5 Reasons Kids Can Be Picky With Food

book coverEver wondered WHY you child is so picky with food? Probably every day – right? There can be a variety of factors and reasons that may evolve over time. Of course the reasons why children may reject foods can be many and varied and will differ with each child. But there are very real and legitimate reasons that children become so fussy with food. It is not just to annoy and frustrate parents or to be obstinate. Although we have all felt that must be so at times! There is value in giving it some careful thought and try to understand the CAUSES of your child’s fussiness. Is it due to innate issues, due to particular habits being created around food initially or is there some other underlying condition? Understanding those reasons and the sources of a child’s picky eating habits will go a long way in helping you more easily work around and deal with the problem and to help your child to eat more healthily and to broaden their tastes. Innate survival tactics, different developmental and growth rates, as well as medical and physiological factors such as illness, nutrient deficiencies, and poor muscle tone are just some of the reasons that your child may become a picky eater. Here are 5 main reasons that kids become picky eaters or refuse to eat. Your child may have any one of these issues or even several at the same time.

  1. Medical or Physiological.  Medical problems may seem obvious but are often overlooked or underestimated as a reason for picky eating or food refusal. Young children are not able to verbalize how they are felling or relate it to food so it is worth having your child checked by your doctor or health professional. Nutritional deficiency due to illness or a history of poor eating will in itself contribute to further poor eating behaviour.   See Chapter 1, 4, 6 & 7 of “Feeding Picky Kids” or Why? Physiological Influences on Eating Behaviour blog post for more.
  2. Developmental.   Your child’s normal growth and activity levels will have an impact on their appetite and food requirements. For instance as a baby your child was fed frequently and grew rapidly with most tripling their birth weight by their first birthday. Toddlers and young children grow at a much slower rate so their food requirements may be less than expected.  Also, appetite will be affected by growth cycles and variations in activity.  Babies and toddlers learn about their world via their mouth and at the same time innately learn what food is and what is not and what is safe and what is not. The ability to chew and swallow is also developing. If your child is older, consider how well they are able to chew and swallow food. If this has not developed appropriately they may have a fear of gagging and will only eat foods that they know they can manage.  See Chapter 1 of “Feeding Picky Kids” or Influence of Developmental and Growth Rates on Eating Behaviour blog post for more.
  3. Sensory.  Your child may have a heightened sensitivity to the texture of foods and won’t eat anything where they dislike the sensation of the food in their mouth or on their hands – e.g. sloppy, crunchy, crispy, cold, hot, chewy. Aversions and fear can develop if they have had some type of pain or trauma associated with the mouth or swallowing (medical treatment, tube feeding, severe tonsillitis) or an episode of choking for instance. Lowered sensitivity can also become a problem where they tend to overfill the mouth, have difficulty manipulating it in the mouth and then gag, spit it out or vomit. See Chapter 1, 3, 4 & 6 of “Feeding Picky Kids” for more.
  4. Routine.   Young children thrive on routine, familiarity and predictability so some structure and routine around mealtimes is important for all kids but especially picky eaters. Keep mealtimes and snack times at roughly the same time every day, roughly 2 ½ to 3 hours apart. This ensures some appetite hopefully for nutritious food by the time mealtime or snack time comes around.  Allowing a child to eat anything at any time just so they eat something may actually compound the issue and hide some other underlying eating issue.  See Chapter 3 of “Feeding Picky Kids” or Timing Routine and Small Tummies blog post for more.
  5. Behaviour.  Kids of all ages and stages of development will test boundaries and especially at mealtime but in fact, only a small percentage of kids are picky based on behaviour alone. Behavioural issues can be a part of the picky eater puzzle particularly if there has been a history of problematic eating in the past. For the most part though, the behaviour has likely developed secondarily to the original issue. See Chapter 2 of “Feeding Picky Kids” for more.

 

Why? Physiological Influences on Eating Behaviour

Sick Child

Of course the reasons why children may reject foods can be many and varied and will differ with each child. Try to understand the possible reasons for your child’s fussiness. Is it due to innate issues, due to particular habits being created around food initially or is there some other underlying condition?

