Picky Eater or Problem? A Quick Guide to Child Food Aversions
If your child is a picky eater, you’re not alone. Studies indicate that the behaviour of being a fussy eater impacts 14-50% of preschool children. Often, children grow out of this behaviour and move past their food aversions on their own. But sometimes extreme picky eating can become a problem.
When a child’s food aversions lead them to consume a diet of little variety or small portion sizes, it can start to affect their health. For parents this can be a frustrating and concerning situation to be in.
What is a Picky Eater?
A child who is described as a ‘Picky Eater’ avoids certain foods but is willing to eat more than 30 foods. These foods may be plain in colour, taste, or texture.
Taking this a step further, a child with extreme picky eating or a specific food aversion will typically eat less than 20 different foods. They are often described as ‘Problem Feeders’.
Review this short questionnaire to see whether your child meets the criteria for a ‘Picky Eater’ or ‘Problem Feeder’.
Why is My Child a Picky Eater?
Extreme picky eating is often the result of sensory food aversions. This sensory food aversion is a sensory overreaction to specific types of food. This can result in children refusing to eat any food item of a certain taste, temperature, colour, texture, or smell.
Being a sensory eater can lead children to display extreme behaviour when given foods that do not meet their preferences, like tantrums that lead to disruption and stress at the dinner table.
Marie-France, an Australian Dietitian-Nutritionist describes the behaviour like this:
“The easiest way to understand sensory food aversion is to consider a type of food that made us sick. It is very likely that we will struggle to eat this food again for quite some time. The thought of the culprit food disgusts us, we can see it, smell it, or even feel it. Children can internalise negative eating experiences and rule out specific foods just like that.”
While sensory food aversions are common and occur on continuum, it’s important to note that children who were born premature, children with hypersensitivities in other areas, and children with autism are more likely to have sensory food aversions.
Difficulties with picky eating or fussy eating can also arise due to potential trauma, delayed oral motor skills, or disability.
How Can I Help My Child With Their Food Aversions?
Caring for a child with sensory food aversions can be challenging for parents and other family members. Many families experience stress (especially at mealtimes) and may face a lack of understanding from friends or other family members caring for the child.
The first thing to be aware of when trying to help your child with their food aversions is that no amount of persuasion or explaining that the food is safe will encourage them to eat.
The Sequential Oral Sensory Approach to feeding (SOS) is a results-driven feeding program with 30 years of proven clinical experience helping children to learn the skills they need to eat well.
This approach is a play-based intervention with the goal of increasing your child’s willingness to try and tolerate new foods. A subsequent and indirect benefit of the SOS Approach to Feeding is increased intake of foods and weight gain however this is not the main focus of the intervention. Limiting this as the focus on intervention ensures your child remains in a calm and stress-free state allowing them to learn and explore new foods freely and at a rate that is suitable for them.
Working with a Speech Pathologist to assess your child’s exact sensory food aversions and to create a plan to address the behaviour through the SOS approach is the best next step you can take in helping your child.
All information is general in nature.
- Chatoor, Irene & Ganiban, Jody. (2003). Food refusal by infants and young children: Diagnosis and treatment. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. 10. 138-146. 10.1016/S1077-7229(03)80022-6.