Why is my child a picky eater?


Little girl refusing to eat her vegetables. Credit shutterstock_726664804
Why is my child a picky eater? Credit: shutterstock_726664804

Food is fuel to our bodies. If you have a picky eater in your household, then at some stage you have probably worried that their limited repertoire could give rise to nutritional deficiencies that compromise growth and cause illness. This is a very real concern made worse by living in a society that thrives on stress and lives on processed, convenience and fast foods.


Is it a case for supplementing missing vitamins or eating real food, managing stress and a different parenting technique?

If a child is fussy with food, they are usually fussy with vitamins too! This comes from a mom who could have opened my own health food store at home from the number of discarded supplements. Do we fill in the nutritional gaps or get to the root of the problem?


Did you hear about the 17-year-old boy who went blind from only eating crisps and chips as reported by the BBC? Probably been a fussy eater most of his life? This is an extreme but valid example of what can happen when your body does not get quality fuel as a result of nutrient deficiencies from a restricted food repertoire.


So what do we do with picky eaters?

My approach is to first ask 'why' because there can be an array of reasons as vast as we are all individuals living in our own unique environments. Finding sustainable solutions is paramount to fuel growth phases timeously and because we must eat multiple times every day!


It pays to observe your child's eating behaviour objectively or let a trained professional observe if you can't be objective. The next step is to really listen to what they are saying about the food (that is if they are verbal). Observing and listening without prejudice sounds simple but is actually harder than one would think especially when you are intimately connected as mothers are with their children.


Sometimes picky eating has less to do with food and more to do with other issues including stress, sensory processing, circumstances and parenting or family dynamics. Let me explain... I will draw on my personal experience as a high tasting picky eater, a mother 'growing' two teenagers each with their own unique likes and dislikes and a practitioner to many families who have been under my care over the last 20 years and have given me the privilege of supporting them through illnesses and growth phases.


Always ask why they don't want to eat something?

It could be as simple as that they had a bad day or are sickening for the 'flu or starting with a sore throat, their mood, the texture, the taste, the plate?!?! For the older children first, check if they are hungry or when they last ate and what they last ate. They may be filling up on junk at school or at a friend's house.


Do you have a 'super taster' child?

'Super tasters' have more taste buds and therefore a tuned up sensitivity especially for bitter tastes (these are sensitive children and this is usually true of the whole nervous system). These kids (and grown-ups) eat mostly bland foods or cover up unpleasant tastes with excess salt or sugar. They need to be introduced to new strong tasting foods in small unintimidating quantities because they experience tastes more acutely.


I've been different kinds of mom over the years. The early months are often easy because our kids are more passive but by 2 years and onwards they start to exert their independence in general and at the dinner table which is normal. I've been the mom who only gives the child what she knows they like and will eat. Although this is a peaceful and non-confrontational approach, I found that over time my children's repertoires became so limited and whenever we ate at grannies house or visited friends, they wouldn't eat anything unfamiliar. In this way, I was enabling their fussiness and helping create a food repertoire that became more and more limited. It was also a lot more work because I was always having to make two meals, one for the kids and one for the adults.


So I made a decision and as parents, we agreed on a new approach. I became the mom who insisted that everyone has to try at least one spoonful of everything and encouraged adventurous eating by incentivising it with dessert or whatever hits a child 'sweet spot'. Fast-forward a decade-plus, some moaning does persist but it is fleeting and both my kids will eat a large variety of foods compared to their peers.


Exposure is everything

In general, it is normal for children to need for multiple exposures of less palatable foods before they tolerate them let alone embrace them.


Power and control tactics

There can be tricky ages and stages with eating because children want to exert their independence. Food can become about control and turn into a power struggle especially if a child is feeling out of control or stressed in other areas of their life (or if the parents are feeling out of control or stressed they pick up on it and can act it out).


A simple tip is to give choices. You get to come up with the choices so think it through carefully. Give 1/2 choices at mealtime like 'would you like cauliflower or broccoli tonight?' Both cauliflower and broccoli are healthy so either way, you 'win'. And if they say 'neither', well neither wasn't a choice. But don't expect them to eat a whole bowl of cauliflower or broccoli. Reduce the visual hurdle by reducing the portion size of disliked or new foods. One piece is enough, meaning one piece every time you serve a given food item. We did that with broccoli in our house. Even now none of my kids like broccoli but they learned to just eat it.


Most healthy foods can be an acquired taste. To me, the goal is to produce healthy children mentally, emotionally and physically ... one piece of broccoli at a time ;)


Buy organic

Organic produce is packed with more nutrients. Therefore if you have a picky eater you need to capitalise on the foods they like and supply it in the best quality. For example, if tomato sauce is the only vegetable your child will eat, make sure you buy organic ketchup or organic tomatoes and make your own sauce. You can read all about my take on choosing organic in a previous blog.


Test don't guess

If you are worried that your child has nutritional deficiencies because of their fussy eating habits, it is always better to look for signs and symptoms related to specific nutrients or test if you want to be sure.


Sometimes a strong dislike can be indicative of a food allergy or intolerance. That was the case

with my son for fish and my daughter for eggs. If we didn't test I would never have known that they were having an immune response to otherwise healthy foods that they really disliked and still be on at them to eat their fish and eggs!





Mineral status in children is important because growth requires amongst other nutrients, minerals like calcium, magnesium, iodine etc. I often order hair tissue mineral analysis tests (they are non-invasive) to assess for both mineral deficiencies and heavy metal load. That way any supplementation is well indicated and can be tracked and justified.





How to choose a supplement

Most children's vitamins contain potentially harmful additives. Watch out especially for sugar and colourants which are not desirable in foods or supplements. Read my previous blog on how to choose and what constitutes a good supplement.


Do you need help with your picky eater? I can show you how to

  • Work with what your child likes and expand their food repertoire

  • Identify when food and eating becomes a power struggle

  • Incentivise trying new healthy foods

  • Use storytelling as a tool to create a more adventurous healthy appetite

  • Expose children with sensory processing issues to texture