Consider this. Is it a sore throat, a cold, teething, gastric reflux, constipation, already full from snacking, over tired or upset, is there a specific nutrient deficiency that will affect eating behaviour and choices or are family mealtimes excessively stressful? All these and more have the potential to cause picky eating.

Research at Brown University in the US showed that damage to the taste system from ear infections and tonsillectomies alters taste perception and does have an effect on food preferences. Certainly in my naturopathic practice, the majority of children I see with picky or poor eating behaviour are found to have an underlying health issue of some type. This might be a subclinical chronic respiratory infection, allergy or intolerance or nutrient deficiencies that can be both the cause and effect of less than ideal health and picky eating behaviours.

A deficiency of the minerals zinc and iron are commonly behind these types of problems. Zinc specifically will influence both smell and taste. If you can’t smell or taste food it is then very difficult to have any enjoyment or interest in food.

Remember too that little ones are not just little adults but have a different approach to eating and different appetites. They are also likely to dawdle over meals or may be too busy and excited about what they are doing to settle to food so quickly lose interest or become distracted very easily.

Physiologically a child’s gut, brain and immune system are not yet fully developed. Each of these systems and the interrelationship between them is especially vulnerable to imbalances. Their gut lining is still rather “leaky” and liver detoxification ability is not mature so children are not capable of handling toxins from foods or their environment effectively. This can have a significant impact on their overall health as well as mood and eating behaviour.

Why? Development and Growth

Developmental and Growth

THE INFLUENCE OF DEVELOPMENTAL AND GROWTH RATES ON EATING BEHAVIOUR

As we know, young children have variable appetites and often become picky with food. Why might this be? As a baby your child was fed constantly and grew rapidly. By their first birthday they will have probably tripled their birth weight.

Toddlers and young children grow at a much slower rate than when they were babies so their requirements for food are a little less than many parents expect. As well, they are usually too busy learning about their world to sit still for anything, even to eat.

Children’s limited and sporadic appetites are also affected by their growth cycles or “growth spurts” and by variations in activity. It is quite common for children to be hungry one day or for a few days in a row and then picky the next. They are more likely to eat better (and their requirements will be greater) during periods of more rapid growth.

Young children and fussy eaters tend to do better having most of their food as frequent nutrient dense snacks rather than fewer, larger meals.

Why? Innate Survival Tactics

Prefers Sweeter Foods

How Do Innate Survival Tactics Influence Eating Behaviour In Young Children?

Most children seem to have a preference for sweet tastes. Why? Well science suggests that the preference for sweet rather than bitter tastes and the suspicious or fear of trying new foods or new tastes is based in the basic survival techniques of our prehistoric ancestors as a protective mechanism from eating things that may be poisonous and an attraction to sweet foods such as fruits which are safe, energy and nutrient rich.

In so many ways we are all still ‘wired’ like our prehistoric ancestors. A dislike of bitter foods can be seen as a protective mechanism from eating things that may be poisonous. A toddler in prehistoric times for instance, when exploring their world, would be less likely to ingest a poisonous food due to its bitter taste. Children are naturally attracted to sweet foods such as fruits which are safe, energy and nutrient rich. Mother’s milk which is also ‘safe’ is relatively sweet.

This suspicion or dislike of new foods is technically known as “food neophobia”, or fear of eating new things. It is usually about the age of 2 years that most traditional societies cease breastfeeding and the child is less dependent on their mother for food. Avoiding unfamiliar foods is an innate way of keeping safe as a young child, when left to their own devices, having no real way of knowing what is or is not safe to eat.

THE BIG “WHY”

Picky Eater

Ever wondered WHY you child is so picky with food?

Probably every day – right?

There are very real and legitimate reasons that children become so fussy with food. It is not just to annoy and frustrate parents or to be obstinate. Although we have all felt that must be so at times!

Innate survival tactics, different developmental and growth rates, as well as physiological factors such as illness, nutrient deficiencies, and poor muscle tone are just some of the reasons that your child may become a picky eater.

Understanding those reasons and the sources of a child’s picky eating habits will go a long way in helping you more easily work around and deal with the problem and to help your child to eat more healthily and to broaden their tastes.