A lot of kids get labeled as picky eaters. Unfortunately simply labeling them as picky eaters and then trying the same strategy on all kids with this label isn’t effective in solving the problem. That’s because not all kids are picky for the same reason, and depending on the reason behind their pickiness, not all methods will work for your child. . Understanding WHY your child is a fussy or picky eater can make all the difference in the world.
If you have a picky eater, before trying any tactics, its very important to first ask yourself “why is my kid so fussy/picky?” I’m going to discuss a few different causes of picky eating and hopefully these will help you understand your child better so that you can help them with an appropriate strategy. Here are 4 possible causes for you to consider:
Common Causes For Picky Eating
1. Gut Issues
Could your child be experiencing some pain or discomfort when they’re eating? A lot of fussy eaters have underlying gut issues that actually make it uncomfortable or painful for them to eat, or they simply don’t have an appetite due to constipation or nutrient deficiencies. If that’s the case, most of the picky eating protocols out there are not going to work, because they don’t address the underlying cause. It doesn’t matter how many choices you offer your child or how firm you are with boundaries, if they are feeling discomfort or they just don’t have much of an appetite, NO picky eating tactic is going to work. You have to deal with the underlying gut issues first, before you will see a real difference in their pickiness.
Some kids have no major gut issues but they may be what we call super-tasters. Super-tasters are people who were simply born with more taste buds than the rest of us. We are not all born with the same number of taste buds – it varies from person to person and it’s largely determined by genes. Some kids have far more taste buds than their peers. And because of that they experience flavours with much more intensity than we do, to the point that it is overwhelming and simply too much to handle. They may prefer very bland foods, or the beige food diet. Understanding why they have such a hard time eating more flavourful foods will help you empathize with them instead of getting angry or frustrated with them. Now that doesn’t mean you let them stick to a beige food diet just because they can’t seem to handle anything with strong flavours, it means you need to slowly get them accustomed to stronger flavours. It can be done, even with the pickiest of super-tasters, as long as you take a gradual approach.
3. Sensory Issues
Some kids have underlying sensory issues so they can’t handle too much stimulation of their senses – and food stimulates ALL of the senses. In this case you would need to work on slowly desensitizing them and minimizing other sensory stimuli at mealtimes. Eating in a noisy environment is a big no-no for these kids and sticking to their preferred textures will also help expand their diets. Expanding the types of textures they will tolerate is also possible, but when introducing a new food you should always stick to their preferred texture, at least until it has become a preferred food.
Do mealtimes feel like nothing but power struggles? Some kids have no issue with the actual food, they just need to feel in-control and refusing to eat may be their only way of exerting control. Maybe they have anxiety (which will also shut down digestion and curb their appetite) or maybe they don’t get much control over anything in their lives and feel powerless. In these cases giving kids choices both in and out of mealtimes will go a long way in making them more cooperative during mealtimes. Staying calm and not engaging in a power struggle will also go further in the long run rather than trying to put your foot down and making your child eat.
5. Oral-Motor Issues
Last but not least I have to mention oral-motor issues. The act of chewing and swallowing involves over 40 muscles. Sometimes those muscles don’t all develop the way they should at the rate that they should, and this can cause some trouble with eating. Some kids simply need help with their oral-motor skills in order to be able to chew food properly. In this case you would need to work on oral-motor exercises to help develop and strengthen those muscles. While the first four underlying causes that I discussed are issues that I personally work on with clients, oral-motor issues are not in my scope of practice and would require the assistance of a Pediatric Occupational Therapist.
Your child may not fit neatly into any of the above categories, and may instead have a combination of underlying causes for their mealtime fussiness. While some parents I have worked with have seen drastic improvement in their kid’s picky eating after applying strategies for just one of these causes, others have needed to take a multi factorial approach. Each child is unique and what works for one picky eater will not work for all picky eaters. That’s why it’s so important to first take the time to figure out WHY your child is picky or fussy before attempting any strategies.
Getting angry or frustrated with your child will not make them better eaters. So the next time you feel like you are losing your mind trying to get them to eat a broader diet, approach them with empathy and think about why they’re so resistant to eating the foods that you want them to eat. They are not actually trying to drive you crazy!