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  • Writer's pictureCoach Patty, HealthSmart! Kids

Is Your Child a Selective Eater? 5 Warning Signs and How to Address Picky Eating Habits



A little boy selective eater drinking from a sippy cup

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Is dinnertime a constant struggle in your household? Do you feel like you're constantly battling with your child to eat their vegetables or try new foods?


If so, you may have a selective eater on your hands. Selective eating, also known as picky eating, is a common challenge that many parents face. Extremely selective eaters appear to be on the rise, resulting in a relatively new diagnostic term, ARFID (Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder). Read more about ARFID here.


So how do you know if your child's eating habits are within the realm of normal developmental pickiness, or if it's something more?


In this article, we'll explore five signs to watch for to determine if your child is a selective eater. From refusing to eat certain textures or colors to having limited food preferences, these signs may indicate a more significant issue. We'll also provide practical tips and strategies to help you navigate this challenging phase and encourage healthy eating habits in your child.


Common signs of a selective eater


Having a picky eater can be frustrating, but it's important to understand the signs that indicate your child's eating habits may be more than just typical pickiness.


Here are five common signs to watch for:


1. Refusal of certain textures or colors


One of the classic signs of a selective eater is their refusal to eat certain textures or colors of food. For example, your child may refuse to eat anything that is mushy or slimy, or they may avoid foods that are green or have a particular smell. These preferences can be very frustrating and challenging to navigate especially when you're trying to provide a balanced and nutritious diet for your child.


2. Limited food preferences


Selective eaters often have a limited range of foods that they are willing to eat. They may have a list of "safe" foods that they are comfortable with and refuse to try anything new. Kids sometimes have only a handful (or less) of favorite go-to foods, with restricted dietary choices commonly known as the 'beige foods' diet. This limited food repertoire can make meal planning and cooking a challenge, as you may find yourself making the same meals over and over again to accommodate your child's preferences.


3. Sensory sensitivities


Children who are selective eaters may have sensory sensitivities that make certain foods unappealing or even intolerable to them. They may be sensitive to textures, smells, or tastes, which can significantly limit their food choices. For example, a child with sensory sensitivities may find the texture of raw vegetables or the smell of certain spices overwhelming and refuse to eat them. Incidentally, kids with autism and ADHD often have sensory issues and tend to be highly selective eaters. Learn more about the impact of diet and autism and ADHD, including important research at nourishinghope.com.


4. Mealtime battles


If mealtimes have become a battleground in your home, it could be a sign that your child is a selective eater. They may throw tantrums, refuse to sit at the table, or become upset when presented with new or unfamiliar foods. These mealtime battles can be exhausting for both you and your child, and can create a negative association with food.


5. Slow growth or nutrient deficiencies


Selective eating can have a significant impact on a child's nutrition and development. If your child's eating habits are severely limited, they may not be getting all the necessary nutrients for proper growth and development. This can lead to slow growth, nutrient deficiencies, and potential health problems. If you notice that your child is not growing at a normal rate or seems to lack energy, speak to their pediatrician as it may be time to address their selective eating habits.


Understanding the causes of selective eating


While every child is different, there are several common causes of selective eating. Understanding these causes can help you better navigate this challenging phase and find strategies that work for your child.


Here are a few possible causes of selective eating:


1. Developmental stage


Selective eating is often a normal part of a child's development. Toddlers, in particular, may go through a phase of picky eating as they assert their independence and explore their preferences. However, if selective eating persists beyond the toddler years or becomes more severe, it may be a cause for concern.


2. Sensory sensitivities


As mentioned earlier, sensory sensitivities can play a significant role in selective eating. Children who have heightened sensory experiences may find certain foods overwhelming or unpleasant. This sensitivity can be related to taste, texture, smell, or even visual appearance. Learn more about sensory issues and selective eating here.


3. Anxiety or control issues


Selective eating can sometimes be a manifestation of anxiety or control issues in children. They may feel anxious about trying new foods or have a need for control over their environment, which extends to their eating habits. Addressing the underlying anxiety or control issues can help alleviate selective eating behaviors.


The impact of selective eating on a child's nutrition and development


Selective eating can have a significant impact on a child's nutrition and development. When a child's diet is limited to a few preferred foods, they may not be getting all the necessary nutrients for growth and development. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies and potential health problems.


Here are some potential consequences of selective eating:


1. Nutrient deficiencies


A limited diet can result in nutrient deficiencies, as your child may not be getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients they need. For example, if your child refuses to eat fruits and vegetables, they may not be getting enough fiber, vitamins A and C, or potassium.


2. Slow growth


When a child's diet lacks the necessary nutrients, it can impact their growth. They may experience slower growth or fail to reach their expected height and weight milestones. If you notice that your child is not growing at a normal rate, it's essential to address their selective eating habits and ensure they are receiving adequate nutrition.


3. Emotional and behavioral issues


Selective eating can also have emotional and behavioral consequences. Children who struggle with eating may experience anxiety, frustration, or feelings of embarrassment or shame. These emotions can impact their overall well-being and may even lead to disordered eating patterns or eating disorders later in life. It's important to note that a lot of picky eaters gravitate to sugary and overly processed foods. The food additives in these favorites are linked to behavioral problems in kids. Read more about that here.


4. Limited exposure to new flavors and textures


When a child only eats a limited range of foods, they miss out on the opportunity to explore and develop a diverse palate. Exposure to different flavors, textures, and food combinations is essential for developing healthy eating habits and a well-rounded diet. Selective eaters may struggle with accepting new foods or experimenting with different tastes and textures.


