If you have a “typical” kid, just check out my basic overview of toddler nutrition. If you’re one of the 30 – 50% of parents of toddlers/preschoolers who would describe your child as a “picky eater” then check out and try my tips for picky eaters. But, if your kid is a whole other level of picky eater – where you’ve tried all those tips, and your kid still eats a very limited set of foods, then this post is for you.
And I’m here in solidarity with you! I could easily make a list for you of all the foods my 8 year old is willing to eat. And they’re specific – I can’t say he eats yogurt. I can say he eats yoplait brand only and only these flavors: strawberry, strawberry-banana, and blueberry. When I say he eats chicken mcnuggets, I don’t mean any kind of breaded chicken product, I mean ONLY the ones from McDonald’s (or Wendy’s in a pinch).
And if you’re judging me for feeding my kid McNuggets, then here’s the thing – it’s the only meat he has ever put in his mouth in pretty much his entire life. And if you’re judging me for that, well, then you’ve never lived with a super picky eater, and this is not the post for you.
Why are some kids super picky?
There can be a wide variety of reasons. A child with an extremely strong sense of smell may be overloaded while eating – a child with a very limited sense of smell may not enjoy food. A child who had a traumatic experience with choking may be very hesitant to eat after that. Children who have food sensitivities may not be able to articulate them or understand them – they just know that sometimes they feel icky after they eat so they just eat less.
Many extreme picky eaters are either autistic, or have anxiety, or have sensory issues. Or like my son, they may have all three of these challenges.
This blog post, written by an autistic nine year old has given me the best insight into “The Reasons [They] Don’t Like to Eat.”
“Sometimes I eat something and it tastes nice; it is the right color and it feels nice and soft in my mouth. But then some days I eat what you tell me is the same and it isn’t the same… I get upset. You ruined it. … You damage it if it has sauce or potatoes on it. Then it is not nugget skins, but some weird thing my brain does not know. So, all nuggets are dangerous. And I get scared again.”
I totally see this with my son. He will love blueberries for a long time – but then he gets one bad blueberry – an under-ripe overly tart one, or an over-ripe squishy icky one. Then for weeks he has a hard time trusting blueberries again. He prefers processed packaged food to real whole foods, because Cheez-Its taste the exact same and have the exact same texture every time. He can trust them. Bananas are a risky proposition.
If you’re having a hard time understanding this, just think about one of your preferences. Maybe you like Coke but Pepsi is really not the same and you’re disappointed if you have to drink it. Or you really like your coffee with half-and-half and Splenda. And if you’re on a trip and they only have skim milk and sugar, it’s just not the same, and it throws your morning off a little. Now, put yourself in the shoes of an anxious child, who doesn’t have the perspective and flexibility you’ve gained from experience, and perhaps you can understand the upset?
If your child is old enough (maybe 5 or older?) try asking them open-ended questions to learn about what they like, what they don’t like, and what worries them about food. Understanding this can guide you in the next steps to take.
Can you force them to try foods?
I have to be honest that I have never tried to force my child to eat. With my older kids, I could do a little wheedling and nagging, and they’d give it a try. With my youngest, the nagging doesn’t work, and I’ve always had the sense that if I tried to force it, it would be bad.
There are plenty of examples of super picky eaters who will gag or vomit if you try to force them to eat something. Then later on, they’ll gag or vomit if that food is even in the same room with them, even if they’re not being pushed to eat it. And their food repertoire becomes even more restricted.
I don’t know if that would be the case with my son. I do think he would have big meltdowns, and I do think it would damage the trust he has in me, and I think it might make eating new foods even more stressful for him.
Encouraging Them to Try to Broaden their Eating
Be sure to check out the tips in my picky eaters post, plus:
Steps to Eating
When introducing a new food, tips will often say “offer just a few bites… expect your child to have to try something 7 or more times before they accept it.” For a super picky eater, we need to take even smaller baby steps. This Steps to Eating chart is helpful in describing those steps… can the child tolerate being in the same room as the food? Can that food be at the same table? On their plate, but not touching any of their other food? Are they willing to try smelling the food? Touching it with one finger? Licking it? Each step closer to eating it is progress!
