Clearing Up Picky Eating Myths and Misinformation

Trying to feed a picky eater? You might be wondering what works and what is just a myth.

While kids are notoriously selective about foods, for some children this can be more than just a phase.

This article separates fact from fiction for common myths and offers solutions that you can explore if you child’s picky eating has become more than just a phase.

 picky eater at table looking away from broccoli

5 Picky Eating Myths

Myth #1: All kids are naturally curious about food.

If you are struggling with a picky eater, you’ve likely scoured the internet for tips and suggestions.  You’ve probably come across countless recommendations to involve your child in preparing food or playing with food. 

In general, kids are curious about food.  However, for some children, especially those that have strong sensory reactions, this may not be the case.  If your child reacts strongly to the sight, smell or presence of certain foods, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

My oldest son would run from the sight of foods and start gagging when foods he didn’t like were placed near him. This wasn’t something I could just turn off. He didn’t have any interest in any play activities with food. My younger son is the complete opposite. He grabs unfamiliar foods and plays or just eats them.  His reaction to food couldn’t be more different.

Food curiosity is a myth and while one of my key strategies for working with children and families with picky eaters is to use elements of play, it is necessary to individualize the approach.  For example, foods may need to be placed in sealed plastic bags to be touched if engaging in play-based feeding therapy.

Myth 2: Picky eater children will eat when they are hungry

One dangerous and false statement that is made frequently is that children will eat when they are hungry.  This isn’t true. 

For some children labeled as picky eaters, there are difficulties with chewing or positioning of food in the mouth which may need the expertise of a speech therapist.  Other children may struggle to maintain proper positioning in their chair to eat and be unable to effectively eat.  An occupational therapist can be helpful in many elements related to the feeding environment.

Maintaining a feeding schedule to be sure your child has adequate appetite at meals and isn’t grazing throughout the day is essential.  However, this is very different that taking the approach of just letting your child get hungry enough to eat what is served or specific foods.

Myth #3: Picky eaters are just being difficult

Many people label children that struggle to eat as difficult and parents fall into the trap of thinking picky eating is a behavioral problem.  While some behaviors you may see at the table may appear to be just “bratty kid” problems, think again.  This is also a myth.

When a child is struggling to eat, their instinct is to escape. The behaviors at the table are usually a method of escape. It can be throwing food, not sitting in chair or many others.

The good news is that when the underlying feeding issues are addressed, the behavior improves as the need to escape is eliminated.  With an individualized approach and a thorough review of your child’s specific feeding problem, you will likely find that your child’s table behaviors change completely.

Myth #4: If you just offer the food 10-20 times, your child will try it.

Trying new foods does take many exposures to the food. However, there is no magic number of offerings before a child will accept the food. One specific example that is difficult for many parents (and children) is eating meat.

As a pediatric Registered Dietitian, I often hear from my clients, “my child won’t eat meat.” Meat is one of the most complex foods to chew because it requires rotary chewing.  Some children have difficulty with meat because they never mastered this feeding skills.  One of the first things I do is determine if the child needs any additional evaluation from a speech therapist for swallowing problem. 

In many cases, it isn’t related to a deficit in chewing or swallowing, but the texture of meat is to blame.  When you eat meat, the texture changes as you chew. 

This is a strange and uncomfortable sensory experience for some children.  They may not know what to do with the food as they chew it or have trouble managing the sensory experience.  They develop an aversion to eating meat and avoid this food.

Feeding is an incredibly complex activity and requires nerves, muscles, senses and much more.  Oversimplifying the process of eating a new food into a simple mathematical numbers game of exposures is certainly a myth.  If your child is struggling with a feeding issue, there is no number of times you can offer the food to make it be accepted.

Myth #5: There is nothing I can do about picky eating.

If you’ve tried everything to get your child to try new foods, you may fear that there is nothing you can do about picky eating.  The good news is that this is also a myth.

One approach that is particularly helpful for toddlers and younger children is play-based feeding therapy. Typically these sessions are run by an expert with you as a parent engaging in the session and learning skills that you can apply on your own.  By incorporating a play scheme that involves food, your child over time becomes more comfortable with new foods.

Food chaining is a specialized approach to helping picky eaters.  It is especially beneficial for those with strong sensory reactions to food.  For example if you child has very limited number of foods accepted or is extremely specific about texture, appearance and smell of foods.  

 

Is picky eating a disorder?

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is new term that is used to diagnose children with extreme picky eating.  There is little awareness of this relatively new diagnosis, but for some parents, it is the answer they have been searching for. 

Why ARFID occurs is unknown but can be related to some of the factors I mentioned above such as sensory response.  Other cases are thought to occur due to a traumatic event such as choking. 

Research on ARFID is limited as is information on the best treatment approached.  Finding a practitioner with expertise is essential to treat this disorder.


How do I stop picky eating?

For most children, there is a lot you can do to both limit picky eating behaviors and help your child try new foods. 

The three most common mistakes parents make that contribute to picky eating are:

1.       Pressuring their child to try foods

2.       Not following a schedule for meals and snacks

3.       Being a short-order cook

As a parent, you will see dramatic changes in your child’s eating behavior when you address the mistakes above. 

 

Summary

The truth about picky eating may not be easy to find, but there are myths that contribute to making it hard to solve the underlying issues.

Eating is an incredibly complicated activity for the body involving muscles, nerves, and senses.  Picky eating is the symptom you see when something in the eating or feeding process isn’t working just right. 

It can be tempting to label your child as a “picky eater” with a behavioral problem.

Avoid falling into the trap of believing the myths debunked.  Take action to correct any feeding mistakes you are making, and you might be surprised at the results you see. 

If implementing key feeding principles doesn’t help, seeking out the expertise of a professional with expertise in food chaining or play-based feeding therapy can help.

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 picky eater at table