Strategies to encourage healthy eating habits in selective eaters


Managing a selective eater can be challenging, but with the right strategies and approach, you can encourage healthy eating habits in your child.


Here are some practical tips to help you navigate this phase:


1. Offer a variety of foods


One of the best ways to expand your child's palate is to offer a variety of foods. Don't be discouraged if they initially refuse to eat something new—repeated exposure is key. Encourage them to take small bites or even just touch the food to get familiar with it. Over time, they may become more open to trying new foods.


2. Make mealtime fun


Create a positive and enjoyable mealtime environment to make eating more appealing for your child. Get creative with presentation, involve them in meal preparation, and make it a family affair. By making mealtime fun, you can reduce stress and anxiety around food, making it easier for your child to try new things.


3. Be a role model


Children often mimic the behavior of their parents, so be a positive role model when it comes to eating. Show enthusiasm for trying new foods, and let them see you enjoying a variety of flavors and textures. Your example can go a long way in encouraging your child to explore new foods themselves.


4. Gradual exposure and small steps


When introducing new foods, take it slow and start with small steps. Begin by incorporating similar flavors or textures to foods your child already enjoys. For example, if they like mashed potatoes, try introducing mashed carrots or sweet potatoes. Gradually increase the variety and complexity of foods as your child becomes more comfortable.


5. Involve your child in meal planning and preparation


Engage your child in meal planning and preparation to give them a sense of ownership and control over their food choices. Let them help with grocery shopping, picking out new recipes, and even preparing meals. When children feel involved and empowered, they are more likely to be open to trying new foods.


Creating a positive mealtime environment for selective eaters


Mealtime should be a positive and stress-free experience for both you and your child.


Here are some strategies to create a positive mealtime environment:


1. Set a regular schedule


Establish a regular mealtime schedule to create structure and routine. This can help your child feel more secure and make mealtime expectations clear. Aim for consistent meal and snack times throughout the day.


2. Limit distractions


Minimize distractions during mealtime, such as TV, phones, or toys. Encourage your child to focus on their food and the dining experience. This can help them become more mindful of what they are eating and reduce potential mealtime battles.


3. Create a pleasant atmosphere


Make mealtimes enjoyable by creating a pleasant atmosphere. Use colorful plates and utensils, play soft background music, or incorporate fun conversation starters. The goal is to make the dining experience pleasant and engaging for your child. Check out these feeding support tool ideas to make mealtimes more enjoyable.


4. Avoid pressure and negative reinforcement


Pressuring your child to eat or using negative reinforcement can make mealtime stressful and create a negative relationship with food for them. Instead, provide positive reinforcement and praise when your child tries new foods or takes steps towards expanding their palate. Be patient and understanding throughout the process.


Working with a pediatrician or nutrition specialist for professional guidance


If you're concerned about your child's selective eating habits or their overall nutrition, it's crucial to seek professional guidance. Your child's pediatrician or a nutritionist can assess your child's growth, and address any nutrient deficiencies. A behavioral feeding specialist (feeding coach, occupational therapist, or speech therapist with feeding training and experience can provide guidance on how to overcome selective eating challenges and help develop a plan tailored to your child's needs.


Supportive resources and tools for parents of selective eaters


As a parent of a selective eater, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. There are numerous resources and tools available to support you.


Here are a few helpful resources:


1. Books and websites


There are several good books and websites dedicated to picky eating and selective eaters. These resources provide practical tips, meal ideas, and strategies to help you manage your child's eating habits. Some popular titles include "Just Take a Bite" by Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson and "Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating" by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin.



picky eater book

Get my short go-to guidebook (based on over 17 years as a Healthy Eating/Behavioral Feeding Coach for kids) to help your picky eater learn to be a brave taster and develop a healthier relationship with food.

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2. Support groups and online communities


Joining support groups or online communities can provide a sense of community and support. Connecting with other parents who are going through similar experiences can be comforting and helpful. These groups often share tips, success stories, and valuable advice for managing selective eating.


3. Meal planning tools


Using meal planning tools can simplify the process of creating balanced and nutritious meals for your family. There are several online platforms and apps that offer meal planning templates, recipe suggestions, and even grocery lists. These tools can help you introduce variety into your child's diet and make meal planning less overwhelming.


Personal stories and experiences from parents of selective eaters


Sometimes, hearing from other parents who have gone through similar experiences can provide comfort and inspiration. Here are a few personal stories and experiences from parents of selective eaters:


  • "When my daughter was three, she refused to eat anything green. It was a constant battle, but we didn't give up. We started by introducing green foods in small amounts and gradually increased the portions. Today, she happily eats broccoli, peas, and even spinach!"

  • "My son had such a limited diet that we were worried about his nutrition. We worked with a nutritionist who helped us create a plan to introduce new foods. It was a slow process, but with patience and persistence, he now eats a wide variety of foods."

  • "We found that involving our daughter in meal planning and preparation made a big difference. She loved picking out new recipes and helping in the kitchen. It gave her a sense of control and made her more willing to try new foods."


kids picky eater chart with puppy


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Conclusion and encouragement for parents of selective eaters


Managing a selective eater can be challenging, but with patience, persistence, and the right strategies, you can help your child develop healthy eating habits. By understanding the signs of selective eating, addressing the underlying causes, and creating a positive mealtime environment, you can navigate this phase successfully. Remember, each child is different, and progress may take time. With support, guidance, and a little creativity, you can help your selective eater broaden their palate and develop a healthy relationship with food. So don't give up, keep trying, and celebrate every small step towards expanding their food choices.




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