Another helpful tool is food chaining. Think of a food your child likes. Level 1 is to give them very similar foods – same taste and texture – for example, with my son, we’ve introduced Tyson chicken nuggets (yes, not the most healthy option, but very similar to McNuggets, but something we can have in the freezer at home). Level 2 is to vary the taste, but keep the texture – maybe dip the nugget in sauce? Level 3 is to maintain the taste but change the texture – so chicken strips made with whole chicken breast rather than the ground / reconstituted chicken in a nugget. Level 4 is to vary the taste and texture – breaded fish patty?
Slow and Steady Changes – Texture and Color
Some young children are very picky about texture. At some food clinics, they will puree all the child’s food, and they gradually move toward chunky purees, then eventually solid foods. Some kids will eat only crunchy foods – so parents try lots of the veggie chips, kale chips and so on. Eventually hopefully moving to carrots and apples for crunch.
Some children are picky about color. If a child preferred white food, they could start with 90% mashed potatoes and 10% sweet potatoes, and gradually increase the orange.
Many picky eaters like very bland foods (white noodles, white bread). But a few are sensory seekers and want very intense flavors – you may need to spice everything up.
Take notes on what they tried, and whether they liked it, and how much they tried. Comment on how much you appreciate their flexibility and willingness to try.
Have them rank things on a scale from 1 to 10. If it’s 5 or higher, encourage them to try it again a few times in the next week. If it’s lower than 5, don’t offer it again for quite a while till you’ve had successes with other foods. A reward system might increase their motivation.
Limit Sensory Input at Mealtimes
If a child is easily over-stimulated, eating is a LOT of sensory input. Try eating in a quiet, calm place without a lot of other stimuli. Don’t talk too much about the food – just put it there and allow them to explore it.
Familiar Food in Unfamiliar Environments
I only ask my child to try new things when he’s having a good day – we’re relaxed, hanging out at home, all is going well. But when we’re in a challenging situation, I make food as easy as I can. To understand why, read this quote from the blog post cited above:
“Sometimes people even want me to change rooms to eat… School does that. You want me to move to some place, sit down, and eat what you have made… No one told me I would smell different things, hear different voices and touch different stuff, and now you even want me to taste things? It is too much, so I just freeze.”
When my son is having challenges at school, I want to make sure his lunchbox is filled with all of his familiar favorite comfort foods and that it always meets his expectations. There are always 5 items – there’s always a yogurt tube, always cheesy crackers, always two fruits and always either a peanut butter sandwich or apple slices with peanut butter. And if we’ve run out of any of those things, I tell him when I pack his lunch, and I explain the substitution I’ve made. I want to be sure that lunch at school is something that re-grounds him, not upsets him. We can try for more food variety in all the other meals in his week. And when we go on vacations or to family camp, we pack protein drinks, protein bars, and peanut butter crackers. I know we can always find fruits and grains he will eat, but these are the ways I ensure he gets protein.
When should you seek help?
If your child is a super picky eater, you should already be talking to their doctor about it for advice and to monitor their weight gain and development.
Also, watch for physical signs of food intolerances or allergies. Many “picky eaters” are later found to have food sensitivities. So, if you see rashes or eczema, or your child has frequent diarrhea or constipation, or frequently complains of a sore tummy, talk with your doctor to see whether any kind of allergy testing or food elimination would be warranted.
If a child often gags or chokes or has problems swallowing, they might benefit from a “swallow study” or work with an OT or speech-language pathologist to build their eating skills and muscle coordination.
But here are some red flags that they may need additional support:
- It’s getting worse – their list of accepted foods is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe it used to be 20 foods, and now it’s 10.
- You believe your child would starve or be hospitalized before they’d eat foods they don’t like.
- They will only eat if someone else feeds them. (In a child who should be old enough to feed themselves)
- If their pickiness is limiting their life – for example, they can’t go on play-dates or sleepovers or eat out at a restaurant due to food limitations.
If this is the case, talk to your child’s doctors about your next steps.
- Picky Eater Strategies: www.parents.com/recipes/nutrition/picky-eater-strategies/
- Is your child a picky eater or a problem feeder? https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/picky-eater-vs-problem-feeder/
- Ten Extreme Picky Eater Red Flags: https://yourkidstable.com/10-extreme-picky-eating-red-flags/