is why she generally doesn’t even use the term picky). One complicating factor: Typically, developing toddlers and preschoolers will eat really well for only a meal or two, then go totally off the rails for the next four or five.
“I become more concerned with what I call ‘extreme’ picky eaters,” Grogan said. “I consider an extreme picky eater to be a child who has less than 15 to 20 foods total in their diet. And they usually have an emotional response when they’re encouraged to eat something different.”
What’s behind the pickiness?
Turns out, there is an evolutionary explanation for picky eating — at least partially. Children have been programmed to dislike bitter-tasting foods as a source of survival, to keep them from eating dangerous things. “A piece of broccoli is quite different on the tongue of a 2-year-old,” Grogan said.
But that is not the entire explanation by a long shot. Both nature and nurture come into play. For example, research suggests there may be a genetic component to picky eating. Parent modeling plays an important role. (If your kid sees you eat only the same few foods over and over, he or she may follow suit.)
Control is another factor. Toddlers, who are notorious jerks come mealtime, have such little control over their day to day. Refusing food is one of the few ways they’re able to express their autonomy.
Then there is the attention element. “When kids don’t eat, they often get a lot of extra attention,” Lee said. Even if that attention is negative, they can still crave it. And getting it can help reinforce the selective eating behavior.
So when is picky eating a problem?
Both Lee and Grogan emphasize that parents who have concerns about their child’s diet, changes in their weight or how they are growing should absolutely check with a doctor right away. Feeding is complex and can be tied to medical and psychological issues.
“If you’ve already tried to address it at home,” said Lee, “and there seems to be a bit more to it, you need to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Maybe you’ll need to talk to a nutritionist or a behavioral therapist about it.”
If your child’s pediatrician is dismissive but your gut tells you something more serious is going on, press for a second opinion. Lee — who as a psychologist focuses on the developmental and behavioral side of all of this — says that more severe picky eaters might be struggling with oral-motor issues or sensory problems, for example. Research has also linked picky eating to anxiety and depression, though the relationship is not necessarily causal.
Again, the good news here is that serious problems are relatively rare. That same study that looked at picky eating and anxiety and depression found about 20% of 2- to 5-year-olds who participated were what the researchers called “selective eaters,” but only about 3% were considered “severely selective.”
And there’s no magic age when this should all clear up. A 2015 study out of the Netherlands found that picky eating peaked at age 3 and dropped (but by no means disappeared) by age 6, but nothing’s set in stone.
“There aren’t specific ages where we can say there have been changes in developmental appropriateness,” Lee said. “If your child starts school and they’re not able to have any of the other snacks kids are having; if they don’t want to go to birthday parties or on playdates because they’re afraid there will not be anything they can eat, those are times to think that maybe there is something parents want to address.”
What can parents do?
Alas, there isn’t a science-backed playbook for how to combat picky eating, but the research is clear about what doesn’t work: Pressuring kids.
“We found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not,” Julie Lumeng, director of the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development and author of a 2018 study on the effect of parents’ pressure on picky eaters, said in a press release. “The kids’ picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not.”
And “pressuring” your kid doesn’t just mean yelling or forcing him or her to eat everything on the plate; it’s often much more subtle than that. “I think it is pressure any time we beg, or ask, or encourage them to eat,” said Grogan.
Small preliminary studies do suggest there is a kind of magical flavor window, usually when kids are between 4 months and a year-ish, maximum, when they might be more open to new foods and tastes. And that could influence their openness down the road. (Baby-led weaning, despite being hailed by many parents as the answer to promoting healthy weight and openness to new foods doesn’t have a lot of research supporting it at this point.)
Repetition is another key. Though it doesn’t track back to a single study, pediatricians and experts often say that children have to be introduced to a food 15 or more times before they’re willing to actually eat it. Cooking with kids can also help. At least one small study has found it can increase children’s openness to vegetables.
The bottom line
Fortunately, experts emphasize that in most cases, picky eating is not a significant problem, health-wise. Take my son (probably). He does well on the growth curves, he eats more than 30 foods, though not many more, and while he often freaks out when I ask him to try something new, it’s not in a way that I think speaks to a more serious underlying issue.
Lee suggests that parents like me spend some time getting clarity on what we find troubling about our kids’ eating and what our goals are. Do I want him to try more foods? Sit through an entire meal at the table? Once parents are clearer, it’s time to try strategies like positive ways of introducing new foods or basic repetition.
Grogan agrees that typical picky eating isn’t usually a major, lifelong issue, although she does have stories about the lasting impact it can have.
“I’ve certainly had some painfully sad comments from adults who leave messages on my site about how they wish somebody helped them,” she said. “They want to eat other things and feel like they can’t.” Lee echoes that the habits children develop when they’re young often — again, that’s often, not always — continue when they get older.
You’ll have your chicken fingers with a side of kohlrabi tonight, kid!