- Eating requires a lot of sensory input, which can be challenging for some kids.
- The time, place, and people present can impact a child's willingness to try new food.
- Having solid boundaries with food may be helpful for only a subset of picky eaters.
Refusing to try a new food is a common, developmentally normal reaction from kids of all ages. Despite knowing this, hearing an "ew" or an emphatic "no" after you've put time, energy, and money into a meal can be frustrating or even infuriating. (Yes, I've been there.)
Of course, how we respond, as parents and caregivers, to a child's unwillingness to try new foods can impact their future eating habits. This includes their feelings about themselves as eaters (i.e., thinking "I'm good" or "I'm bad"), their relationship with food in general, and their feelings about eating together as a family (i.e., "family meals are stressful").
One way to be less bothered by our kids' food refusals is to develop better insights into their origins. When we understand the root cause, we can choose the right technique to help overcome them better.
Here are at least three reasons for so-called picky eating and some insight into the strategies parents can use to help overcome them.
Problem: Sensation Overload
When I first start talking to parents about a child's unwillingness to try new foods, I ask a lot of questions about which foods they can easily eat, which they consider off-limits, and if there are other areas where they tend to draw hard lines in the sand — say, for example, refusing to wear certain fabrics because they find them very uncomfortable.
I'm trying to assess whether there are general consistencies in the foods they will and won't eat regarding texture, color, or flavor. A child who only eats potato chips, hot dogs with ketchup, ice cream, and mac-and-cheese may have a limited palate; however, they're doing very well in the sense that they're able to enjoy a variety of tastes and textures.
On the other hand, a child who tends to eat only creamy foods such as sweet yogurts, applesauce, peaches, and bananas could have trouble processing the sensations that come with crunch or flavors such as tartness.
A child who refuses food because of the sensory overload that comes with it might also prefer packaged foods, which are uniform and predictable in their taste, size, and shape. Eating a bag of Goldfish crackers is much different than eating a bowl of fruit. One is mild and predictable, and the other is not. Blueberries, for example, can change from day to day and bite to bite. Pop one in your mouth, and it might be sweet, then the next tart, or firm, or mushy.
If sensory issues are at play, insisting a child "just eat one bite" can be more traumatic than helpful. Instead, gradually exposing the child to new textures and tastes in small, positive, and fun ways can help ease their food fears and get them used to new foods' smells, tastes, and textures.
Examples would be to allow them to play with a portion of food, say by touching it, smelling it, or answering questions about it without demanding that they eat it. Is this hot? Did you ever wonder what cherries smell like? Is this cheese smooth or bumpy?
Problem: Family Dynamics and Timing
Does your child tend to be less fussy and more open-minded about food at school or a friend's home than with you? Is weekend eating smooth sailing while weeknight dinners are stormy and dark?
In some cases, food refusals are less about a child's ability to manage new tastes and textures and more about the people, the place, or the time that new foods are offered.
A tired, cranky child isn't going to have the courage and curiosity it takes to try a new food. A child who's offered a filling and favorite snack in the late afternoon isn't going to have the appetite it takes to be adventurous or willing to eat an unfamiliar food at dinner.
Likewise, an exhausted, distracted, or overworked parent isn't going to have the extra attention and emotional energy it takes to put a firm boundary in place when a child refuses to eat what's offered. In those moments, a child may know from experience that if they push back, they'll get something they like better.
For parents who are confident their child isn't refusing certain foods due to sensory issues, putting more rules and boundaries in place at mealtime can help. If you know that your child can eat a pork chop because they liked it just a month ago, or their grandparents swear they serve it whenever the kid comes for a visit, then refusing to make them an alternative meal is reasonable.
Problem: Lack of Eating Skills
Eating is a complicated business that those of us who have been doing it for years sometimes overlook. It requires many different skills, many of which can take months, if not years, to master.
I once had an eight-year-old client who had recently refused to eat many of the meats his parents offered at dinner. In talking with him, it became clear that one reason was because they were "too hard to swallow." We talked about cutting them into smaller pieces; however, in doing so, I was surprised to learn one important fact had been overlooked: While a knife was always at his place setting, he'd never been taught to use it.
In this case, investing time in developing more hand dexterity was all it took to improve his eating.
Regarding food refusal, leading with curiosity can help you better understand what might be getting in the way of your child's ability to learn to enjoy new foods. A first step would be to consider whether a sensory, behavioral, or developmental issue might be at play. Once you do, you'll have at least a little more guidance about what to do—and what to avoid—to help make trying new foods at least a little bit easier.
Chilman L, Kennedy-Behr A, Frakking T, Swanepoel L, Verdonck M. Picky Eating in Children: A Scoping Review to Examine Its Intrinsic and Extrinsic Features and How They Relate to Identification. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Aug 27;18(17):9067. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18179067. PMID: 34501656; PMCID: PMC8431657.