When Picky Eating Becomes a Problem and What To Do About It

When picky eating becomes a problem, discover practical approaches to resolve it. Create a positive mealtime environment and introduce new foods with ease.

June 30, 2024

Understanding Picky Eating

Picky eating is a common behavior observed in many children, but it can become a problem when it significantly impacts a child's health, growth, and overall well-being. In this section, we will explore what picky eating entails and when it crosses the threshold of becoming a problem that requires attention.

What is Picky Eating?

Picky eating refers to a selective approach to eating, where an individual demonstrates resistance or reluctance to try new foods or eat a wide variety of foods. Children who are picky eaters often exhibit a strong preference for certain foods while avoiding others. This behavior can manifest in different forms, such as refusing entire food groups, textures, or specific colors.

It's important to note that picky eating is a normal part of child development and is typically seen as a phase that many children outgrow naturally. However, when picky eating becomes persistent, severe, and starts to impact a child's nutritional intake and overall health, it may require intervention and support.

When Does Picky Eating Become a Problem?

Determining when picky eating becomes a problem depends on various factors, including the severity and duration of the behavior, as well as its impact on a child's growth and development. Here are some indicators that can help identify when picky eating may have escalated to a problematic level:

  1. Nutritional Deficiencies: Picky eaters often have limited food choices, which can result in inadequate intake of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and hinder proper growth and development.
  2. Growth and Weight Concerns: If a child's growth rate or weight gain is significantly affected due to restricted food choices and low calorie intake, it may indicate that picky eating has become a problem.
  3. Limited Social Interactions: Picky eating can impact a child's social interactions, particularly during mealtimes with family and friends. It may result in increased stress, anxiety, and isolation for both the child and their caregivers.
  4. Excessive Mealtime Conflict: Prolonged battles and power struggles during mealtimes can indicate a problematic level of picky eating. This can lead to a negative relationship with food and an unhealthy dynamic between the child and their caregivers.

Recognizing when picky eating becomes a problem is an essential step towards addressing the issue and providing appropriate support. If you suspect that your child's picky eating has reached a problematic level, it's advisable to seek guidance from healthcare professionals or specialists who can offer strategies and interventions to help overcome these challenges.

Potential Causes of Picky Eating

Understanding the potential causes of picky eating is essential to address the issue effectively. Picky eating can arise from various factors, including developmental factors, sensory issues, and emotional factors.

Developmental Factors

Developmental factors play a significant role in picky eating behaviors, especially in young children. During the toddler and preschool years, children are exploring their independence and asserting their autonomy. This newfound independence can manifest itself during mealtimes, where children may express preferences for certain foods or refuse to try new ones. This behavior is a normal part of their development as they establish their food preferences and exert control over their choices.

Sensory Issues

Sensory issues can also contribute to picky eating. Some individuals, especially children, may have heightened sensitivity to certain textures, tastes, or smells of foods. These sensory sensitivities can make it challenging for them to accept a wide variety of foods. For example, a child may avoid crunchy foods due to an aversion to the sensation in their mouth. Understanding and addressing these sensory issues can help expand the range of foods a picky eater is willing to try.

Emotional Factors

Emotional factors can influence picky eating behaviors as well. Stress, anxiety, or negative associations with certain foods can lead to a reluctance to try new or unfamiliar foods. Additionally, mealtime conflicts, pressure to eat, or negative comments about food choices can create a negative emotional environment, further exacerbating picky eating behaviors. It is important to foster a positive and supportive atmosphere during mealtimes to promote healthier eating habits.

By recognizing these potential causes of picky eating, parents and caregivers can better understand the underlying factors contributing to this behavior. Addressing these causes through appropriate strategies and interventions can help establish positive eating habits and expand the range of foods a picky eater is willing to try.

Strategies to Address Picky Eating

When faced with picky eating, implementing effective strategies can help create a positive and enjoyable mealtime experience for both children and their caregivers. Here are three practical approaches to address picky eating:

Create a Positive Mealtime Environment

Establishing a positive mealtime environment is crucial in encouraging children to try new foods. Here are some strategies to create a positive atmosphere:

  • Make mealtimes pleasant and relaxed by sitting together as a family without distractions like television or mobile devices.
  • Set a consistent schedule for meals and snacks, ensuring that children come to the table with an appropriate appetite.
  • Encourage conversation and engage children in positive discussions about food, sharing stories and experiences related to different dishes.
  • Avoid pressuring or forcing children to eat particular foods, as this can lead to negative associations with mealtime.

Offer a Variety of Foods

Providing a wide range of foods can help expand a picky eater's palate and increase their exposure to different flavors and textures. Consider the following strategies:

  • Introduce new foods alongside familiar ones. This can help children feel more comfortable and willing to try something new.
  • Offer a variety of nutritious options from each food group, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy or dairy alternatives.
  • Be patient and persistent. It may take multiple exposures to a new food before a child accepts it. Encourage them to take small bites and praise their efforts.

Get Children Involved in Meal Preparation

Engaging children in meal preparation can foster a sense of ownership and curiosity about food. Here's how you can involve them:

  • Take children grocery shopping and let them choose fruits, vegetables, or other ingredients they find interesting.
  • Involve them in age-appropriate tasks such as washing produce, stirring ingredients, or setting the table.
  • Encourage children to participate in simple cooking activities, such as assembling a salad or making a sandwich.
  • Use this opportunity to teach them about the nutritional value of different foods and the importance of balanced meals.

