You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn’t claim that their child is a picky eater at some point. So is it inevitable, or actually a problem?
Like most areas of parenting, it depends. Let’s break down some of the factors:
- developmental phases
- sensory issues
- personal taste
What Does Normal Eating Look Like for Babies, Toddlers, and Beyond?
Introduce a Variety of Foods around 6 Months During the Flavor Window
This stage is when your baby has their first sensory experiences of eating food. First they need to master the physical mechanics of eating, and any exposure to food is a learning opportunity. They see new colors, smell new odors, feel new textures, and hear new words to describe these foods.
Most babies will really get the hang of eating around 9-10 months (this is average, not a deadline). They’ll often be so excited about their new skills that they’ll eat more solids and cut back on human milk/formula – though it’s usually a short phase. Parents who are providing milk sometimes worry that their baby is self-weaning, but it’s quite rare at that age. Premature babies or those with oral restrictions like a tongue tie may be on a longer timeline which is absolutely fine.
During this stage, all foods are basically new and interesting, so they’ll eat almost anything. Also they may be more receptive to flavors that are familiar through exposure in amniotic fluid or human milk.
When teeth are cutting through, swollen gums can make eating uncomfortable, and excess saliva can cause an upset stomach. This can mean a temporary reduction in both solid food and whatever milk they’re drinking.
12-18 Months: Toddlers Increase Intake, But Push Boundaries
By a year old, on average, about 25% of baby’s calories are coming from solid foods with the remaining 75% from human milk, cow’s milk, formula, or some combination. Many parents get the impression that a 1-year-old should be almost entirely consuming table food, but that’s not the case. "Weaning" simply means that human milk or formula is not their only source of calories, not that it's no longer a source of any calories.
As their molars come in, they get better at chewing and can safely expand their repertoire of harder foods (within reason). They may be hit-or-miss with new foods, however.
This age also means more mobility and huge mental leaps in development. Most young toddlers will start to dislike sitting in high chairs, and will be more likely to test cause and effect like throwing food.
18-36 months: Older Toddlers Naturally Get Pickier for Safety Reasons
As your toddler grows into a preschooler, food becomes one of the few things that your child can control. They also have many more opinions and want to make choices for themselves, which can cause conflict.
This is the delightful age where they cry because they want a banana, then cry because you gave them the banana they wanted. Heaven help you if the banana then breaks.
Most parents worry about picky eating at this age because kids are more likely to reject new foods, and more likely to try to gain control in this area. Studies have shown that most parents will give up after 3-4 exposures to a new food and label their child “picky,” but at this age, most kids need up to 20 or more exposures before they’re willing to try something new.
When you think about how much more mobile and independent toddlers are at this age, it makes sense that if they were to stumble into a patch of berries, you don’t want them to try to eat it if they don’t already know it’s safe. With our abundance of food options today, it’s more frustrating, however.
With all the rapid brain development at this age, it’s also when they often become what I call “obligate carbotarians.” Brains run on glucose which comes from starch and sugar, and toddlers love it. Grow, brain, grow!
3-4 years: Preschoolers and Picky Eating
Aren’t 3- and 4-year-olds delightful? Yes and no. (Possibly more on the "no" side.)
Preschoolers have ...strong opinions about many things, including food. This may include specific brands of food, particular ways of preparing dishes (woe be unto you if you cut that sandwich wrong), if food is touching, which plate it’s on, etc.
This is an age where they are learning to label and categorize things, and food is no exception. With the food available in modern life, processed and snack food is uniform and consistent in flavor, where produce is not. No two blueberries are exactly the same, even if they’ve always loved blueberries.
They may have food jags where they want to eat one or two foods only for a while, then switch to something else. Consider if you’re someone who eats the same breakfast or lunch every day for years at a time before you judge them.
Preschoolers, especially younger ones, may also say they "don't like" a food when they mean they don't want that food right now. Never a dull moment.
5+ years: Eating at School, Peer Pressure, and Palate Changes
Two major changes happen around age 5: school (or exposure to more foods from outside sources), and losing teeth.
Even if your child is homeschooled, it’s likely that they attend events, birthday parties, playdates, etc., with shared food and less direct supervision than when they were younger. No matter how many organic vegetables there are in your fridge, once they’ve had OtterPops and M&Ms, there’s no going back. This can cause tension, especially for parents who have their own struggles with food and health.
This isn't "good" or "bad," and it's great for kids to be exposed to more foods. They may just request foods you don't historically provide or have access to them elsewhere.
Next, most kids start losing their baby teeth around 5 years, give or take. Like most physical changes this is triggered by hormones, which can change their taste buds. Foods that used to be favorites taste different which can be surprising, and also unpleasant.
