If you have a child that’s a picky eater, you’ve probably been assured that it’s normal and they’ll grow out of it. As many parents have learned, that’s not always the case. Is picky eating a phase and a normal part of childhood?

While a picky eating phase is common, it certainly doesn’t happen with every kid. The idea of picky eating may be part of our culture more than our physiology. Our culture believes that kids should eat nutritious foods, but that they aren’t supposed to like them. Most of this stems from the marketing invention of ‘kid food,’ which has sold us on the idea that kids have an inborn preference for foods in cute shapes and colors. Yet somehow the human population managed to increase without these products for 100,000 generations. It’s not our physiology that’s evolved in just three generations – it’s our advertising.

What is normal picky eating?

Normal picky eating happens between the ages of 2-4 and it’s characterized by:

  • Enjoying a certain food for a time, hating it suddenly, and then unexpectedly liking it again
  • Restricting intake, particularly of vegetables
  • Being unwilling to try new foods

When you’re feeding your kids all natural foods that are low in sugar, they will still eat a balanced diet over the course of a week. They may even be intuitively selecting foods for the nutrients they need most at that time.

In this case, you can truly consider picky eating a phase.

When does picky eating become a problem?

The most obvious sign that picky eating has become a problem is when a child has such strong food preferences that you’re providing a different meal for that child than is served to the rest of the family. The time and energy used on that just isn’t sustainable in a balanced life.

Your kid may also show signs that their immune system is beleaguered, and could need more nutrients to boost them back up to great health. Frequent or lasting colds, allergies, and skin issues are common signs, as well as low energy and mood.

When your picky kid is growing up with no sign of an expanding palate, you’re dealing with chronic picky eating. A 2010 study in the Journal of Eating Behavior followed kids from age 2 to 11 and found that 40% were picky longer than 2 years, which is when picky eating is considered chronic.

Is there a long term consequence of picky eating?

A 2005 analysis of the effect of obesity on longevity in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that in the United States, “the steady rise in life expectancy during the past two centuries may soon come to an end.” Will our kids live shorter lives?

Now there’s some controversy about this forecast as to whether kids will die at a younger age than their parents did, but everyone is in agreement that if our current kids live to an older age, it will be because of medications and other medical interventions for their illnesses. I actually find that even more alarming! Who would choose to extend their life with medications when they could feel well and suffer a lot less in life?

How to change your picky eater

You may feel that your child’s will is what matters most in making this change in picky eating, but as I’ve learned from my clients, your own mindset makes the biggest difference in successfully changing your kids eating habits. When you are confident that you’re choosing a better path for your kids, and determined to make this change, you will succeed. Kids want to find the boundaries, but once they realize that you are serious about this and there’s no way they can win back their junk foods, they will eat.

Now that doesn’t mean they’ll do so happily at first. And don’t expect that they’ll like every new food you introduce. Even without pickiness we all have preferences and a few foods we just don’t care for. You can give some leeway there, but also know that it takes 8-10 separate tastings before you kid decides whether they like a food. Most parents just give up after 2-3 tries, so know from the beginning that it’s going to take more than that.

Simple steps to take:

  1. Know why you want to change. What illness, symptom, mood, or behavior issue will you track? If your child has frequent colds, eczema, anxiety, or sleep issues, those are good candidates. Having a goal beyond just eating a certain food or being ‘healthier’ is more motivating. If you focus on only the food it’s easy to put off the change until the next meal.
  2. Choose what food, or foods, you want to change. Adding something or switching to a higher quality version can be the easiest place to start.
  3. Decide what day you’ll begin – and never look back.
  4. Set your mindset to ‘determined’ and gather support from your spouse, others in your home, and close friends and family who eat with your child regularly.
  5. Take one small step today.

Where will your child be in 3 years if they continue eating the way they do right now?

Are they part of that 40% of chronic picky eaters who will likely remain picky into adulthood? Will their asthma, eczema or rashes, tantrums, or anxiety improve?

There’s a better way for your child, but it requires you to take decisive action, and experience a little bit of pain and complaints from your kids for a short while. But if in 3 years, your kids are happily eating the one meal that’s served to everyone in your home, the short week or two of stress and anger when you got started on this path will be a faint memory. Freeing your child from picky eating is like the rest of parenting, it’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the issues and illnesses I commonly see in kids that tell us that picky eating isn’t just a nuisance, but something that degrades a kid’s health over time.

If you need detailed guidance to make dietary changes with your picky eater, my book From Mac and Cheese to Veggies, Please, walks you through exactly how to do it – while staying sane in the process.


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