By actively involving children in meal preparation, they become more invested in the food they are eating and may be more willing to try new things.

Implementing these strategies can help address picky eating habits and promote a healthier relationship with food for both children and caregivers. Remember, patience and persistence are key, and seeking professional help may be necessary if picky eating becomes a persistent and severe issue.

Introducing New Foods

When dealing with picky eating, introducing new foods to your child's diet can be a challenging but important step. By gradually exposing them to different foods, engaging in food play and exploration, and setting realistic expectations, you can help expand their palate and encourage a more varied diet.

Gradual Exposure

One effective strategy to introduce new foods is through gradual exposure. Start by offering small portions of the new food alongside familiar and preferred foods. Encourage your child to take a small bite or even just touch and smell the new food. It's important to be patient and not force your child to eat it. Allow them to explore at their own pace and gradually increase their exposure over time.

To keep track of your child's progress, you can use a food exposure chart. This chart can help you note down their reactions to different foods and track their acceptance or rejection. It can be a useful tool to identify patterns and monitor their progress. Here's an example of a simple food exposure chart:

Food Play and Exploration

Engaging your child in food play and exploration can make the introduction of new foods more enjoyable and less intimidating. Encourage them to touch, smell, and interact with different foods. You can involve them in age-appropriate activities such as tearing lettuce, stirring ingredients, or arranging colorful fruits and vegetables on a plate. This sensory experience can help desensitize them to new textures and flavors, making them more open to trying new foods.

Consider arranging a "food exploration" plate with a variety of safe foods in different shapes, colors, and textures. Encourage your child to explore the foods with their hands, encouraging sensory exploration without any pressure to eat. This can help them become more comfortable with unfamiliar foods and reduce anxiety around trying new things.

Setting Realistic Expectations

When introducing new foods, it's important to set realistic expectations. Understand that it may take multiple exposures for your child to accept and enjoy a new food. Some children may require more time and repeated exposure before they are willing to try something new. Avoid pressuring or bribing your child to eat the new food as it can create negative associations and resistance.

Instead, focus on creating a positive and relaxed mealtime environment. Offer praise and rewards for adventurous behavior, such as touching or smelling the new food, rather than solely focusing on eating it. Remember, every small step towards trying new foods is a significant achievement.

By following these strategies of gradual exposure, food play and exploration, and setting realistic expectations, you can help your picky eater become more open to new foods. Remember that each child is unique, and progress may vary. If you're concerned about your child's eating habits, consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for additional guidance.

Dealing with Mealtime Challenges

When picky eating becomes a problem, it can create mealtime challenges that can be frustrating for both parents and children. However, there are strategies and approaches that can help address these challenges and create a more positive and enjoyable mealtime experience. Here are three key aspects to consider when dealing with mealtime challenges related to picky eating:

Handling Food Refusal

Food refusal is a common issue when dealing with picky eaters. It's important to approach food refusal with patience and understanding. Here are some strategies to help handle food refusal:

  • Avoid pressure: Pressuring a child to eat certain foods can create a negative association with mealtime. Instead, create a relaxed and supportive environment where children feel comfortable exploring new foods at their own pace.
  • Offer alternatives: If a child refuses a particular food, provide alternative options that are similar in nutritional value. This ensures they still receive the necessary nutrients while gradually expanding their food choices.
  • Role modeling: Be a positive role model by enjoying a variety of foods yourself. Children often mimic their parents' eating habits, so demonstrating an adventurous palate can encourage them to try new foods.

Managing Power Struggles

Power struggles during mealtime can exacerbate picky eating behavior. Here are some tips to manage power struggles effectively:

  • Establish consistency: Maintain consistent mealtime routines and expectations. Set clear boundaries and rules around mealtime behavior. This helps children understand what is expected of them and promotes a more positive atmosphere.
  • Give limited choices: Offer children a sense of control by giving them limited choices during mealtime. For example, allow them to choose between two vegetables for dinner or decide the toppings for a sandwich. This empowers them while still ensuring they have a balanced meal.
  • Use positive reinforcement: Praise and reward children for trying new foods or making positive eating choices. Positive reinforcement can help motivate children to explore a wider variety of foods.

Seeking Professional Help

In some cases, picky eating may persist despite implementing various strategies. If picky eating significantly impacts a child's growth, nutrition, or overall well-being, it may be necessary to seek professional help. Consulting with a healthcare provider, registered dietitian, or pediatric feeding specialist can provide valuable guidance and support. These professionals can assess the situation, identify any underlying issues, and develop a personalized plan to address the specific challenges your child is facing.

Remember, every child is unique, and it may take time to make progress. Be patient and understanding throughout the process. By adopting practical strategies and seeking appropriate help when needed, you can effectively navigate mealtime challenges and help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.


In conclusion, picky eating can be a challenging issue for parents and caregivers to navigate. However, by implementing practical strategies such as creating a positive mealtime environment, offering a variety of foods, and involving children in meal preparation, it is possible to expand a picky eater's palate and promote a healthier relationship with food. It's important to remember that every child is unique, and progress may vary.

Seeking professional help when necessary can provide additional guidance and support. By following these strategies with patience, persistence, and understanding, you can help your child develop healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.