If you were pregnant, you may have had a similar experience with aversions to some favorite foods (I couldn't eat chocolate during my second pregnancy, which was just rude). This can be especially frustrating when easy stand-by meals are rejected suddenly. Your child probably can’t explain what happened, but may be able to answer if you ask about it.
When Is It Just Picky Eating and When Is It a Feeding Problem?
Picky eating is caused by many factors and isn’t a problem in and of itself. Adults also have food preferences or refuse to try new foods as well. It only becomes an issue when it crosses over into what’s called “problem feeding.”
Picky eating is frustrating. Problem feeding can come from sensory issues, anxiety, or physical limitations that can eventually result in malnutrition, dental problems, and more. (This is much less common than picky eating, so most of you are totally fine, and even problem feeding may not cause major problems for years.)
Signs of a Picky Eater
- Generally eat at least 30 different foods.
- After a food jag (eating the same food frequently) will take a break for a few weeks, then eat that food again.
- Will touch or taste a new food, even if it’s reluctantly.
- Eat at least one food from different nutrient groups (proteins, vegetables, fruits, etc.) and texture groups (soft, crunchy, chewy, etc.).
- Will usually eat with the family, even if eating different foods.
- New foods can be introduced with repeated exposure or other introduction techniques.
- Child is occasionally referred to as a picky eater.
- Child’s diet doesn’t seem varied enough in caregiver’s opinion.
Signs of a Problem Feeder
- Usually eat 20 foods or fewer.
- After a food jag, will not eat that food anymore.
- Will exhibit signs of distress or anxiety when presented with a new food.
- Rejects entire categories of nutrient, texture, or color groups.
- Frequently eat different foods than family, and alone or at different times. *
- New foods are refused despite repeated exposure and at least 25 attempts of other familiarization.
- Child is consistently described as a picky eater across multiple wellness visits.
- Child is losing weight when not ill, or exhibits signs of malnutrition.
* This may be due to sensory issues, misophonia, or other signs of neurodivergence and isn’t a feeding problem by itself, even if it’s less convenient.
5 Tips to Avoid Food Fights
Kids often have little power or control over their lives, but what they can control is eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. If they feel powerless or anxious, it often manifests in one of those areas.
If you have a picky eater, most of the solution is adjusting your expectations and being patient. (Sorry!)
- Continue to offer new foods alongside “safe” and familiar foods. Don’t pressure them to try it, simply make it available and model eating new and unfamiliar foods yourself.
- Avoid power struggles. When you engage in a power struggle, there’s a winner and a loser. Put yourself on the same side as your child.
- Encourage their participation in meal planning and preparation. Kids are more likely to try foods when they have more control. Let them choose a new food at the grocery store or farmers market, pick a recipe, or grow a garden (even herbs in the window).
- Remind yourself that it’s not personal. Food is more than calories, and when we prepare one of our favorite dishes with love and it’s rejected by our child, it can hurt our feelings. That’s not why they refused, though, and we need to manage ourselves.
- Look at your child’s diet over time, not per meal or day. Even for adults, it’s extremely difficult to get 100% of the recommended amounts of nutrients every day within 2000 calories. Maybe they didn’t eat a single vegetable today, but did they eat any this week? Trust your child to listen to their body so they learn how to make choices that feel good to them.
If you have a baby and want to start them off with the best foundation for a healthy relationship with food, consider my Introducing Solids online course.
If you have a toddler, my Toddlers at the Table course goes into more depth about the 12-36 month stages and how to address those challenges.
What if Your Child Does Have Feeding Problems?
First off, don’t blame yourself. There is usually some type of underlying cause and there was nothing you did.
Next, try to write down the issues you notice.
- What foods DO they eat? (It’s often more than we think.)
- What categories or textures do they reject entirely?
- What is their reaction to new foods?
- Do they seem to struggle with the physical aspects of eating, like chewing or swallowing, or using utensils and getting food to their mouth? Or is it the smells, sight, or flavor of certain foods?
- Do they continue to gag, or have they had choking incidents while eating?
- Do they do better when eating alone? Standing up? Something else?
Depending on where you live and your insurance situation (sigh, sorry), you may need to ask their pediatrician for a referral to occupational or feeding therapy. Or you may be able to self-refer, or pay out of pocket depending on what’s available.
If you want more information first, SOS Feeding Therapy has helpful resources for caregivers on their site, including how to determine if your child needs feeding therapy, and what you can do at home.
The Get Permission Approach is another method that focuses on positive mealtime experiences and supportive relationships.